Review of “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

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In 1943 the U.S. Government began a massive recruiting program to gather workers for top-secret facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There, uranium would be enriched to fuel the atom bomb being developed in New Mexico.

Project organizers determined that the ideal workers would be young high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds, because “they did what they were told” and “they weren’t overly curious.” More educated or urban workers might be more prone to ask questions. And this project was top-secret; so much so that the workers were not allowed to know what they were doing or why they were doing it. Those who expressed curiosity were escorted out of the workplace and never returned. Only when the announcement was made that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima did the inhabitants of Oak Ridge understand what their jobs had entailed.

A billboard posted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on December 31, 1943

A billboard posted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on December 31, 1943

Oak Ridge did not exist as a city before 1942. Nevertheless, there were people living in the area. But the U.S. Government adjudged the site to be desirable, and proceeded to take possession of the land. Appproximately 3,000 people were evicted from the more than 59,000 acres appropriated by the Government, most without much notice and with only partial compensation. Workers were moved in by the trainloads, housed in temporary buildings quickly erected in the mud.

Temporary Housing (Hutments) fill the formerly empty valleys of Oak Ridge in 1945

Temporary Housing (Hutments) fill the formerly empty valleys of Oak Ridge in 1945

Black workers who were employed for lesser positions, such as janitorial work, had to live in a separate area in “hutments.” (Lieutenant Colonel Crenshaw, head of facilities, maintained that blacks didn’t want nice houses; they felt more comfortable in huts.) Furthermore, unlike in the white areas, married couples were not permitted to live together; the men and women had to live in different areas separated by barbed wire. Blacks were also kept separate in other ways; even when it was determined that worker morale necessitated community facilities like dance halls, movie theaters, and a swimming pool, these were for whites only. (Occasionally “race films” were shown at the rec hall near the black area, for which blacks were charged 35 cents, although the white theaters, featuring first-run films, only charged a nickel.)

By May, 1945, employment at Oak Ridge peaked at 82,000, up from the original estimate that 13,000 would be needed. The average age of workers was 27, and so romance was as big of an activity as the work itself.

Calutron operators at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Calutron operators at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

The author got interested in the story of Oak Ridge during wartime after coming across documentary photos from that era. She decided to pursue it, and ended up meeting a number of women whose stories she alternates in this book. She strove to represent women from different work experiences, races and cultures, and included the remembrances of a a secretary, a chemist, a leak inspector, a nurse, a janitor, and so on. The results are fascinating. You will learn about why these women participated and what it was like to work on something when you had no idea what your job was about! The book includes “then and now” pictures of three of the women, along with a number of other pictures documenting the Oak Ridge experience, and maps to help you visualize the scale of the project. Occasional short chapters are included to explain the scientific nature of what was going on, but these can be omitted if you don’t want to tackle that part.

The author doesn’t just end the story when the first atomic bomb is detonated. She records how the women felt about it, and then goes on to let us know what happened to the women after the war. Some of them stayed on at Oak Ridge, where work on electromagnetic separation of uranium continues today.

Shift change in 1966, a fitting companion photo to the one used on the cover, which shows a shift change during the wartime era.

Shift change in 1966, a fitting companion photo to the one used on the cover, which shows a shift change in 1945.

Evaluation: I love books about the “human aspects” of the Manhattan Project (the code name for the American effort started in 1942 to develop an atom bomb), and especially about the living conditions and ingenuity of all those people, whether in New Mexico or Tennessee or elsewhere, who had to create cities and services literally out of nothing. There are a lot of names and places to keep track of in this book – the author includes very helpful lists of people and things at the front of the book, to which I referred quite frequently. How would this translate to an audio book? I’m not sure. But the written version is full of interesting details, and will especially appeal to those, like me, who love reading about this era in our history.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, 2013

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