Most of those who helped develop the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the Manhattan Project were unaware of what they were doing other than their jobs benefited the war effort. Because many men were gone with the wartime draft, many were women. The author seeks to draw on the experiences of various workers in different areas of the sprawling “secret city” that housed 75,000 people in 1945.
One of the early stories in the book involves Celia, a 24-year-old State Department secretary in Washington. Her department involved the “Project,” which sought out something then called “Tubealloy.” She knew nothing of it but understood the necessity of secrecy.
A transfer came in.
“Where are we going?” Celia asked her boss.
“I can’t tell you,” he told her.
Her mother would protest if it were too far away. Still, her boss would say nothing.
“Well, then, what will I be doing?”
Her boss was no more forthcoming.
“How am I going to get there?”
We’ll pick you up, and you’ll go by train. Everything will be taken care of.”
Celia signed on. It was a good job. It was for the war effort—and her brothers Clem and Al. Her mother couldn’t object to that.
This book describes the “secret city,” codenamed Site X, of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, hastily built to refine uranium for use in an atomic bomb in WWII. The women profiled come from a cross-section of jobs—payroll, janitorial, to the “calutron,” the machines used to harvest uranium, unbeknownst to their operators. The company provided the workers housing, a cafeteria, and some entertainment. The workers discovered what they’d been working on when the rest of the world did, that is, when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Kiernan reminds the reader of how different life was like in the 1940s. Everyone had to sacrifice to win the war, and the specter of the Depression was not far behind. The author follows the subjects before, during, and after their time at Oak Ridge.
I confess I set this book aside for years before finishing it this week. Perhaps part of the reason was the reader has so many people to keep track of. The author furnishes a “Principal Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the book, which lists nine main women, plus “women of note” and other historical figures the reader may or may not know about. Not all of them, like spy Klaus Fuchs, are listed.
The narratives describe how the workers adjusted and accepted the strictures against discussing work. Those who didn’t follow the rules were never seen again, losing their jobs and homes overnight.
When the bombs dropped on Japan, and the knowledge of what they had been working on finally came to daylight through news and Roosevelt’s speeches, elation followed—surely this meant the war was ending. Brothers, husbands, fathers, and friends would be coming home soon. The sacrifices of those who would never come home had paid off, and their own work helped.
Yet, second thoughts arose once the news of the death and destruction arrived. Now what? Peaceful uses of this technology?
The author says she “compartmentalized” the narrative because the people lived compartmentalized lives. Okay, I can accept that. On the subjective side, reading it was like a dozen unconnected stories at times. That is another reason I put the book down. I picked it up again because, damn it, I wanted to finish it, and I’m glad I did.
World War II is passing out of living memory. Understanding its legacy is paramount to understanding the world we live in now, IMHO.
The book is not perfect, but it presents moving and sometimes harrowing stories. I can recommend it easily.
Title: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women Who Helped Win WWII
Author: Denise Kiernan
First published: 2013