Virginia Festival of the Book: Kiernan shares the seldom-heard tales of 'The Girls of Atomic City' - The Daily Progress: Lifestyles

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Virginia Festival of the Book: Kiernan shares the seldom-heard tales of 'The Girls of Atomic City'

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Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2014 6:00 am

A year into the greatest conflict the planet has ever known, exceptional bravery wasn't being shown only on the battlefields of World War II.

It also was being demonstrated by young women, some just out of high school, who were mustering the courage to leave the comforts of the known and strike out on a path toward the unknowable. Beginning in 1943, their march to destiny, as often as not, started at small-town bus stations and railroad depots.

Dressed in their Sunday best, with cardboard suitcases holding what precious things they could carry, they stoically faced what was to come. Tens of thousands of these women would take this journey, which for many of them would be the adventure of a lifetime.

Their destination was a muddy quagmire along a Tennessee ridgeline known as Site X. As this Brigadoon of military might rapidly materialized into a sprawling industrial city of some 75,000 residents, it became best known as Oak Ridge.

From 1943 until atomic bombs detonated above the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, Oak Ridge played a vital role in the development of this world-changing weapon. But the story of the thousands of women who were instrumental in making it possible had been largely overlooked.

This oversight was corrected with the recent publication of the best-selling book "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" by Denise Kiernan. The author will be discussing the book at 2 p.m. Friday at New Dominion Bookshop on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall.

This event is one of 218 being offered during the 20th annual Virginia Festival of the Book, which opens Wednesday and will run through March 23. More than 400 authors and people involved in the publishing field will be participating in readings, panel discussions, book signings and other events during the five-day celebration of the written word.

Most of the festival events are free, but some require tickets. To obtain tickets and to see the full schedule of events, go to www.VABook.org.

"During these 20 years, a whole generation of kids have grown up going to festival events, and now some of them are authors," said Nancy Coble Damon, program director of the festival, which is produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. "That's exciting for me.

"We are one of the longest-running book festivals in the country. And I think that shows that books and literacy are alive and well in all their forms.

"I thank all the people who make this festival great by attending events, by volunteering and by writing and reading."

Books can change lives, but it was an old black-and-white photograph that started Kiernan on the seven-year odyssey that culminated in "The Girls of Atomic City." She talked about it during a recent interview.

"I was working on another project when I came across the old photograph," said Kiernan, who also is the author of "Signing Their Lives Away" and "Signing Their Rights Away."

"It caught my eye, because I thought it was quite beautiful. It featured a bunch of young women in a room lined with these tremendous panels that were covered with all these knobs and dials. I was really struck by the strange technology and the youth of the women in the photo.

"The caption explained that these women, many of them recent high school graduates from rural Tennessee, were helping to enrich uranium for the world's first atomic bomb, only they didn't know that at the time. I was surprised, because I was not familiar with this aspect of the Manhattan Project."

The Manhattan Project was the code name for the top-secret development of the atomic bomb. There were three major sites where this work took place — Site W in Hanford, Wash.; Site Y in Los Alamos, N.M.; and Site X at Oak Ridge.

The main focus at Oak Ridge, where most of Kiernan's book takes place, was to enrich uranium, without which the "gadget" wouldn't work. The actual bomb was built at the Los Alamos facility, the site that most people identify with the project.

After doing some checking, Kiernan realized she was far from alone in not knowing anything about the Oak Ridge story. When she discovered that Oak Ridge was only a two-hour drive from where she was living, she decided to pay it a visit.

After driving around the town and visiting the local museum and history room in the library, Kiernan started feeling she was onto an important story. Her writing instincts told her that it would be the individual experiences of the women who had worked at Oak Ridge that would bring the story alive.

"I got in touch with the local historian and asked him if any of these people were still around," said Kiernan, whose journalistic work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Discover magazine.

"He said there were, and he took me to meet Connie Bolling, who was 101 years old at that time. He is actually the supervisor standing in the photograph that got this all started for me. I spoke with him at his assisted living facility, and when I was in the lobby leaving, I was introduced to a very vivacious woman named Colleen.

