Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Girls of Atomic City

Shift change: These are the women who worked at the Y-12 plant, which used electromagnets to separate Uranium-235 from natural uranium ore

Shift change at the Clinton Engineer Works circa 1943 courtesy

It was a town that had more mud than a pig pen, more secrets than a sorority, more busses than a bus depot and more electricity than New York City.  And yet it didn't even appear on a United States map.  What was its name?  Oak Ridge, Tennessee -- otherwise known as the Atomic City.

1945 K-25 Plant Aerial Oak Ridge Tennessee

Oak Ridge, Tennessee courtesy

In 1940, Oak Ridge was a 59,000-acre swap of land in the Appalachians which was home to 3,000 farmers.  By 1942, the American government confiscated the land and built a city:  roads appeared, huts sprung up, trailers were parked, factories were built, all in the space of a few months.

1944 muddy road building at Oak Ridge Tennessee

Muddy roads circa 1944 courtesy

Tens of thousands of young women were recruited from Southern farms, Midwestern towns and Eastern cities of the United States with the promise of solid wages.  Some were hired to be secretaries, others statisticians; some operated blow torches while others used Geiger counters.  "Rosie did much more than drive rivets."  While their work may have been monotonous, it was very important:  it was war-ending work.

Anything you can do: Women performed a wide variety of tasks that were previously done only by men. Here, a woman fits pipe into a valve with a welding torch

Worker at the CEW courtesy

Even though most of these women did not know what they were actually producing, they were sworn to secrecy by the American government.  In the hills of the Appalachians, workers saw billboards spring up with reminders of the top secret nature of their work.

Top secret: Signs around the compound warned workers not to talk about what they hear and saw at the nuclear facility

Billboard swearing workers to secrecy courtesy

Work continued at the Clinton Engineering Works in Oak Ridge day in and day out.  The women would punch in, complete their shift, hop the bus home, take off their muddy shoes and dusty clothes and climb into bed, exhausted.  But work wasn't the only order of the day.  Oak Ridge's demographic was quite young.  At night, the town came alive with dancing.  Many a courtship was struck up at these dances.  Many a marriage was performed at the Chapel on the Hill.

The Chapel on the Hill courtesy

One day in July of 1945, a great blast went off in the desert of New Mexico.  It was kept hush-hush and many Americans did not find out about it.  Then, on August 6, the Enola Gay flew over Hiroshima, Japan and dropped "Little Boy", the first atomic bomb, killing 166,000 people.  The world was stunned.  For the first time, the women at the Clinton Engineering Works knew what they were producing -- the bomb.  They were processing uranium to make the atomic bomb.

Lethal: Few people working on the project knew that they were enriching uranium to create Little Boy, the first atom bomb used in war

Atomic bomb over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, courtesy

With no talk of peace from the Japanese government, President Truman ordered a second atomic bomb to be dropped, this one on Nagasaki three days after Hiroshima.  On August 14, the Japanese government surrendered.  The war was over.

Harry Truman courtesy

For the women of Oak Ridge, many were laid off as the men came back from the war.  Some factories were shut down.  Bit by bit, the trailers were removed, the huts were dismantled.  All that was left was the mud. Oak Ridge, which had boasted 75,000 residents at its peak, became a ghost town almost overnight.  Many of the women returned to the South, the Midwest and the East.  Some made new starts with their new husbands.  All were part of the Manhattan Project, which did not start in the desert of New Mexico, but in the hills of Tennessee.

Clinton Engineering Works employees circa 1943 courtesy

For more information, read The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan.

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