Thousands of women in Oak Ridge thought they were helping end a war, little aware they were helping build the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima. Denise Kiernan documents their plight
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, says Denise Kiernan. Her story is so intriguing that it did not seem enough to stop with one talk by Denise Kiernan. So an interview with her and two of the people she has written about in her book, “The Girls of Atomic City”, was also chosen to get a more complete picture.
The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was part of the Manhattan project. It was created overnight and in the year 1942-43 the government offered war jobs — lots of them. The promise was that this would help stop all wars and bring peace. Many families had their sons in the war and so sisters stepped out of their homes to work at something they knew nothing about.
Where is it on a map? What do they do there? What will I do there? The government didn’t give any answers to those questions. Still, the recruits, many of them young women, streamed in. Not that they asked. Two women who had worked there and are interviewed over National Public Radio say they did not indeed know what was going on there and never even thought of asking.
“The one thing they did know was that the work they were going to do there was going to help end the war,” says author Denise Kiernan.
Kiernan’s book is about the women who worked at Oak Ridge, which the military called Site X. It was where the U.S. enriched the uranium that led to the first atomic bomb. Most people employed there were in their early twenties, says Kiernan, and most of them women. And what got her investigating this story was a picture that showed many young women sitting in front of impressive machinery, a Y12 plant in Tennessee. This picture, worth seeing, comes up in her talk.
More importantly the picture was described in its caption as one in which the women employed did not know what they were working at. Many of them were just high school graduates and some had grown up on farms. What brought them together? As she got investigating she found America had pulled off its task of creating the atomic bomb by exploiting the sentiments of the people, particularly women, who had sent their dear ones to war. In the interview, one woman says she wanted to help though her mother was not willing to let her go. The other lady says that it was her mother who wanted her to go so that she may be of help to her brother by working to end the war.
“I think having the perspective of women, some single, some housewives, having the perspective of people who were factory workers lends a very important perspective to any historic moment and certainly it lends a historic perspective to the Manhattan project as well.”
The city with more than 75,000 residents worked secretly while people who lived around continued to guess. The lighter side to it comes with Kiernan saying, “Since they were all very young a lot of dancing, dating and marriages took place in the atomic city”
Kiernan says, “Today such secrecy, a secret city, would not be possible. I hope readers will find these stories of young, adventurous women inspiring. They were trying to do their best. WW II touched everybody’s life. Everybody had somebody out there — brothers or boyfriends — and they wanted to do their part. And their part, in this case, meant working on something they did not know and were not allowed to even discuss.”
In the interview, one lady named Colleen Black says they were not to mention the words ‘helium’, ‘spectrometer’, among other words. And if anybody asked what they were making at Oak Ridge, you were meant to say 75 cents an hour! Neither of the two women interviewed knew their work would bring about the devastation at Hiroshima. It brought the war to an end, and to that extent the promise was fulfilled.
“It is a lovely tale of good ordinary people in the middle of extraordinary times,” says Kiernan.