Denise Kiernan

  • Aired:  03/28/13
  •  | Views: 55,950

Author Denise Kiernan discusses the history and secrecy surrounding Oak Ridge, TN, and the Manhattan Project. (6:18)

>> Jon: WELCOME BACK.

MY GUEST TONIGHT AN AUTHOR.

THE NEW BOOK IS CALLED THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC PITY THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN WHO HELPED WIN WORLD

WAR II.

PLEASE WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM DENISE KIERNAN.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

>> THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

>> Jon: THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

>> THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME.

IT'S GREAT TO BE HERE.

>> Jon: I LOVE THESE KINDS OF BOOKS AND THIS IS A GREAT ONE.

THIS IS "THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY." IT TAKES A MOMENT IN HISTORY THAT WE ALL THINK WE KNOW VERY

WELL, SORT OF MANT MANHATTAN PROJECT AND LOS ALAMOS AND ALL THAT.

TELL US THE STORY.

>> THAT'S IT EXACTLY WHEN SO MANY OF US, MYSELF INCLUDED WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE MANHATTAN

PROJECT OR WHEN I THOUGHT ABOUT IT I THOUGHT ABOUT ROBERT OPPENHEIMER AND WHEN YOU FOUND

OUT ABOUT OAK RIDGE, THIS TOWN IN TENNESSEE, BUILT FROM SCRATCH IN 1942 FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF

ENRICHING FUEL FOR THE FIRST ATOMIC BOMB.

OF THE PRIMARY MANHATTAN PROJECT SITES THIS WAS THE MOST POPULOUS AND THE ADMINISTRATIVE

HEADQUARTERS FOR THE WHOLE MANHATTAN PROJECT AND THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE WORKING THERE

WERE YOUNG WOMEN.

>> Jon: RIGHT AND IT WAS 75,000, 80,000 PEOPLE.

>> 75,000 PEOPLE AND WHEN THEY FIRST BROKE GROUND IN 1942 AND WERE PLANNING TO BUILD THEY

THOUGHT 13,000.

WE'LL PROBABLY HAVE 13,000 PEOPLE LIVING HERE.

BY THE MIDDLE OF 1945, 75,000 PEOPLE, PLANTS RUNNING 24-HOURS A DAY, 24-HOUR BOWLING AND

ROLLER SKATING.

IT WAS A MASSIVE, MASSIVE TOWN.

>> Jon: THE CRAZY THING IS THEY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY ARE DOING THERE.

>> YES, YES.

THERE'S THAT PART, YES.

SO THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE WHO WORKED THERE WERE TRAINED TO DO VERY SPECIFIC TASKS.

FOR EXAMPLE, YOU ARE TESTING PIPES.

>> Jon: SURE.

>> PIPE COMES IN.

HOW ARE THESE WELDS?

>> Jon: PIPE TESTER.

>> THEY LOOK PRETTY G. I INTERVIEWED THIS ONE WOMAN THIS IS WHAT SHE DID.

I SAID WHAT DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING?

THIS IS WHAT I THOUGHT WHERE ARE THE PIPES COMING FROM?

THAT DOOR?

WHAT WHERE ARE THEY GOING?

THAT DOOR.

WHAT IS BEHIND THAT DOOR?

PROBABLY MORE PIPES.

THIS WAS HER VIEW OF MANHATTAN PROJECT.

THERE WAS ANOTHER WOMAN I INTERVIEWED, HER FRIEND WAS CONVINCED THEY WERE DOING

SOMETHING WITH URINE.

[ LAUGHTER ]

OKAY?

[LAUGHTER]

BECAUSE THIS IS HER VIEW OF THE PROJECT.

SHE WORKED IN PROCESSING SO ALL DAY SHE WOULD HELP -- PEOPLE CAME IN AND DID SAMPLES, SHE

COLLECTED THEM, PUT THEIR NAME ON THEM AND SHE'S THINKING HUH, THESE OTHER PEOPLE MIGHT NOT

KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON BUT I KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON HERE.

>> Jon: SHE THOUGHT IT WAS A URINE AND BOWLING AND ROLLER SKATING FACILITY.

