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

 
 
Reply Sat 30 Mar, 2013 10:48 am
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Denise Kiernan (Author)

Book Description
Release date: March 5, 2013
Now a New York Times Bestseller!

THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY

AT THE HEIGHT OF WORLD WAR II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians--many of them young women from small towns across the South--were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work. Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war--when Oak Ridge's secret was revealed.

Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it--women who are now in their eighties and nineties-- The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country's history.

Editorial Reviews
Review

"True stories of the adventurous women who worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project, producing uranium for the first atomic bomb, which helped the U.S. end World War II." (O, The Oprah Magazine)

"It's a great read." (Bookviews)

"Denise Kiernan tells a fascinating story about ordinary women who did the extraordinary.... The girls of Atomic City helped to change history; it's high time their story was told." (USA Today)

"Kiernan melds hard science and history with the moving stories of women caught in events bigger than themselves, whose experiences and whose work changed the world irrevocably. The result is a compelling and unusual new perspective on the Manhattan Project and World War II." (Shelf Awareness)

"The Girls of Atomic City details a story that seems impossible yet was true. Author Denise Kiernan brings a novelist's voice to her thoroughly researched look at Oak Ridge, Tennessee..." (BookPage)

“A fresh take on the secret city built in the mountains of Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II… An inspiring account of how people can respond with their best when called upon.” (Kirkus Reviews )

“This intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history will appeal to a broad audience.” (Publishers Weekly )

“Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb.” (Booklist )

“The Girls of Atomic City is the best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story about a remarkable group of women who performed clandestine and vital work during World War II. Denise Kiernan recreates this forgotten chapter in American history in a work as meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.” (Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City )

About the Author

Denise Kiernan is the author of several books, including The Girls of Atomic City, Signing Their Lives Away, and Signing Their Rights Away. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Discover, Ms., and other national publications. Visit her at DeniseKiernan.com.

More About the Author Denise Kiernan

Biography

Denise Kiernan is an author, journalist and producer. She is author of The New York Times Bestselling book, "The Girls of Atomic City" (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). Denise is the author of several nonfiction books, including the popular history titles "Signing Their Lives Away" and "Signing Their Rights Away." Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Reader's Digest, Saveur, Discover, Ms., and many other publications. In addition to her books for adults and children, she was head writer for ABC's "Who Wants to be Millionaire" during its Emmy award-winning first season and has produced for ESPN, MSNBC and others. As an author, she has been featured on NPR's Weekend Edition, PRI's "The Takeaway," PBSNewsHour and in numerous newspapers and magazines.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

By David Ray Smith

Denise Kiernan has succeeded in her new book, "The Girls of Atomic City," to tell the story of Oak Ridge, TN, during the Manhattan Project in a way that is unique and gives insight until now hidden. Writers who have focused on this story before have either featured the technical details or have focused on the overall and truly amazing accomplishment that ended a World War having already killed 54,000,000 people! A great story, however, told.

But, Denise takes a much more intimate and personal approach to telling this amazing story in Oak Ridge (where 60% of the approximately $2 billion "Project" was spent) using the eyes (and memories) of some of the working ladies who actually did the real work of separating uranium (without knowing it), checking the leaks in pipes (not knowing where the pipes went), keeping the statistical data, doing the hard work of a janitor, a chemist (who got closest to the "product") and secretaries who saw documents they could never discuss. This approach results in a more realistic telling of the day to day activities in Oak Ridge and the government sites of X-10, Y-12, K-25 and S-50. The intrigue springs from every page!

The stories of these nine ladies, (Helen, Colleen, Celia, Toni, Jane, Kattie, Virginia, Dot and Rosemary), each unique, yet each holding much in common, is bound together by Denise's wonderfully talented skill as a writer. She paints a composite picture of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project that will become a classic in the literature of this extraordinary historical accomplishment that has led to so many technological advances of the Nuclear Age.

This amazing world changing experiment was begun using many women from various backgrounds as workers. The interviews and detailed memories of the lives Denise touched while researching this book have produced more than a mere book, she has created lasting relationships with the last of the living who actually experienced something many cannot imagine. They were personally involved in what has been labeled the most significant military industrial scientific breakthrough in the history of the world.

Remember, these nine represent literally thousands of other women who worked just as diligently, just as courageously, to help win that awful war. Denise captures the grit, the determination and the resultant exuberance when their efforts produced that glorious peace stopping the killing.

Reading "The Girls of Atomic City" is a delightful and spellbinding tale that were it not true would be fiction of the highest order, but it is real...these women lived it. Denise has captured it.

