In this book the author traces the story of the unsung World War II workers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents. This is the story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history. The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project's secret cities, it did not appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships, and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men. But against this wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work, even the most innocuous details, was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb "Little Boy" was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb. Though the young women originally believed they would leave Oak Ridge after the war, many met husbands there, made lifelong friends, and still call the seventy-year-old town home. The reverberations from their work there, work they did not fully understand at the time, are still being felt today.
Kiernan begins with the scientists of Europe who are working on splitting the atom and describes how many scientists brought different pieces of information to the table. She reports that it is a woman who suggested the possibility of nuclear fission and how it might be done altho she is never really credited for her work. It makes interesting reading seeing how they fit the pieces together though and Kiernan gives very clear explanations of the science involved. I did not expect to be able to understand that part, but I did fairly well.
The rest of the book focuses on the stories of several women and men who work specifically at the Oak Ridge site making the "product". This location eventually has a population of about 75,000. It begins with government and military agents recruiting workers by telling them they were needed to work on a secret project that may very well end the war, but they could not know what it was or where they were going to live. The recruiters played on patriotism and fear about relatives who were fighting overseas. These workers were literally picked up by a cab or bus and put on a train or other form of transportation and taken to Oak Ridge.
Before the workers arrived we see the usual process of manifest destiny play out on the poor rural population around Oak Ridge. Families are poorly compensated typically, and that of course is a book in itself, but one that has already been written. Then the construction workers are brought in to build housing for the coming workers. Houses for middle class family employees, dorms for single workers, huts with no windows in a segregated area for African Americans who are typically held to the same work they are outside, janitorial, etc. Schools are eventually built for the white children of workers but not for the Af Ams. One historian said it was the first community he was aware of that had been built with slums deliberately planned.
Workers are told what they need to know to do their piece of the project and nothing else. They don't even actually know what they are doing or at least what the purpose is. For example some women are spending hours a day sitting on a stool reading gages and spinning dials, not knowing what they are measuring. Some are testing pipes for leaks, not knowing what the pipes are for. They are not allowed to discuss ANYTHING work related with anyone, no family, no friends, no one, which stresses all relationships. Workers are recruited to spy on each other and to be merely accused by an informant was cause for dismissal. Anyone breaking the rules disappears quickly. When fired they are not given a clearance to work on anything else outside of this work for six months. No one can hire them for any job without that piece of paper. All of this stress makes a very tense situation and causes mental issues for some. One case of a "mentally ill" man is described wherein he is literally held captive because he has figured out the secret and wants to warn the emperor of Japan. The weight of what they have been involved in eventually effects many workers. Other workers injured in accidents were also used for medical research. A psychiatrist is called in to help and gets some treatment and some recreational relief. Movies, and bowling alleys are built for white people, while if lucky African Americans may be able to catch a glimpse of the outdoor movie screen from a nearby hill. Although they manage to make their own recreation.
Although there are hard circumstances, many seem to thrive. They have employment and are being paid well. They are also learning new skills. They make their own fun also with dances put on in tennis courts and houses. They form groups with people with similar interests to develop hobbies and other social groups, and have access to some hiking and other outdoor activities.
As I review my highlights here are some things I found especially interesting.
Kiernan describes the setting as an "Orwellian backdrop for a Rockwellian world".
"The challenges of living with military supervision were replaced by the challenges of living without it." (employment, police and fire services, public transportation, elections, etc. when the war ends and the situation changes.) A change is reported to research and development of peace time uses for nuclear power.
After the war one woman goes to put flowers on her brothers "grave" in Pearl Harbor. She cries in her grief. A Japanese tourist nearby asks her if she lost someone here and when the answer is yes, she embraces the woman and says she is so sorry. Counterpoint to the guilt some workers feel.
The author does a way more balanced job of reporting than I have done here, and describes her process as melding together individual memory, collective community memory, primary source material, media coverage, etc.
If George Bush or Barack Obama asked you today if you would work on a secret project to end our wars but he couldn't tell you what it is or where you will go or for how long, what would your answer be? Five stars.
Project organizers determined that the ideal workers would be young high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds, because “they did what they were told” and “they weren’t overly curious.” More educated or urban workers might be more prone to ask questions. And this project was top-secret; so much so that the workers were not allowed to know what they were doing or why they were doing it. Those who expressed curiosity were escorted out of the workplace and never returned. Only when the announcement was made that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima did the inhabitants of Oak Ridge understand what their jobs had entailed.
