En route to winning the war, the Manhattan Project rebuilt the lives and communities of rural East Tennessee. Whitney Kimball Coe reviews Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City.
The Girls of Atomic City:
The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
by Denise Kiernan
Touchstone, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.
2013, 400 pages.
In 1942, the U.S. government purchased 59,000 acres in East Tennessee to support the development of the world’s first atomic weapon. The site ran along the Black Oak Ridge and was ideal for secrecy, nestled in the East Tennessee Valley and guarded in the east by the Great Smoky Mountains. It was close to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Dam and the Southern and Louisville & Nashville railroads, which meant convenient transport of the materials needed to build a new city out of the red clay.
What was once acres of farmland stewarded by generations of families quickly became a secret city of more 75,000 by 1944, making Oak Ridge the fifth largest city in Tennessee.
The city of Oak Ridge wouldn’t be on a map for 10 years, and the thousands of individuals, many of them women from rural areas, who answered the call to work at one of its three plants, had no idea where they were going or what they would be doing when they got there. No one guessed they were helping build the atomic bomb.
In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan gives us the experiences of the women who left their homes and daily lives to work on a secret project that they were assured would end the war. They came from the displaced communities along the Black Oak Ridge and from as far away as Washington state to work as secretaries, chauffeurs, chemists, janitors, operators, inspectors and administrators.
Kiernan’s book is a real stand out in an area of history that is already well-documented. She deals with less familiar pieces of the story, personalizing the hardships of families and communities who lost their land and homes to the Atomic City, and of course, elevating the experiences of women who worked in the city behind the barbed wire.
Her cast of characters includes 16 women whose stories represent the various backgrounds and jobs of women who made a life for themselves in Oak Ridge. They each worked in different areas, turning knobs, pressing buttons, computing random numbers, transcribing codes and strange acronyms, all without knowing what they were doing in relation to one another and to the larger project. Kiernan does a masterful job of illustrating the mixture of confusion and pride these women experienced working around the clock to end the war.
Their stories also reveal that this military and scientific endeavor became a fascinating social experiment in which women and men lived and worked together in the most outrageous circumstances. Even though they lived in a city that couldn’t be found on any map, they managed to build a community that reflected the times, with civic clubs, community dances and movie showings. People fell in love, married and managed to keep their wedding vows without breaking their vows of silence. Some of Kiernan’s descriptions are reminiscent of the traditional coal company town, replete with a company store, a church and worker housing. It was a community that also included segregated housing and facilities for people of color.
African Americans were encouraged to apply, and job opportunities at the site were talked over with great interest by families in the Deep South. Even though married couples were not allowed to live together on site, the pay was much better than what couples were making in rural areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, so many of them headed north to Tennessee.
Women from rural areas were especially sought after, as managers felt they would welcome an adventure and would be less likely to question authority. Whether or not that was true, employees, rural or otherwise, were certain to lose their job if they asked too many questions. Billboards scattered throughout the city warned employees that their “pen and tongue can be enemy weapons.” The daily paper, the Oak Ridge Journal, wryly noted, “We are unique—the only newspaper in the country without any news.”
Several of the women Kiernan profiles came from the communities that were displaced by the construction of the site. They and their families had little choice but to apply for employment with the very same entity that took their land and homes.
Kiernan places sharp focus on the taking of the valley along Black Oak Ridge. She points out that “surveyors had been East Tennessee’s harbingers of doom for more than the last two decades, longer than that if you were Cherokee. At the first sighting of a tripod or transit, alarm bells should have sounded.” Indeed, East Tennessee had a very recent history with eminent domain laws. The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forced thousands off of their land in 1934, and then the construction of Norris Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1936 called for the relocation of nearly 3,000 families and 5,000 graves. Many families living within the acreage purchased for the Atomic City were experiencing their third forced removal, some given as little as two weeks to leave their homes. A typical eviction notice went something like this:
The War Department intends to take possession of your farm December 1, 1942. It will be necessary for you to move, not later than that date.
In order to pay you quickly, the money for your property will be placed into the United States Court at Knoxville, Tennessee.
It is expected that your money will be put in court within ten days, and as soon as you are notified, it is suggested you get in touch with the United States Attorney to find out how much can be drawn.
Your fullest co-operation will be a material aid to the War Effort.
Needless to say the compensation given these families was hardly adequate and in many cases didn’t come close to the actual value of the land.
Still, history moves on, and so does Denise Kiernan. Her narrative continues through the end of the war and the dropping of the bomb.
The many years she spent conducting interviews with diverse sources pays off the rich detail: from the descriptions of the communities that characterized the valley before the development of the city, to the segregated infrastructure that rose so quickly out of the mud, to the post-war community of Oak Ridge. It is a worthy addition to the many histories and biographies that give us a piece of the story of the Manhattan Project.