Review - The Girls of Atomic City

REVIEW: When you’re at work, you have some idea of the product or service your employer provides. Not so for “The Girls of Atomic City.” They had no idea they were helping create Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Having spent some of my childhood in a town that the government created (Richland, Washington — home for workers at the Hanford nuclear plant), it’s easy for me to relate to the paranoia resulting from total governmental control. That sensation was even greater for the thousands of people at the nuclear research and development facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was a major part of The Manhattan Project during World War II.

The Girls of Atomic CityIn a manufactured metropolis, you couldn’t get answers to such questions as: What do you do here? Or: How does my work fit into the bigger picture? Or: How will any of this help the nation’s defense efforts? Actually, it went further than that: you weren’t even supposed to ask the questions.

In “The Girls of Atomic City,” Denise Kiernan expertly and sympathetically explores the facts and the frustration, the secrecy and the sweat, the routine and the remarkable — in fact the whole saga of life inside a city that formally was not actually there.

Kiernan initially focuses on a few of the young women as they are on their way to their unknown destination:

Celia did the only thing that she could: wait. While she did, other women on other trains kept pulling into the very same station, 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.

And what a place it was: “Celia turned. She stared, astonished, as one of the girls stepped out of the car and began sinking, as if in quicksand. Foot! Ankle! Midcalf…? Celia watched as the next woman bravely exited and tried to avoid a similar plight. No dice. After a few steps she, too, began to lose her footing in the morass of unavoidable muck.”

Noise Amid the Muck

Quickly constructing buildings, labs, cafeterias, offices, research facilities, healthcare services, plumbing, electricity, and temporary homes was a huge task. The Townsite area was being built by a firm with “a knack for modular housing,” a company that had “dipped its toes into the prefab market during the Depression. It developed, with the Celotex Corporation, a cheap, versatile material called cemesto board.” In one of her many examples of wonderful wording, Kiernan handles this topic like so: “Cemesto. Cement and asbestos, a pairing that in many ways made the town of Oak Ridge possible, was a potent mix of prefabulousness.”

Moving into a new job in new buildings in a new town — a town that might never get real sidewalks — was difficult enough. But you were also to be cut off from the rest of the country including you own family. All this was a challenge for everyone, yet Colleen Rowan and nearly a dozen members of her family joined the cause. Did she have doubts? Sure, but “Colleen had survived the Depression. She had survived the nuns at Cathedral High School. She could survive this.”

Big Goals, Dashed Dreams

The size and scope of the project was more comprehensive than anyone had imagined. Upwards of 75,000 people lived there. The place utilized more electricity at the time than did New York. How did all this come to be? Longtime Tennessee senator Kenneth McKellar, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, was asked by Roosevelt, “Can you hide $2 billion for a secret project that we hope will end the war?” Senator McKellar coolly replied, “Well, Mr. President, of course I can. And where in Tennessee do you want me to hide it?”

And so onto the creation of Oak Ridge, a 92-square-mile area also known by the names “Site X, Kingston Demolition Range, Clinton Engineering Works, and the Reservation.”

While some of the land was uninhabited, there were families that had their homes and farms taken over by the government, often with little payment to the owners:

Toni’s aunt Lillie and uncle Wiley lost their home and peach orchard… that little peach orchard meant something deep and real to Toni and her entire extended family beyond property and income. The orchard meant summer to Toni — the smell, the taste, the fuzzy, sticky feel of high summer.

But still, this family and many others moved on with their lives, and some, like Toni Peters, took employment at Oak Ridge, with its unfriendly weather, its suspicious neighbors, its hyper-secrecy, and its inequality:

Though the government had the opportunity to establish the Reservation as a completely desegregated zone, it did not; black residents on the grounds of the Clinton Engineer Works would be primarily laborers, janitors and domestics, and would live separately, no matter their education or background.

Regarding racism, some people say we now live in more enlightened times. But of course these are the same people who say supply side economics works, the wealthy must be insulated from taxes the rest of us pay, corporations need the ability to run roughshod over the populace, non-white voters shouldn’t count in elections, and government of the money by the money and for the money shall not perish from the earth. Which begs the question: for what were we fighting?

Inequities affected the women of all races. For example, Jane Greer was continually promoted for her excellent work, but:

But despite her constant advancement, it hadn’t taken Jane long to learn that men working beneath her were making more money then she was. Other women throughout the Reservation had observed the same. This came as little surprise to Jane, in particular, a young woman who had been denied entry into engineering school because of her gender. But it was no less disheartening.

Which begs the question: for what were we fighting?

Kiernan’s prose often packs quite a punch, as when relating the news delivered to a family that their 23-year-old son was “Believed to be among the missing… That’s all she and her parents were told. But they all knew, even before word arrived. Once the world learned the fate of the USS Arizona, she and her family knew. He was probably still there, with so many others, trapped beneath the murky waters.”

Oh right: that’s one reason why we were fighting.


