The Girls of Atomic City

The Girls of Atomic City

The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

Book - 2013
Average Rating:
Rate this:
The author traces the story of the unsung World War II workers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents. This is the story of the young women of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who unwittingly played a crucial role in one of the most significant moments in U.S. history. The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project's secret cities, it did not appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships, and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men. But against this wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work, even the most innocuous details, was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb "Little Boy" was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb. Though the young women originally believed they would leave Oak Ridge after the war, many met husbands there, made lifelong friends, and still call the seventy-year-old town home. The reverberations from their work there, work they did not fully understand at the time, are still being felt today.
Publisher: New York, NY : Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Edition: 1st Touchstone hardcover editon
ISBN: 9781451617528
Characteristics: xvii, 373 pages, [16] pages of plates :,illustrations, map, portraits. ;,24 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Dec 14, 2020

I really enjoyed the audio book. I think if I had gone print, it would have been harder to follow as the stories of these women are woven together, narration was excellent.

Dec 11, 2020

Informative and entertaining nonfiction account of the workers stationed at the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW), known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Kiernan makes good use of declassified military documents, the weekly Oak Ridge Journal, and interviews with women in who worked in different roles there. Oak Ridge itself is the main character - a government created complex in Appalachia - where secrecy was the army imposed norm. Chapters alternate between the lives of the women, and the chemistry of the Manhattan Project.

As a fan of nonfiction from about the Great Depression and WWII, I appreciated hearing the stories of women from different walks of life. Chemists, secretaries, nurses, janitors, machine operators, descended on Oak Ridge. Some were modern women driven by the pursuit of science, some by a sense of patriotism hoping to help the war effort and bring a loved one home, many more came in search of steady work during the Great Depression. They came from NYC, DC, Pennsylvania coal country, the deep South and rural Tennessee. They found more than they were promised - life under military rule with checkpoints and eavesdropping coworkers; the opportunity to build a brand new community; friendships, dances, boyfriends, and even husbands. Oak Ridge left a mark on all their lives. Kiernan gives voice to these women who kept their work secret from their families and friends.

There were only a few minor drawbacks for me. There were a lot of people to keep track of - I found myself returning to the list of characters frequently. I'm also interested to know if these women experienced any health issues that could have been related to working with uranium. Industry and the US government has a poor record of not disclosing when exposing workers to dangerous materials. As well as covering up these acts when whistle-blowers eventually come forward. Overall I recommend this one for history buffs, especially those who enjoy WWII history and scientific achievement.

Jul 31, 2019

Good story but the authors attemp to be"clever" or "cute" greatly distracted. Would have been a much better read if better written. She has so much material - too bad she couldn't have used a better tecnique too write

IndyPL_SteveB Mar 01, 2019

In late 1942, the United States government created an entire secret city in the hills of Tennessee. Oak Ridge was not on any maps. 75,000 people lived there, including thousands of young women from across the eastern United States. It was the largest secret mission in history. It was, of course, the factory where uranium ore was purified to increase the content of a particular unstable isotope: U235. Thousands of tons were condensed down to a few pounds – just enough to help create the atomic weapons which were dropped on Japan in August, 1945, ending World War II.

This book focuses on the lives of ordinary workers, especially the young women, during the 1940’s and the extraordinary secrecy in which they worked. Along with this story, Kiernan weaves in the basic history of the Manhattan Project and the development of the ideas in physics which led to the splitting of the atom and the discovery of atomic energy – and the important contributions of two women physicists (Ida Noddack and Lise Meitner) who were left out of the Nobel Prizes and many of the history books.

Very interesting, although not well organized.

Dec 05, 2018

Let me just start by saying that Non-Fiction is not my normal preferred genre. I find most Non-Fiction dry and hard to get through due to authors who throw their opinions in where it should be facts. This book is not anything like that. The author is very adept at making the facts clear in a way that is easy to understand and interesting to read. If you're curious about the unknown history of the Manhattan Project, this book is for you.

Sep 07, 2018

This book tells about an important, yet secretive, chapter of US History and how women played such a big role. This book also talks about segregation at the highest level of government work. The best thing about this book is that it brings each woman's story to life first hand, rather than an interpretation of the facts. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read!

Oct 23, 2017

on 2017 reading ballot

Jun 07, 2017

Enlightening on US history & women's studies. We'll never see this kind of gumption again - at least not in my lifetime. It sure hits home how African Americans were treated, even as they worked for the same goal, plus all those who fought & died for this country.

Apr 12, 2017

So much history that was kept silent for so many years appears in this book in a style that makes the chemistry understandable for readers. The human side of the story is remarkable and points out again how good the Greatest Generation really was during this remarkable time of the people doing their best to shorter WWII.

I have been in a bit of a women's history mood. I read Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and then I went on to Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt. Both were wonderful books that outlined how some really intelligent women were responsible sending men into space. I looked forward to this book hoping for more contributions to women's history. This story was different from those other books, but still very interesting. These women were working away from homes on secret projects. They all had one specific job, but they couldn't tell anyone what they did for fear that the whole picture would be revealed. In this remote location in Tennessee, a whole town was built by the United States government to do work to end the war. The secrecy was stringently enforced, but at the same time these people were living lives, dating, and even marrying in this secret city. Who would have thought that that many people could keep that big of a secret. Interesting.

View All Comments


Add a Summary
Jun 30, 2016

In 1942, the American government began buying up and seizing a significant amount of land in the hills of East Tennessee. This was nothing new for the locals; land had been taken from them by the government before, first for the creation of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and then again for the construction of the Norris Dam. And of course, that land had first been taken from the Cherokee. But this seizure was different. Fast and secretive, soon an entire town stood where there had been only a few scattered farmsteads before, a town guarded and secured by the military. And from all over the region, women began arriving, many of them living away from home for the first time. They had been offered jobs, but told nothing about them. They knew only that their purpose was to help bring about “a speedy and victorious end to the war.” For many of them, that was all they needed to know, when their other choice was to wait at home for brothers, and fathers, and lovers to return from the war. And most of them would not learn the truth until “Little Boy” exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, ushering in the atomic age they helped create.


Add a Quote
Jun 30, 2016

“She had spent years not knowing, wondering, sometimes guessing, and then giving up. She had accepted the need and duty to not know; and now this. Today, for no apparent reason, without any warning and out of the sweltering summer blue, came the Secret.”

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability

There are no age suitabilities for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at Library

To Top