My January 2015 Book of the Month is The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of Women Who Helped Win World War II (2013) by Denise Kiernan.
I received the book as a Christmas gift from my brother and sister-in-law, and I found it to be a fascinating read. I'll be the first to confess that I "don't know much about history." (Perhaps that's why I loved the song Wonderful World, a classic Sam Cooke hit released in the 1960s.) I always do very badly in that category when playing Trivial Pursuit.
Most of the people I knew from my parents' generation didn't want to talk about "the War." They had survived The Great Depression, the "Dirty Thirties," the attack on Pearl Harbor, and years of war--with rationing of everything from sugar to gasoline. They participated in scrap metal drives, blood drives, and war bond drives to support "the war effort." And they felt the emotional toll of the war. Every family, it seemed, knew someone whose loved one had been killed, wounded, held as a prisoner of war, or was missing in action. No one wanted to see the telegram delivery person arrive in the neighborhood, bearing the dreaded message, "We regret to inform you . . .." And neither World War I nor World War II were taught in my high school history class.
Most of what I know about World War II, even today, I learned watching old war movies and the 2007 PBS mini-series, The War.
But I had heard of Rosie the Riveter:
And I had heard of The Manhattan Project, which I envisioned as a bunch of mad male scientists building atomic bombs in the desert Southwest.
But I had never heard of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the atomic city referenced in the book's title-- a top secret, high-security reservation nestled in a Tennessee valley that was "home" from 1943-1945 to 75,000 residents --workers who worked round the clock to refine what a substance they knew only as "Tubealloy" to make a Gadget. Young women, many from the rural Midwest and South, were recruited, sometimes fresh out of high school, to live and work at Oak Ridge. They battled homesickness, knee deep mud, strict dormitory rules, and isolation. They were never told what they were doing -- they were only instructed how to do it. Many of the girls had brothers, relatives, or boyfriends who were fighting overseas. They seemed to be willing to accept on faith that whatever the Gadget was, it would help to end the War.
Denise Kiernan weaves the oral histories of many of these women (interviewed in their 80s), along with historic research, to tell an engaging story of life, love, and endless work at Oak Ridge.
On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people instantly. Thousands more later died of radiation exposure. On August 9, 1945, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 40,000 people. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945.
The "Tubealloy" from Oak Ridge fueled the atomic bombs. World War II ended, but the human cost was staggering. Much as I may admire the courage and dedication of these young women, I'll never subscribe to the theory that all's fair in love and war.
To any objective observer, those atomic bombs were weapons of mass destruction.