A Pop-Up City and Women Helped Win WWII

  • imgresThe Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: In 1943, part of the Tennessee Valley was transformed into a top secret factory town to support the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan’s narrative captures the little-known story of the women, predominantly non-scientists, who were responsible for the machinery that created the fuel for the atomic bomb.
  • Genre: Narrative history
  • Locale: Oak Ridge, TN
  • Time: 1943 – 45
  • Read this to learn about an extraordinary military and social experiment that created a 70,000 resident city from scratch for a single purpose.

While working on another project, Denise Kiernan saw a 1944 photo of women working in front of large machines in Oak Ridge, TN. James Edward Westcott, a government photographer, documented the building and operations of the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), the “business” portion of the city built for the war effort in the Tennessee Valley.

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Out of nowhere, government officials evicted families from their homes and farms with often less than 2 weeks to move and limited compensation. Kiernan details the massive physical labor involved in building a city from nothing and the lengths required to provide labor to meet needs from construction, manufacturing, quality assurance, human resources, commissaries, medical clinics and everything else for an “instant city” of almost 70,000. But it wasn’t all work, the community had bowling alleys, tennis courts, and movie theaters. Hard to imagine that those inside never talked about their work with their co-workers and neighbors, and those outside the gates knew nothing at all.

Focusing on a number of women whose letters and interviews give flavor to the history, Kiernan parses the hierarchical society that was built. The workers came from those that were displaced, people that worked the cotton fields and coal miners from Pennsylvania and West Virgina. Women educated as scientists often worked in administrative positions while lesser educated men supervised. Both because it was accepted and to placate the political figures in Tennessee, discrimination against African Americans was particularly egregious. While other married workers were provided housing options for the family, African American husbands and wives were separated and lived in single-gender huts. Their children were not permitted, in part because a separate school system would have been required.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. Any infractions were severely punished, often with summary dismissal. The lack of information about the undertaking created great resentment in Knoxville, the nearest large community. People could not understand how train and truckloads of material continuously entered the facility but nothing ever came out.imgres-2

Interwoven with the accounts of the growing community and its work is information about the raw material, Tubealloy, that was THE SECRET. The layers of secrecy surrounding the decisions and those involved is seen in the shadowy information available even seventy years later. The key figures of the Manhattan Project periodically are mentioned early on. Those living and working at CEW were completely unaware of the scope or magnitude of the combined effort.

Key to bringing this project to life are the photographs of Ed Westcott, whose sole responsibility was to provide a photographic record of the entire project. He alone had access to everything from the operating facilities to the hospital to the garbage collection trucks.  His work is maintained in the National Archive and on a website, The Photography of Ed Westcott.

In my view, there is magic in uncovering untold history. If you have ever wondered how the US pulled off the development of the atomic bomb, here it is. And the story that is told about the women and men who operated in total secrecy “to help end the war” really is important in understanding the war being fought on the homefront in the later stages of WWII.