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Adventurous, Patriotic ‘Girls of Atomic City’ Traveled South for Nuclear Jobs

In this interview, NewsHour correspondent Ray Suarez chats with Denise Kiernan, author of “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” In the book, Kiernan tells the story of the women who worked on the Manhattan Project, a secret government effort in the 1940’s to enrich fuel for first atomic bomb used at the end of World War II.

Lured by well-paying jobs and the promise that their work would lead to a quicker end to World War II, thousands of young women came, in 1943, from cities around the country to work on a clandestine government project in rural Tennessee.

Two years later, they learned they were lending their talents toward enriching the fuel for the atomic bombs detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In her new book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, journalist and author Denise Kiernan profiles the lives of several women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tenn. at the time.

“Many of them got their brand new dress and just one bag and a tube of lipstick and a new pair of shoes and off they went to a city that really no one knew existed,” Kiernan said at a recent discussion at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Officially called the Manhattan Project because its initial headquarters were in New York City, government officials created Oak Ridge in 1942 from 56,000 acres of land taken by eminent domain. They originally planned for 13,000 residents; by 1945, more than 75,000 women and men called the town home, and some still live there seven decades later.

In the book, we meet several women who moved to Oak Ridge for the project.

Celia Szapka grew up a coal miner’s daughter in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania and had two brothers fighting in the war. She began working for the project as a secretary and was asked to move to Oak Ridge in 1943.

“She didn’t know exactly where she was going, exactly what she was going to be doing or exactly when she’d be done doing it, but she did know that it was supposed to help with the war effort,” Kiernan said.

“She had this tremendous — and I would say most of the women I interviewed did — this tremendous sense of adventure and spirit and dedication to what was the greatest war that any of them had ever known,” Kiernan said.

Jane Greer, a college graduate from Paris, Tenn., turned down several job offers to accept a position at Clinton Engineering Works, the official name for the plant at Oak Ridge.

Jane wanted to stay close to her recently widowed father. With a degree in statistics from the University of Tennessee, she unknowingly helped the project estimate how fast they could produce enough enriched uranium to fuel the atomic bomb.

Originally from Nashville, Colleen Rowan moved to Oak Ridge with more than 10 family members and found work as a leak pipe inspector.

“She, too, had a brother who was fighting [in the war] so they decided leave what they were doing. They had some plumber cousins who told them that there was this big war project and they should come on over, ” Kiernan said.

At the end of their shift, workers leave a plant built to enrich uranium to fuel the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Photo by James Edward Wescott, courtesy of The National Archives. Other images courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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