Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan (Three Stars)
“The most ambitious war project in military history rested squarely on the shoulders of tens of thousands of ordinary people, many of them young women.”
Excellent history of a slice of the effort required to produce atomic bombs. Of necessity, she spreads her net far beyond Oak Ridge, TN, to include women who made significant contributions to the science and industry which produced the first nuclear weapons. For better or worse, they changed the world forever.
“There is no such place as Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”
Sadly many, especially Lise Meitner, never got the recognition they deserved. Most didn’t get equal pay or living conditions because for their gender or race. But they all contributed to a massive project (about which they knew nothing) in the hope they were shortening World War Two.
“Elizabeth Edwards, Oak Ridge’s librarian, … looked over the spines and stopped at the volume containing the letter U. As she picked up the book, it fell open as if on command, the spine already worn and bent and broken from more than a year of being opened to the same page over and over by chemistry-savvy people trying to make sense of what they thought might possibly be going on.”
Kierman refrains from using the word uranium, substituting the then-current code word Tubealloy.
“For the last year , roughly 22,000 people had been working at Y-12 day in and day out, 24 hours a day, as 1,152 calutrons managed to enrich 50 kilograms, or just over 100 pounds, of enriched Tubealloy.” (Uranium-235)
My wife’s great aunt was one of them. She never told us what she did, but her experiences parallels those reported here.
Q: What are they making in those plants?
A: About 80 cents an hour.
Q: What do you do out there?
A: As little as possible.
Q: How many people are working in Oak Ridge?
A: About half of them.
“Bigger! More! Now!” (MajGen. Leslie Groves, USA)
Yes, I’ve read about these women and watched a movie. Not happy with the title “Girls” – the word is demeaning, even though many didn’t notice. With 3 stars you’re sending a message to future readers. Thanks.
Books like these just make me mad – at the racism and misogyny. And how these women were treated when they were ‘no longer needed because the returning men needed jobs,’ so they should go home and be housewives again.
The title should have been reversed: The WOMEN of…, and the subtitle could have been The untold story of the ‘girls’…, with the quotation marks properly indicating that the word so marked is SUSPECT.
But what do I know? They helped win the war, and probably contributed to my being able to earn that PhD in plasma physics, and even work in my field!
Too tired for more outrage, but this is why I have a hard time reading much in the way of historical stories any more.
The jokes just rub your nose in it. Your wife’s great aunt was a hero.