‘The Atomic City Girls’-The Lesser Known Part of the Manhattan Project

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Atomic City Girls cover
cover copyright William Morrow

The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard is a novel set during the World War II Manhattan Project years of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a place that did not officially exist, a place that showcased American ingenuity and drive as well as the darker sides of sexism and racism.

Beard makes this lost community come alive in this well-researched novel, giving readers a glimpse of the types of people who lived and worked and loved there, and allowing them to walk in the shoes of her characters, driving home the truth of the place despite this being fiction.

The main job of the Oak Ridge facility was to separate the fissile isotope uranium-235 from natural uranium, which consists almost entirely of the isotope uranium-238. In other words, Oak Ridge manufactured the materials for the atomic bombs which were later dropped on Japan. The city of almost 70,000 was carved out by the U. S. Army in this remote section in little more than a year and there were many swift condemnations of homes/properties in the area to gain that land.

The non-fiction history is fascinating but author Beard takes another tact with Oak Ridge, by using fictional characters to walk us through the world of Oak Ridge, the class and racial differences that existed inside it, and the upheaval its creation wrought not only in the people working there but the world itself.

The Atomic Girl of the title, June Walker, is not even a legal adult when Oak Ridge first impacts her life. Her grandfather’s property has been condemned and, in an early scene, her father and the rest of her family have to move him before the government bulldozers come.

In time, just 19, she gains a job that pays well at Oak Ridge, especially for someone of her age, schooling, and experience, but it’s a baffling job that she doesn’t fully understand. She wants to learn what she’s doing but the secrecy on the project keeps her from that. All she can deduce is that it involves magnets.

Miss Collins marched them deeper into the building. Long rows of lights shone down from enormous high ceilings, illuminating metal equipment. Industrial noises screeched and echoed in the distance. Miss Collins stopped in front of a row of tall machines, each with a female operator perched on a stool in front of it, spaced about ten feet from one another. “These are your cubicles,” she said and began pointing out where each of them should sit. The “cubicles” were actually large metal boxes that reached all the way to the ceiling and were covered in meters, knobs, and levers. June had been given a diagram of the machines in her training, so she was familiar with the design. Still, the scale of the operation was a surprise.

The next person we meet in the story is Sam Canton, a young Jewish physicist from New York City who knows exactly what the Oak Ridge facility is doing. His worldview is the exact opposite of June’s more innocent one, as he’s aware of the realities of what this weapon might do. While June is amazed at the city’s that’s sprung up overnight in her area, Sam is less than impressed when he arrives.

Sam looked up from his companion and saw they were approaching a tall fence covered in barbed wire and a concrete tower, from which a man with a large rifle looked down. The stretch car stopped behind about twenty other vehicles all waiting to enter. When the car finally made it through the security gate forty minutes later, they drove into a massive construction site. Workers climbed on huge piles of wood and metal, the road was clogged with trucks going in both directions, and the damp air was heavy with the stinging sweet smell of asphalt and lumber. In the midst of cranes and half-built buildings stood a large billboard with a picture of three monkeys with their hands on their eyes, ears, and mouths, respectively. The sign commanded: “What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, let it stay here.” 

Around a bend, they came upon a community of trailer homes, row after row of nondescript white boxes winding around a semicircle. There were no trees in this newly constructed area, just prodigious amounts of dirt. Newly paved roads wound up a little hillside covered in small pre-fabricated homes. Farther on was something of a town with a market, pharmacy, and cinemas constructed around a small cement plaza, and beyond this loomed the Hill, where a broad white building housed the CEW administrative offices.

Sam soon finds out that despite being a scientist for the project, he’s assigned to a dormitory, something he considers beneath him, and finally manages to get into the top dwellings at Oak Ridge, one of those prefabricated homes built for families, via living with a fellow scientist and his family.

Sam arrives a year earlier than June, so there is more at Oak Ridge when she enters. Still, she lives in a dormitory and is pleased enough with the arrangement, especially considering where she came from.

It’s Joe Brewer, however, a black construction worked on the project who has the most to complain about and doesn’t because his work at Oak Ridge offers his family a better life eventually.

Despite the fact that he was wearing almost all the clothes he owned and was further wrapped in two blankets, Joe was cold. Each breath he took sent icy air tearing into his nose and chest. The woodstove in the middle of the room couldn’t combat the wind ripping through the plywood walls or the hutment, nor could the thin, flannel blankets…..[break]

Joe tried to remember that heat, the awful insects humming above his head, and wondered if it was worse than this November cold. But summer seemed like a dream, impossible to recapture. At least now he’d gotten used to things. Those first months he had thought he wouldn’t be able to stand being away from his wife Moriah. On those sleepless, sweltering night, he’d had half a mind to walk right out of the wretched hutment and hitch a ride down to Alabama where Moriah and the children were waiting. Now he knew he could stand it a little longer, make more money, get Moriah up here just as soon as possible. 

Yes, Oak Ridge was a severely segregated facility. Those prefab homes and dormitories for Sam and June are not available to him, nor is the town square Sam describes. Nor is transportation reliable because some white workers won’t share buses on the facility with black workers. The social areas are segregate and inferior as well, built much like the hutments, and not nearly as good as the dance hall for the whites.

I expected to be most interested in June and her coming-of-age tale but it’s Joe’s story that kept drawing me in more.

If Oak Ridge is forgotten, the role of segregation at the facility is an even more buried story. Joe suffers all the hardships of racism and as a person deemed as lesser. Because he must take care of his family, he endures, sometimes not pleased, but he knows money can buy for his children opportunities. His younger friend, Ralph, only just a boy come to manhood, is not so optimistic pushes back at the restrictions. Far from being passive and accepting their second-place positions, there is a formal group of leaders in the back community that slowly pushes for better working conditions, better housing, and the right to ride those buses. They have success after a time and Joe eventually is able to bring his family to live with him.

But the “troublemakers,” like Ralph and his new girlfriend, have a rockier experience.

For June, she eventually becomes romantically involved with Sam, possibly because he represents a wider world than she’s ever known and also because he’s so different from her fiance who died in the war. June felt she had to say “yes” when he childhood sweetheart proposed when he was going off to war and now she fights guilt that he died because while she mourns the death of her friend, she’s happy to not have to be married to someone she doesn’t love. She wants more out of life than her mountain, though she doesn’t know it yet.

Sam, however, is the unhappiest character in the book, despite being the most privileged. It’s because of his family upbringing, because of his relations connection to the Eastern European Jewish relatives who are being slaughtered in Germany, and because he knows what he’s working on and he knows the destruction it can cause.

Eventually, despite the segregated facility, Joe, June, and Sam’s lives do collide, with consequences for all of them.

The strength of this book is that the reader can turn the dials with June, experience the government-imposed poverty on Joe, and see Sam struggle with the realities of what he’s doing. It’s not an emotionally intense book, however, and the ending is as abrupt as the closing down of much of the facility was when the war ended.

But it is a slice-of-life book about a story in American history that needs to be told and remembered and it’s made me want to go Oak Ridge Manhattan Project National Park, especially as Beard includes photographs of the facility her characters inhabit in the novel.

There is a bus tour that is available that will take visitors through what’s left of the facilities from the Manhattan Project. In my head, that place must be full of ghosts of people like June and Sam and Joe.