Thursday, August 21, 2014

the secret is out

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

Atomic City = Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a secret city founded during World War II to help create fuel for the atomic bomb.

The local prophet came out of the woods in rural Tennessee with a vision of the future. No one believed John Hendrix or his ramblings, but it all came true… long after his death and 40 years after his prediction that the "valley in rural Tennessee would be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be."

The government came to rural Tennessee in 1942 and found an ideal spot hidden in the Appalachian mountain ridges, connected with a main railroad line, far enough from the coast… they came and surveyed and claimed the land, 56,000 acres, in the name of the government, eminent domain:

"Entire communities and the ways of life that infused them were to be wiped away in a matter of weeks. For some residents of East Tennessee, this was the third time they were evicted from their lands—both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Norris Dam having already claimed their share years earlier."

The scientists came to rural Tennessee, their groundbreaking ideas and experiments with splitting atoms had worked on a tiny scale in labs, and on a small scale in fields and forests, now to make them work on a massive scale.

shift change

The girls came to rural Tennessee, on trains and buses, having been recruited out of their own small towns across the South. Think Rosie the Riveter goes to the sticks. Why girls? Well most of the guys were away at war. Some young men also came to the site, recruited from high school or from the military. Some of the reasoning behind hiring young women:

"If you tell a young woman of 18 from a small-town background to do something, she’ll do it, no questions asked. Educated women and men, people who had gone to college and learned just enough to think that they might 'know' something, gave you problems."

watching the dials and gauges

Resources were scarce, everything being used for the war effort. But resourcefulness abounded. For example copper was needed for magnets - 8 feet tall magnets - but copper was appropriated for shell casings. The scientists and engineers put their heads together - what else would work? Silver!

"Who had a few tons of spare silver lying around? The US Treasury, so the District Engineer met with Under Secretary of the Treasury Daniel Bell to discreetly request around 6,000 tons of silver."

Oak Ridge postcard

Another resource used exclusively for war was nylon, and more resourcefulness on the part of the girls:

"Some young women even drew seams up the back of their legs to simulate stockings or hose, much of which had gone to war, where their fabric was needed for parachutes. If you were a woman handy with a needle and thread, you might get that fabric back in another incarnation: Many young brides had taken to fashioning wedding dresses from the very parachutes that had brought their loves safely back down to earth. Fashion’s contribution to the war effort, come full romantic circle."

warning sign

Secrecy was priority. Each worker only knew what their specific job was, not the big picture. The surrounding locals watched the activity, wondering what was going on behind the fence, "Everything's goin' in and nothin's comin' out…"

The girls took pride in their jobs and the fact that they were helping to shorten the war, even though they had no idea how that would happen. They made the best of the rest of their time, making lifelong friends, making homes out of the temporary housing.

Oak Ridge postcard

This book describes the science of atom splitting and uranium and fission (admittedly a bit over my head), but the best parts are those about the girls and their day-to-day lives in this most unusual of cities. The author found some of these surviving women, listened to their stories, and did an excellent job putting it all together in this book, American history that is so unbelievable, it reads like a novel. 

Oak Ridge postcard

Note: None of these pictures were seen until after the war was over and the secret was out.  

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