Even before her job at Site X began, Helen Hall was recruited to, um, perform certain, uh, special, er, tasks for the government, shall we say:

The men wondered if she would be willing to listen to conversations taking place around her at work and in the cafeterias. She should also pay particular attention to any individuals who seemed to be speaking out of turn, maybe talking a bit too much about what they did at the plant, for example…. As they spoke, it dawned on Helen that she, an 18-year-old girl from Eagleville, Tennessee, recruited from a diner-drugstore in Murfreesboro to come work at a war plant she’d yet to lay eyes on, was being recruited to spy.

It went beyond that, of course: “Guns and badges and checkpoints and propaganda were only part of the force that kept the lid on the Project. The Intelligence and Security Division had around 500 plainclothes agents in addition to its uniformed personnel.”

General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, believed that “compartmentalization of knowledge, of responsibility, of information” was the key to security. That is, you only needed to know enough to do your specific tasks and nothing else. But what about–? No! You do not need to know that. But if– No! And one more question might mean you would not be employed there any longer.

Quite apart from the deliberately misleading names for parts, processes, and procedures, there was also the typical governmental love of acronyms and seemingly arbitrary designations:

She worked in building 1401 for FB & D at the K-25 plant on the CEW and had earned a Q clearance. Her boss was a GI with the SED who had been recruited from the ASTP. She rode the AIT bus and, being the good Catholic girl that she was, attended the CYO at Father Siener’s B house.

With the mud, secrecy, inequalities, secrecy, constant construction, secrecy, acronyms, and more secrecy, it was no wonder that “finding some alcohol to imbibe posed a bit of a challenge — but not too much for such an industrious collection of young people.” The various methods for smuggling liquor into the Reservation ranged from the obvious to the ingenious.

Horror Story

Of all the inequities inherent in the making and managing of the Project, the case of Ebb Cade is the most unsettling. The 53-year-old Cade was working construction for one of the many Reservation teams. Early one morning on the way to work he was in a tragic head-on automobile accident.

Cade was taken to the Oak Ridge Hospital where he ceased to be known by his name and was instead referred to as HP-12. He received 4.7 micrograms of what was then called “49,” which is better known as plutonium. Cade had become an unwilling science experiment.

“The doctors made plans to collect biological samples — tissues, urine, feces — all of which would be tested for the presence of plutonium, to see how it would travel, how much of would remain in the body, and what effect it might have on HP-12.”

As for HP-12’s broken bones, they were not set until April 15, 20 days after the crash. The doctors felt it would be easier that way, considering the tests that needed to be done. Bone tissue was sampled 96 hours after the initial injections. The bones could be set after the biopsy was performed. So on April 15, surgery was performed to retrieve the samples and HP-12’s bones finally ended up in a cast.

It was also decided that 15 of HP-12’s teeth would be “removed and shipped off to New Mexico, where they would be thoroughly examined to determine whether or not there were any signs that plutonium had made its way from HP-12’s bloodstream to a smile now missing 15 of its original members.”

Ebb Cade was not the only test subject. It turned out that between 1945 and 1947, 18 people were injected with plutonium, specifically: 11 at Rochester, New York, 3 at the University of Chicago, 3 at UC San Francisco, and 1, Ebb Cade, at Oak Ridge. Several thousand human radiation experiments were conducted between 1944 and 1974.

To see how a government can use time, committees, and persiflage to avoid coming to terms with the problem, just try wading through the published report from President Clinton’s two-year-long Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (

Girl Power and Just Plain Power

There are multiple facets to this story, including some pages that concentrate on the intense scientific investigation that resulted in bringing the US and the world into the nuclear age of power and warfare. Breakthrough work was conducted by people overlooked by history, including Ida Noddack and Lise Meitner, whose contributions deserve the words devoted to them by Kiernan, and probably a lot more besides.

All of the theory, all of the research, all of the intense effort by so many people at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford culminated in a test of the bomb, called The Gadget, in the New Mexico desert at Alamogordo. “For everyone, excitement was tinged with a bit of trepidation and a touch of dark humor. Dollar bets had been placed as to the resulting size of the blast, and Fermi took side bets as to whether or not the test would wipe New Mexico off the map.”

Needless to say, ultimately there were two applications of The Gadget on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The death and destruction were beyond anything seen up to that time. The blasts essentially concluded WWII but “Anybody who had been working in Oak Ridge and had contributed to the development of something so tragic, so devastating, had to ask themselves the question whether it was the right thing to do.”

The End and the Beginning

The book’s concluding chapter and epilogue can bring tears to your eyes as the story builds to a beautiful denouement that deftly hints about how this new age is still developing.

This book is fact-packed yet a smooth and swift read. And it was all so very simple — all it took was unearthing a great story, the painstaking collection of amazing information, dogged research, and powerful writing. For all this, here is the largest possible tip of the hat to Denise Kiernan. You will enjoy taking this historic journey with her.

Book Summary:
“The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan; Touchstone/Simon & Schuster; ISBN 9781451617528; 370 pages, 40 photographs; $27.00.

Article is Copr. © 2013 by John Scott G and originally published on – all commercial and reprint rights reserved. Disclosure: this original and unbiased review has not been influenced in any way; such as payment or consideration from any agency, or the book’s author or publisher.