How Gals Helped Nuke Japan Without Knowing It

Young women played a big role at WWII atomic plant

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 9, 2013 5:15 PM CST

(Newser) – Many young women helped build the A-bomb at a secret atomic research facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.—but didn't know what they were making, the Daily Beast reports. Denise Kiernan's new book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, describes the weirdness of daily life at so-called "Site X." One 18-year-old, for example, was told only to monitor and adjust gauge needles: "The idea was to get as much R as possible," writes Kiernan, "so that when the men came to empty the 'E' boxes of the 'D' units there would be a nice amount in there." What did it all stand for? "Smart girls didn't bother asking."

But "Site X" had a darker side. Women had letters boldly censored, romantic outings monitored, were fired for discussing work, and labored under Orwellian billboards—like one of a huge eye with a "swastika-embedded pupil" that read, "THE ENEMY IS LOOKING FOR INFORMATION GUARD YOUR TALK." Meanwhile, black workers were treated poorly, banned from the swimming pool and any family cohabitation (white couples were allowed to live together). In the end, the plant's workers were shocked to see the fruit of their labor dropped on Japan. Their curiosity, writes Kiernan, was replaced by "pride and guilt and joy and relief and shame." Click for the full article.

Shift change at the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during the Manhattan Project.   (Wikimedia Commons)
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