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

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9781451617535: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
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The Girls of Atomic City Introduction


There have long been secrets buried deep in the southern Appalachians, covered in layers of shale and coal, lying beneath the ancient hills of the Cumberlands, and lurking in the shadow of the Smokies at the tail end of the mountainous spine that ripples down the East Coast. This land of the Cherokee gave way to treaties and settlers and land grants. Newcomers traversed the Cumberland Gap to establish small farms and big lives in a region where alternating ridges and valleys cradle newborn communities in the nooks and crannies of the earth. Isolated. Independent. Hidden.

In 1942, a new secret came to this part of the world. The earth trembled and shook and made way for an unprecedented alliance of military, industrial, and scientific forces, forces that combined to create the most powerful and controversial weapon known to mankind. This weapon released the power present in the great unseen of the time, unleashing the energy of the basic unit of matter known as the atom.

Author H. G. Wells might have called them Sun Snarers, the people who descended upon the valleys and ridges.

“And we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and—lifeless—lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy . . . ,” Wells wrote in his 1914 book, The World Set Free. This lesser-known title by the War of the Worlds author describes the harnessing of the power of the nucleus: “And these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

Wells wrote this long before the neutron was discovered, let alone fission, and his work began to popularize the phrase “atomic bombs” before those devices ever took form beyond the author’s pages. But years earlier, people in the mountains claim another prophet lay on the ground, overcome with visions of a project that would bring the snaring of the sun to the hills of Tennessee.

They say a prophet foretold it.

A general oversaw it.

And a team of the world’s greatest scientific minds was tasked with making it all come together.

But it was the others, the great and often unseen, who made the visions of the Prophet and the plans of the General and the theories of the scientists a reality. Tens of thousands of individuals—some still reeling from the Depression, others gripped by anxiety and fear as loved ones fought overseas in the most devastating war any of them had known—worked around the clock on this project, the details of which were not explained. For the young adventurers, male and female, who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II, doing their part meant living and working in a secret city, a place created from the ground up for one reason and one reason only—to enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat.

Roots have always run deep here. They were dug up and scattered when the strangers with the project came to the foothills of the Cumberlands, but the newcomers, too, could not resist the pull of the earth and dug their own roots down deep into the Tennessee clay, soaked by mountain rain and baked by a thousand suns. Permanent. Enduring.

Many of these workers on this secret project hidden in the hills were young women who had left home to fight the war in their own way. They left farms for factories willingly, wrote letters hopefully, waited patiently and worked tirelessly.

A number of these women—and men—still live in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, today. I have had the fascinating and humbling privilege of meeting them, interviewing them, laughing and crying with them and hearing firsthand their tales of life in a secret city while working on a project whose objective was largely kept from them. Over the years they have graciously given me their time and suffered through repeated questions and what must have seemed like insane requests to recall moments from their day-to-day activities roughly 70 years ago. They did so happily and enthusiastically and never, ever with even the slightest bit of bravado. That is not their style. I did not only learn about life on the Manhattan Project. I also found myself taken aback by their sense of adventure and independence, their humility, and their dedication to the preservation of history. I wish I could include each and every one of them in these pages, but I cannot. I hope those who find themselves only in the acknowledgments will accept my thanks in place of my prose. I feel exceptionally lucky to know those who continue to live on, and miss those who have passed since I began working on this book.

Without them, this sun-snaring—this Manhattan Project—would not have achieved its objectives, and because of them a new age was born that would change the world forever.

These are some of their stories.

—Denise Kiernan,

summer 2012

Revue de presse :

“I love these kinds of books, and this is a great one....It’s a phenomenal story.” (Jon Stewart, The Daily Show)

“Fascinating ... Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city, gleaned from seven years of interviews and research. ... Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets.” (The Washington Post)

“Kiernan…brings a unique and personal perspective to this key part of American history.…Instead of the words of top scientists and government officials, Kiernan recounts the experiences of factory workers, secretaries, and low-level chemists in a town that housed at its peak 75,000 people trained not to talk about what they knew or what they did. She combines their stories with detailed reporting that provides a clear and compelling picture of this fascinating time.” ( The Boston Globe)

“Kiernan’s focus is on the intimate and often strange details of work and life at Oak Ridge. It’s told in a novelistic style and is an intimate look at the experiences of the young women who worked at Oak Ridge and the local residents whose lives were changed by the presence of the project.” (The San Francisco Book Review)

“Kiernan’s book, the result of seven years of research and interviews with the surviving 'girls,' sparkles with their bright, WWII slang and spirit, and takes readers behind the scenes into the hive-like encampments and cubicles where they spent their days and nights.… The Girls of Atomic City brings to light a forgotten chapter in our history that combines a vivid, novelistic story with often troubling science.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“The image of Rosie the Riveter — women filling in at factories to help the war effort — is well known. But women also assisted on the Manhattan Project, signing up for secret work in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to help build the atomic bomb. Kiernan looks at the lives and contributions of these unsung women who worked in jobs from secretaries to chemists.” ( New York Post)

“Kiernan’s accounts ring with authenticity.… The Girls of Atomic City is fascinating." ( Minneapolis Star Tribune)

"As most of us are all too aware, the generation who fought in World War II or supported the effort from home are leaving us -- their children, grandchildren, and greats -- to carry on without them. Thanks to author Kiernan, we hear from a group of that generation's women, now in their eighties and nineties, whose wartime experience matched no one else's. Ever. Anywhere." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

“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)

"Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor." (DailyBeast.com)

“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)

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

"A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb -- from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden -- The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer's genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class." (BrainPickings.org)

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, author of Sin in the Second City)

“Great, relevant, readable.” ( --The Washingtonian)

"Kiernan has contributed a new and vital chapter to studies of American political development and women and politics." ( American Political Science Association)

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Description du livre Touchstone Books, United States, 2014. Paperback. État : New. Reprint. 231 x 152 mm. Language: English . Brand New Book. The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback--an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb. The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story.As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable. --Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, and consumed more electricity than New York City, yet it was shrouded in such secrecy that it did not appear on any map. Thousands of civilians, many of them young women from small towns across the U.S., were recruited to this secret city, enticed by the promise of solid wages and war-ending work. What were they actually doing there? Very few knew. The purpose of this mysterious government project was kept a secret from the outside world and from the majority of the residents themselves. Some wondered why, despite the constant work and round-the-clock activity in this makeshift town, did no tangible product of any kind ever seem to leave its guarded gates? The women who kept this town running would find out at the end of the war, when Oak Ridge s secret was revealed and changed the world forever. Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. A phenomenal story, and Publishers Weekly called it an intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history. Kiernan has amassed a deep reservoir of intimate details of what life was like for women living in the secret city.Rosie, it turns out, did much more than drive rivets. --The Washington Post. N° de réf. du libraire KNV9781451617535

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