Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

In the 1940s in eastern Tennessee, a complex and a community sprang up, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. At its zenith the town housed more than 75,00 people and “used more electricity than New York City,” but it wasn’t on maps at the time. Locals knew it was there: some had even had their land confiscated for it. They knew it was a governmental entity. But they didn’t know what went on in it.

Many of the people working there didn’t know much more about it themselves. Some worked in offices. Some watched dials and gauges and reported the numbers, not knowing what the numbers meant. Some sealed leaks in huge pipes. Some who worked in the labs knew a little more. Only the higher-ups knew they were enriching “Product” for use in a “Gadget” for a “Project.”The Product was uranium, also know as tubealloy; the Gadget was the atomic bomb; the place was one part of the Manhattan Project. The project director called it the “battle of the laboratories,” trying to put the pieces together before the enemies did.

Atomic CityIn The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan traces the development of the discovery and implementation of atomic energy as well as the development of the plants and town that were unknown at the time and supposed to be temporary. Much of the latter is done through the viewpoints of several women who worked in various capacities. Kiernan notes that most historical events are told from the vantage point of those in charge, but she wanted to tell this one “from the perspective of those who were not a part of the decision, those who were not privy to all the facts, people who were just trying to do the best for themselves, their families, and their countries” (p. 384).

It’s hard to imagine pulling up stakes and moving to another state with no knowledge of what the job would entail or even where it would be, but many did just that. Some just needed work. Some saw it as a ticket out of their small hometowns. They were told their work would help end the war, and everyone was all for that.

Once they got to what would come to be known as Oak Ridge, they were shocked by the surroundings: there were no sidewalks and many shoes were lost to the mud until they learned to take their shoes off and walk barefoot. All the homes were prefab units (made of cemesto – cement and asbestos) hastily put together or trailers or “hutments,” all meant to be temporary. A pioneering spirit was definitely needed to thrive here.

The secrecy with which they began their jobs continued. They were all required not to talk about anything to do with their jobs to anyone, even to each other, even to spouses who also worked there. Too many questions or theorizing would cost a person their job, immediately. A staff psychologist was brought in to help people deal with the effects of not having the support system many of them had left behind plus the strain that the secrecy put on marriages and life in general.

Although the main focus was the work, no one could work 24 hours, and people needed recreation, so different groups and sites were organized. Many of the employees were young and single, so there was a lot of dating and eventually marriages.

Alongside the personal stories, the author tells how the first fragments of ideas that led to the study of atomic energy came together from different scientists and different countries and then the various attempts to find the best way to process the needed materials, all the way through the New Mexico testing, political processing (especially with the death of one president, FDR, and the need to bring Truman up to speed quickly with what was going on), then the dropping of the bomb and the aftermath.

Even though the secret was out about the bomb, the various sites in TN and other places working on it, and the “secret city” of Oak Ridge, not everything could be revealed. The powers that were did not want the science getting into the wrong hands, plus they wanted to explore its uses for other purposes as well.

After the war was over, many considered the area home, and the author tells about the process of going from a guarded military complex to an independent city.

There are some blots on the record, however. Besides the land confiscation previously mentioned, black workers were segregated and “were primarily laborers, janitors, and domestics” (p. 47) and black married couples had to live separately. In an unbelievably unconscionable act, one black man was injected with plutonium, without his knowledge or consent, so that the effects of it could be tested.

Kiernan notes in an interview at the end of the book that some readers of the book might not have ever read anything else about the Manhattan Project, so she felt she needed explain it as a whole to set the stories of these people in the times and unique situation they found themselves in. I am glad she did, because, although I knew vaguely what it was about, I really had no idea about many of the details.  Denise Kiernan has done a massive amount of research and and skillfully woven together historic, scientific, political, and personal elements to tell the story.

