Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

I first heard of the book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II when the author Denise Kiernan was on The Daily Show.  She spoke of a secret city that was created during WWII to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb to be used in combat.  I usually skip the interviews on The Daily Show, but this one I couldn’t.  I never heard of this, never learned of this in school, and as an old Women Studies major I made a mental note that I had to read this book.  Fast forward to a couple months later when I get an email from Simon and Schuster about reviewing a novel, I said sure, but could you also send me The Girls of Atomic City?

2010.012.0143 Shirley Davis and an unidentified woman in the city directory office. (09/21/1944) PRO 55-2

The book starts with a bit of foreshadowing, of what we already know happened to end the war in 1945 and then backpedals to 1943.  It’s amazing to think within just 2 years an entire city was created, bustling with 75,000 men, women and children and using more electricity than New York City AND it was never heard of!  It was a complete secret.  Everyone who worked there went there knowing they were helping to end the war but they didn’t know how that would be.  They did their job and were told to tell no one anything about what they did there.  Not your co-workers, not even your husband or wife.  A billboard reminded residents, “What you see here, What you do here, What you hear here, Let it Stay Here.”  Young men who worked at Oak Ridge felt judged outside of the town, not being able to tell people that they were part of the war effort.

2010.012.0101 Women standing in line outside Miller’s Department Store for nylon stockings. (1/4/1946) 1340-1

Women standing in line outside Miller’s Department Store for nylon stockings. (1/4/1946)

Young women from far-off cities got on trains not knowing where they would be going.  Denise Kiernan tells the story of Oak Ridge by weaving through the personal histories and memories of several women from a single white secretary from New York to a black janitor who came to work with her husband, shedding light on the secret city and exposing the inequalities of race and gender as the world’s worst weapon at its time was being created.

2010.012.0067 Telephone switch board operators lined up behind operators on-duty to make a shift change. (1946) 3083

Telephone switch board operators lined up behind operators on-duty to make a shift change. (1946)

Two unidentified people look at boards title “Rides Wanted" and “Passengers Wanted." (1944) 2010.012.0166 MED 224

It was so bold and courageous of these young women to work for their country not knowing where they would be or what they would be doing.  How did they feel once the war ended?  Once they knew what their work had yielded?  Kiernan does a great job describing the mindset, the culture and time.  It’s a history book, obviously researched, yet it reads like a novel.

Unidentified man seated at desk, talking on the telephone. (10/05/1944) 2010.012.0161 PRO73

Robert Oppenheimer smoking a cigarette by the mantle in the Guest House. (1945) 2010.012.0158 1451

Robert Oppenheimer smoking a cigarette by the mantle in the Guest House. (1945)

If anything 371 pages wasn’t enough to satisfy me.  Interwoven with the stories of the women who worked at Oak Ridge, Kiernan wrote chapters on the science side of this history.  She tracked the development of the atom bomb with special focus on the female scientists involved like Ida Noddack and Lise Meitner.  These chapters were a bit hard for me to grasp, with sometimes a lot of science language, but it really captured my interest, so much so that I really want to learn more about the history of the atom bomb, how it was made, and more about the scientists involved.

Counting money/votes at the Ford, Bacon, & Davis Valentine Dance. (02/22/1945) L-R:Francis McSherry, Rose Mary Booth, Betty Szabo, Eunice Belding, May Ane Marley, Virginia James 2010.012.0153 PRO 394-1

Counting money/votes at the Ford, Bacon, & Davis Valentine Dance. (02/22/1945)

2010.012.0150 Unidentified workers in line punching time cards at clock alley, Roane-Anderson. (06/23/1945) PRO 763-2

Unidentified workers in line punching time cards at clock alley, Roane-Anderson. (06/23/1945)

2010.012.0110 Men working on a vehicle in an auto repair shop. (1/13/1945) PRO 257

Men working on a vehicle in an auto repair shop. (1/13/1945)

We also get to see some of Truman’s thoughts about the bomb with excerpts from his diary, like this, written after viewing a bomb test, “I hope for some sort of peace–but I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it.  I hope not.  But we are only termites on a planet and maybe when we forge too deeply into the planet there will be a reckoning–who knows?”

2010.012.0102 Waiting outside Jefferson Recreation Hall for cigarettes. (4/26/1945) PRO-469

Waiting outside Jefferson Recreation Hall for cigarettes. (4/26/1945)

2010.012.0100 Waiting outside the telephone office. (1944) MED 243

Waiting outside the telephone office. (1944)

I highly recommend this book.  I was surprised to learn that this city existed.  It’s important for us to know this history, especially as Americans.  It’s amazing to think what our government was capable of then and how they were able to succeed in this effort.  It’s something to really think about juxtaposed to today’s world of drones, NSA data collecting, and huge government buildings that are being built as we speak to house god knows what.  If you love history, women’s history, WWII history, or just a well-written book about true events, you should read this.  As much as I like my kindle, I have to recommend that you guys buy a hard-copy of this book.  There’s a glossary and an index that I often found myself flipping to, as well as a glossy insert of photos.

2010.012.0049 Women in cafeteria line (1944). Roll 392-43

Women in cafeteria line (1944).

All photos by Ed Westcott, the official photographer for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, and from this great Tumblr.

I was sent this book to review for my blog.  All opinions are my own.  I am an Amazon associate so any purchases you make through my links to Amazon I get a little kick-back.

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^ 7 Comments...

  1. Lauren

    I had no idea! Thanks so much for posting the review. What an interesting bit of history.

    Have you ever seen the TV show Bomb Girls? It’s likely not historically accurate, but it gives a glimpse into lives of girls working at bomb factories during the war. I really enjoyed watching it.

  2. Jessica Cangiano

    I first caught wind of this fascinating chapter in history as a schoolgirl reading everything and anything I could get my hands on about the 1940s, and have remained fascinated with it ever since. I’m so happy to read your review of The Girls of Atomic City. It’s high up on my vintage history book wish list already and just got bumped right near the top thanks to your wonderful, detailed post.

    ♥ Jessica

  3. Virgie P. Holder

    A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb — from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden — The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s genius , but also of the work of women at every level of education and class.

  4. Emileigh

    Wow, I’m a WWII history buff and I’ve never heard of this either! It does sound fascinating, great review! I’ll have to check it out sometime!

  5. wardrobe experience

    great post. thanks for sharing. hopefully i can find this book in germany too without paying double the price.

  6. Frances

    Does your website have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it
    but, I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got
    some recommendations for your blog you might be interested
    in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it expand over time.

  7. Mary Van Note

    Hi Frances, Yes, you can reach me at mary (at) maryvannote (dot) com. Thanks!

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