A book project that started with a famous photo of women enriching uranium at the Y-12 National Security Complex during World War II has ended up on the New York Times best seller list.
It’s also led to appearances on major television shows for Denise Kiernan, author of “The Girls of Atomic City—The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” She’s recently been a guest on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, and PBS NewsHour.
Released March 5, “The Girls of Atomic City” remained at No. 33 on the hard cover nonfiction list on Sunday night.
“I’ve been thrilled with the response,” Kiernan said during a recent lecture and book-signing at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. “The country is just fascinated with your town and your stories.”
Kiernan said she was inspired by a photo by Ed Westcott, the government’s official photographer in Oak Ridge during the war. The picture shows young women, many of them high school graduates from rural Tennessee, working at Y-12 calutrons, which were used to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. Due to the secrecy, the women didn’t know what they were working on.
But Oak Ridge workers—and the world—learned more about the work in Oak Ridge on Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb used in combat—code-named “Little Boy”—was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, shortly before the end of World War II. Oak Ridge was mentioned in the address given by President Harry S. Truman after the bomb was dropped.
Kiernan said Los Alamos is the Manhattan Project town most often associated with the development of the bomb.
But Oak Ridge was the largest, and it was the administrative headquarters. The “Secret City” was not shown on maps, but it had one of the 10 largest bus systems in the country. It grew to 75,000 people during the war, and plants ran 24 hours per day. Most of the Oak Ridge employees were women, and they worked in fields ranging from administration to transportation to communications.
“There were just tens of thousands of people who played such an incredible role in this project, and I wanted to hear what they had to say,” Kiernan said.
In interviews, Oak Ridge workers, both men and women, recalled the mud and long lines, dating and dancing, secrecy and segregation, and recreational activities, including bowling. Many of the Oak Ridge women and men who helped Kiernan with the book were at the recent AMSE lecture.
Despite the city’s role in World War II, Kiernan said she is asked in other cities whether Oak Ridge still exists. She said the government had not had a post-war plan for the city, which was built in just a few years and was initially intended as a town of about 13,000.
But, Kiernan said, “Whether the government intended it or not, a community was born here.”
Today, she said the Manhattan Project has infiltrated every aspect of American culture.