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Q&A: Denise Kiernan's secret history of 'The Girls of Atomic City'

Unrest, Conflicts and WarPolitics

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Denise Kiernan’s newest book, “The Girls of Atomic City,” explores  the stories of women who worked and lived in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II. These women – secretaries, statisticians, scientists and mothers – were all recruited by the U.S. government to work on the Manhattan Project, without their knowledge, at what became its largest site.

Kiernan – whose work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and Ms. – focuses on nine specific women and their experiences during this complex moment in history at a top-secret city, following them from arrival until they discover what “the Project” encompassed.

Jacket Copy spoke to Kiernan by phone about the book, her interest in Oak Ridge and what it was like stalking octogenarians in Tennessee. 

Kiernan will be appearing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena to discuss her book Saturday at 4 p.m.

Why Oak Ridge? What drew you to that particular story?

I actually stumbled across a photo. Actually, you can see it [online].  At first I just thought the photo was really just kind of beautiful. I like vintage photographs. It’s got the vanishing point at the end, and I love the little 1940s hairstyles. And then I looked at these machines and I thought, “What’s going on there?”

The accompanying text on the photo said something along the lines of: “These young women, many of them recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, are helping enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb, only they didn’t know that at the time.” I was completely floored.

I had never heard about this part of the Manhattan Project story. I heard lots about Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi and Gen. Groves and read accounts that were from a very top-down kind of perspective.... Once I established that I wasn’t the only person that didn’t really know that much about this part of the story, I realized that Oak Ridge was only two hours away from my house by car. So I just got in the car. Then I started stalking octogenarians, finding out who was around during the war.

How hard was it to track these people down?

I had actually contacted a local historian and he introduced me – again I’ll go back to that picture – he introduced me to that guy standing in the back of that room, Connie Bolling. He’s a supervisor. When I met Connie he was 101 years old, and I ended up being the last interview he ever did.

He was in an assisted living facility, and as I was in the lobby of the assisted living facility I’m introduced to Colleen, who ends up being one of my main women.... She’s just a force of nature. I told her what I was interested in doing. Then Colleen introduced me to somebody else, and they introduced me to three other people.

I would literally ask total strangers if they looked old enough, “Did you live here and work here during the war?”

Did you find that any of these women suspected what was going on?

Some people honestly just did not care. They were told they weren’t allowed to know. They didn’t know. It was for the war.... For a lot of people, not knowing was fine because they were doing their part, and everybody wanted to do their part....  

People who started to think about it who had scientific backgrounds thought, “It’s probably a weapon. Why would the military spend this much money on something if it wasn’t for a weapon?” But it’s hard to guess that something exists if it’s never existed before.

One woman I interviewed, a friend of hers was convinced that Oak Ridge was doing something with urine because all she did all day was label people’s urine samples. So her view of what might be going on was filtered by her day-to-day experience.

If not for the war, do you think any of these women would have had these kinds of opportunities?

I think, in a lot of cases, no.... What was interesting is in other parts of the country, when the war was over, the jobs weren’t there [for women] anymore. Either the factories that were making pots and pans went back to making pots and pans or jobs were supposed to be made available to the men returning from war.

But in Oak Ridge you had all these women that had not taken another’s job because men had never had the job. This was an industry that was going to continue existing and they were trained to do very specific things, so a lot of them continued working, which is how Helen ended up working in the library of a significant lab in the United States. She’s a high school graduate from Tennessee that got recruited out of a diner.

Do you think the Oak Ridge story has never been told as a matter of secrecy, or was it was because it’s a story about women who didn’t have a place in the dominant discourse?

I think we have a tendency when we look back at events to focus on the “important” people. The people who were making decisions, the people who were the Nobel prize winners. Those are certainly incredibly valuable perspectives, so I think it just becomes easier to focus on that than on the lives of these ordinary people.... Women not getting their due in history is certainly nothing new. It just becomes easier to focus on Groves and Oppenheimer and just kind of lump everybody else together as “support staff.” Women may not have been in positions of power or making major decisions, but without them that project would not have existed.

Oak Ridge opened up opportunities for these women, but race still plays a significant role in these opportunities. Was this because it was in the South?

Well, this is Tennessee in the early '40s. The added problem in Oak Ridge was that husbands and wives weren’t allowed to live together, you couldn’t bring your children, and that sort of thing.... It’s a complex moment. On the one hand, these great work opportunities for women, and on the other hand, unfair treatment depending on your gender and  your race.

That’s what makes Oak Ridge so interesting, though.... There were almost 80,000 people living there. It really was a microcosm of not just the Manhattan Project but life during World War II itself, because you had such a huge population.

Do any of them still wonder what exactly they were doing? Like what part they had worked on?

Yes. There was one woman I interviewed who actually worked – she’s actually in that picture, I think. She worked in Y-12 on those machines. I remember finishing interviewing her, and she says, “I wish someday somebody would take me aside and explain exactly what it was that I was doing.” She eventually learned she was a cubicle operator. But like what happened – the specifics of those machines, and what they were doing – kind of remains lost on her.

There are still people who don’t. I had several children of Manhattan Project workers say, “I really want my mom to talk to you, but she said she won’t because she’s not supposed to talk about what she did.”

For the record at 10:15 a.m.: A previous version of this post indicated an incorrect name for supervisor Connie Bolling and has been updated.

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