"She went on to become one of the main characters in my book. Colleen introduced me to Dot, and they introduced me to two other people. It expanded from there — and anybody, men or women, who would talk with me, I sat down and got their story."

And what a story it turned out to be. In a matter of a few months, the federal government evicted about 1,000 families from their land, totaling about 56,000 acres, and started construction.

The transition was so abrupt that confused family cows roamed free, not knowing where to turn or where to go. Displaced people, some given just a few weeks to move, deeply mourned the precious keepsakes they didn't have time to grab.

Only something of the magnitude of saving the nation could possibly justify causing such heartbreak. And that is what was ultimately at stake, and what drove mortals to achieve a superhuman feat.

"I continue to be amazed at the astonishing speed with which they built this place," Kiernan said. "Oak Ridge was a purpose-built town that didn't exist prior to World War II.

"In under three years, it grew into a sizable town of nearly 80,000 people, and was using more electricity than New York City. All the kind of jobs that go along with a functioning community — teachers, nurses, office workers, shopkeepers — were there.

"But then there were also these young women, and, of course, men, working in these plants that were enriching uranium to fuel the bomb. That they were able to train so many people to do their job without telling them what they were working on is quite a feat as well."

Kiernan's research took her from family homes in Oak Ridge to the National Archives in Atlanta, where 5,000 boxes of information on the Manhattan Project are housed. But it was the importance of telling the human side of the Oak Ridge story that kept her at it for seven years.

One of the most fascinating stories the author came across is that of an old mountain man named John Hendrix. Local lore has it that he prophesied the building of Oak Ridge decades before it happened.

Hendrix, who died in 1915, had told anyone who would listen that he had a vision that one day a large city would be built there with great buildings and factories. And the reason for it was to "help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be."

The stories told to Kiernan by the women who worked at Oak Ridge captured what it was like to live and work in this place foretold by a mountain prophet. At last, in the late season of their lives, they were able to tell their stories and be appreciated for what they had done and the sacrifices they had made.

"I loved meeting the women," Kiernan said. "It was a very rewarding experience to be able to look at this moment in time with these women, who were so interesting and had such accessible and touching stories.

"One of my ladies, Helen, was working at a diner when she was asked if she wanted to work on the project. They needed so many people that they were scouring the area for available workers.

"If I remember correctly, she said the offered wage that got her to buy a bus ticket and leave town was 79 cents an hour. One of the things the government officials were concerned with was turnover, so they were paying good wages to get people and to retain them."

The government also made life as tolerable as possible at Oak Ridge, which was a muddy mess much of the time. Kiernan said everybody she talked to had a story about the mud.

"In order to create Oak Ridge, a lot of trees were knocked down, and a lot of dirt was moved," Kiernan said. "And then you got the heavy Southern rains that turned everything into goop. It was disastrous.

"They brought in a lot of prefabricated housing, but the population blew past that pretty quickly. Trailers were brought in, but trying to keep up with the growing population resulted in a lot of mud.

"Dot said all the mud and the conditions made her feel she was a pioneer in the Wild West."

On Aug. 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman informed the nation that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. News of the revolutionary weapon came as much of a surprise to most of the workers at Oak Ridge as it did to the rest of the world.

"Near the end of Truman's address, he mentions Oak Ridge by name, and people there were floored that they had played a part in it," Kiernan said. "These were people who had never heard phrases like atomic bomb, fallout shelter, nuclear winter, radiation sickness.

"So the implications for what it all meant for the future came gradually. Most people felt pride in contributing to the war effort, but the feelings were mixed when it came to whether or not we should have dropped the bombs.

"One woman I interviewed said, 'I was so happy that the war looked like it was going to be over and my brother was going to come home. But I was sad, because a lot of people died, and I like people.' "

Kiernan will be discussing "The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" at 2 p.m. Friday at New Dominion Bookshop on Charlottesville's Downtown Mall.

This event is part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, which opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday. A full schedule of events can be found at www.VABook.org.

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