How I Wrote It: Denise Kiernan on "The Girls of Atomic City"
[Our thanks to guest contributor Denise Kiernan, author of The Girls of Atomic City, the untold story of the women who worked in a secret outpost in Oak Ridge, Tennesee to contribute to the creation of the Atomic Bomb. Girls of Atomic City was a Best Book of the Month in both nonfiction and history.]
Floor to ceiling panels covered in dials and knobs, a cavern of steel and concrete. The women, fresh-faced and rosy (they always strike me as rosy despite being in black-and-white), sit perched on their stools, flanked by a gauntlet of 1940s technology.
It's not unusual for authors to find a new story while working on another project, and that's what happened to me about seven years ago. I was working on a book which required that I investigate advancements in nuclear medicine. While researching, I tumbled down the click-through rabbit hole that is internet research and landed on this photo from a U.S. Department of Energy newsletter. It got me hooked on the story of the young women of the Manhattan Project. The Girls of Atomic City tells the story of women like the ones pictured here who worked in a secret government city in Tennessee during World War II. Before I knew it, I was sucked into the world of this photo, a world I knew little about and one I came to inhabit myself.
Seventy years ago, the young women in this picture—many of them high school grads from rural Tennessee—stepped through the looking glass themselves and into a world very few people at the time knew anything about. They entered through gates, passing barbed wire manned by guards and guns and dogs. They wore badges and kept secrets and worked round-the-clock shifts. The work they did behind the fences of Oak Ridge, Tennessee—making fuel for the world's first atomic bomb used in combat—ushered in a new world for all of us, too.
I soon began to track down surviving women (and some men) who had lived and worked in Oak Ridge during World War II. Almost every woman I met invited me to coffee or told me about a community meeting I should attend, where I’d meet more "old timers," as many call themselves. Interviewing folks in their later years poses its own unique challenges. If you ever have to do this, I recommend visiting in person. Phone calls were often trying, to say the least.
- Me: Helen?
- Helen: What?
- Me: Helen!
- Helen: This IS Helen.
- Me: It's Denise.
- Helen: This IS Helen
- Me: IT'S DENISE!!!
- Helen: Who is this?
- Me: DUH-NEEECE!
- Helen: Well, hi!
These women—now in their late 80s and 90s—were convinced that they had nothing to offer me because they hadn't known what was going on during the war. They just did as they were told, they'd say. Yet their belief that they had nothing to say is what made them so fascinating to interview. All I had to do was scratch the surface and the memories came tumbling out.
We are never the experts, authors, not when we are conducting an interview. The person you're talking to is the one with all the answers. While the tape recorder is on, they've got the goods. We went on an adventure, they and I, spelunking through the past, stumbling across gems of memories that had always been there, tripping over Johnny Mercer tunes, code words, rations, summer romances, and the very real fear of losing people you loved to a terrible war.
Valuing their own experiences was not something that came naturally to these women. The idea that they were an integral part of such a monumental moment in history seemed crazy to them–and still does, in most cases. Their generation is not one to brag, so I have to do it for them.
(Photo credit: Ed Westcott)