Because I grew up during WWII, I read books about that terrible time. One that I just completed is titled “The Girls Of Atomic City.” Years ago when I traveled the country with the family I studied maps of the USA. Yes maps, that was a time before computers and GPS were invented. One area that always intrigued me was Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This small town was always connected to the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority). The TVA was one of President Roosevelt’s make work projects during the Great Depression. Basically he brought electricity to the rural South by damming rivers, and building power plants. Oak Ridge was just a ridge named for its oak trees. There was no town. After the war started Roosevelt initiated the Manhattan Project. This was the most secret effort ever worked on by the USA. The Manhattan Project involved several different places; one in Chicago, another in Las Alamos, New Mexico, and one in Tennessee called the Clinton Engineering Works. The project was the most closely guarded of any ever worked on involving hundreds of thousands of people across the country, except for a few traitors who regularly fed information to the Russians.
The secret has been public information for many years now, and the Manhattan Project was a success. We developed the atomic bomb, and used it to end WWII. There are people who argue that the USA was wrong to kill so many civilians, but to do other wise would have meant seeing millions of military people slaughtered on both sides. Are they not also civilians?
The atomic bomb needed fuel to make it work. The fuel was Uranium 238, and Uranium 235. In order to get the Uranium to work it had to be concentrated and close to pure. The effort to process Uranium ore into bomb grade material is what spawned the Oak Ridge section of the project. The US Government spent 2 billion dollars (1943-45 money) to make it happen. To keep the secret, no one who worked at Oak Ridge knew what any one else who worked there did. Workers had only the information they needed to perform their specific jobs.
Most of the men at the time were drafted to fight the war in Europe and the Pacific. This meant the job force was mostly women, young high school graduated women. Many of these girls had brothers fighting in the war, and many of the brothers were already killed or wounded in action. The girls never knew what was going on at the plant, but they did know they were working for the government and believed they were working to help end the war.
As I read this story and marveled at the system the Army invented to keep the project secret, I was reminded of the company that I worked for. The owner, whom I will refer to as JEC, used this system to guard his manufacturing process from winding up in the hands of his competitors. Departments were closed off from each other, and employees were given badges that would open the doors. That is, if they were authorized to enter the area. As a new engineer, I sought entry into the production room to watch a specific machine work. It was my project to improve the machine. Within seconds of arriving the supervisor of the department was at my side asking questions about my need for information. I received a very stern rebuke about the need to call the department head in advance of a visit to his area. Our security system was so strict, I often wondered who invented it. Now I know. I am positive that JEC had worked as an engineer on some aspect of the Manhattan Project. JEC never lost his trade secrets to a leak because no one employee ever had the whole picture of the processes.
At its peak, Oak Ridge had seventy-five thousand people working at the site. Imagine the effort it took to build plants, to install custom machinery, hire and house staff. The site they picked was in the middle of nowhere south of Knoxville, Tennessee. Roads were nonexistent. Roads inside the fence that surrounded the project were mud. Buildings to house employees were many different kinds: some were crude dormitories, some mobile trailers, some pre-fab apartments. They built cafeterias to feed the workers who worked around the clock. They had a bus system that rivaled those of large cities. They had shopping centers where employees could buy necessities. A single building provided space for worship of many different faiths. In other words, they had to build a city as well as a factory to make the product.
I found this book fascinating and could not stop reading until I finished. Oak Ridge the city that did not exist finally became a city after the war.
Denise Kiernan did a wonderful job of reporting a piece of history that has been long neglected while integrating the personal stories of several women who worked there, and who were still living at the time she wrote the book.