Oak Ridge did not exist as a city before 1942. Nevertheless, there were people living in the area. But the U.S. Government adjudged the site to be desirable, and proceeded to take possession of the land. Appproximately 3,000 people were evicted from the more than 59,000 acres appropriated by the Government, most without much notice and with only partial compensation. Workers were moved in by the trainloads, housed in temporary buildings quickly erected in the mud.
Black workers who were employed for lesser positions, such as janitorial work, had to live in a separate area in “hutments.” (Lieutenant Colonel Crenshaw, head of facilities, maintained that blacks didn’t want nice houses; they felt more comfortable in huts.) Furthermore, unlike the white areas, married couples were not permitted to live together; the men and women had to live in different areas separated by barbed wire. Blacks were also kept separate in other ways; even when it was determined that worker morale necessitated community facilities like dance halls, movie theaters, and a swimming pool, these were for whites only. (Occasionally “race films” were shown at the rec hall near the black area, for which blacks were charged 35 cents, although the white theaters, featuring first-run films, only charged a nickel.)
By May, 1945, employment at Oak Ridge peaked at 82,000, up from the original estimate that 13,000 would be needed. The average age of workers was 27, and so romance was as big of an activity as the work itself.
The author got interested in the story of Oak Ridge during wartime after coming across documentary photos from that era. She decided to pursue it, and ended up meeting a number of women whose stories she alternates in this book. She strove to represent women from different work experiences, races and cultures, and included the remembrances of a a secretary, a chemist, a leak inspector, a nurse, a janitor, and so on. The results are fascinating. You will learn about why these women participated and what it was like to work on something when you had no idea what your job was about! The book includes “then and now” pictures of three of the women, along with a number of other pictures documenting the Oak Ridge experience, and maps to help you visualize the scale of the project. Occasional short chapters are included to explain the scientific nature of what was going on, but these can be omitted if you don't want to tackle that part.
The author doesn't just end the story when the first atomic bomb is detonated. She records how the women felt about it, and then goes on to let us know what happened to the women after the war. Some of them stayed on at Oak Ridge, where work on electromagnetic separation of uranium continues today.
Evaluation: I love books about the “human aspects” of the Manhattan Project (the code name for the American effort started in 1942 to develop an atom bomb), and especially about the living conditions and ingenuity of all those people, whether in New Mexico or Tennessee or elsewhere, who had to create cities and services literally out of nothing. There are a lot of names and places to keep track of in this book – the author includes very helpful lists of people and things at the front of the book, to which I referred quite frequently. How would this translate to an audio book? I’m not sure. But the written version is full of interesting details, and will especially appeal to those, like me, who love reading about this era in our history.
The US government went into Oak Ridge and bought up a huge swath of land and basically built a city into which hundreds of workers were brought to work on "the Project." Most of them were women as most of the men of the country were off fighting the war. They signed agreements that they would not talk about anything they did, saw or heard while there. They were provided housing, food, etc. It was a virtual enclosed world. Each employee had a badge allowing them entrance at certain points and access to certain areas.
The book chronicles the stories of a representative number of the various women that worked there. Each woman's tale is told from how she came to Oak Ridge, to what she did and how she interacted with the other women in the complex. The stories are fascinating and I must say that I was pulled in by the foreword. Ms. Kiernan's writing is so inviting you don't feel you are reading a non-fiction book. The women's lives are so very compelling. I must admit that one of the things that fascinates me about WWII/post WWII society are the attitudes towards women. They were expected to get married, stay home, etc. Then the war came and the men went off to fight and the women did their part by going off to work and work well. Then the men came home and the women were supposed to forget all they did and go back into the kitchen. Really?
These women of Oak Ridge are a prime example of that. They helped to build the Bomb and and then what?
I loved reading about their lives before, during and after and Ms. Kiernan knows how to keep her reader turning the pages. I am keeping this one to read again. I was so enthralled I'm sure I missed something on the first read. It fascinated me, it scared me, it horrified me and it amazed me. Truth as they say, is stranger than fiction.
Most of the workers there were women, because the men were off fighting the war. How did they keep all those women from talking? The women were screened before hiring and given little information. They were told only that it was work that would help end the war. They could not share information with their spouses or families. If they did they disappeared. While I had always heard about women who went to work during the war, I think that this is the first book I have read about the subject. These women were a unique form of Rosie the Riveter.
I thought that this was a great look at what the women went through. I am not going to pretend that I understood all the scientific stuff. The secret names and initials for things was a little confusing. It also included the women’s thoughts after they found out what the secret was and their feelings about it. There is no way that a secret like this could be kept today with cell phones, computers, tweeting and Facebook. We have become a tell everyone everything society. It was very engaging for a non-fiction book. Not dry at all. If you buy this book you might want to purchase the hard copy. My e-book did not include any pictures in it and they would have really added to the content. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.
