Author Interviews
4:49 am
Sun March 3, 2013

Secretly Working To Win The War In 'Atomic City'

Originally published on Sun March 3, 2013 7:48 am

Before the fight to win women equal footing in the workplace, there was the fight against Hitler and Hirohito. In the depths of World War II, everyone in America had to pitch in, men and women alike. And in 1943 the government offered war jobs, lots of them, in a town called Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Where is it on a map? What do they do there? What will I do there? The government didn't give any answers to those questions — and still the recruits, many of them young women, streamed in.

"The one thing they did know was that the work they were going to do there was going to help end the war," author Denise Kiernan tells NPR's Rachel Martin.

Kiernan's new book, The Girls of Atomic City, is about the women who worked at Oak Ridge, which the military called Site X. It was where the U.S. enriched the uranium that led to the first atomic bomb.

One of the girls was Celia Klemski, a coal miner's daughter from Pennsylvania who landed a big city war job in New York, working on a mysterious project in Manhattan. And then, out of nowhere, her boss asked her to move to Tennessee.

"Well, they told me it was a secret city, and of course, I told my mother where I was going, and she said, 'You can't go to any secret city,'" Klemski recalls. But she was happy to go, and she's been living in Oak Ridge ever since.

Klemski remembers the train ride from New York to Tennessee — first class all the way, but the minute she arrived in Oak Ridge, she stepped in a mud puddle and ruined her black suede shoes.

"I had to throw away those shoes. Broke my heart," she says.

Oak Ridge had been a small southern Appalachian farming community until the war transformed it, Kiernan says.

"By 1945, [it] is a town of 75,000 people, operating 24 hours a day, one of the largest bus systems in the entire United States, and they're using more electricity than New York City," she says.

The town boasted roller-skating rinks and bowling alleys, and factories operating around the clock.

There was also a vibrant social scene as all the young, single war workers flocked to Oak Ridge.

"We were very young," says Colleen Black. "We were so young that we didn't have a funeral home! And so you got acquainted and you went to the dances on the tennis courts and the bowling alleys, and the recreation hall."

Cafeterias were a social center, too — especially for sing-alongs, Black recalls.

Black worked as a leak detector, looking for leaks in the pipes at her plant.

"I had a station at [plant] K25 ... this place where they had a great big pump, and millwrights would bring in pipes overhead, and put it up to my pump. And we'd have to climb around on all these pipes," she says, testing the welds with helium. "And we weren't supposed to say 'helium,' either. We weren't supposed to say anything."

Black and Klemski quickly learned to get over any scruples about wearing trousers to work.

"You'd be climbing all over these pipes, and testing the welds in them," Black says, so skirts were impractical. "Then they had a mass spectrometer there, and you had to watch the dials go off, and you weren't supposed to say that word, either.

"And the crazy thing is, I didn't ask. I mean, I didn't know where those pipes were going, I didn't know what was going through them ... I just knew that I had to find the leak and mark it."

She never asked what was in the pipes, "because they told me not to," Black says. "I'd come from a Catholic school where I minded the nuns, and from a family, did what my parents told me ... so then I did what the boss told me!"

Klemski and Black say the secrecy surrounding Oak Ridge didn't make them nervous.

"But see, we didn't have all these things that you all have now," Black says. "We didn't have cell phones, we didn't have TVs. If we wanted to know the news, we went to the movies and we watched the newsreel, so it didn't bother me ... and if somebody was to ask you, 'What are you making out there in Oak Ridge,' you'd say, '79 cents an hour,'" she says, laughing.

They only learned that they'd been processing uranium when the news of the Hiroshima bombing broke.

"That was the first we heard," Klemski says. "At that time, the Knoxville News-Sentinel came out and it was 5 cents a copy, but that day, when the bomb was dropped, it was a dollar," Black adds.

"At first, we were really excited," she continues. "We thought, oh, we've done something to help win the war. It wasn't till after we saw the devastation — you know, we didn't like that, but we were glad that we had a part in bringing the war to an end." Klemski chimes in: "I certainly was happy that I was here, and that I was part of the war effort, too."

That was the overriding sentiment at Oak Ridge, says author Kiernan.

"This world that they were in, the world of early 1945, was not a world that knew what nuclear winter was, it was not a world that knew what a fallout shelter was," she says. "All they knew was the war, and the day the bomb dropped, all they knew was, this new superbomb has dropped, and it looks like the tide is turning for us."

Klemski and Black recall the news and the period immediately afterward.

"I was really upset, you know, about all the devastation, but there was nothing I could do about it," Klemski says.

Black adds: "They asked us to stay on, and they were going to do research on, you know, something to see if they could help do something for peacetime. And we thought that would be the end of all wars."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's 1943. The world is locked in war in the United States is all in. If you're not on the frontlines, you're sacrificing in one way or another: food, materials, time, sweat. No one knows exactly how the war will end but a handful of government officials and scientists think they have an answer - they need to enrich uranium. So, the government decides to create a city to do that just that. They call it Site X in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The military makes sure you can't find Site X on any maps, but they do make sure Americans know they can find jobs there - lots of them. The recruits, including a lot of young women, stream in. Denise Kiernan tells their story in the new book, "The Girls of Atomic City." She joined us to talk, along with two of those girls, Celia Klemski and Colleen Black. They were just two of thousands of women who worked in this secret city on this very secret mission.

DENISE KIERNAN: These were an amazing, adventurous group of young women whose stories have really never been told. These were counter workers from a local dairy in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; a coal miner's daughter from Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, who's sitting here with me today; nurses from Iowa; chemists from the University of North Carolina; and janitors and secretaries. And they came from all over. And they came to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town they knew absolutely nothing about, a town they were told absolutely nothing about, to do work that they were told absolutely nothing about. And they did so because they were living through what was the greatest war of their lives. And it was a war that touched all of their lives. And the one thing that they did know was that the work they were going to do there was going to help end the war.

