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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Denise Kiernan’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Denise Kiernan has worked as a journalist and producer. She is best known for “The Girls of Atomic City,” which came out in March 2013 and immediately shot to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. “The Girls of Atomic City” tells the story of the women who worked at Oak Ridge on the Manhattan Project. She has appeared on the Daily Show and NPR to talk about her book and the women who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Date of Interview:
September 6, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: Okay. I’m Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. This is September 6, 2013. I have with me Denise Kiernan. We’re in Oak Ridge. Denise, could you tell us your name, and spell it?

Denise Kiernan: My name is Denise. D-e-n-i-s-e. Kiernan. K-i-e-r-n-a-n.

Kelly: Terrific! Denise what got you interested in the subject of your wonderful new book, The Girls of Atomic City

Kiernan: My interest in Oak Ridge stemmed from this wonderful photograph taken by Ed Westcott, who was the official photographer of Oak Ridge during World War II. It was this image of these young women sitting in front of these gigantic panels covered in all of these knobs and dials. At first I was just captivated by the image itself, but then I looked at the accompanying text. It said something along the lines of: These young women, many of them high-school graduates from rural Tennessee, are helping to enrich uranium for the world’s first atomic bomb. Only they didn’t know that at the time. 

That just got me completely hooked. At first I thought that, oh I must be the only person who doesn’t know about these thousands of people who lived in Tennessee and worked on the bomb. I very quickly realized that while Los Alamos gets an extensive amount of attention and has over the years because that’s where the Fermis and the Oppenheimers and all of those folks were, that Oak Ridge’s story really was not as well known. So I became very fascinated with the lives of these young women. I wanted to know what the Manhattan Project looked like through their eyes. And so that was really the birth of The Girls of Atomic City, my book. 

Kelly: So now that you’ve sort of spent how long on this? Several years anyway? 

Kiernan: Oh, yes. It’s been in my life about seven years now. Yes.

Kelly: And, have gotten to know all about these women, what are some of your sort of major impressions of this time, and of those people?

Kiernan: One of the most interesting things I found was that when I would approach especially the women and some of the men as well and asked them to talk about their experiences, one of their first reactions was, “Oh you don’t want to talk to me. I don’t know anything,” because, of course, the whole idea of Oak Ridge and Hanford and Los Alamos was you didn’t know anything unless you were supposed to know something. What they didn’t realize was that they of course knew plenty, and that they have these incredible experiences that were very unique to this time and place in history. 

Of course once you get them talking, then they open up, and you find out all kinds of fascinating things about the day-to-day life on the Manhattan Project, which I was interested in because I think that that makes the story so accessible. There was this kind of common thread among folks about this sense of duty, because a lot of the questions I get, when I talk about this book, are: Why would people leave their homes? Some of these people, eighteen years old. Why would they leave their homes and go to a city they’re not being told the name of to do a job that’s not being explained to them? Why would anybody do that? Because I think that in this day and age where we have access to information pretty much at the tip of our fingers, I think that’s very hard for a lot of us to understand. Everybody said that it was because it was the war. It was interesting for me to really begin to understand what a tremendous impact World War II had on everyone’s lives, not just the people who were away fighting. 

Everyone knew someone who was away fighting or was related to someone who was away fighting. All of the songs on the radio were about the war. All of the movies in the theaters were about the war. That’s all you heard about. There were rations of various foods and gasoline. You couldn’t get tires for your cars, and things of that nature. So everyone was aware pretty much twenty-four hours a day that there was this bigger event taking place, and that it was affecting all of them. They felt this sense of wanting to do something to help, whether it was dance down at the USO or a do a scrap metal drive or pick up and pack up and go to a city you’ve never heard the name of before to work on a project that’s not being explained to you. That was definitely a big impression, while I was talking to people. 

Kelly: What about economic factors? We’re just coming out the Depression. How did that play into people’s interest in working at an unknown place?

