The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

3.9 55
by Denise Kiernan
     
 

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The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in US history.

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of

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Overview

The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in US history.

At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians—many of them young women from small towns across the South—were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work. Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war—when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed.

Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it—women who are now in their eighties and nineties—The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country’s history.

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Editorial Reviews

The San Francisco Book Review
“Kiernan’s focus is on the intimate and often strange details of work and life at Oak Ridge. It’s told in a novelistic style and is an intimate look at the experiences of the young women who worked at Oak Ridge and the local residents whose lives were changed by the presence of the project.”
The Washington Post
“Fascinating ... Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research. ... Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Kiernan’s book, the result of seven years of research and interviews with the surviving 'girls,' sparkles with their bright, WWII slang and spirit, and takes readers behind the scenes into the hive-like encampments and cubicles where they spent their days and nights.…The Girls of Atomic City brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us — their children, grandchildren, and greats — to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation's women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else's. Ever. Anywhere."
The Washington Post - Scott Martelle
The fascinating story of the Manhattan Project has been told often, and often told well…But given the project's significant and lasting impact, there's plenty more mining to be done, and Denise Kiernan has found a rich vein in The Girls of Atomic City. Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.
Publishers Weekly
During WWII, Oak Ridge, Tenn., was one unlikely epicenter of the Manhattan Project, the top secret program that produced the atomic bomb. Selected in 1942 for its remoteness, the area, "a big war site" hiring at top dollar, immediately boomed; from across the U.S., tens of thousands of workers streamed in—many of them women looking to broaden their horizons and fatten their purses. Fully integrated into the system, women worked every job, from courier to chemist. They found an "instant community" with "no history," but also "a secret city... a project whose objective was largely kept from them." Living conditions were Spartan—urine samples and guards were intrusive constants—but the women lived their lives. Kiernan's (Signing Their Lives Away) interviewees describe falling in love and smuggling in liquor in tampon boxes. But like everyone else, those lives were disrupted by news of Hiroshima. "Now you know what we've been doing all this time," said one of the scientists. Many moved on; others stayed—Atomic City had become home. But for the women of Oak Ridge, "a strange mix of... pride and guilt and joy and shame" endured. This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience. 16-page b&w insert. Agent: Yfat Reiss Gendell, Foundry Literary + Media. (Mar.)
Booklist
“Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb.”
Karen Abbott
The Girls of Atomic City is the best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story about a remarkable group of women who performed clandestine and vital work during World War II. Denise Kiernan recreates this forgotten chapter in American history in a work as meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.”
DailyBeast.com
"Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor."
BrainPickings.org
"A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb - from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden - The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer's genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class."
Jon Stewart
“I love these kinds of books, and this is a great one....It’s a phenomenal story.”
From the Publisher
“A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II… An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.”

“This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience.”

"Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor."

“Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb.”

“I love these kinds of books, and this is a great one....It’s a phenomenal story.”

The Girls of Atomic City is the best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story about a remarkable group of women who performed clandestine and vital work during World War II. Denise Kiernan recreates this forgotten chapter in American history in a work as meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.”

"A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb - from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden - The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer's genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class."

Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Kiernan’s accounts ring with authenticity…The Girls of Atomic City is fascinating."
New York Post
“The image of Rosie the Riveter — women filling in at factories to help the war effort — is well known. But women also assisted on the Manhattan Project, signing up for secret work in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to help build the atomic bomb. Kiernan looks at the lives and contributions of these unsung women who worked in jobs from secretaries to chemists.”
The Boston Globe
“Kiernan…brings a unique and personal perspective to this key part of American history…Instead of the words of top scientists and government officials, Kiernan recounts the experiences of factory workers, secretaries, and low-level chemists in a town that housed at its peak 75,000 people trained not to talk about what they knew or what they did. She combines their stories with detailed reporting that provides a clear and compelling picture of this fascinating time.”
—The Washingtonian
“Great, relevant, readable.”
American Political Science Association
"Kiernan has contributed a new and vital chapter to studies of American political development and women and politics."
--The Washingtonian
“Great, relevant, readable.”
Library Journal
Kiernan (Signing Their Lives Away) writes compellingly of the women who toiled in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Living and working with thousands of others in a secret city built almost overnight, those involved in the "Project" were unaware that they were contributing to the most revolutionary scientific discovery of the 20th century. Moving between the individual narratives of the women workers and the story of the development of atomic fusion, Kiernan emphasizes the secretive nature of the work yet gives readers a greater understanding of the larger historical context. The endnotes provide comprehensive information about primary sources consulted as well as oral interviews Kiernan undertook with surviving workers. However, no complete bibliography is included. VERDICT This work complements Russell Olwell's At Work in the Atomic City: A Labor and Social History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kiernan capably captures the spirit of women's wartime opportunities and their sacrifices in what is ultimately a captivating narrative. Recommended reading for popular history fans.—Kathryn Wells, Fitchburg State Univ. Lib., MA
Kirkus Reviews
A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. Kiernan (co-author: Stuff Every American Should Know, 2012, etc.) examines the construction of what became known as Oak Ridge, Tenn., a city built as part of the atomic bomb program. She has worked intensively with surviving women members of the work force and with local residents to put together the oral history on which this account is based. In the two years after the federal government took ownership of around 80,000 acres of mountain woodland and farm sites, the population rose to 75,000, and consumption of electric power from the nearby generating plant outpaced New York City. Many of the workers recruited were young women from farm backgrounds whom project administrators judged to be particularly suitable to the kinds of work that needed to be done, under the veil of secrecy that was imposed. The security and discouragement from talking about work becomes a pervasive feature of Kiernan's narrative. Those who violated guidelines were speedily removed, never to be seen around the site again. The author parallels her account of the construction of Oak Ridge with chapters on the development of the science that made nuclear fission possible, and she shows how Oak Ridge became a city and community after the war. An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781451617535
Publisher:
Touchstone
Publication date:
03/11/2014
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
25,303
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Girls of Atomic City


