Book review: ‘The Girls of Atomic City,’ by Denise Kiernan
Special to the Daily
Imagine going to work every day, having been given very strict instructions to keep that work secret, even from family and friends. Imagine, then, discovering two years later that the daily grind of that labor had resulted in the most devastating and transformative scientific achievement of the modern era — the atomic bomb. This was the reality for tens of thousands of individuals who were unknowing cogs in a very large and very secret wheel known as the Manhattan Project.
In her best-selling book “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II,” author Denise Kiernan delves deeply into the lives of a handful of people who were a part of the final momentous events of the war.
Woman all across America were stepping up to fill the labor gaps left by the men who had been sent to points all around the world to fight. Factories, offices and industries beckoned, and most took those more predictable and laudable paths. Kiernan writes of the relative few, the young women who stepped up to board a train or hop in a car to head to an unnamed place to do an unidentified job, all holding on to the mantra that, for women, at least, “complaining was not in fashion in 1943.”
Told simply that what they were going to do would “bring a speedy and victorious end to the war,” heading into the unknown as a single young woman required a leap of faith and a high level of trust But, with so many loved ones in harm’s way overseas, doubt was a luxury. Women came from everywhere, as Kiernan says, “their routes like veins running down the industrial arm of the East Coast, extending from the heart of the Midwest, the precious lifeblood of a project about which the women knew nothing, all of them coursing toward a place that officially did not exist.”
Secrecy was the governing word for the “Project” from day one, and the mountains of Tennessee were chosen to become “Site X,” where Tube Alloys would be enriched into fuel for the “Gadget” that was simultaneously being constructed at “Site Y,” in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Kiernan deftly weaves two story lines together until their convergence in the summer of 1945, when the famed Enola Gay dropped its cargo over the population of Hiroshima and days later over Nagasaki, thus forcing a Japanese surrender.
The primary tangent of the book is the thread made up of the personal stories gathered from intensive research and interviews. These are woven into a narrative surrounding the research and lead-up to the development and ultimate utilization of the bomb. Kiernan includes detailed information about the many scientists and politicians who played a role in bringing the nuclear age to life, in turn awakening the dragon of scientific knowledge that could never again be truly buried.
As innovation on the bomb moved forward and the war grew increasingly global and devastating, haste became paramount for the project, and much of what Kiernan relates revolves around the living conditions at the Oak Ridge facility as the war department struggled to build enough facilities for the thousands of workers arriving by the day.
‘Just add water’
Though living conditions were rough and the site was a perpetual mud pile due to endless construction, efforts were made to provide some sense of normalcy, and theaters, shops, dance halls, a school and a chapel were built, all part of a burgeoning “just-add-water” city, which at its peak housed upward of 75,000 people.
Everyone worked beneath an aura of “edgy exhaustion,” as venting common to traditional workplace environments was not permitted. No one was allowed to talk about his or her job, or what was done beyond his or her own little sphere of operations. No one “had all the pieces of the puzzle of which they were an integral part.” Each worker labored on machines without knowing the full function of the device.
Most people, Kiernan writes, had a sense that the secrecy held real significance, and thus did not complain, but relationships were often strained, as even spouses were unable to discuss their workday over dinner.
The book culminates in gripping fashion, as the workers learn the goal of all their years of work. Overnight, Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project and uranium became household words, and each person who had played a part in bringing about Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II had to come to terms with what that meant.
They learned they could “feel both good and bad about something at the same time, pride and guilt and joy and relief and shame,” all competing as realization took root amid the understanding that Pandora’s Box had been opened and thousands of unknowing hands had helped lift the lid.
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