Friday, July 1, 2016

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

One of my college boyfriends was from Oak Ridge, TN.  His pickup line was "I used a Cray over the summer."  That's not what worked with me (I was impressed that he could recite "Jabberwocky" more quickly than I could), but I thought about him while reading The Girls of Atomic City.  I didn't know much about Oak Ridge back then - I knew there was a nuclear reactor (with the Cray) and it was involved in building the atomic bomb, and not much else.  I had no idea that this major research center had only existed since a few months before my dad was born.

The Manhattan Project built Oak Ridge out of land cheaply acquired through eminent domain and in three years, turned it into a bustling city that was both secret and full of secrets.  The people of nearby Nashville resented the newcomers, with their full wallets and rumors of full store shelves, and confidentiality rules meant that you couldn't tell your roommate, neighbor, or romantic partner anything about your job - in fact, you didn't know anything more than was absolutely necessary to perform your particular step in the process.  It was restrictive, high-pressure, and for the young women who flocked to Oak Ridge, exhilarating.

Denise Kiernan interviewed several of these women, now past 80.  They were secretaries (Celia Szapka and Toni Peters), factory workers (Colleen Rowan, Dot Jones, and Helen Hall), a nurse (Rosemary Maiers) brought in to staff a small clinic that grew to be a small hospital, a statistician (Jane Greer) who'd been barred her alma mater from becoming an engineer despite her grades, a janitor (Kattie Strickland) facing the discrimination baked into the system and missing her children, and a chemist (Virginia Spivey) who earned less than the men she supervised.  They joined the project for adventure, for a good wage, and to end the war (a personal reason for Dot, whose older brother had died at Pearl Harbor).  Their stories alternate with more objective chapters describing the science and politics behind the Manhattan Project - shorter chapters which serve as the bones upon which Kiernan lays the flesh of daily life.  These women worked hard, and under the strain of secrecy.  They also had fun, as you'd expect when thousands of twenty-somethings gather in a boom town.  I envy Kiernan's opportunity to meet these still-vibrant women, and hear them tell stories of dances and parties, sports teams and movie nights, dates and the excitement of a round-the-clock world.  While the interwoven chapter discuss the horrors which the Oak Ridge factories unleashed, the women's memories focus on the thrill of being young, surrounded by young people, and doing important work.

The oral history chapters don't completely gloss over the dark side, though.  Rosemary treated a soldier who had a nervous breakdown under the strain of keeping the secret few others knew, and Helen was recruited to spy on her co-workers.  The clinic poisoned a man injured in a car accident to determine the long-term risk of plutonium and then obscure the records.  And Oak Ridge was segregated, with African Americans living in deplorable conditions.  They lived in shacks, with married couples separated by strict curfews, with sub-standard food.  They could only be janitors, and paid more for their rarer entertainments (and, obviously, were paid less than their white counterparts).  It's galling, even more so when you read the excuses given for allowing people working on such an important project to live in deplorable conditions.  Kiernan does an admirable job of giving the more problematic sides of 1940s Oak Ridge exposure while keeping the tone of the book positive.  It's a difficult task, and she performs it well.

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