  • There have long been secrets buried deep in the southern Appalachians, covered in layers of shale and coal, lying beneath the ancient hills of the Cumberlands, and lurking in the shadow of the Smokies at the tail end of the mountainous spine that ripples down the East Coast. This land of the Cherokee gave way to treaties and settlers and land grants. Newcomers traversed the Cumberland Gap to establish small farms and big lives in a region where alternating ridges and valleys cradle newborn communities in the nooks and crannies of the earth. Isolated. Independent. Hidden.

    In 1942, a new secret came to this part of the world. The earth trembled and shook and made way for an unprecedented alliance of military, industrial, and scientific forces, forces that combined to create the most powerful and controversial weapon known to mankind. This weapon released the power present in the great unseen of the time, unleashing the energy of the basic unit of matter known as the atom.

    Author H. G. Wells might have called them Sun Snarers, the people who descended upon the valleys and ridges.

    “And we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and—lifeless—lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy . . . ,” Wells wrote in his 1914 book, The World Set Free. This lesser-known title by the War of the Worlds author describes the harnessing of the power of the nucleus: “And these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

    Wells wrote this long before the neutron was discovered, let alone fission, and his work began to popularize the phrase “atomic bombs” before those devices ever took form beyond the author’s pages. But years earlier, people in the mountains claim another prophet lay on the ground, overcome with visions of a project that would bring the snaring of the sun to the hills of Tennessee.

    They say a prophet foretold it.

    A general oversaw it.

    And a team of the world’s greatest scientific minds was tasked with making it all come together.

    But it was the others, the great and often unseen, who made the visions of the Prophet and the plans of the General and the theories of the scientists a reality. Tens of thousands of individuals—some still reeling from the Depression, others gripped by anxiety and fear as loved ones fought overseas in the most devastating war any of them had known—worked around the clock on this project, the details of which were not explained. For the young adventurers, male and female, who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, doing their part meant living and working in a secret city, a place created from the ground up for one reason and one reason only—to enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat.

    Roots have always run deep here. They were dug up and scattered when the strangers with the project came to the foothills of the Cumberlands, but the newcomers, too, could not resist the pull of the earth and dug their own roots down deep into the Tennessee clay, soaked by mountain rain and baked by a thousand suns. Permanent. Enduring.

    Many of these workers on this secret project hidden in the hills were young women who had left home to fight the war in their own way. They left farms for factories willingly, wrote letters hopefully, waited patiently and worked tirelessly.

    A number of these women—and men—still live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, today. I have had the fascinating and humbling privilege of meeting them, interviewing them, laughing and crying with them and hearing firsthand their tales of life in a secret city while working on a project whose objective was largely kept from them. Over the years they have graciously given me their time and suffered through repeated questions and what must have seemed like insane requests to recall moments from their day-to-day activities roughly 70 years ago. They did so happily and enthusiastically and never, ever with even the slightest bit of bravado. That is not their style. I did not only learn about life on the Manhattan Project. I also found myself taken aback by their sense of adventure and independence, their humility, and their dedication to the preservation of history. I wish I could include each and every one of them in these pages, but I cannot. I hope those who find themselves only in the acknowledgments will accept my thanks in place of my prose. I feel exceptionally lucky to know those who continue to live on, and miss those who have passed since I began working on this book.

    Without them, this sun-snaring—this Manhattan Project—would not have achieved its objectives, and because of them a new age was born that would change the world forever.

    These are some of their stories.

    —Denise Kiernan,

    summer 2012

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