Kiernan: The Depression was not a distant memory for many of these people. One of the factors that affected whether or not they wanted to kind of pick up and move and go take a job was the fact that the pay was pretty good. For some people, it was more money than they had ever seen before. 

One woman that I interviewed and I profile in The Girls of Atomic City, a woman named Helen, she was literally working at a diner in Tennessee and was approached by a man and recruited to come work on this project that he wouldn’t explain to her. She was a little on the fence. And then she said that he told her what she’d be making, which I think was like seventy-eight cents hour or something at the time. She said, “That was it, I quit, and I got a bus ticket.” She was done. But she said that she also felt good about doing that because she too had a brother who was away fighting. So when you took World War II, and how close that felt to everyone, and combined that with what were for many employees very good wages, it was pretty compelling motivation to go pick up and go off into the land of mystery.

Kelly: So of the people who you’ve talked to, most people came here and were pretty happy. Is that your impression?

Kiernan: The experience that individuals had when they came to Oak Ridge did vary. A lot of people—and I think this is testament to why Oak Ridge is still here today—a lot of people really felt like they wanted to kind of dig in and make this place home. A lot of people found it to be this terrific adventure. It was muddy, and it was crazy! There were people from all over the country living here, so, you know, accents people hadn’t heard before. But at the same time, it felt like a big adventure. 

Some of these women, especially the younger ones who were eighteen to nineteen years old, came from backgrounds where college wasn’t really an option for them. So they were either going to stay in their town and get married and live out their life on the farm they grew up on or in the town they grew up on. Here was this brand new place where they had their own job, their own dorm room, their own money, lots of single men running around who’d been recruited. So in many ways, it felt like the colleges that they might have been able to go to had circumstances in their lives been different. So some of them really kind of embraced the pioneering way of life. 

For a lot of people, the shock was just too much. It was a very big difference. You get here, and there are gates and there are guards and there are badges. You’re not allowed to talk about what you’re working on. Some people felt quite isolated. So it did take a toll. It really kind of depended on the personality of the individual. 

Fairly early on there were meetings that indicated that they wanted to do something to help those folks who were having trouble adjusting. At one of these meetings, a woman brought up the fact that a lot of the young girls in the dorms were feeling homesick, and this place was so strange and new. “We need something for them to do besides go to work and come back and just sit in their dorms and go to work again the next morning.” This was part of the impetus for what became quite an extensive recreational program in Oak Ridge. They wanted to have sports leagues and libraries and dances and trivia contests and all of those sorts of things, so that people could actually do a little bit of relaxing and do a little bit of socializing while they were working on this very, for some, very stressful project. 

I mean, Oak Ridge was running twenty-four hours a day. There were buses running twenty-four hours a day. There were shifts twenty-four hours a day. If you worked in some of the plants, you might be working the graveyard shift for a few days and then working the morning shift the following week. It could be quite an adjustment for people. 

So they did two things. One was to create this recreational program so that people could enjoy themselves in their time off and ideally make some new friends since they were far from home. They eventually, in 1944, brought in a psychiatrist, Dr. Eric Clark, to be in the actual clinic in Townsite, in the original Townsite in Oak Ridge. Dr. Clark was brought in to basically talk to anybody who wanted to talk to him and just kind of see how they were feeling. I mean, some scientists found it—he wrote in his papers, there’s a wonderful collection of his papers at the National Archives in Atlanta. He said that some scientists found it very strange to be doing the exact same thing every day. While they knew what they were doing, they did not know the larger purpose of what they were doing. This sort of combination of stress and repetition, he said, took a toll on some people. 

He wrote in his reports and wrote later on in his life after he left Oak Ridge that he found it to be such a fascinating community, from a psychiatric point of view, to just study all of these people who had been brought in from so many different backgrounds, and just kind of thrown together in this place behind a fence with all of this mud and this secrecy. He was really fascinated by the different reactions that people had, the people who really embraced it, and said that “This is fantastic and that we’re going to make a go of it.” 

