The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan


The author interviewed women who worked at the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee to create the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The city grew from nothing to 75,000 people in two to three years. It was a city with a building that at the time was the largest in the world, had one of the ten largest bus systems in the US with 800 buses and had so few sidewalks that the mud was deep enough to steal the shoes off your feet. Housing could never keep up with demand.

The requirements for secrecy were extraordinary. When people were recruited to work there, they were not told where they were going. Individuals could not go to any work facility except their own. They were told not to talk about their own work or ask others about theirs. Everyone working there experienced the strange conflict of having a common goal but not being able to talk about it. Some were attracted by wages, some were recruited out of high school while others were trained scientists. Many were moved by the hopes of bringing the war to an end as most people in the US were affected by the war and many had loved ones fighting.

Billboards reminded them of the importance of secrecy and some workers were recruited to turn in others who might be talking too freely. Everyone there observed fellow workers who disappeared from their jobs without explanation. There was reason to be concerned about spies; three spies who worked at Los Alamos kept the Russians well informed of the progress on the bomb. When the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and everyone was told about their role, they could hardly bring themselves to say the banned words, “uranium” and “bomb.”

It’s hard to imagine a time when a city of 75,000 could be under cover and though its existence was known, it was not acknowledged. When Mr. Booklog and I lived in Knoxville we looked at microfilm of the Knoxville paper the day after the bomb was dropped. (It was the late 1960s, so microfilm was the modern way to do this.) There was great excitement and pride in the role played by people in the area.

That pride seems to have become diminished. One of the women interviewed expressed her mix of emotions this way:

The prospect of learning the answer to the question “What are we doing?” had been thrilling at first, but the reality snuck up on her, like it did most people she knew. What a strange mix of feelings it was after the bomb dropped. That was what was so hard for her and so many others to explain to those who hadn’t lived through it–how she could feel both good and bad about something at the same time, pride and guilt and joy and relief and shame. She wasn’t alone; so many of them now lived a life of jobs and husbands and babies, still saddened by memories of those who were lost forever, no matter how hard they had worked to bring them home.

The method for telling this fascinating story was unusual: it mirrored the compartmentalized life that the Oak Ridgers lived. The story unfolded in odd and sometimes misleading bits and pieces. This means of storytelling was useful in helping you experience the frustration they must have felt working so hard to do something they knew so little about. Although it was not my favorite way of learning about this time, it made the point.

Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City, Touchstone (Simon and Schuster), 2013, 315 pages. Available from the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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