MARTIN: You start your book - chapter one - with the story of Celia. Celia Klemski is there in your studio along with Colleen Black. Celia, you were 24 years old. You left your home in Pennsylvania and got on a train bound for Tennessee. What were your expectations of what you would find in Oak Ridge?

CELIA KLEMSKI: Well, they told me it was a secret city. And, of course, I told my mother where I was going. She said you can't go to any secret city. She said that's not allowed. But I was happy to go. And I'm happy I'm here in Oak Ridge. Been here 70 years, so.

MARTIN: Do you remember that train ride?

KLEMSKI: Oh, yes. I rode first class. I had black suede shoes on, stepped in the mud and ruined my shoes.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

KLEMSKI: I had to throw away those shoes and it broke my heart.

MARTIN: This is when you arrived in Oak Ridge. It was pretty muddy.

KLEMSKI: Yeah, that's right.

MARTIN: And what did you expect you would do for a living? What were you told you would do?

KLEMSKI: I was told I was going to be secretary - secretary to whoever came in. And my first boss was the Colonel Vanderbook and then I even took dictation from General Groves when he came, so.

MARTIN: Colleen Black, you're also there in the studio. What were you expectations when you were headed to Oak Ridge?

COLLEEN BLACK: Well, I didn't know. I didn't know what I was going to be doing. I just knew that my mother wanted me to go to Oak Ridge because I had a brother who was in the Army in Europe and she wanted to go and do something to help win the war and bring my brother back home.

MARTIN: Can you tell me about your day to day? What was your job? What were you doing day in and day out?

BLACK: Well, I was a leak detector. I detected leaks in the pipes. And millwrights would bring in pipes overhead and put it up to my pump. And we'd have to climb around on all these pipes. Some of them were big, some of them were small, some of them were elbow. And you tested the welds in the pipe with helium. And we weren't supposed to say helium either.

MARTIN: You weren't supposed to say the word helium.

BLACK: No. We weren't supposed to say anything. But anyway, they didn't think it was ladylike for girls to wear slacks at that time because like when Celia came in all dressed up, well, I came in dressed up in a skirt. But soon I learned, you know, you better wear some slacks because you'd be climbing all over these pipes and testing the welds in them. And then they had a mass spectrometer there that you had to watch the dials go off and you weren't supposed to say that word either. And the crazy thing is I didn't ask. I mean, I didn't know where those pipes were going. I didn't know what was going through them. I didn't know where or what was going through them. I didn't when or what they were doing. And if somebody was to ask you what are you making out there in Oak Ridge, you'd say 79 cents an hour. And you never gave a direct answer.

KLEMSKI: That's right. I had two brothers - one was in Germany and the other one was in Korea - and, you know, we didn't dare say anything. And I didn't. I kept my mouth shut.

MARTIN: Denise, you said there were some people at the site who were forming guesses about what was going on. What were some of the theories floating around?

KIERNAN: Well, it was, I think, hard for people not to at least joke about what the possible purpose of the plants were. Because think for a second about arriving in a place this huge and you see it operating all day and these train cars after train cars after train cars keep bringing in the supplies, the machinery and lumber and the plants keep getting bigger and bigger and more and more people are there. And you never see anything leave. So, people began to formulate, you know, guesses. I interviewed one woman who said a friend of hers was convinced it had something to do with urine, because her job was to process people in and take urine samples. She was convinced. Another woman I interviewed who was working at the Y-12 plant, which was operated by Tennessee Eastman thought, oh, well, Tennessee Eastman, so we must be helping develop newsreels - the kind that they show about the war before the picture show.

MARTIN: Celia, Colleen, so, when did you know? When did you find out that you were helping process uranium that went to fuel the bomb...

KLEMSKI: When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

BLACK: Yep.

KLEMSKI: That was when we learned.

BLACK: Yeah. That was the first we heard. We were really surprised.

MARTIN: And what were your thoughts? Do you remember what went through your head?

BLACK: First, we were really excited. We thought, oh, we've done something to help win the war. It wasn't till after and we saw the devastation. You know, we didn't like that. But we were glad that we had a part in bringing the war to an end.

KLEMSKI: I certainly was happy that I was here and that I was part of the war effort too, especially having two brothers in service, you know, so.

MARTIN: Was that the overriding sentiment, Denise, among the people you spoke with?

KIERNAN: My experience in my interviews was, yes. And a lot of that was, you know, this world that they were in, the world of early 1945, was not a world that knew what nuclear winter was. It was not a world that knew what a fallout shelter was. All they knew was the war. And the day the bomb dropped, all they knew was this new super-bomb has dropped and it looks like the tide is turning for us.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask Colleen and Celia, when it became clear to you, were you conflicted in any way about your role?

KLEMSKI: No, I was really upset, you know, about all the devastation. But there was nothing I could do about it, so.

BLACK: You know, and they asked us to stay on and they were going to do research on, you know, some to see if we could help do something for peace time. And we thought that would be the end of all wars.

KLEMSKI: Yep.

MARTIN: Denise Kiernan's new book is called "The Girls of Atomic City." It profiles the women who helped enrich uranium for the bomb that ended the Second World War. Colleen Black and Celia Klemski were two of those women. They all joined us from member station WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. Ladies, thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

KIERNAN: Thank you so much for having us.

BLACK: Thank you.

KLEMSKI: Thank you.

BLACK: We enjoyed it.

MARTIN: You can read an excerpt from "The Girls of Atomic City" at our website, npr.org. And we would like to hear your thoughts about today's program. You can find us on Twitter. We are @NPRWeekend or @RachelNPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.