The history classes you took in school undoubtedly covered at least some portion of World War II. It is unlikely that your history textbooks included information about the incredibly important work that women were doing. The full title of this book is The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of The Women Who Helped Win World War II. It was written by Denise Kiernan.
Obviously, this book is non-fiction. It includes a narrative that was based on the interviews that Denise Kiernan did with several women who worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee – a town that officially did not exist – at the Clinton Engineer Works – which also did not officially exist. Secrecy was vitally important because those who were hired were actually working on the atomic bomb. None of them knew this was what they were doing until after the bomb had been dropped.
The majority of people who worked there were women, several of whom were young and unmarried. The women who had the opportunity to work at the Clinton Engineer Works were told almost nothing about it. They didn’t know where they were going to travel to, other than it was in the United States. They weren’t told what kind of work they would be doing. Some were given a vague estimate of how long the job might last.
Imagine being a young woman in the 1930s who has to get on a train in order to travel to the location of her new job. You don’t know how long you will be on the train, or where it will take you. No one can come with you. All you have is a suitcase and perhaps a small amount of money. You are told that everything will be taken care of.
You are wearing your best dress and brand new shoes. When you arrive, you discover that the Clinton Engineering Works has no sidewalks, and one or both of your shoes are sucked into the mud before you know it. If you’re lucky, and among the first to arrive, there might be a dorm room waiting for you – which you have to share with another young, unmarried, woman. Those who arrived later ended up on a waiting list and could find themselves living in temporary shelter while more dorms were being built.
The Clinton Engineer Works was, of course, run by the United States military. As such, there were some military men who worked there. It wasn’t unheard of for the young, unmarried, women to find a soldier to date (and potentially marry).
Oak Ridge grew quickly, but not fast enough to keep up with the constant influx of new-hires. Eventually, there was a movie theater, a store, and other types of recreation set up to alleviate the stress and boredom of the people who worked there. (It also appeared to help reduce the depression that many workers were experiencing.)
Family homes were built, one after the other, all of them the same. They were built with a newly discovered material that was a mix of concrete and asbestos. If I remember correctly, most if not all of these homes were offered to married soldiers. It didn’t take long after newlyweds moved into one of those homes for a pregnancy to occur. While some women were thrilled to quit their jobs and stay home cooking and cleaning, others found themselves feeling bored and isolated without co-workers to socialize with.
The Clinton Engineering Works was segregated. White families, who were not eligible to live in one of the newly built homes, were able to live in what was either a trailer or a mobile home. Unmarried white women, who arrived alone, eventually ended up in an all-female dorm. There were cafeterias in place that were open at all hours to accommodate the shift workers.
Black people who came to work at the Clinton Engineering Works did not fare as well. There was one area for black people to live in. There were no dorms, and no cafeterias. People were housed in small huts with three or more people of the same gender.
One of the women whose story was recorded by Denise Kiernan was named Kattie Strickland. She and her husband came to Oak Ridge to work as janitors. They weren’t allowed to live in the same structure because the black workers were not only segregated from the white workers, but were also segregated by gender – even if they were married!
The book juxtaposes chapters that describe the working and social life of the woman at Oak Ridge with chapters about what the scientists were working on at other locations. You might have been taught the names of some of the male scientists who took part in developing or creating the atomic bomb. There were women scientists, too, but you might not know their names, in part because some had their work stolen from them and their names essentially erased.
One of the things I found fascinating about this was the level of secrecy that everyone was able to maintain. People who worked at the Clinton Engineer Works, or anywhere in Oak Ridge, were not allowed to write home about what they were doing. Some learned that their letters had arrived to their loved ones only after having parts redacted. No one was allowed into the area unless they had the proper badge and reporters were rarely allowed in. This would never work today, where everyone has a cell phone, Google Streetview has created very clear maps of nearly everywhere, and the internet spreads even the most unbelievable rumors like wildfire.
The whole narrative builds up to the day the atomic bomb was dropped. Suddenly, everyone who was doing mysterious jobs at Clinton Engineering Works became aware that what they were really doing was helping to build the bomb.
Many people who came to Oak Ridge did so because they were told their work could help end the war. Most of them had a loved one who was fighting in that war, and that they wanted to come home as quickly as possible. They went from feeling good about helping bring their soldier back home – to feeling all kinds of emotions about having unintentionally built the atomic bomb. The scientists also had mixed feelings about what they had created.
I found this book to be fascinating. Denise Kiernan did a wonderful job of weaving the stories of the women she interviewed into a narrative that makes you feel like you are right there with them. This book will interest people who are history buffs, who want to learn more about how the atomic bomb got built, or who enjoy learning about day-to-day lives of “The Girls of Atomic City”.
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