Some reviewers I glanced at on Goodreads felt the characters weren’t fleshed out enough, but I don’t think Kiernan’s goal was to relate full biographies of the women. I think rather she was trying to give a glimpse of different aspects of the experience from many women in different positions. True, she acknowledges that the information in the book is “compartmentalized as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project” (p. xxi), and I lost track of which woman was which in some of the narrative (there’s a list of the main ones at the beginning, but I didn’t always feel like flipping back there), but overall I think for the purpose of the book, the way it is written is fine. I think if she had written it with each lady’s full story in a different chapter, we might have gotten to know them better, but there would have been a lot of overlap.

I have a personal interest in the story because we live not far from Oak Ridge and go to church there. In fact, several of our church members are employed at the Y-12 plant, which is still operational, and the Oak Ridge National Labs, which is what the X-10 plant became, and many still cannot talk about theirs jobs. In our early days here, I was following my GPS through Oak Ridge and accidentally came to the Y-12 gate (though I didn’t know that’s what it was then), and even though I had my GPS on and my destination address on the car seat beside me, and my GPS showed that where I needed to go seemed just beyond the gate, the guard said the GPS was wrong and they’d have to detain me a couple of minutes while they took a photo of me, my license plate, and my driver’s license. He was very cordial about it, but it was still nerve-wracking; even still, I am sure that’s very mild compared to the security the area used to have. When we first visited the area and were interviewing schools and looking at houses, we visited the American Museum of Science and Energy there, which is the first I heard about Oak Ridge’s previous status as a “Secret City.” I don’t know if they did not have bus tours then or if I just missed it, but I learned about them, ironically, from a blog friend named Susan (from Indiana, if I am remembering correctly?), who told about going on the tour here. That’s also where she mentioned this book, which I had not seen or heard of before (it was published after my visit to the museum), and I immediately put it on my TBR list, and we are planning to go on one of the tours they next time they coincide with my oldest son’s visit home. Susan’s review of the book is here.

Though this discussion is long already, I feel like I am just scratching the surface of the fascinating elements to this book. There is a web site with more details and photos here and additional photos here. I’ll close with Kiernan’s closing remarks in a highly interesting interview at the end of the book:

Whether or not you agree with the outcome, the tremendous amount that the Manhattan Project accomplished in such a short amount of time–just under three years–is astonishing. It makes you wonder what other kinds of things could be accomplished with that kind of determination, effort, and financial and political support. What if the kind of money, manpower, and resources that went into the Manhattan Project went into the fight against hunger? Cancer? Homelessness?

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

  1. Really enjoyed your review! I’m glad you’re planning on the tour, because it was fascinating, too. If you need interesting vacation destinations, let me recommend Los Alamos — the site where the bomb itself was made. We visited there about 5 years ago, and although I knew nothing about it before visiting, I became fascinated after visiting the museum there and walking through some of the buildings from the era. That is interesting about your encounter at the Y-12 gate. Yikes!

  2. How interesting! I had never head about this. Imagine, working somewhere like that and not knowing especially what you were working for! Thanks for the great review.

  3. That was very interesting to read about, Barbara. Perhaps we can plan to tour this area sometime. We are always looking for interesting places to visit which are not too far from home.

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  5. Thanks for reviewing this book! My father’s family is from Roane County, and my grandfather’s family’s farm was taken to build Oak Ridge. I never heard anyone in the family complain about the taking or express any regret that their home was gone. I always thought it was because of their patriotism and desire to contribute to the war effort, but it may have been their undramatic stoicism as well.

    At the same time, on the other side of the world, my mother’s missionary family was living in danger in the Philippines under Japanese occupation. My mother’s feelings about the atomic bomb were complicated. On the one hand, she was deeply troubled about the lives lost and the danger of having these terrible weapons in the world. At the same time, she wondered if dropping the bombs on Japan had shortened the war and perhaps saved her and her family’s lives.

    Regardless, it is an amazing story, and your final point from Kiernan is good one.

    • Those mixed emotions seemed common to many of the people there, according to the book. Nearly everyone had loved ones serving in the military, many had lost loved ones, so they were happy to see the war come to an end, but sad at the devastation the bomb caused. Many felt that without something drastic like that, the war would have gone on interminably with even more loss of life.

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