The single most controversial part of the Second World War is the use of the atomic bomb. We know that Germany and Japan both had such weapons in the works, and that their efforts were narrowly thwarted by circumstances. As for the United States’ development program, called the Manhattan Project, most think of the testing site at Los Alamos, New Mexico as being where everything happened. However, Los Alamos was only one place where atomic energy was studied and harnessed. Denise Kiernan’s 2013 book, The Girls of Atomic City, explores the other key player in the atomic race: the community of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Oak Ridge was a town that sprang up seemingly overnight. Locals watched materials being shuttled into the location under the utmost secrecy, and everyone was curious. “Everything’s going in, nothing’s coming out,” became a common saying. For some in Eastern Tennessee, the new development meant they had to leave farms their families had worked for generations. There was financial compensation for them, but not nearly enough. The centerpiece of the new town was a massive industrial complex known as Y-12. Several miles away, a corresponding plant, K-25 was erected as well. Once built, the site was innocuously referred to as the Clinton Engineering Works, and that’s how it was presented to the people who applied to work there. If they were accepted, they were given a train ticket to an unspecified location and they just had to wait and see where they ended up.
When it comes to the types of people who came to Oak Ridge, Kiernan’s book ably covers all the bases. There were fresh-faced high school graduates away from home for the first time. There were college graduates unsure of their next steps. There were married couples and families, both immediate and extended. There were single men and women, or married men and women whose spouses and families were elsewhere. They all arrived in Oak Ridge not knowing what they would be doing, and of how they were going to get around without sinking into the mud that made up the still-unpaved streets. Oak Ridge’s new residents lived in dorms, hutments, and trailers. A lucky few, usually those of higher prestige, lived in real houses. Some were farmhouses, while others were prefabs called flat tops.
Once they arrived, many CEW hopefuls didn’t jump into work right away. There was a lengthy evaluation process that involved massive amounts of paperwork and testing. Applicants were observed while they waited to see how they spent their time and what their habits were. If someone was too nosy, it was a sure ticket back to where they came from. For instance, a locksmith made the mistake of bragging that he would show the Army how secure their facilities weren’t, and he quickly got the boot.
For all intents and purposes, Oak Ridge looked like a typical town. It had stores and churches, a hospital, and a movie theater. It also had rec halls, clubs, and Scout troops. Everything seemed normal, except that nothing was. Most towns don’t have gatehouses restricting access. Most towns have sidewalks, too.
Secrecy was the order of the day, and night, and everything else as well. There were billboards all over town that cautioned people not to talk about their work. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping mum on what they were doing; there were specific words that employees were told to avoid using because they might spark interest. They couldn’t take copies of the local paper outside the town limits in case someone got curious.
Even within their jobs, workers still weren’t told everything about where their efforts were heading. They were informed the substance they were manipulating and enriching was called tubealloy, and they certainly weren’t told until after the fact that it would fuel one of the first atomic bombs. The word, “uranium” was certainly never spoken or heard by the lower-ranking workers. The mysterious object they were helping to build was simply referred to as “The Gadget,” and all information was given on a strict as-needed basis. All cubicle workers, for instance, were told that they had to keep their gauges between certain marks, or the cubicle would explode. One welder’s job was checking pipes for leaks. She was never told what was in the pipes, but she did get warned that if she smelled anything funny, she was to evacuate immediately.
All the secrecy prompted a lot of jokes about what was going on. People gave the mysterious substances they were producing funny names like “green salt,” or “yellowcake.” It also affected social gatherings, because even within the project, people weren’t allowed to talk about their jobs, not even to their own families. Asking where someone was from was perfectly acceptable, however, as was talking about one’s background.
As the Project progressed and the Gadget neared completion, the average person in Oak Ridge still didn’t know where everything was heading. Those who did know had very strong misgivings and submitted petitions to President Truman, but they were never delivered.
After the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the townspeoples’ reaction was as if one had been dropped on Oak Ridge. They couldn’t believe that the United States had such capability, and they really couldn’t believe they had a hand in it. Reactions were mixed–some were elated, while others were devastated that something they’d helped build caused such destruction and death.
Oak Ridge is still a bustling town, with many of its original structures repurposed. Its peak population during the war was 75,000 and is, as of the 2010 census, roughly 30,000. The Y-12 facility is now the Y-12 National Security Complex, which provides uranium to the American military, as well as housing a museum. The town is very proud of its World War Two heritage, with markers all over town designating various buildings. Some of the original flat top houses still exist, as well.
The Girls of Atomic City is so valuable on a lot of levels, because the story of Oak Ridge isn’t something that’s talked about much when it comes to the Manhattan Project, beyond the odd mention here and there. Denise Kiernan has done an excellent job of researching and presenting what it was like to live and work in Oak Ridge. I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed at all the people she introduces, but there’s a handy gallery in the front of the book with short bios of major participants. Plus, lots of new faces and places showing themselves was the character of Oak Ridge during the war. I like to think Kiernan felt honored listening to their stories, and proud to share them with the world. Her book is a rich experience.
Hope to see you back here tomorrow for the Rule Britannia Blogathon. Thanks, all!
Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City. New York: Touchstone. 2013