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Book Review

A-bomb secrets revealed in ‘The Girls of Atomic City’

4/2/2014

19book "The Girls of Atomic City" by Denise Kiernan.Courtesy of Beaverdale Books

Review by Cathryn Lang

“The Girls of Atomic City”

Touchstone Books

3/11/14

$16

373 pp.

The scientists behind the Manhattan Project (especially J. Robert Oppenheimer) are well-known. In “The Girls of Atomic City,” Kiernan brings us the “bottom-up” stories of the workers who actually constructed the bomb. Clinton Engineer Works headed the project from 1943 to 1945 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Competition for workers during war time was stiff, and the CEW had to be vague when advertising for workers in the interest of national security. Jobs were advertised in the most general terms with a “hook” being that the job was vital for the war effort. There were perks, such as on-site housing (of various desirability depending on skin color and status of your job), a free bus system and even schools (for white children).

Young women graduating from rural Appalachian high schools were deliberately recruited. It was believed they were easy to instruct, obedient, were not overly curious and were, therefore, perfect for the secrecy required for the project. Lured by the promise of secure jobs, escape from their limited job prospects and patriotism, these women were easily recruited. When they arrived, they found a secret city of 75,000 residents (depending on the season, either mud or dust-caked) that didn’t even exist on maps. It was a city that never shut down. Uranium was enriched for use in the atomic bomb around the clock.

These stories feature the women whose jobs were integral to the construction of that first atomic bomb — among them secretaries, janitors and a nurse from Holy Cross, Iowa. It is unimaginable that this level of secrecy could have been maintained in today’s media-saturated environment. How lucky we are that Kiernan has recorded their stories before they were lost to time. CV

Cathryn Lang is a retired literacy leader for elementary schools. She now has time to read adult books.

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