Review: The Country Girls of Atomic City

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, 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.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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.”

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.  

A message from the Rural Assembly