DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City

As can so often be the case, the idea for Denise Kiernan's new book came as she was doing research for another project. Kiernan was preparing an article on nuclear medicine when she found a 1944 black-and-white picture of a group of well-dressed young women, all sitting in front of giant machines with knobs and dials at the then-secret Tennessee city of Oak Ridge. Keirnan knew little about Oak Ridge, one of the sites involved in America's race to create the nuclear bomb. "But that picture really, really drew me in." she says. She wanted to discover more. And the fascinating story that she discovered is now detailed in The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.

Kiernan recently appeared at the National Archives to discuss her book and the women who people it. "It's the true story of women working at a secret government city whose sole purpose was enriching uranium. They were working on the world's 1st atomic bomb, but they didn't know it at the time," the author said.

Although all the stories were different, there were several common elements. For the most part the women were young, excited to be working, and looking at this as an opportunity for adventure. Celine, 22, was typical. In 1943, her boss came to her and said "we're moving our office and I need you to go with me." Celine asked where they would be going. "You get to the train station and we'll tell you where to get off," he replied. But what would she doing? All they would say is that she would be helping the war effort. "So off she and the others went to a new city that nobody knew existed," Kiernan said.

The one thing that all the interviewees remembered was the mud, which was everywhere. Originally, Oak Ridge was designed for 13,000 residents. That number climbed to 75,000 by 1945. At one point, builders were constructing a new house every 30 minutes on the 56,000-acres site, which at the time contained the largest single building in the world. During its height, Oak Ridge was using more electricity than New York City.

None of the women knew all of what was going on due to the tight secrecy surrounding every aspect of Oak Ridge. Each could only view the project through her job. One woman was convinced that the project had something to do with urine since all she did 8 hours a day was label urine samples. Another was equally certain that pipes were the key since pipes came into the room where she worked, she inspected them, and they were moved out the door. The locals nearby were equally in the dark. "All they saw was that everything was going in and nothing was going out," Kiernan said. But, eventually there was something coming out - 2 or 3 teaspoons of atomic matter in a canister in a briefcase strapped to someone's wrist.

Because of the urgency of the Manhattan Project, the operations at Oak Ridge ran around the clock. The employees worked in shifts, ate in shifts, played in shifts, and slept in shifts. There were 24-hour skating and dance halls for recreation. And, as you might imagine, with young men and women working and living together, romance blossomed. In fact, many of the women who worked at the site are still married to the husbands they 1st met there.

In today's age of internet and 24-hour cable TV, it may seem strange that the secrets at Oak Ridge were kept quiet. But World War II was a much different time. People didn't want to take any action that could jeopardize the war effort. They believed in the message of the 3 Monkeys posted throughout the plant. That message - "What you say here, what you do here, what you hear here, what you learn here, let it stay here."

But on August 6th, 1945, the secret behind Oak Ridge was revealed when the 1st Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, followed by a 2nd bomb on Nagasaki a few days later.

"The workers at Oak Ridge realized then that the world was a completely different place now and they had had a part in that. On V-J day, they were very happy the war was over, but it was difficult for some of them to handle their involvement at the time," Keirnan said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As part of her book promotion, Kiernan appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Click here to view the video clip of the interview.

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