Would we, the descendants of the Greatest Generation, be able to do what the workers did during World War II at Oak Ridge, Tenn.?
I ponder that question after reading “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” It was published this month.
Denise Kiernan's nonfiction book tells of the women (and men) who produced the material needed to fuel the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I don't question the ability of current Americans to perform such work. What I doubt is our wherewithall to do it.
The personal stories of nine women who worked at Oak Ridge form the outline for telling the plant's story.
Could we live the compartmentalized lives these women did? No one at Oak Ridge could discuss her job outside of her work area. And even there, talk was confined to work specifics: This machine needs repair, etc.
The nature of the work was off limits for discussion, even to those doing it. A co-worker might sit beside you for months and then not return. No explanations were given nor were they needed: Those who were gone had broken the rules. Those who asked questions were similarly fired.
Only the top scientists at Oak Ridge knew what was being done there. A few lesser scientists figured it out, but they dared not speak of it.
Workers were told their work was important to ending the war. They were taught only what they needed to perform their job. They weren't told how their work fit into the whole of the project.
A worker's ID badge denoted which areas of the massive complex of buildings he or she was allowed in or near. So it's likely that many of the women profiled in the book never met each other during the war.
Each of the women at Oak Ridge shared two things: a desire to help end the war and a need for steady work that paid well.
Kiernan's writing is clear, fast-paced and easily understood, even when she explains physics. She clearly conveys the paranoia of the workers and the times.
If all history books read like novels, which “Atomic City” does, we'd have a nation of history scholars.
Younger readers might be a bit shocked at how differently African-American workers were treated from their Caucasian counterparts, at how the women who wed during the war preferred someone of their own ethnic group and religious preference, and at how few material possessions (including clothing) the women had.
“The Girls of Atomic City” is a must-read for history buffs, anyone who wants to learn more about World War II and all women.
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