The book is a must read for anyone who studies the Manhattan Project history or especially the history of Oak Ridge, TN, and who wants to share the insights of these women who were there when it happened.

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent portrayal of life during the war March 9, 2013
By EWebb

As a native Tennessean and frequent visitor to Oak Ridge I eagerly awaited the release of this book. I was not at all disappointed.

The story of Oak Ridge, how its purpose and existence was kept a secret, and the development of the atomic bomb is fascinating by itself. What Kiernan does here though is add the stories of the regular people who knew they were working for the country's benefit and did so with blind faith and a patriotic purpose.

The book gives an excellent picture of everyday life in Oak Ridge and the lifestyles and people of Tennessee in he 1940s. Everyday life changed dramatically after the start of the war and we see the adaptions that all Americans had to make.

Of course they were also looking for jobs after the depression of the 30s but it would still take a strong resolve to work hard each day when the purpose and accomplishments are mysterious.

The stories of these women are so well told that by the end of the book I found myself wanting to find out where they ended up (those that are still living) and wanting to visit and talk with my new friends. The photographs in the book are just outstanding and truly make this book come alive.

This is not a deep intense study into the history of atomic science but a well told story of some women, who without knowing they were doing so, helped America finish a nightmarish World War.

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read! March 11, 2013
By Maryedith Burrell

Kiernan deftly fuses history and anecdote in "The Girls of Atomic City." Packed with rare photos, it is a must for anybody who wants to know what America was like when its government and citizens worked together. No matter how you feel about The Bomb or women on the job, the gals at Oak Ridge deserve to have their story on every library shelf in the country.
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BumbleBeeBoogie
 
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Reply Sat 30 Mar, 2013 11:09 am
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
Listen the story and see the photos. BBB

CONVERSATION AIR DATE: March 26, 2013
Women on a Top-Secret Mission in 'Atomic City'
SUMMARY

For the women whose lives are documented in the new book "The Girls of Atomic City," a top-secret mission during World War II gave them a chance to make history at a time when there were few career options. Ray Suarez talks to author Denise Kiernan about the women who helped enrich fuel for the first atomic bomb used in war.

CONVERSATION AIR DATE: March 26, 2013
Women on a Top-Secret Mission in 'Atomic City'
SUMMARY

For the women whose lives are documented in the new book "The Girls of Atomic City," a top-secret mission during World War II gave them a chance to make history at a time when there were few career options. Ray Suarez talks to author Denise Kiernan about the women who helped enrich fuel for the first atomic bomb used in war.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the tale of a top-secret town with a top-secret mission and the women who made history there.

Ray Suarez has our book conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: During the mid-1940s, thousands of young women got offers of good-paying jobs working on some sort of government project in the South. They were told their efforts would lead to a quicker end to World War II, but they were told little else.

They worked as secretaries and nurses, chemists and technicians, all the while not knowing the real purpose of their jobs: to enrich fuel for the first atomic bomb ever used in combat.

Denise Kiernan tells their story in the book "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II." She's a journalist who has written extensive about American history, and joins us now.

Untold story, all right. I mean, whether it's Albert Einstein or Leo Szilard or Edward Teller or Robert Oppenheimer, even Harry Truman, this has been a man's story all along.

For more on "The Girls of Atomic City," click here.

DENISE KIERNAN, Author, "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II": It really has.

And it's also a story that's often told from the top down, from the position of knowing and decision-making down, as opposed to from the perspective of people who were crucial and invaluable to the success of the project, but didn't necessarily have any idea what the larger picture was.

RAY SUAREZ: Again and again, I had to remind myself while reading this book how circumscribed the lives of women were in 1943. You're reading it with your 2013 head. And then you have to remember, oh, yes, they couldn't do this. They couldn't do that in so many cases.

DENISE KIERNAN: In so many cases.

And at -- in one respect, it was such a time of liberation for women, World War II, because so many men were away fighting. Opportunities opened up for them that had never existed before, to work in plants, to work with farm machinery, to work as welders. But, at the same time, you know, for example, Jane, one of the women I profile in the book, this was a very bright young woman who wanted to study engineering and was -- you know, just got a tap on the shoulder when she went to go matriculate at the University of Tennessee and was told, no, I'm sorry. You -- girls don't study that.

But then she went on to be a statistician for the Manhattan Project. So, it was limiting and expanding at once, almost.

RAY SUAREZ: Cumulatively, your women give us a portrait of womanhood in America in 1943, some educated, some not, some rural, some urban, some of immigrant stock, some of longtime American stock.

