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Morning Forum explores secret life of World War II workers

Author and television producer Denise Kiernan shared the compelling and little-known history of “The Girls of Atomic City: Spies, Secrecy and the Manhattan Project” with a Morning Forum of Los Altos audience Nov. 3.

Based on her best-selling biographical account “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” (Touchstone, 2013), Kiernan’s presentation addressed the young women who lived and worked in the so-called secret city of Oak Ridge, Tenn., during WWII, a government city supported by workers who had no idea they were enriching uranium for the Manhattan Project – the effort to make the world’s first nuclear weapon.

Inspiration

While Kiernan was researching a project at the Smithsonian Institution, she uncovered a Department of Energy photograph that piqued her interest – young women working on a factory floor. After learning that the photo was taken in Oak Ridge, she set about documenting the little-known account through the eyes of the young women.

Kiernan tracked down multiple former Oak Ridge workers in assisted-living communities. Colleen Rowan’s job at Oak Ridge was testing pipes for leaks. According to Kiernan, Rowan said, “I don’t know why you want to talk to me – I don’t know anything.” But Rowan and others helped Kiernan piece together their stories.

World War II had an impact on everyone, Kiernan said, and people wanted to do something to help bring home their loved ones. The young women didn’t know much about where they were going or what they would do when they were recruited to work at Oak Ridge, but they knew that they would make more money than they could at home. And they thought the job would last six to nine months.

Celia Szapka, for example, was an adventurous 24-year-old from a Pennsylvania coal-mining town who found a job as a secretary in New York City. Recruited for Oak Ridge and told that would she travel by train and transfer to the unnamed location by car, Szapka was unaware of her assignment until after she arrived.

The Oak Ridge population grew from 15,000 to 80,000 during the war years, Kiernan said – and the town hadn’t even existed before WWII. The site was selected for many reasons – its seclusion at the base of surrounding mountains; Tennessee Valley Authority resources to make electricity, which eventually generated more power than New York City; and East Coast proximity to Washington, D.C., and New York.

Top-secret operations

The purpose of the top-secret operations remained a mystery to surrounding townspeople, Kiernan noted – all supplies were going in and nothing was coming out.

Secrecy was paramount, she added. Those on the inside of Oak Ridge were constantly reminded not to talk with their new acquaintances about what they were doing and why they were doing it. Numbered badges were required at gate entry, and numbered buses transported workers to their jobs. Cars were searched for field glasses, cameras and alcohol. People often hid incoming alcohol under babies’ diapers.

Mail was censored. There was a Bureau of Censorship for the media as well, requesting that all outlets refrain from using certain phrases.

Oak Ridge was in motion 24 hours a day, Kiernan said, with the young women working long and hard, sometimes holding their shoes high above their heads as they trudged through the mud because sidewalks and paved roads hadn’t been installed initially.

Housing was primitive – a combination of dormitories, prefab asbestos and concrete structures, trailers and small homes – erected one every 30 minutes. Rowan lived in a doublewide trailer with 10 members of her family.

To relieve the stress of living at Oak Ridge, Kiernan noted, the government sponsored recreational activities – dances, clubs, an orchestra, a 24-hour roller rink and sporting events.

Support services included schools, a mobile branch of the New York Public Library and a hospital with a psychiatrist. Oak Ridge didn’t want worker turnover.

According to Kiernan, “The Women Who Helped Win World War II” memorialized in the “The Girls of Atomic City” subtitle refers to the primarily high school graduates who truly became women over the course of living and working at Oak Ridge. In two years, Oak Ridge had become a home, a family, a community.

And Aug. 16, 1945, Kiernan added, all those women and their fellow workers finally learned the result of their endeavors – the bombing of Hiroshima.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. New members are invited to join. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.

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