Book Review: “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan

Despite Rosie the Riveter’s best efforts during World War II to laud women replacing men in industrial jobs, their peers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, received no tribute. Not because Rosie errored, but because the Clinton Engineer Works’ (CEW) purpose was so confidential that the employees knew only that they were “processing tubealloy for the gadget.” (They were enriching uranium for an atomic bomb.) Denise Kiernan’s compelling and comprehensive book not only recognizes the women, but sheds new light on little-known aspects of World War II.

bookThe Clinton Engineer Works was built “for one reason only—to enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat.” With a site covering 59,000 acres well underway by fall 1943, the Manhattan Project (Project) began hiring thousands of employees—75,000 at the peak—the vast majority of them women. Using a cross section of nine women differing in backgrounds, educational levels, and jobs, Kiernan brings into sharp focus the overall experience of Oak Ridge’s women.

Celia Szapka, a Manhattan Project secretary in New York City, transferred knowing only that “everything would be taken care of.” Not until she and hundreds of traveling companions arrived did Celia learn that she was transferring to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

As Toni Peters, a Tennessee native and a high school senior, watched pristine farm land disappear beneath massive buildings, she decided that “she was going to that damn site.” A few days after graduation, she started working as a secretary.

Rosemary Maiers, a nurse from Iowa, transferred from Chicago to help open the first clinic. Jane Greer, another Tennessean and a statistician-mathematician, chose to work at CEW over George Washington University because her elderly father lived nearby. A Project recruiter traveled to the University of North Carolina to hire graduating chemist Virginia Spivey. Kattie Strickland’s husband, Willie, already working at the CEW, recruited her because of good wages for steady work. Colleen Rowan, with members of her immediate and extended family, traveled from Nashville to apply. As a pipe inspector, Colleen checked seams for leaks on miles of pipes, many so tall that she needed a ladder.

Helen Hall and Dorothy Jones, also Tennessee natives, were recruited in their hometowns because “The Project liked high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds … They did what they were told.” Trained as calutron cubicle operators, they certified that gauges maintained critical specifications.

Reasons practical and patriotic drew women to Oak Ridge.

After surviving the Great Depression, they saw Oak Ridge as “a land of opportunity and purpose” offering steady work, excellent pay, and reasonable rent. Helen heard that she would receive sixty-cents hourly and boarded the next bus heading toward Oak Ridge. Her dorm mates grumbled about the housing, but Dorothy reveled in the new luxury of running water and electricity. For women without cars, the free bus system, running around the clock, provided an unexpected bonus.

Oak Ridge employees were a patriotic but war-weary lot grateful for work that might end the war sooner. Many had relatives overseas or had lost someone. Dorothy’s brother sank with the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Celia’s brother was missing in action, and Colleen’s brother served in the Philippines. Whatever their job or problems at Oak Ridge, “Complaining was not in fashion in 1943, not with so many sacrifices being made thousands of miles away.”

Some employees left Oak Ridge because the stringent security intimidated them. “During processing and training, individuals, no matter the rung they occupied on the information ladder, were given just enough detail to do their job well, and not an infinitesimal scrap more.” Especially disconcerting was that, at any given time, an estimated 500 “creeps” (government spies posing as employees) were on duty. No one was beyond suspicion, not even the married women’s coffee klatsch.

Kiernan candidly recounts the ordeals of Kattie Strickland and her peers who endured blatant racism and, in some cases, worse. Much worse. Kiernan writes, “Though . . . the government had the opportunity to establish the [CEW] as a completely desegregated zone, it did not; black residents . . . would be primarily laborers, janitors and domestics.” Since black married couples could not cohabit, Kattie lived with three other women in a hutment, a shack measuring 256 square feet. Food at their cafeteria was so tainted that food poisoning was common. Kattie, determined to save money for her four children at home in Alabama—black children were not permitted at Oak Ridge—proved herself an exemplary employee who overcame all hardships, including the wretched food.

The Project, Kiernan contends, would have failed without female influence. Though controlled by the military, CEW was not a base on which recruits organized around common rules and regulations. The Project hired employees without regard for the communal aspect of their existence until December 1943. Until then, and long after, “women brought a sense of permanence. Social connectivity. Home.”

Kiernan writes that “[her] book is compartmentalized, as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project.” Her compartments, presented in alternating chapters, are: 1) the founding and operation of Oak Ridge, and 2) the history of the atomic bomb. With the first test of an atomic bomb, code named Trinity, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in July 1945, a single story line continues with the bombings of Japan, the aftermath, and the stark realization that warfare was forever changed. Throughout, Kiernan—as expected of a reliable historian—remains impartial about the morality of bombing Japan.

In our era of new books exploring World War II, history buffs will appreciate Kiernan’s contribution; military historians and researchers studying women’s history will revel in a new resource. Her seven years of diligent research is obvious from the first chapter to the last as she condenses vast findings into a readable account of a multifaceted situation. Without laborious detail, she conveys an authentic sense of an era when disparate populations—including females, males, blacks, Native Americans, Mexicans, professionals, blue collar workers, military officers and enlisted men, and politicians—wholeheartedly supported the men and women overseas. Her sense of place is so keen that readers may unconsciously lift their feet when reading about Oak Ridge’s mud, that “pervasive shoe-sucking gunk.”

Though Kiernan necessarily focuses on CEW employees, she gives due credit to all women involved in producing the bomb. Ida Noddack, a brilliant German geochemist, and Austrian physicist Lise Meitner received no recognition for their monumental contributions when their male counterparts accepted the Nobel and world-wide acclaim. Kiernan also includes American scientists Joan Hinton and Elizabeth Graves, who witnessed Trinity.

Oak Ridge’s married women quickly discovered that asking their husbands about their day was absolutely forbidden and grew accustomed to long, unexplained absences. Vi Warren, wife of the head of the Project’s medical section, dealt with her husband’s absence by editing the Oak Ridge Journal. Though occasionally overwhelmed by censorship, she usually managed her plight with humor: “We are unique—the only newspaper in the country without any news.”

Rosie the Riveter would appreciate meeting each of these women in Kiernan’s book and would agree that they deserve this meticulous account of their World War II sacrifices. Readers familiar with Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter poster will easily imagine her with a sandwich in one hand and Kiernan’s book in the other.

BIO: Denise Kiernan started out in journalism, and as a freelance writer, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Ms. Magazine amongst other publications. She served as the head writer for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire during its first season. She has produced pieces for ESPN and MSNBC. Additionally, she has authored several popular history titles and has ghost written books for athletes, entrepreneurs, and actresses. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II became a New York Times bestseller the first week of publication. Contact: denisekiernan.com


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Dear Friends and Fans:
A bit of excitement here a few days ago that I must share. My youthful peers happily scatter their toys, including realistic looking mice, all over the house. On the beds. Under the beds. In the sinks. Being a good sport, Mary playfully kicked one to Manx Munchkin, largely responsible for toy distribution. When the mouse barely moved, Mary discovered that she was dealing with a real mouse—or parts thereof—probably sent to that great cheese wedge in the sky during the night. She’s not the type who screams and runs for the nearest chair, but neither was she delighted with our callous murder of another fuzzy little creature. And neither were we happy when she yet again launched into her diatribe about us not killing furry little animals because we have plenty to eat, thereby ignoring our natural hunting and gathering instincts. Wonder how she’d like to find the next sacrifice to our hunting prowess on her pillow when she wakes up. Just sayin’ …

Purrs and cream,
The Buds

Written by Mary Ickes