By 1942, the United States government had fully committed to the idea of building an atomic bomb. The scope of that project would dwarf any other single undertaking in human history in cost and material. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan details the experiences of 16 women who find themselves wrapped up in the secrecy and inadvertent social engineering of the Manhattan Project.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee was the first of the three biggest Manhattan project facilities and did not exist until the Department of Defense built it. For years, it didn’t even appear on any maps. The town started small, but as the project ramped up there was an increased need for housing, stores, sundries and recreational outlets. By the end of World War II, 75,000 lived in and around Oak Ridge. With so many able-bodied men in the military, women formed a vital backbone to the efforts at Oak Ridge. Some were transported in from the coasts without knowledge of their final destination. Others were from the surrounding area, lured in by the promise of well-paying, if secretive, government work. There were also the women scientists involved in the research, although they were often deprived of the accolades. Many of these women had never been away from home; many had never earned their own salary before. They found themselves someplace where the security and secrecy was oppressive. Some were even recruited to spy on their fellow workers.
Kiernan lets the women tell their own stories, and if many of them are similar, the cross-section is still broad. Especially interesting is the vast difference in experiences based on race, the United States still viciously segregated at the time. It’s also interesting to see how this group of clever young people made a dry county one of the best areas for the production and smuggling of moonshine in the U.S. Many of the women Kiernan interviewed were shocked at the war’s end to realize what exactly they had been working on. Most of them, though, remained in Oak Ridge - at least the town if not the facility.