The Girls of Atomic City

review: Marla Cantrell
Denise Kiernan | Simon and Schuster | 371 pages | $17

In 1942, as the world grappled with the evil of Adolf Hitler, a secret city called Oak Ridge was being constructed outside Knoxville, Tennessee, in the Clinch River valley. The government, using legal terms like Declarations of Taking, bought 800 parcels of land. Approximately 1,000 families moved from their homes, many stunned at the demand but unable to do much about it.

 

With the residents gone, the government took over 83,000 acres stretching approximately seventeen miles across the pristine river valley. Pre-fab homes were constructed at a break-neck pace, and three factories rose across the former farmland, one of which was the largest building in the world.

 

Barbed wire surrounded the city. Armed guards stood at the entrances. And mystery rode through every corner. Whatever was being produced there was critical to the World War II effort, although only a select few sanctioned by the government knew what it was.

 

That included those employed there. Many were young women, brought to the site from small towns and big cities near and far. When they were hired, most didn’t even know where they were going. All they knew is that they’d be helping Uncle Sam win the war.

 

At its peak, 75,000 people lived and worked at Oak Ridge, a city that was so protected, it didn’t appear on one map.

 

Among those working on the site were the women featured in The Girls of Atomic City. Author Denise Kiernan spent years researching their true stories, interviewing many of them, and gathering old photos. Their jobs were critical to the effort, and they took them seriously. They also struggled with loneliness, boredom, and the effects of being away from family.

 

There were also moments of joy, as they attended dances, played on a women’s basketball team, or swam in the world’s biggest swimming pool, which was one and a half acres across, and contained more than two million gallons of water.

 

In one of the massive buildings, the women monitored the activity of the calutrons, machines used to separate uranium isotopes. Twenty-two thousand people worked at this one plant, most of them young women, and shifts ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

 

The women were instructed to keep the gauges within a certain numeric range. Unbeknownst to them, a group of scientists tried their hand at the same work to see who did it better and the women won hands down.

 

There were rules for employees that included not discussing their jobs with anyone, including spouses and family. Some employees were asked to spy on others, to make sure there were no “loose lips sinking ships.”

 

The security was imperative since Oak Ridge was one of the three government sites that made up the Manhattan Project, which was organized to produce the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge’s job was to enhance uranium, the driving force of the bomb.

 

Today, you can tour the American Museum of Science and Energy at Oak Ridge, where you can learn more about this secret city. There’s even a bus tour to take you to several of the locations. To find out more, visit amse.org.

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