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

Denise Kiernan
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (872 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Now a New York Times Bestseller!

The incredible story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history.The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project's secret cities, it didn't appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships--and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men!

But against this vibrant wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work--even the most innocuous details--was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb "Little Boy" was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb.

Though the young women originally believed they would leave Oak Ridge after the war, many met husbands there, made lifelong friends, and still call the seventy-year-old town home. The reverberations from their work there--work they didn't fully understand at the time--are still being felt today. In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan traces the astonishing story of these unsung WWII workers through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents. Like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is history and science made fresh and vibrant--a beautifully told, deeply researched story that unfolds in a suspenseful and exciting way.

As heard on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition.
One of Goodreads' Most Popular Books of March 2013.
One of Amazon's Editors' Picks for Best Books of the Month (History)
One of Amazon's Editors' Picks for Best Books of the Month (Nonfiction)
One of Amazon's Big Spring Books (History)

Editorial Reviews Review

A Note from Denise Kiernan, Author of The Girls of Atomic City

Most of us have grown up with the humbling power of the atomic bomb looming somewhere in our collective consciousness. We are at least familiar with the phrase "Manhattan Project," even if we know little of the history behind that World War II effort to make the world's first nuclear weapon. Los Alamos. Oppenheimer. Fermi. Groves. These names may ring a bell, if only a distant one. The story of the Manhattan Project is often discussed from the perspective of high-profile scientific minds and decision-makers.

A black-and-white photo of young women monitoring gigantic panels covered in knobs and dials both altered my view of this story and inspired me to write The Girls of Atomic City. I was struck by the youth of these women, the size of the room, the unfamiliar technology. They did not know they were enriching uranium and would not know until a bomb detonated above Hiroshima. What were they thinking? What did the Manhattan Project look like through their eyes? I had my way in. I tracked down everyone I could who had worked on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II.

I entered a top-secret compound, one that straddled two worlds: that which existed before and that which followed the dawn of the nuclear age. Octogenarians as my trusted guides, I found not only fission and cyclotrons, but rations and dances. The satisfaction of doing one's part mixed with the anxiety of wartime. It was a world of pioneering spirit and propaganda, of scientific gains and personal loss. Loved ones were far away, deadlines and informants lurking much nearer. There was always waiting: for news, for cigarettes, for letters, for the end of the war. When that end came, it was a relief and a shock. Secrets were revealed, others still remain.

I hope readers will be as fascinated by this moment in time as I was, as I still am.

Girls of Atomic City-1
Young female cubicle operators monitor the activity of the calutrons, the heart of the uranium electromagnetic separation process at the Y-12 plant. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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Girls of Atomic City-2
Housing options included dorms and prefab homes, but also hutments and trailers, like those pictured here. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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Girls of Atomic City-3
Billboards and posters extolling patriotism and discretion were found throughout the United States during World War II. Images throughout Oak Ridge reminded residents to work hard and keep quiet about what went on inside their fences. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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Girls of Atomic City-4
Young women exit their dorm to celebrate the end of World War II. Courtesy of Ed Westcott

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From Booklist

Atomic-bomb history includes works about the communities of workers attached to the main installations where the first nuclear weapon was built. Kiernan’s contribution covers Oak Ridge, Tennessee, site of enormous factories built to separate uranium isotopes. A type of oral history, Kiernan’s account derives from her intensive interviews with 10 women who, in their youth, labored in a range of occupations at Oak Ridge, from janitor to machine operator to secretary to engineer. With surrounding scaffolding of the scientific fundamentals and the 1942–45 technical development of the bomb, the narrative runs as a collection of individuals’ life stories that recall circumstances of recruitment and the spartan conditions at Oak Ridge, on and off the job. Some commonalities of experience include the secrecy in which the women worked and the discrimination they endured (racial segregation in the case of the janitor; sexism in the cases of white women workers). Kiernan snugly fits original research into the creation story of Oak Ridge and should engage readers interested in both women’s history and the background of the atomic bomb. --Gilbert Taylor

Product Details

  • File Size: 36605 KB
  • Print Length: 402 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone; Reprint edition (March 5, 2013)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008J4GTU4
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,198 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
136 of 139 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone should read this book! March 17, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
The other reviews on "The Girls of Atomic City" are wonderfully written. I agree with all the positive comments on the book's accurate reflection of the times, and I loved getting to know "the girls". I wanted to write a review because of a family connection! I'm 91 and have always been interested in keeping alive the stories of my relatives. I remember in 1943 my aunt came to tell my mother that she had accepted a very important job in Tennessee, but that she could not talk about it. She would be leaving soon and wanted to say goodbye. My aunt honored the code of silence about her work at Oak Ridge all her life. Long after the war we knew she had something to do with the project to built the atomic bomb, but I had no idea of the challenging reality she faced until reading the book on my Kindle. Many puzzle pieces about my aunt have now fallen into place. I am so grateful that the author decided to tell this story of how ordinary women put their country's needs ahead of their own. It is wonderful that their contribution is being recognized.
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157 of 162 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Denise Kiernan has succeeded in her new book, "The Girls of Atomic City," to tell the story of Oak Ridge, TN, during the Manhattan Project in a way that is unique and gives insight until now hidden. Writers who have focused on this story before have either featured the technical details or have focused on the overall and truly amazing accomplishment that ended a World War having already killed 54,000,000 people! A great story, however, told.

