It took author Denise Kiernan seven years of research and interviews to finally write and publish her 2013 book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Kiernan weaves a fascinating and true story of the young women from across the country who were recruited and transported to the secret city of Oakridge TN to help build the atomic bomb. So secretive was the effort that the women never knew what “It” or “the gadget” was. At one point, close to 75,000 people lived and toiled in that top secret 24/7 work environment, never allowed to discuss what they were doing–not in their make-shift dorm rooms with co-workers, to their best girlfriends, boyfriends, or families. See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing were the operating words of warning. Some workers disappeared for unknown reasons, never to return. No one asked why.
The residents of Oakridge learned what they had worked on only after the atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The employees celebrated when they learned that the Japanese had surrendered and the war over. Some of the women of Oakridge still live today!
I found this book to be an excellent read. It’s a piece of history that so few of us ever knew much about. These girls endured deplorable living conditions, including poor housing and mud up to their knees on unpaved roads quickly graded to accommodate mostly foot traffic throughout the government-built town. They bravely carried on, knowing they were there “to help win the war and bring their brothers, fathers, and boyfriends home safely.” They were patriotic and supported the war.
Would young women today be willing to play so vital (and secretive) a role in such a war effort?
I also admire Kiernan for her perseverance over the seven years of research to get it right. I applaud anyone who has the tenacity to spend that much time on a story. She’s an inspiration–at least to me, who’s still stuck one third of the way through the sequel to my co-written novel 2012 The Tehran Triangle. Hmmm, perhaps it will end up taking me seven years, too.