Published by Touchstone
Publication date: March 11th 2014
Genres: History, Non-fiction
Yesterday was the 69th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan by the United States. Now threats of atomic war loom and fade whenever one country gets mad at another. I wondered about the path we took to making the bomb and this led me to Denise Kiernan’s book The Girls of Atomic City: The untold story of the women who helped win World War II, a highly detailed and researched look at one of the plants responsible for preparing the bomb and largely staffed by women.
In the beginning of 1942 there were over 80,000 acres of land in eastern Tennessee with nothing but small towns and farms sitting on them. By the end of that year, 60,000 of those acres had been cheaply bought or outright taken from its residents, displacing over 3,000 people. A fence went up around the land and there were security checkpoints keeping virtually everyone out. It was the last time until August 6, 1945 when the residents of nearby towns or anyone in the United States would know what was happening in what is now known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
By 1943 the land had huge manufacturing and testing plants, housing and almost everything needed for what would ultimately be a population of 75,000 people. Some of these came from other parts of Tennessee while others came from as far away as the Midwest and Northeast. None of them had any idea of the work they were going to do, just that it would pay well. The ads they’d answered listed only a skill and a pay rate. If they asked, they were told they were headed somewhere in the south but nothing more. Most of these people were young women out of high school, who had never worked anywhere other than a family farm but there were also more experienced women, culled from office jobs, hospitals and research labs in the East. They converged on the muddy, half built mass of what was now known as Clinton Engineer Works and began doing jobs described by one woman as:
Colleen’s assignment was explained in the usual fashion: a lot of information about how to do what you were doing, but precious little about what you were doing.
Secrecy was so paramount that at no time whatsoever could your work be discussed—not even among husbands and wives. Informants were recruited from among workers and the smallest slip resulted in being removed from the site. Problems arose early on because no one knew what they were working on and so didn’t know what could be talked about and what couldn’t. This meant as the population grew and work progressed, the only way for people to connect was to ask, “Where are you from?”—never “What do you do?”
The Girls of Atomic City follows nine women and their lives at CEW. They range from a nurse to a chemist to a cleaning woman. Their daily lives are chronicled in chapters broken up with memos and text about the rest of “The Project”. Despite the good pay, which many still needed at the tail end of the Depression, these were not cushy jobs or an easy life. Living arrangements were sparse and crowded as the demand for workers continued to grow. Conveniences we take for granted were limited—small or no kitchens, all laundry had to be sent to a central location and would be returned to you, well, when it was. The workers could leave CEW but sojourns into town were met with people who were often hostile, after years of “everything went in, but nothing comes out” and having no idea why. Instead, they created life where they were with dance halls, churches, and other group activities and gathering places.
Kiernan mimics the process of establishing and building the Clinton Engineer Works by working from the outside in and keeping the reader as much in the dark about specifics as the women themselves were. For the majority of the book, the word atomic bomb is not used nor is uranium (which is what was being processed at CEW)—everything is referred to in code, just as it was then. Kiernan’s structure and prose enhances the feeling of uncertainty and unquestioning acceptance the workers were forced to adopt.
It is impossible to relate even the highlights from The Girls in one review but Kiernan covers everything from the amazing and powerful achievements of women in the field of nuclear physics (which have largely been ignored) to the woman who swept the floors in one of the plants but was not allowed to live with her husband because they were black. Using a potent mix of personal and professional details she brings these varied women to life and shares their stories in creating the weapon that ended the war but did so with a destructive force greater than any ever imagined.
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