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

By Denise Kiernan, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, New York, 2013. xvii + 373 pp. ISBN 978-1-4516-1752-8,
$27 hardcover

Reviewed by Cameron Reed

The Girls of Atomic City book by Denise KiernanSeven decades have elapsed since Robert Oppenheimer began gathering a cadre of scientists and engineers to Los Alamos to develop the first generation of nuclear weapons. At the same time, enormous construction projects in Tennessee and Washington were beginning to literally lay the foundations for fissile-material production complexes. Biographical materials on the leading scientific, military, and administrative personalities of the Manhattan Project — people like Oppenheimer, General Groves, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Vannevar Bush, James Conant, and many others — are extensive and well-known to scholars and students of the Project. These individuals are now long gone, but the level of their contributions and the strengths of their personalities keep them in the forefront of most Project literature. As a consequence it is easy, even for those of us who study the Project in detail, to cast into an anonymous background the tens of thousands of “ordinary” people who worked at those production plants, most of whom had no idea on what they were working. In her Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan gives life and voice to a selection of these individuals: women who worked at the Clinton Engineer Works uranium-enrichment facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

By focusing on a selection of about 10 women who hailed from various places and who performed a diverse array of jobs, Kiernan gives us a compelling cross-section of life in “The Secret City.” We meet women who served as administrative secretaries and calutron operators, a statistician who processed uranium-production numbers, a chemist who analyzed product from the calutrons, a pipe-leak inspector who worked in the mammoth K-25 gaseous-diffusion plant (which, ironically, was shaped like giant letter U), a nurse who worked at the Oak Ridge Clinic, and a janitor in K-25 who helped to keep the plant spotlessly clean against the incursion of even the slightest iota of grease or moisture into miles of process piping and almost 3,000 diffusion tanks. Virtually all of these women had a brother, a boyfriend, or a husband off at war; one had lost a brother at Pearl Harbor. Some came from distant states, while others — notably the locally-recruited recent high-school graduates who operated calutron vacuum tanks — had grown up in the area, only to have their family homes and property seized to make way for the Clinton reservation. Clinton represented good jobs at good wages, and, most important, a way to contribute to the war effort.

Life at Oak Ridge was not easy. For many, housing was cramped and contained few amenities; conditions for black workers were particularly appalling. Contact with outside friends and family was discouraged and closely monitored; the pervasive presence of secrecy and censorship, surveillance by ever-present plainclothes “creeps,”, need-to-know, and don’t-ask-don’t tell took an enormous mental toll, particularly for non-working wives and mothers. It can be hard for us now to imagine that there was a time when people trusted their government and were willing to make personal sacrifices in a time of national need. But the motivation was powerful: the sacrifices of the brothers, boyfriends, and husbands were often infinitely greater.

This book is not aimed at explaining the scientific aspects of the Manhattan Project, but brief prefaces to the first 12 chapters (each titled “Tubealloy” — a code-word for uranium) give readers brief descriptions of relevant background material such as the discovery of fission, why it was necessary to separate U-235 and U-238, the principles on which the various Clinton facilities operated, reactions of German scientists interned at Farm Hall to the news of Hiroshima, and scientific and governmental considerations surrounding use of the bomb and post-war policy. Kiernan uses these prefaces to also introduce other women who were more-or-less directly associated with the project, such as Ida Noddack, Lise Meitner, and Leona Woods. I found a few errors, such as assigning Philip Abelson a Nobel Prize (p. 107), a tendency to confuse elemental mass and physical size (p. 33), the statement that all of Clinton’s calutron vacuum tanks were up-and-running before the end of the war (p. 243), and a mis-spelling of the name of American-born Soviet intelligence agent George Koval (as “Koral,” p. 243), but these are minor quibbles that would catch the eye only of a reader already very familiar with the details of the Project.

Qualitative works on the Manhattan Project often include attempts to “analyze” or “interpret” the Project through the prism of an author’s dubious pet pseudo-intellectual psychological or sociological “theory” of some flavor or other. Oak Ridgers developed a vibrant social scene, but General Groves did not establish the town as a social experiment; also, it is always convenient for such authors that the principals involved have no means of responding. Kiernan is to be heartily congratulated for avoiding this aggravatingly nonsensical genre: the stories of the lives — personal, social, and work alike — of her protagonists are richly engaging in their own rights; they have no need of any veneer of academic puffery. Kiernan relates these stories with warmth, humor, and humanity, and that is all that they require to come alive.

The news of what those thousands of people at Clinton were doing burst over Oak Ridge on the morning of August 6, 1945, as dramatically as their product had over Hiroshima only hours earlier. Reactions ran the spectrum from 20740jubilation (mostly) to more somber reflections, but the vast majority of Oak Ridgers took immense and justified pride in what they had contributed to the war effort. For many, the end of the war meant an end to their employ in east Tennessee, but friendships and marriages made there lasted for the rest of their lives. Many others remained, building their own careers and families.

This book should be on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan set out to bring long-overdue attention to the contributions of thousands whose task was, as soon as possible, to squeeze every atom of U-235 out of trainloads of raw material that poured into Clinton. Most had no idea what that product was, or ever laid eyes on a single gram of it. We can be grateful that they succeeded admirably, and so has she.

Cameron Reed is Professor of Physics at Alma College. He is also Secretary-Treasurer of the FHP.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.