It was really -- the crowd you put together gave us a chance to look into all these different lives.

DENISE KIERNAN: And that was something that I really worked to do because I interviewed so many women.

And I, of course, interviewed a number of men as well who had lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II. And I did want to have as many perspectives as possible on this story. So, yes, some of the women are 18-year-olds with just a high school education recruited out of diners in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Others are, you know, nurses from Chicago, you know, with a certain amount of education.

And, you know, another is a chemist, you know, with a degree from the University of North Carolina. So I wanted to be able to show all of those perspectives and enter the story of the Manhattan Project from all those different points of view.

RAY SUAREZ: We are reminded again and again how peculiar this was, to bring together thousands of people from all over the place to a place that really didn't even exist yet.

It was like mushrooms coming up after spring rain. A city just comes out of the mud, all strangers to each other. But they couldn't talk to each other about what they were doing.

DENISE KIERNAN: Mm-hmm.

This was not a town that was designated or repurposed for the war effort. This was a town that didn't exist before the war. And they bring in all of these people. It started in 1942. The government thought, oh, we will probably have -- let's plan for about 13,000.

Well, by mid-1945, less than two years later, a town with 75,000 residents, operating 24 hours a day, using more electricity than New York City, and with one of the 10 largest bus systems in the entire country, and it's not on a map. And, yes, you have all these people there together in this confined space spending all this time together, but the most natural question, "Well, what do you do?" is the one thing you're never supposed to ask.

So, "Where are you from?" was sort of the cadence you would hear everywhere, because that was safe. "So, where are you from?"

RAY SUAREZ: They were pioneering ways of refining radioactive material, weren't they?

DENISE KIERNAN: Yes.

The machines that they used to enrich uranium or separate different isotopes of uranium really had just been created just recently and had never been done anywhere near on this scale. So it was a completely -- just a really completely brand-new endeavor.

RAY SUAREZ: They don't find out until the end what they were doing, when the bomb is actually detonated.

But did this experience change the life trajectories of these women? Did they go on to have different 1950s, 1960s, 1970s than they might have otherwise because they were in Oak Ridge?

DENISE KIERNAN: That's a very -- that's a very interesting question.

One of the things that did happen to a lot of them is, you know, we were talking about before having all those people in such a confined space. A lot of people ended up married. So some women shifted over to being housewives. Others stayed in the plants working as chemists. One was -- became a librarian for one of the plants. And she probably would have had a future as -- you know, still working at that diner in Tennessee.

The young coal miner's daughter from Shenandoah always thought she would just be a secretary who got married and stayed in her hometown. And she saw a much greater part of the world because of that. So, a variety of opportunities, and perhaps what was most surprising for them was that this town that really didn't have any post-war plan, for many of them became home for now going on 70 years.

RAY SUAREZ: If you were a young adult in the mid-'40s, you're, what, in your 90s now? Just like World War II veterans who are disappearing from among us, are the girls of Atomic City also harder to find than they were just a short time ago?

DENISE KIERNAN: They are even just in the last several years.

And the window on this world -- and, by that, I mean our access to this moment in time via the experiences and conversations we can have to people who actually lived through it -- is shrinking so rapidly. The youngest of my girls right now is about 88 years old. And others are 94 and 96.

So there really is a limited amount of time, and decreasing every month the number of people we have that we can talk to about these experiences.

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

Denise Kiernan, thanks.

DENISE KIERNAN: Thank you very much. Listen: MP3
Transcript

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the tale of a top-secret town with a top-secret mission and the women who made history there.

Ray Suarez has our book conversation.
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RAY SUAREZ: During the mid-1940s, thousands of young women got offers of good-paying jobs working on some sort of government project in the South. They were told their efforts would lead to a quicker end to World War II, but they were told little else.

They worked as secretaries and nurses, chemists and technicians, all the while not knowing the real purpose of their jobs: to enrich fuel for the first atomic bomb ever used in combat.

Denise Kiernan tells their story in the book "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II." She's a journalist who has written extensive about American history, and joins us now.

Untold story, all right. I mean, whether it's Albert Einstein or Leo Szilard or Edward Teller or Robert Oppenheimer, even Harry Truman, this has been a man's story all along.
For more on
For more on "The Girls of Atomic City," click here.

DENISE KIERNAN, Author, "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II": It really has.

And it's also a story that's often told from the top down, from the position of knowing and decision-making down, as opposed to from the perspective of people who were crucial and invaluable to the success of the project, but didn't necessarily have any idea what the larger picture was.