THEY HAD -- SHE HAD NO IDEA.

>> EVERYBODY'S DAILY EXPERIENCE FILTERED THEIR VIEW OF WHAT WAS GOING ON.

THEY TRAINED EVERYBODY SO WELL.

IF YOU WERE A CHEMIST OR PHYSICIST YOU WERE PUTTING THINGS TOGETHER.

BUT TESTING PIPES OR A SECRETARY, MOST PEOPLE HAD ZERO IDEA.

>> Jon: THERE WERE PEOPLE WORKING ON THE ACTUAL ENRICHMENT OF THIS FISSILE MATERIAL.

>> YES.

>> Jon: WHERE AREN'T THEY DEAD OF TUMORS AND SUCH?

AND YOU SAID --

>> THAT IN MANY WAYS IS A STORY STILL BEING WRITTEN.

SERIOUSLY BECAUSE WHAT WAS GOING ON DURING THAT TIME AND IT DEPENDED ON WHERE YOU WORKED.

SO IF YOU WERE A SECRETARY IN AN OFFICE BUILDING, RISK OF EXPOSURE WAS LOW.

IF YOU WERE OPERATING SOME OF THE MACHINES, THE MACHINES ENRICHING URANIUM YOU WERE IN A

SEPARATE ROOM FROM WHERE THE URANIUM WAS BEING -- THE ISOTOPES WERE BEING SEPARATED.

IF YOU WERE WORKING IN A FACILITY WHERE THERE WAS PLUTONIUM, YOUR RISKS WOULD HAVE

BEEN GREATER.

THEY WERE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT BACK THEN HOW MUCH EXPOSURE IS TOO MUCH?

>> Jon: THAT'S WHY THEY WERE TAKING THEIR URINE AND THEY WANTED TO KNOW --

>> THEY WERE TRYING TO FIGURE OUT, LEARNING AS MUCH AS THEY COULD ABOUT THE RISKS WHILE

ENRICHING THE FUELS OF BOMB.

>> Jon: ONE OF THE INTERESTING THINGS I THOUGHT WAS IT WAS PROGRESSIVE IN A SENSE OF

EMPOWERING THE WOMEN WORKING THERE.

>> ABSOLUTELY.

>> Jon: BUT REGRESSIVE IN TERMS OF DEALING WITH THE RACES.

IT'S A STRANGE DICHOTOMY IN THE TOWN.

>> YES.

IT WAS.

SO IT'S WORLD WAR II.

ACROSS THE COUNTRY IT'S AN INCREDIBLE MOMENT FOR THE WOMEN.

THEY ARE HAVING STUDENTS THAT MANY OF THEM NEVER HAD BEFORE OPERATING EQUIPMENT AND CENTRAL

JOBS AND -- INDUSTRIAL JOBS AND MAKING GOOD MONEY AND THINGS OF THAT NATURE.

THIS WAS THE SOUTH IN 1942 AND OAK RIDGE REALLY WAS A REFLECTION OF THE WORLD IN WHICH

IT EXISTED.

HOUSING WAS SEGREGATED, CAFETERIAS WERE SEGREGATED.

>> Jon: EVEN IN A MANUFACTURED TOWN WITH AN INTEGRATED ARMY?

>> YES.

BECAUSE OF ERNEST WILL KENS WORKING FOR THE PROJECT IN CHICAGO.

AT ONE POINT THEY HAD DOCUMENTATION THEY WANTED HIM TO TRANSFER DOWN TO OAK RIDGE.

THEY SAID WE WOULD LOVE TO HAVE HIM TRANSFERRED BUT UNFORTUNATELY HE WOULDN'T WANT

TO GO THERE.

>> Jon: GREAT STORY.

CAN YOU STICK AROUND?

>> ABSOLUTELY.

>> Jon: WHEN WE COME BACK WE'LL FIND OUT WHEN THE WOMEN FOUND OUT THEY WERE WORKING ON

THE ATOMIC BOMB.

PRETTY COOL.

"GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY" IT'S ON BOOKSHELVES RIGHT NO

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