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Background Image Historical photo of the girls of atomic city at Oakridge in Tennessee

The Girls of Atomic City

During World War II the US government built a secret city in a secluded valley of the Great Smoky Mountains near Knoxville, Tennessee. Its sole purpose: to bring a swift and victorious end to the war.

At its peak the government-run city known as Oak Ridge contained 75,000 occupants, many of them young women lured from home by steady jobs and a desire to end the war. 

Women like 24-year-old Celia left friends and family without knowing where they were going (the town was top secret) or what they would be doing (this was on a need-to-know basis). All that the recruiters told Celia when she left her small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania was that the work she performed would “bring a speedy and victorious end to the war.”

Celia and other women like her from all walks of life composed the backbone of the work force uncovered in The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.

Kiernan will speak about The Girls of Atomic City March 5 as part of Hutchinson Community College’s Dillon Lecture Series. Hutchinson Community College received a Humanities for All grant from HK in support of Kiernan’s lecture.

The Lecture Series committee chose Kiernan’s book in part because it highlights the role of women during WWII. As project director and Dillon Lecture Series coordinator Robin Woodworth explained, “For decades men have been the celebrated heroes of World War II—portrayed in books and film as fearless and larger than life. Yet, women played equally important , and sometimes even as dangerous, roles. The contributions these women of the silent generation made toward preserving democracy have only recently come to light in books like Ms. Kiernan’s."

What’s unique about the women in Kiernan’s book is that they didn’t know the importance of their contributions until after the fact and, indeed, in most cases didn’t know what they were doing at all or how all the jobs in this Atomic City fit together. Not until the bombing of Hiroshima did Oak Ridge residents put two and two together and realized that their work involved the making of the atomic bomb. 

Secrecy was paramount, and residents were trained from the outset not to talk about their jobs. Kiernan interviewed one woman, Helen, who spied on her fellow workers and dormmates. Workers who spoke out of turn or who exhibited too much curiosity -- whether factory workers, secretaries, or chemists -- were fired and banished from Oak Ridge. Their mysterious absences intimidated co-workers into silence.

Residents presented passes to the armed guards at each of Oak Ridge’s seven entry points and each facility on the premises required its own unique badge for entry into the building. As one of Oak Ridge’s residents noted, the secrecy made day-to-day life stressful. It even impacted dating. You couldn’t ask the most routine of questions such as “what do you do for work?” remembered one resident.

Kiernan revealed her motive for writing the book in an interview: “I think women’s roles, big and small, provide and added perspective to any historical event. . .[these] stories also serve as an inspiration to young women making decisions about careers and choices available to them today.”

Join the Movement of Ideas

ATTEND Denise Kiernan's Dillon Lecture on The Girls of Atomic City on March 5, 2019, at 10:30am at the Hutchinson Sports Arena. Ticket information available at hutchcc.edu

READ The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan.

VISIT the Cold War Pop Up Exhibition featuring the Kansas Cosmosphere's collection of Cold War artifacts at the Hutchinson Sports Arena on March 5. 


Photo credit: James Edward Westcott, Courtesy of National Archives. 


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