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The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II    by Denise Kiernan order for
Girls of Atomic City
by Denise Kiernan
Order:  USA  Can
Touchstone, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

The Girls of Atomic City is subtitled 'The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II'. Although accounts of the nine women who are featured do compose the heart of this interesting book, it is really a history of the development of the atomic bomb. Thankfully for those of us who have a limited understanding of science, the technical chapters are accessible, telling us more about the people involved than the science itself. Chapters alternate between personal histories of the featured women and necessary background information about why America was anxious to develop an atomic weapon.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee was a city built entirely for the purpose of enriching and extracting from uranium the ingredient necessary to produce a weapon after America entered World War II. Millions of dollars were allocated in secret for development of a more destructive weapon which might bring the war to an end. People were suddenly displaced from homes and farms in Tennessee where their families had lived for years, that land was cleared, and all of the buildings necessary for offices, housing the workers, and enriching uranium were erected for the Project, as it was called. Thousands of people were hired from all over the country, pulling many of them away from other jobs, but also offering new well-paying jobs to some who were still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. Oak Ridge quickly grew from nothing to a city with 75,000 residents.

Many young women were recruited right out of high school to work in the plants, since so many of the men in the country were fighting in one of the Armed Services, either in Europe or Asia. Secrecy was absolute in Oak Ridge, with the new employees being taught only enough to do one specific job, and no one except those in charge and President Roosevelt knew what exactly was being done. The neighbors would say 'Everything's goin' in and nothin's comin’ out ...' as the buildings, three of them enormous, went up and people were hired. Even though many of those hired were scientists, none of them really knew the whole story.

The women we follow were all in their late teens or early twenties, and all were white and single except for Kattie. Celia and Toni were secretaries. Colleen, Dorothy, and Helen were taught jobs in the factories. Jane was a statistician-mathematician, Virginia was a chemist, and Kattie was a janitor. Her story is the most poignant, since, because of segregation, her living conditions and treatment were worse than those of the other women who were housed in dormitories. She was housed with three other women in a tiny hutment in a fenced-in women's area, with her husband in a similar hutment in the area for black men, but they were willing to put up with this new life because the pay was good. Kattie's pay was less than her husband's; however this was true for all the women, but still better than it was in similar jobs in other places. There was a general attitude that they were 'all in the same boat,' so they could put up with some inconvenience to help the war effort.

The author, Denise Kiernan, spent seven years researching the book and interviewing people. The women who were profiled were able to recall extensive details of their lives in those early days of the Project and some had pictures and journals from that time. Although other books have been written about Oak Ridge, Kiernan has pulled together a history highlighting the contributions of women to build a fascinating story about what the town and the country were going through at the time. I really enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it.

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