“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan


At the height of World War II, men were off fighting and women were engaged in war efforts here in the states.  Detroit’s car plants were refashioned to build fighter planes, ammunition, trucks, and tanks.  The country was unified in its intense effort.

In eastern Tennessee, residents began receiving notices stating that their land and homes were no longer theirs and they would need to vacate.  The government cleared 59,000 acres of land and erected a secret city (not listed on any maps) in a matter of months to house 75,000 workers.  At the height of construction, houses were erected at the rate of one every 30 minutes.  These workers, mostly women, were recruited from the cities of the Northeast, farms of the South, and small towns in the Midwest.  The promise was good pay, housing, and an effort to end the war.  The price was blind obedience and sealed lips.  Only a few at the top really knew what was going on.  The average worker only knew her specific minuscule task and was forbidden to talk to neighbors or coworkers about it – they had an ant’s-eye-view of an elephant unable to fathom the big picture.

Only after the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they reach a realization – they built the atomic bomb.

Denise Kiernan told the story through the eyes and voices of real women – some still alive: Celia, a secretary transferred from the Manhattan Project’s original offices in New York City; Toni, a secretary from neighboring Clinton, Tennessee – her aunt and uncle’s farm was seized by the government; Jean, a statistician-mathematician from Paris, Tennessee, who supervised a team of young women who crunched numbers to track production, and others.  Interviews, research, and notes from diaries were used to recreate this unique personal slice of American history.

Although the workers were equally unified in their dedication to the war effort, their treatment was still subject to the gender and race inequalities of the time.  Whites were put in dormitories, African Americans were housed in four-person, 256-square-foot “hutments,” each one “a square plywood box of a structure that had a potbellied stove sitting right smack-dab in the middle.” Kattie, an African-American woman, tells how she was not allowed to live with her husband, when white couples could.  Houses, impermanent as they were, were reserved for families.  A household was not a household, unless it was led by a man.

The purpose of the instant city was what happened in the plants.  However, to keep an orderly and happy workforce, efforts were taken to take care of the workers personal and social needs.  Churches, stores, movie theaters, recreational centers for skating and dancing were all created from scratch.  Social organizations thrived – there were even boy scouts and girl scouts for the kids.

The unity of government, industry, and individuals all working for one goal creates a stark contrast to the divisive climate today.  It’s unimaginable to think of 75,000 people uprooting, not knowing where they will be moving and not knowing what their jobs will be – all on blind trust in the government.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 6.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, September 6 for a discussion ofThe Girls of Atomic City at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.