But, Denise takes a much more intimate and personal approach to telling this amazing story in Oak Ridge (where 60% of the approximately $2 billion "Project" was spent) using the eyes (and memories) of some of the working ladies who actually did the real work of separating uranium (without knowing it), checking the leaks in pipes (not knowing where the pipes went), keeping the statistical data, doing the hard work of a janitor, a chemist (who got closest to the "product") and secretaries who saw documents they could never discuss. This approach results in a more realistic telling of the day to day activities in Oak Ridge and the government sites of X-10, Y-12, K-25 and S-50. The intrigue springs from every page!

The stories of these nine ladies, (Helen, Colleen, Celia, Toni, Jane, Kattie, Virginia, Dot and Rosemary), each unique, yet each holding much in common, is bound together by Denise's wonderfully talented skill as a writer. She paints a composite picture of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project that will become a classic in the literature of this extraordinary historical accomplishment that has led to so many technological advances of the Nuclear Age.

This amazing world changing experiment was begun using many women from various backgrounds as workers.
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85 of 88 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent portrayal of life during the war March 9, 2013
By EWebb
As a native Tennessean and frequent visitor to Oak Ridge I eagerly awaited the release of this book. I was not at all disappointed.

The story of Oak Ridge, how its purpose and existence was kept a secret, and the development of the atomic bomb is fascinating by itself. What Kiernan does here though is add the stories of the regular people who knew they were working for the country's benefit and did so with blind faith and a patriotic purpose.

The book gives an excellent picture of everyday life in Oak Ridge and the lifestyles and people of Tennessee in he 1940s. Everyday life changed dramatically after the start of the war and we see the adaptions that all Americans had to make.

Of course they were also looking for jobs after the depression of the 30s but it would still take a strong resolve to work hard each day when the purpose and accomplishments are mysterious.

The stories of these women are so well told that by the end of the book I found myself wanting to find out where they ended up (those that are still living) and wanting to visit and talk with my new friends. The photographs in the book are just outstanding and truly make this book come alive.

This is not a deep intense study into the history of atomic science but a well told story of some women, who without knowing they were doing so, helped America finish a nightmarish World War.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic March 22, 2013
I readily admit to my appalling lack of knowledge about WWII. When it comes to history my interest lies further back in time but I have found myself reading a fair bit about this war lately; it has become a popular period for writers of both fiction and non fiction. This particular book fascinated me because I knew absolutely nothing about the goings on in Oak Ridge, TN. I though all of the atomic "stuff" was done in New Mexico. Stupid me.

The US government went into Oak Ridge and bought up a huge swath of land and basically built a city into which hundreds of workers were brought to work on "the Project." Most of them were women as most of the men of the country were off fighting the war. They signed agreements that they would not talk about anything they did, saw or heard while there. They were provided housing, food, etc. It was a virtual enclosed world. Each employee had a badge allowing them entrance at certain points and access to certain areas.

The book chronicles the stories of a representative number of the various women that worked there. Each woman's tale is told from how she came to Oak Ridge, to what she did and how she interacted with the other women in the complex. The stories are fascinating and I must say that I was pulled in by the foreword. Ms. Kiernan's writing is so inviting you don't feel you are reading a non-fiction book. The women's lives are so very compelling. I must admit that one of the things that fascinates me about WWII/post WWII society are the attitudes towards women. They were expected to get married, stay home, etc. Then the war came and the men went off to fight and the women did their part by going off to work and work well. Then the men came home and the women were supposed to forget all they did and go back into the kitchen. Really?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Educational, Fun Read
The entertaining book was also very educational. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about World War II, lost history, science, and/or women's liberation. Read more
Published 3 days ago by Elliott
3.0 out of 5 stars The story of the young women that came to Oak ...
The story of the young women that came to Oak Ridge to work on the atomic bomb during WWII. Hard to imagine the level of secrecy maintained, particularly when compared to today's... Read more
Published 4 days ago by HRS
5.0 out of 5 stars A very good and informative historical account of the formation of Oak...
A very good and informative historical account of the formation of Oak 'Ridge, TN - describing the hardships of common people at that time as well as getting the gadget's... Read more
Published 5 days ago by James H. Hutchinson
4.0 out of 5 stars A detailed story
Fascinating story, and incredible amount of research/detail. However, sometimes it is more than I need. Read more
Published 6 days ago by chi lady
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Great story, writing style a little hard to follow, but made for a good discussion in our book group.
Published 6 days ago by vesta
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful insight into history
I grew up in Oak Ridge in the 50's, so this was a walk down memory lane. My mother is on the cover!
Published 8 days ago by David Booth
5.0 out of 5 stars The girls of atomic city
Great book!! The behind the scenes of the development of the atomic bomb by a number of mostly untrained women!
Published 9 days ago by Amazon Customer
1.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps better editing could have helped
A true story that should have been very interesting but the choppy narrative and the complicated science was overwhelming . Perhaps better editing could have helped ?
Published 11 days ago by Margaret Zuliani
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
Interesting history of topic I was not previously aware of. Not a "page-turner" but a good book.
Published 12 days ago by K. Judson
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Very slow with a lot of chemistry. Over all an interesting part of our history.
Published 13 days ago by fc
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More About the Author

Denise Kiernan is an author, journalist and producer. She is author of The New York Times Bestselling book, "The Girls of Atomic City" (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster). Denise is the author of several nonfiction books, including the popular history titles "Signing Their Lives Away" and "Signing Their Rights Away." Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Reader's Digest, Saveur, Discover, Ms., and many other publications. In addition to her books for adults and children, she was head writer for ABC's "Who Wants to be Millionaire" during its Emmy award-winning first season and has produced for ESPN, MSNBC and others. As an author, she has been featured on NPR's Weekend Edition, PRI's "The Takeaway," PBSNewsHour and in numerous newspapers and magazines.

You can follow her work at:

Twitter: @DeniseKiernan
Book site:

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