The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II




March is celebrated as Women’s History Month. Given that fact, I thought it would be appropriate to review a book about women and the role they played during the Manhattan Project, the project responsible for introducing the world to the power of the atomic bomb.


At the height of World War II, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was home to 75,000 residents, consuming more electricity than New York City. But to most of the world, the town did not exist. Thousands of civilians – many of them young women from small towns across the South – were recruited to this secret city, enticed by solid wages and the promise of war-ending work. Kept very much in the dark, few would ever guess the true nature of the tasks they performed each day in the hulking factories in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. That is, until the end of the war – when Oak Ridge’s secret was revealed.
Drawing on the voices of the women who lived it – women who are now in their eighties and nineties – The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of American history from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. Combining the grand-scale human drama of The Worst Hard Time with the intimate biography and often troubling science of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Girls of Atomic City is a lasting and important addition to our country’s history.
©2013 Denise Kiernan (P)2013 Audible, Inc.


The Manhattan Project is pretty well known by a lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be World War II historians. When the atomic bomb was dropped first on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki, it changed the world. It led to an arms race between the United States and Soviet Union that fueled fear throughout the Cold War.
‘The Girls of Atomic City’ looks at the role that women played as the Manhattan Project marched on with a goal of bringing the war to a much faster end. The city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee is where many people found themselves at some point during the war. The city, which didn’t even exist before the war started, would have a population of over 70,000 at it’s peak. A large number of those people were civilians and a great many of them were women.
Denise Kiernan profiles some of the women who lived and worked at Oak Ridge during the war. No aspect of life passes by without comment. They talk about their work and the difficulties of dealing with a high level of secrecy. They talk about having to walk down the street with shoes overhead to keep them from being ruined by the mud.
Kiernan was able to talk to women who had a differing selection of jobs. She talked to secretaries and scientists, janitorial staff and statisticians. She talked to a nurse and women who worked in some of the Oak Ridge factories themselves. One woman was even asked to do some spying to monitor whether people were talking about things they shouldn’t be talking about with people they shouldn’t be talking to.
Aside from work, the women’s social lives are a big part of the story. Living in dorms, cooking, social activities (both in and out of Oak Ridge), dating, falling in love, getting married and having children. No stone is left unturned, and because this is a southern city during the mid 1940s, even the matter of segregation is brought to the forefront at times.
The most interesting aspect of the book for me wasn’t so much how the women found themselves in Oak Ridge or even the work they did while they were there. I was most interested in their reactions when they found out the real nature of what they had contributed to in both the short and long term.
On the day when they found out that the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and discovered what part they had played in that process, there was a lot of celebrating. There was also a lot of regret and hope that it would never have to happen again. One of the book’s most memorable scenes is near the end when one of the women tours the Pearl Harbor site and looks down on the wreckage of the USS Arizona where her brother was killed.
It is hard to find fault with ‘The Girls of Atomic City’. I left my reading of this book with all of my major questions answered. Kiernan did a thorough job chronicling life at Oak Ridge before, during and after the project, as well as shining light on some of the female scientists that were involved in the discoveries that made The Manhattan Project possible in the first place.


Denise Kiernan has authored several books of a historical nature. The book’s epilogue is a bit of her story and about her time spent interacting with the women she profiled. The fact that she developed such an affection for her subject is as understandable as it is inevitable.


I always enjoy listening to Cassandra Campbell. She always knows how to hit the right note and set the right mood. Whether it is for a collection of Chelsea Handler’s one night stands, creating the world of ‘Orange is the New Black’ or dealing with some of the weightier subjects found in ‘The Girls of Atomic City’, Campbell has done a wonderful job with everything I’ve heard her read.
I actually noticed something while listening to this book that has occurred to me before but really stood out here. Women tend to do a more believable job of voicing men than men do of voicing women. I noticed this when Campbell was reading some of President Truman’s speech when he announced that the bomb had been dropped. I think women can deepen their voices without it sounding distracting. Men tend to soften their own speaking voice when talking for women because making their voice go higher would in most cases just sound funny and out of place.


‘The Girls of Atomic City’ sounds great. The audio comes through clean, with no glitches to be found on the track. There are 18 audio chapter stops and they are all put in the right places. There is no music on the track, not even at the beginning and end. Also, there are no sound effects used at any point.


I’m glad that ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ was written. A few more years, and Kiernan wouldn’t have been able to write it with first hand accounts from women who were actually there.
‘The Girls of Atomic City’ runs the gamut of emotions. Sometimes it’s sad and depressing. Other times it’s humorous and happy. There is intrigue and poignancy. The scientists of The Manhattan Project have become household names to a degree, but there were literally hundreds of thousands of people involved in bringing that project to life, and as this book shows, many of them were women. It is time that they get the acknowledgement they deserve.
It may seem strange to think that there are people who deserve more credit for the development of the atomic bomb. The bomb itself is a horrific device, and even if it did lead to the use of atomic energy in other ways, that is also not without controversy. That is something that the reader of ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ will have to work out for himself. In that way, you get a tiny sense of at least one struggle that many of the women profiled in this book had to deal with over the years.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is a history buff in general and a World War II buff in specific. I would also suggest anyone interested in Women’s history give this book a listen as well. ‘The Girls of Atomic City’ is a moving chronicle of ordinary women working under extraordinary conditions on one of the major developments of the 20th Century.


Title Author Narrator Publisher Genre Release Date Running Time Score
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II Denise Kiernan Cassandra Campbell Audible Studios History 11/12/2013 12 hours, 51 minutes 8.75/10