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

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9781501264115: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

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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A Note from Denise Kiernan, Author of The Girls of Atomic City

Most of us have grown up with the humbling power of the atomic bomb looming somewhere in our collective consciousness. We are at least familiar with the phrase "Manhattan Project," even if we know little of the history behind that World War II effort to make the world's first nuclear weapon. Los Alamos. Oppenheimer. Fermi. Groves. These names may ring a bell, if only a distant one. The story of the Manhattan Project is often discussed from the perspective of high-profile scientific minds and decision-makers.

A black-and-white photo of young women monitoring gigantic panels covered in knobs and dials both altered my view of this story and inspired me to write The Girls of Atomic City. I was struck by the youth of these women, the size of the room, the unfamiliar technology. They did not know they were enriching uranium and would not know until a bomb detonated above Hiroshima. What were they thinking? What did the Manhattan Project look like through their eyes? I had my way in. I tracked down everyone I could who had worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II.

I entered a top-secret compound, one that straddled two worlds: that which existed before and that which followed the dawn of the nuclear age. Octogenarians as my trusted guides, I found not only fission and cyclotrons, but rations and dances. The satisfaction of doing one's part mixed with the anxiety of wartime. It was a world of pioneering spirit and propaganda, of scientific gains and personal loss. Loved ones were far away, deadlines and informants lurking much nearer. There was always waiting: for news, for cigarettes, for letters, for the end of the war. When that end came, it was a relief and a shock. Secrets were revealed, others still remain.

I hope readers will be as fascinated by this moment in time as I was, as I still am.

Young female cubicle operators monitor the activity of the calutrons, the heart of the uranium electromagnetic separation process at the Y-12 plant. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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Housing options included dorms and prefab homes, but also hutments and trailers, like those pictured here. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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Billboards and posters extolling patriotism and discretion were found throughout the United States during World War II. Images throughout Oak Ridge reminded residents to work hard and keep quiet about what went on inside their fences. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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Young women exit their dorm to celebrate the end of World War II. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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About the Author:

Denise Kiernan is the author of Signing Their Lives Away and Signing their Rights Away. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Discover, Ms., and other national publications.

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