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Book sparks memories of former resident

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A July 16, 1945 blast in New Mexico marked the successful test of the atomic bomb that subsequently was dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and effectively ended World War II.

At the time in Oak Ridge, Tenn., hundreds of young female clerks, nurses, cleaners, secretaries and scientists endured mud, censorship and racial and gender discrimination for good wages and, often, mates. Few even guessed they were working on a bomb.

Speculating was taboo.

The women simply didn't ask, they told author Denise Kiernan for her recently published book, "The Girls of Atomic City."

The experiences of almost a dozen young women are chronicled in volume subtitled "The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II."

I found it hard to imagine their life.

Not so Barbara Main Randall, widow of retired St. Albans Mayor Jim Randall.

She was there, arriving at Oak Ridge in June 1944 after a year of college.

"The first time I went for a job interview I wore penny loafers, which were kind of our co-ed dress shoes, and a dress, of course," she wrote in an email from her Ohio home. "I waded through enough mud to almost pull them off my bobby sox."

At least she kept her shoes.

One of the nine women interviewed by Kiernan ruined her new shoes in the mud upon arrival in August 1943. "Broke my heart," she told the author.

Barbara Randall came to Oak Ridge to join her family. Her father, a civil and design engineer, was a planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

By then Oak Ridge was a city of 75,000 residents with new railroad line, houses, apartments, dormitories, barracks, trailers, a library, hospital, offices, warehouse and recreational facilities, Barbara wrote.

"But it was so new and raw that the overwhelming impressions was of white rocks on sticky Tennessee red clay slashed with curving roads full of a fleet of Army drab buses."

Because of her dad's position, the family of five had a three-bedroom home.  

"I remember seeing bright lights coming down our lane as pavers put down asphalt at midnight one night," she wrote.

Homes were prefabricated, assigned according to position and rank.

The black residents got the minimum, in a segregated section, with married black couples forbidden to live together or bring their children. Kiernan documents the life of janitor Katie Strickland, who moved with her husband from Alabama for decent-paying, post-Depression jobs.  Strickland lived with three other women in a plywood 16- by-16-foot "hutment" with glassless windows.

In her email, Barbara Randall wrote, "All the protocols of the South and Tennessee were kept regarding African Americans."   

Men and women weren't treated equally, either.                                        

That was no surprise to Jane Greer. Despite her stellar grades, the University of Tennessee refused to allow a female to study engineering. She could study statistics. Greer did. Her job at Oak Ridge paid $35 a month, more than General Electric had offered. She quickly was promoted, with a salary increases. But men she supervised made more.

As the book cover shows, the women wore dresses for the most part. Colleen Rowan, a Nashville native who, like Barbara, moved to Oak Ridge with her family, had to climb mammoth pipes in her job checking for leaks.

"Colleen used to think the only women who wore pants were Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich," author Kiernan wrote. "Now here Colleen was, scaling pipes all day in mixed company. She had little choice when it came to apparel."

The average age of the thousands of employees was 27. Singles met. They dated. They played bridge, roller skated, bowled, competed in organized sports, and danced, often on the tennis courts after wading through mud in boots and then changing to "more fetching shoes" to dance.

Barbara Randall was just 19 when she joined her family at Oak Ridge and met her husband, Jim, at a Methodist Church meeting. He was a chemical engineer inducted into the Army soon after starting work with Union Carbide.

"We read, talked, swam, danced, explored that wonderful natural world into which we had been dumped," she wrote.  

They didn't discuss the project.

Some guessed, Jim wrote in a 1997 retrospective. "I believe that most of the engineers working at Oak Ridge did know, or had some idea, that we were working to make a uranium atom bomb," he wrote.

Barbara didn't.

"When then the war ended in 1945, we uninformed folks were stunned to know that the mysterious and sometimes mundane work we had been about had made history and forever changed the world. Only then could most of us start exploring the real meaning of all that had happened," she wrote.

It's a quest that Kiernan explores as well.

Her chapters on the scientific work were a tad taxing, but once I started the book I didn't want to put it down. It is available at Kanawha and Putnam county libraries as well as for purchase.

Contact writer Evadna Bartlett at


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