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

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

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan presents an unique insight into the highly classified Oak Ridge complex. She earned her BA degree from the Washington Square and University College of Arts & Science and her MA from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development of New York University. She has written for The New York Times, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal. 

The offices were relocating, and he explained he needed to know if she would go along with them.
“Where are we going?” Celia asked
“I can’t tell you.”
Celia wasn’t quite sure what to make of the and pressed a bit…
“It all depends on how far away it’s going to be.” she tried to explain 
But Vanden Bulck still would not say. All he would tell her was that the move was for an important project and the destination was top secret. 

The Girls of Atomic City starts like a spy novel. Good job, high pay, secret compound, spying on your friends, loyalty, censorship, it’s all there and all true. It’s The Project, The Gadget, (element)49, and Tubealloy. Locations like Y-12, K-25, X-10 and S-50 add to the mystery. General Groves, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Niels Bohr make their appearances. The real story, however, is the young women who left their homes and families and joined(unknowingly) the Manhattan Project. 

The book is very well written and follows the daily lives of the women in the complex. It tells of their jobs, which they had no real idea of what they were contributing to. Some were tasked with the separating U235 for U238 using one of the three separating methods. They knew where to keep the gauges and how to control them, but they were labeled simply with letters and color coded. It wasn’t until after the atomic bombs that the residents knew what they were actually working on. 

The book periodically leaves the women’s stories and fills the reader in on the mysterious Tubealloy and 49. Tubealloy was uranium and 49 was the code for plutonium. Inverting the atomic number of plutonium, 94, it was simply known as 49. 

The social life for the women was a mix of freedom and confinement. Away from home for the first time and with a well paying job meant freedom. The complex on the other hand was was segregated (not only racially). Women were quartered separated from the men, this at times even applied to married couples as housing was short. Demand out paced supply in housing. No one could talk about their work, the complex or anything relating to Oak Ridge (in fact Oak Ridge did not officially exist until 1949). 

The Girls of Atomic City presents personal look at the secret Oak Ridge complex during Word War II and the women who worked there. The book covers an important piece of World War II history and also woman’s history. Kiernan writes an excellent history. Her work is clear and informative and backed over thirty pages of documentation. An great read for anyone interested in WWII history, women’s history, or super secret government projects.

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