Ms. Kiernan gives a first hand account of the young women who came to live and work at the plants that the government was constructing in the newly formed city of Oakridge, TN. It was a secret project, the workers themselves didn’t know what they were working on. Everyone hired had to have a security check, the buildings were numbered, the substance they were working with was called Tubealloy or Product, their mail going out was censored and mail sent to them was returned to family members because the Post Office didn’t know where Oakridge was. All the workers knew was they were making more money than they could anyplace else and that their work “could end the war sooner”. For many of the young women, it meant seeing their loved ones sooner. For others it meant making a loved ones death mean something.
While colored or black or African American (whichever designation you prefer) workers were hired, the jobs they did and their living conditions were vastly different than what was provided for white workers. For many they were ‘used’ to discrimination, it was a fact of life in the south, and the wages were much better than elsewhere. For some it was more money than they had ever seen in their lives.
For many of the women, the job was something they wouldn’t have been able to get elsewhere given the fact that they were women.
Reading this book is like traveling back in time, learning about how life was in Tennessee and the US in the 40s. Women weren’t allowed in certain fields of work. People didn’t question the government and didn’t complain.
One thing Ms. Kiernan doesn’t cover is any current health problems for people exposed to the radioactive material. Apparently there were not the problems in Tennessee as were in other locations involved in the construction and testing of atomic weapons.
A very fascinating and informative book about a very interesting period of history.
I thought this book was a bit hard to read. The author skipped around a lot. I realize the book is supposed to be compartmentalized, but Just when I was getting interested in a specific girl or a specific story, the author would move on to another. Overall, this was just not a cohesive story.
I just bought the "real" book and would recommend that you get this and NOT the ebook. The pictures and other "extras" make a MUCH more enjoyable read. The thumbnail sketches of the "girls" helps keep the characters straight. The book bounces from girl to girl and topic to topic so the sketches are vital to an intelligent read of this book. Lots of information about a part of WWII history that is often overlooked.
The women’s stories were intimate and spared no sensibilities. I was surprised at the rampant racism – Blacks lived in “hutments” and were separated from their husbands and families while white women lived in single family houses with their husbands and families or in single sex dorms. Blacks and women were paid less than males doing the same jobs.
The strain of being separated from community and not knowing anything beyond the basics of job you did was significant. Letters both to and from parents were censored and contained so much “black out” that one parent told her daughter to not bother to write any more because her letters were simply gibberish.
Despite the restrictions what could be said even to other workers, love did find a way to bloom and recreational dances and other events were carried out. One creative woman found a way to use discarded materials to make biscuits and cornbread for workers longing for taste of home.
Maybe it was my childhood awareness of Oak Ridge, maybe it was my love of history, but I had put this book on my reading list. A friend sent it on to me (thank you Nancy!) when she saw I was interested in it. Such a fascinating collection of people, in a fascinating time and place. All were very ordinary, and very extraordinary at the same time. The secrecy surrounding the project, some of the rules and regulations, and the level of detail thought through in some areas (while totally ignored in others, such as what to do with the mud at the site, to allow people to get about) was fascinating. It did take me a little bit to keep the various people and their story lines straight (for though this is non-fiction, there are times when it really doesn't read as such.)
I found this a thoughtful and though-provoking look at history, and the women, from janitor to scientist, who helped build the atomic bomb. They did, indeed, change the world.
The story begins with several scientists realizing that it might be possible to unleash the energy stored in the atom and that a very destructive weapon could result. Thus it was decided that the U.S. government should sponsor an effort to construct such a weapon and an early version of the Manhattan Project began even before the U.S. entered the war. There was a search for suitable locations to carry out this very secret research and development, with the land that became Oak Ridge being chosen as one of the sites. Kiernan then describes how the parcels of land were obtained, construction begun, and the many thousands of workers recruited. Since so many of these people were young women just out of high school and young men only a little older the social aspects of life in the Reservation played a very important role in their lives and is fully explored here. This book is about the people and the building of a small city from the ground up even more than it is about the war and the science although the secrecy required of everyone because of the Project did affect their lives tremendously.
A very good book that I would recommend.
I loved reading about these women and the work they did to help our country. Learning more about the process to build the atomic bomb was interesting but getting to read about these women's personal experiences made this book fascinating.
This is a book I would highly recommend for those interested in the Manhattan Project and specifically for those interested in the roles women played in it. This is by far one of the best books I have read this year.
