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 58
by Denise Kiernan

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THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC C ITY 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

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THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC C ITY 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

Even though it used more electricity than New York City, Oak Ridge, Tennessee didn't appear on WWII era maps and the great majority of the 75,000 people who lived and worked there didn't know on what project they were working until long after their job was done. In fact, "Atomic City" didn't really acquire its nickname until after its top secret uranium project was completed. This new release tells the story of the women who worked there and how they helped win the war. Spiced generously with interviews and government documents, Denise Kiernan's narrative captures the camaraderie and mystery of this self-contained community, reminding us again that we're still learning vital things about that now distant era. Editor's recommendation.

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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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    The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II 3.9 out of 5 based on 3 ratings. 58 reviews.
    Jane_AustenAP More than 1 year ago
    I saw an interview with the author Denise Kiernan on the Daily Show and was hooked. This book goes in to the lives of several woman who worked on the Manhattan project during WWII with out knowing what they worked on. The book is segmented in a way that doesn't always make it easy for the reader to follow. However, that is what the experiences was for these woman. They lived and worked in an environment that was hugely segmented. This book was hard to put down. Wonderfully written. More people should know about this place in our nations history.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The mother of a close friend is in the picture on the cover. She worked in Chicago, at Berkeley, at Oak Ridge, and then back at Berkeley as a young chemist. She died never telling a soul what she did during those years - quite an adventure for a rancher's daughter from the plains of South Dakota - except that she used to pipette solutions with her mouth and she always wore a radiation badge. Because of her length of involvement, she undoubtedly understood what was happening. It's a fascinating and remarkable story of the dedication to a particular mission and the role that women had in the war effort.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Makes me want to read more about Oak Ridge. Learned a lot.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This book was a very difficult book to read. I felt like I was in a chemistry class with all the formulas included in the text. The characters were boring and not well written. Had it not been for my book club, I would not have finished this book. Had I not purchased it on my Nook, I would have returned it for a refund! Too bad such an important event in the history of our country was written so poorly!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I read the Manhattan project a while back and then saw an interview  with Denis Keirnan. Interesting read especially for those of us with WWIi parents.  She tells the story of Oakridge mostly  through the eyes of women who worked there.  Good read.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    i wanted to like this book but it was as tedious as life among the worker bees at Atomic City
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This book is disappointing. I think the subject matter could be very interesting and worthwhile. But the flow changes too frequently from one character or  from one topic to another. It's easy to lose track. It's not really in a sequential story format,. i'm only a third of the way through, and I want to read it because of the subject matter, but  I don't know how much longer I am going to stand it.  I also find the author's use of specific words annoying at times. Sometimes the author attempts to insert the thoughts of the characters and those thoughts are too obvious, she doesn't really know the thoughts, or they appear to be designed  to have an effect on the reader. They don't naturally flow, and the author is making too much of an attempt to create drama. It doesn't work. I'm finding the whole thing disjointed. Different fonts are used for different chapters. That's annoying. When I read a book, I want the writing to entice me and not be distracted by varying fonts. Lots of scientific jargon and duplication, and skipping around with unrelated people and events. So far, it's hard to fit things and the people together, because of the bouncing around and lack of connection. History can be made much more readable. Pictures were enjoyable. The newspapers citing their praises at the front of the book do not give an accurate portrayal of the content.  
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during this time. This book has incorrect facts. It give a false impression of Oak Ridge during that time period. You can't rely on 90-year-olds memory. 1943 was a much different world than 2013. Judging 1943 Oak Ridge by 2013 standards is an injustice. I found the book boring. Others said that they could not get into it.
    walthesalt More than 1 year ago
    As a Historian, this book is an essential read for anyone interested in WWII or the Manhattan Project. To go with it I recommend R Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun". He has more about the building of the plants where these women worked and how big and dangerous they were. Of course, everyone involved was learning about radiation. The girls of Atomic City were amazing and accomplished a lot. Especially neat is the mention that they could operate some of the equipment better and faster then the physicists.
    MayDefarge More than 1 year ago
    This book has some interesting anecdotes and stories told by women who worked at the plant in Oak Ridge. However, there were so many sentences repeated, grammar unedited, and poor wording that one wonder if the author was perhaps a better researcher than writer. Perhaps her editor was at fault, but the book becomes boring and segmented. This is a story that needs to be told. We know so much about the men who built the bomb, but the efforts of the women left at home during the war needs to explored. This book misses the mark.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Denise did an indepth study into the personal lives of several women who experienced being uprooted and moving to a town in Tennessee with no name. I enjoyed the stories but I thought the information dragged on. I think the info could have been done in 100 less pages!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I love WW II books--fiction and non-fiction. This is a story that hasn't been told. Its remarkable that the greatest secret of the was kept even though thousands of workers built and worked at several huge installations for months making the first atomic bombs.
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    SuperReaderChick 9 months ago
    This book was incredibly interesting and really shed light onto a little known place and part of WWII. The amount of secrecy that was kept by the thousands of people living and working in Oak Ridge really speaks for the determination of the time and the drive to win the war at all costs. The book was easy to read and well-written, making me feel like I was there right alongside the women. They worked for an incredible cause, but still had their own hope and dreams that they wanted to live out. They were just ordinary women doing extraordinary work. I highly recommend this book and hope someday to be able to make a visit to Oak Ridge and stand where they once stood.
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    Delphimo More than 1 year ago
    A part of American history that seems incredible in the scope of the accomplishments. The situation unfolds in clouds of secrecy, and the reader wonders how the public remains ignorant of work. Kiernan presents a story that reminds me of Hitler's concentration camps, but with humane treatment of the inhabitants. These men and women came from all over the United States to aid in creating the atomic bomb that would bring WWII to a conclusion. Kiernan skillfully balances the story among the different sectors of the world that worked on this project. The detail became too minute at times, especially the discussion of the chemistry and the construction of the "city" in Tennessee. I enjoyed reading of the various individuals that worked on the project and the effect on their life. The book creates a sense of awe that the government orchestrated this production in such secrecy.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The details were not interesting to me as to how it was built, all the chemistry terms! I was expecting to read more about the girls and their lives. The book had too many characters to keep track of. The history was interesting but it should have been a history book without the many characters. I'd fall asleep when it came to the science facts, I never was interested in chemistry. It just seemed to jump around a lot.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This was a very interesting account of a period of time in American history in which women contributed to helping to end the second world war. A very good read for anyone wanting to learn more of the war efforts on Ammerican soil