Ms. Manhattan

The Girls of the Manhattan Project

Women who worked at ‘Site X’ in the Appalachians were kept in a surreal, Orwellian world. Emma Garman on a new book that tells their stories.


When nuclear bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, World War II was dramatically concluded and the face of warfare changed forever. But as the architects of the Manhattan Project claimed their controversial place in history, the dawning of peace brought powerfully mixed emotions to a group of people whose names wouldn’t make the news, but who had played a crucial role in the Project: the employees of the gigantic uranium-enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Those who lived and toiled in this purpose-built secret city in the Appalachian Mountains, many of them young women, had only been told that their efforts would help bring home American soldiers. Then, when atomic power was deployed against an enemy nation for the first (and so far last) time, Oak Ridge residents realized what they had been working toward—and why their every move had been monitored, their every utterance policed, and their every question stonewalled.

In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan recreates, with cinematic vividness and clarity, the surreal Orwell-meets-Margaret Atwood environment of Oak Ridge as experienced by some of the women who were there: secretaries, technicians, a nurse, a statistician, a leak pipe inspector, a chemist, and a janitor. “Site X” began construction in late 1942, and was also known as the Clinton Engineering Works (CEW) and the Reservation. Staff members were recruited from all over the U.S., but particularly from nearby Southern states, and were offered higher than average wages, on-site housing and cafeterias, and free buses.

More important, they were offered the chance to join the 400,000 or so American women performing noncombatant roles in the armed services, as well as those keeping vital industries afloat and helping the men on the front lines. But whereas a female Air Force pilot or munitions factory worker understood precisely her contributions to the war effort, the women at Oak Ridge were kept in the dark about the actual purpose of their workplace, a mystery heightened by the apparent lack of anything ever leaving the site. Provided with “just enough detail to do their job well, and not an infinitesimal scrap more,” workers at all levels were forbidden from taking the slightest interest in anyone else’s duties. “Stick to your knitting,” in the words of Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, head of the Project.

For this reason, high school girls from rural backgrounds were sought out by recruiters, who thought they were “easy to instruct,” and “did what they were told.” They were also fast learners, it turned out. Once trained in the operation of calutrons—the devices used to separate uranium isotopes, developed for the Project by Nobel laureate Ernest O. Lawrence—the “hillbilly” girls, “fresh off the farm with nothing more than a public school education,” beat Lawrence’s team of Ph.D.s in a contest to see who could generate the most enriched uranium.

Eighteen-year-old Helen Hall, who’d been poached from a diner-drugstore in Murfreesboro, Tenn., simply knew that her task was to monitor the gauge needles, adjusting a knob if any veered too far from the center. “The idea was to get as much R as possible,” Kiernan notes, “so that when the men came to empty the ‘E’ boxes of the ‘D’ units there would be a nice amount in there.” As to what the letters stood for: “Smart girls didn’t bother asking. Those who asked too many questions or hazarded answers or theories were soon gone.” Helen understood more than most the level of surveillance that she and her friends were under. Soon after arriving, she was asked to report on conversations taking place around her.

Letters home were heavily censored, for reasons that couldn’t be fathomed. When Celia, a secretary, was told by her mother to stop writing, since there were always “big, black bars covering all these words,” she couldn’t imagine how she’d transgressed—after all, she knew better than to mention work. The message was impossible to escape, plastered as it was over blackboards, pamphlets, and posters. One billboard featured “a large looming eye, its black iris surrounding a large swastika-embedded pupil.” It read: “THE ENEMY IS LOOKING FOR INFORMATION GUARD YOUR TALK.”

Nor was there any possibility of letting your guard down during leisure time. “The kind of rehashing of a day’s work with a spouse or roommate that most adults took for granted was not permitted,” Kiernan explains. When you socialized with your fellow subjects of the vast social experiment that was Oak Ridge—where the population grew to 75,000, though it wasn’t on any map and didn’t exist according to the Post Office—an acceptable conversation opener was not “what do you do?” but “where are you from?” Single women also had to contend with strict dorm mothers, the oppressive supervision of guards, and close tabs being kept on their romantic activities, which was subject to random interference. One night Dot, another teenage technician, was on a date with a maintenance man and was surprised when a stranger knocked on the car window and asked if she was “okay.” The next day, Dot was unceremoniously informed by her date’s boss that she wouldn’t be going out with him again.

A married woman could at least live with her husband and children—unless she was black, that is. The Reservation was segregated. Only white Oak Ridgers could use the swimming pool and attend the movie theaters, and were given far superior housing. African-American residents, who regardless of marital status were banned from cohabiting and bringing their children to live with them, were allocated tiny plywood huts with a stove in the middle of the floor and no proper windows. Kattie, a janitorial worker, left her children with her mother in Alabama so that she and her husband could earn money to send home, even though that meant living in separate quarters with a 10 p.m. curfew for visits, scant comfort or privacy, and the possibility of being woken up by a guard shining a flashlight in your face.

The Project leaders believed, of course, that all such hardships and inequities were trumped by the imperative to “get the Gadget designed and tested in time—that is, before the Germans figured out how to do it.” As Kiernan relays in chapters devoted to the Project scientists’ innovations in nuclear fission, the main challenge was obtaining enough uranium “product,” the “rare and valuable atoms that were needed to fuel the Gadget.” When, thanks to the biggest war plant ever constructed, they succeeded and “Little Boy” dropped, the women so rivetingly commemorated in The Girls of Atomic City at last saw the puzzle of their lives solved. Curiosity was replaced by shock, then by a mental state with which only others from the enigmatic “factory-tropolis” could truly empathize: “pride and guilt and joy and relief and shame.”

Yet many had put down deep roots in Oak Ridge, and though the population diminished when sections of the plant closed down in 1945, several of Kiernan’s subjects chose to stay on. Helen, the talented calutron operator, transferred from her job enriching uranium to one at the site’s library. She still lives in the town—current population 28,000—along with various friends and former co-workers who, 70 years ago, joined a fledgling, fragile community to which they expected to belong for a matter of months. Among them is Kattie, now the oldest member of her church in a neighborhood developed for black families after the war. Still a center for scientific research, Oak Ridge is home to the American Museum of Science and Energy, the Spallation Neutron Source, some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, and an annual “Secret City Festival.” Each June this two-day event teaches visitors, via reenactments, tours, and exhibits—including an oral history booth manned by Celia, former Site X secretary and longtime Oak Ridge resident—all about the legacy of this “just-add-water town.” As Kiernan’s remarkable study irrefutably concludes, it’s a legacy that “continues to impact the social, environmental, and political landscape of the world.”