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

It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of WW2 books lately, like Hiroshima and Unbroken. Denise Kiernan’s contribution was a welcome addition to the list, spotlighting the forgotten or unknown achievements of women who were involved in the effort to unleash atomic energy onto the world, like Lise Meitner, who was excluded from the 1944 Nobel Prize for discovery of fission despite having led the research effort for 30 years with Otto Hahn (who did get the award and never mentioned her). Also Ida Noddack, German chemist and physicist whose 1934 article pointed to the possibility of fission. But mostly this book focuses on the woman of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town that sprang up overnight in 1943 as Site X, the facility to enrich uranium for the gadget/weapon being created at Site Y (Alamo, NM).
Women flooded the gates, working as engineers, scientists, secretaries, technicians, welders, cleaners. The book follows a handful of these women through day-to-day life in the top secret town, where Uncle Sam glared down from billboards admonishing people to not talk about their work, embedded spies reporting loose lips back to the FBI. Terrible segregated housing didn’t allow black couples to live together, but white families put into trailers or houses. One black man, Ebb Cade, was the victim of a car crash in the town, and used unwittingly to experiment with an injection of plutonium (“Let’s find out what this does!”); they also removed 15 of his teeth and then set his broken leg twenty days after the crash.
It was good to be a major corporation during the war: Monsanto chemical company ran the lab at Oak Ridge, and Dow chemical continued experiments post war, after DuPont had moved on (along with Monsanto). Eastman Kodak helped oversee operations at the factories on site.
Overall a great example of an engaging, well-researched book, telling stories that had never been heard.