RAY SUAREZ: Again and again, I had to remind myself while reading this book how circumscribed the lives of women were in 1943. You're reading it with your 2013 head. And then you have to remember, oh, yes, they couldn't do this. They couldn't do that in so many cases.

DENISE KIERNAN: In so many cases.

And at -- in one respect, it was such a time of liberation for women, World War II, because so many men were away fighting. Opportunities opened up for them that had never existed before, to work in plants, to work with farm machinery, to work as welders. But, at the same time, you know, for example, Jane, one of the women I profile in the book, this was a very bright young woman who wanted to study engineering and was -- you know, just got a tap on the shoulder when she went to go matriculate at the University of Tennessee and was told, no, I'm sorry. You -- girls don't study that.

But then she went on to be a statistician for the Manhattan Project. So, it was limiting and expanding at once, almost.

RAY SUAREZ: Cumulatively, your women give us a portrait of womanhood in America in 1943, some educated, some not, some rural, some urban, some of immigrant stock, some of longtime American stock.

It was really -- the crowd you put together gave us a chance to look into all these different lives.

DENISE KIERNAN: And that was something that I really worked to do because I interviewed so many women.

And I, of course, interviewed a number of men as well who had lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II. And I did want to have as many perspectives as possible on this story. So, yes, some of the women are 18-year-olds with just a high school education recruited out of diners in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Others are, you know, nurses from Chicago, you know, with a certain amount of education.

And, you know, another is a chemist, you know, with a degree from the University of North Carolina. So I wanted to be able to show all of those perspectives and enter the story of the Manhattan Project from all those different points of view.

RAY SUAREZ: We are reminded again and again how peculiar this was, to bring together thousands of people from all over the place to a place that really didn't even exist yet.

It was like mushrooms coming up after spring rain. A city just comes out of the mud, all strangers to each other. But they couldn't talk to each other about what they were doing.

DENISE KIERNAN: Mm-hmm.

This was not a town that was designated or repurposed for the war effort. This was a town that didn't exist before the war. And they bring in all of these people. It started in 1942. The government thought, oh, we will probably have -- let's plan for about 13,000.

Well, by mid-1945, less than two years later, a town with 75,000 residents, operating 24 hours a day, using more electricity than New York City, and with one of the 10 largest bus systems in the entire country, and it's not on a map. And, yes, you have all these people there together in this confined space spending all this time together, but the most natural question, "Well, what do you do?" is the one thing you're never supposed to ask.

So, "Where are you from?" was sort of the cadence you would hear everywhere, because that was safe. "So, where are you from?"

RAY SUAREZ: They were pioneering ways of refining radioactive material, weren't they?

DENISE KIERNAN: Yes.

The machines that they used to enrich uranium or separate different isotopes of uranium really had just been created just recently and had never been done anywhere near on this scale. So it was a completely -- just a really completely brand-new endeavor.

RAY SUAREZ: They don't find out until the end what they were doing, when the bomb is actually detonated.

But did this experience change the life trajectories of these women? Did they go on to have different 1950s, 1960s, 1970s than they might have otherwise because they were in Oak Ridge?

DENISE KIERNAN: That's a very -- that's a very interesting question.

One of the things that did happen to a lot of them is, you know, we were talking about before having all those people in such a confined space. A lot of people ended up married. So some women shifted over to being housewives. Others stayed in the plants working as chemists. One was -- became a librarian for one of the plants. And she probably would have had a future as -- you know, still working at that diner in Tennessee.

The young coal miner's daughter from Shenandoah always thought she would just be a secretary who got married and stayed in her hometown. And she saw a much greater part of the world because of that. So, a variety of opportunities, and perhaps what was most surprising for them was that this town that really didn't have any post-war plan, for many of them became home for now going on 70 years.

RAY SUAREZ: If you were a young adult in the mid-'40s, you're, what, in your 90s now? Just like World War II veterans who are disappearing from among us, are the girls of Atomic City also harder to find than they were just a short time ago?

DENISE KIERNAN: They are even just in the last several years.

And the window on this world -- and, by that, I mean our access to this moment in time via the experiences and conversations we can have to people who actually lived through it -- is shrinking so rapidly. The youngest of my girls right now is about 88 years old. And others are 94 and 96.

So there really is a limited amount of time, and decreasing every month the number of people we have that we can talk to about these experiences.

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

Denise Kiernan, thanks.

DENISE KIERNAN: Thank you very much.
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