BOOK REVIEW: 'Girls of Atomic City' goes behind Manhattan Project



    by Denise Kiernan; Touchstone Books ($27)

Now in their 80s and 90s, the girls of Atomic City are no longer in the dark about the jobs they took during the summer of 1943. But back then, as young employees of the Clinton Engineering Works, they knew only a few things for sure about the place they would call home for the next two years.

- The work site, all 92 square miles of it, had belonged to 1,000 eastern Tennessee farming families up until 1942, when the government seized 60,000 acres of their land under eminent domain and built a massive industrial complex not found on any map.

- Security was paramount: "Appropriate clearances had to be earned, physicals passed, photographs and fingerprints taken, urine collected, and stacks of 'I swear I won't talk' papers signed." You didn't tell a soul what you were doing there, or even discuss it with other workers.

- There was a sea of mud that ruined their shoes wherever they went.

None of them had the faintest idea that they had signed on with the Manhattan Project and that their job was to collectively enrich the uranium - code name Tuballoy - that would be used in the atomic bomb.

In her meticulously researched and entertaining "The Girls of Atomic City," Denise Kiernan explores this little-known phase of the project's history through the experiences of several women who lived and worked in what would be known as Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Celia, from Pennsylvania coal country; Kattie, from Alabama; Rosemary, from Chicago; and local girls Toni, Jane, Helen, Coleen and Dot would make up a force of secretaries, statisticians, nurses, chemists, technicians and janitors who were told their combined efforts would help win the war.

No questions asked.

The project welcomed women to its ranks, especially the Appalachian "high school girls … from rural backgrounds" who were "easy to instruct, (and) did what they were told." These obedient worker bees soon proved more valuable than anyone could have guessed. The "hillbilly girls" worked more efficiently, "generating more enriched Tuballoy per run" than the scientific teams who "just couldn't stop fiddling with things."

"The Girls of Atomic City" brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science. Though the patriotic women - and men - were glad to have helped win World War II, we're left wondering whether any of them would have refused the jobs had they known what the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, would bring.

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