The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

  • Denise Kiernan
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 320 pp.

The stories of the women behind the Manhattan Project in this book seem as effortless as if the author had lifted passages from their diaries.

In her new book, historian Denise Kiernan explains how a mountainous region in Tennessee was bought by the U.S. government, renamed Oak Ridge, and – in August of 1945 – made famous for its role in the creation of the atomic bomb.  The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II focuses on the “girls” mentioned in the title; but while the book follows the lives of Celia, Kattie and others, it also gives a comprehensive history of nuclear fission.

The first chapter begins with the introduction of 24-year-old Celia Szapka, from the coal-mining country of Pennsylvania.  In 1943, she is on a train going she knows not where, after accepting a job to do she knows not what.  The book is engagingly written in the style of a novel. Kiernan makes the women recruited for this secret work – told only that what they’re doing will help bring a speedy end to the war – immediately sympathetic.  Tennessee native Toni Peters, who comes to Oak Ridge to be a secretary, wins readers’ hearts easily when, during her introduction to her boss, the “big ol’ Yankee” brusquely orders her to take dictation: “She felt totally lost, like she was riding some sort of syllabic roller coaster, trudging blindly on an endless scavenger hunt in search of the letter R.”  

Chapters about the personal lives of the workers in Oak Ridge alternate with chapters written in square, type-writer-style font about the history of “the Project” and “Tubealloy” – the code name for Uranium used by government-employed scientists during the war.  Kiernan herself avoids the word “uranium” until the Big Reveal; she mentions that one of the plants was shaped like a U without spelling out the joke: “It was as though the shape of the building itself announced to anyone flying overhead what was being processed inside.” Despite this, readers will learn much more about the process of enriching uranium and the history of the Manhattan Project than the men and women who did the work knew at the time.

The Girls of Atomic City primarily follows Celia and Toni (who were secretaries), Dot and Helen (calutron cubicle operators), Colleen (a pipe leak inspector), Jane (a statistician), Rosemary (a nurse), Virginia (a chemist), and Kattie (a janitorial services worker).  Unfortunately, there are pictures of only three of the women in the photo insert; readers are left to imagine the wavy hair – and, later, the quickly-purchased wedding gowns – of others.  While the need to treat the women of the plants as a separate story is not always clear – there were plenty of confused men in that city of 78,000 as well – the chance to peek into the lives of the women who were recruited from diners and chemistry departments alike is undeniably fascinating.  

How the town of Oak Ridge went from being private farmland, to what amounted to a military base, and then to an actual incorporated town that still exists today, is an interesting part of the book.  The story about the International Friendship Bell, cast in Japan and dedicated in Oak Ridge during the 1990s, symbolizing the two regions’ common goal of peace, could probably be expanded to fill up a book of its own.

At times, The Girls of Atomic City gives the reader too many threads to follow.  There might be a gap of fifty pages or more between mentions of a certain character, and it can be difficult to remember if Helen is the homesick one or the one who likes basketball.  Some stories are broken up in a way that is less suspenseful than confusing, such as the story of how Kattie got around the rule against cooking in their residences. And many chapters are introduced with quotations from a newspaper columnist, a woman not properly introduced to the reader until page 183.  

Overall, the characters are admirably fleshed out and their stories told in vivid detail, despite the decades that have elapsed since the events in question.  Kiernan’s telling of the women’s stories seems as effortless as if she had simply lifted the passages from their diaries.  As the author says in the book’s epilogue, the generation who lived these stories is almost gone.  Readers will feel relieved that Kiernan got to Oak Ridge as quickly as she did.

Virginia Pasley is a journalist currently working in radio; she is a reporter/producer for “American Edition” on the Voice of Russia, an AM news radio station that broadcasts at 1390 AM in Washington, D.C. and 1430 AM in New York City.


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