I've been sampling and skim-reading Kiernan's book for a couple weeks now. It's the kind of book I could easily put down for a while, which is probably not much of a recommendation, but in truth I found the book only mildly interesting, and I'm not entirely sure why, because the writing is workmanlike enough and even very good at times. So it must be the subject. I was already familiar with the story of the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, complex which was part of the Manhattan Project to develop the bomb and bring a decisive end to the war. This book focuses, of course, on the thousands of women who were recruited to work at Oak Ridge, and details their living conditions, a little about their jobs and the strict compartmentalization that was - and still is - typical of classified work. There is also much about how they filled their off-hours, how they dated, fell in love, and sometimes married. Some attention was paid to the disparity in accommodations and the segregation of the races too, a practice that was also common in the military during the war.
Yes, the hutments, trailers, dormitories and prefab housing units were substandard, soot-ridden and inconvenient; and the mud and the dust was everywhere. Privacy was hard to come by, and personal lives and habits were closely monitored by the 'creeps.'
The often scarce and poor housing and the camaraderie that developed between young families reminded me of similar conditions experienced by GI Bill veterans and their families attending colleges and universities all over the U.S. when the war was over. Willow Run Village, near Detroit, intended to be only temporary housing for employees at a bomber factory, became veterans housing, comes to mind. One excellent such book I read not long ago was Stella Suberman's THE GI BILL BOYS.
Kiernan's account of women's role in the development of the bomb is indeed a slightly different take on an already much researched and written about subject, and I suspect that women will find the book fascinating. The writing, as I said earlier, is good, but I found THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY to be mostly a gender-based curiosity, and only mildly interesting.
It is amazing to read about the women from all walks of life -- thousands of rural Tennessee girls as well as female chemists and physicists from around the country.
I did get a little lost in the science. It needed some diagrams! Also, sometimes the transitions between the women characters was jarring, but still a very good non-fiction read.
The government recruited thousands of young female workers, many directly out of high school. The young girls were the preferred employees because, it was believed, they were obedient and wouldn't ask too many questions. They were housed in dormitories complete with housemothers monitoring their behavior, had their outgoing letters censored and were spied on by their co-workers in case their tongue were too loose about the town's reason for being. In exchange for this highly structured life, they were paid far more than they could hope to earn in their hometowns - always a powerful motivator. Denise Kiernan follows the lives of several of these women from the time they arrive for their jobs until the end of the war. They grow into their jobs, become independent and meet men, fall in love and get married. From being small town girls, they find their horizons have expanded farther than they would ever have dared to dream.
Interspersed with their stories is the story of the development of the bomb from the first theoretical papers on the possibility of nuclear fission in the 1930's to the culmination of the actual "product" and the misgivings that resulted among the scientists who made it all possible. We find that there were many unsung women scientists who made all this possible. From Ida Noddack who wrote one of the ground breaking papers on nuclear fission in 1934 to Lise Meitner's coming up with the practical solution to making nuclear fission possible, these brilliant women were largely patronized by their male colleagues and never received the recognition they deserved.
The book also shows the disturbing dark side of the work a Oak Ridge: the blatant segregation of African-American employees and even more horrific, the experiments performed on employees without their consent to determine the effects of radiation on humans.
This is a fascinating story about a part of the war that isn't often talked about and is a reminder that not all sacrifices during the war were made on the battlefield.
They knew they were working on something to help with the war effort, but what they didn't know, until the end of the war, was that Oak Ridge was home to plants that enriched uranium for use in the atomic bomb. Even those working with the uranium didn't know exactly what it was; the project was so secret, the product was referred to as "tubealloy", and the bomb was called "the gadget."
This was a well researched and fascinating book, about a little known chapter of World War II history. It was interesting to read about the different jobs the women the had, how they had come to work there, and what day to day life was like living in a secret, fenced in city. Sadly, there was discrimination and segregation there too; black women could only get janitorial type jobs, and unlike the white women, were not allowed to live with their spouses if they were working there also, and they were not allowed to have their children live in the city with them.
A secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project.
population 75,000...few aware of the true nature of their work until long after the work was completed.
From the inception of one of the Manhattan project's secret cities, there is an environment of secrecy, mystery and only enough knowledge to execute your given tasks.
Kiernan's notes are meticulous and comprehensive and she provides an interesting slant on the project (a woman's point of view)
We meet and follow women chosen for the project, each unique in her ability to work within the restrictions of Oak Ridge.
Wonderful photographs, taken by Ed Westcott, the official photographer for Clinton Engineer Works (CEW) during WWII are included.
Celia, Colleen and Jane are among our guides. (then and now)
We follow historical events of WWII and find chapters on the "development of the science that made nuclear fission possible."
---a fresh look at a seldom told story---