And the people who thought that “You know what? I can deal with this for now. But as soon as the war is over, I’m going to head home,” and then, the people who thought that “I don’t know if I can wait for the war to be over, I might just head home now.” So Dr. Clark, I think he brought an awful lot to the community. 

I’ve interviewed people who met with him, our lovely Bill Wilcox, who just passed. I gave a talk about The Girls of Atomic City where Bill was in attendance. I talked about Dr. Clark. Bill was getting up to give a speech and actually receive an award after me, and he said, “No one told me he was a psychiatrist. I just found out right now.” So he said, “It’s taken me seventy years to figure out I’m nuts!” So I think that those I’ve interviewed, one of my ladies in the book was a nurse and knew Dr. Clark quite well. Bill met with Dr. Clark. Everybody had lovely things to say about him. I think that he was a huge asset when they finally decided to bring him in. I think that he felt, as a psychiatrist, that it was a great experience for him just to be able to study this very unique population. 

Kelly: When you mentioned that some people decided, “I just don’t think that I can make it through the war,” were they allowed to leave?

Kiernan: Yes. I mean, you were allowed to leave if it wasn’t kind of floating your boat. You were allowed to leave. I think people still found it difficult because of a variety of factors. One we talked about, the fact that economically it was very good for most people to be here. It was a good job. We’re not that far away from the Depression. A lot of people would have wanted to try and stick it out if possible just because it was such good money, and that was important. 

Also, there was something called “the certificate” – oh, I’m going to forget the name. We were just doing renovations, so all I can think of is “certificate of occupancy.” You needed—it’s in the book. Do we have a copy of the book? You needed a certificate that verified that you were—if you left a job that was considered to be vital to the war effort, you had to actually get a certification that allowed you to look for other work because what they did not want, and this was a national law, what they did not want was people job-hopping because the more people moved around, the more difficult it was to maintain production rates. So if you left a job that was considered by the federal government to be important to the war effort, it could’ve been you were working in the Post Office or it could have been you were working for the Manhattan Project. If you left that job, or were fired from that job, you would not be able to get the certificate that would allow you to seek other work. So you would have to wait three, possibly six months. That was what they did to deter people from quitting their jobs and just leaving because they found something better somewhere else. So that was something that I think prevented a lot of people from leaving. 

It was also something that helped keep people in line because if you were fired, you also could not get that certification that would allow you to go ahead and look for new jobs. If you look at newspapers from the period, when they advertised for jobs, it would say on those advertisements “Certificates necessary.” You could not have been jumping ship from another job and get picked up. They wanted that certification. So that both helped people stay where they were, and it also helped people kind of stay in line because if you got fired you would be possibly out of work for several months until that time period elapsed and you’d be allowed to look for work again. So that was definitely a consideration for people who were thinking about leaving. 

But turnover was a big issue here, especially on construction. It was a challenge for them to—in construction and in other areas—to keep people. Turnover was the one thing that they didn’t want because it did disrupt things. 

Kelly: What effect did all the secrecy have on the participants?

Kiernan: That varied too. When I talk to people, some people told me, “I was afraid I’d say something wrong, and I’d get fired.” And then, I had other people I talked to say, “It didn’t really bother me.” The one thing that does seem to be across the board was that when you first got here, it took a little getting used to all of the secrecy. 

The thing was, secrecy was not something that was exclusive to the Manhattan Projects. “Loose lips sink ships” was something that everybody heard during World War II. You were never supposed to talk about your kid’s troop movements or what you were doing if you were working in a factory. It’s just that was taken to a whole other level when you were working on the Manhattan Project.

The other thing was, it was so pervasive. There were billboards. It was mentioned in your interviews. There were security guards. People were checking passes. There were reminders in the movie theaters and pamphlets and everything that you can think of. After a while, it just became part of the scenery. You’d walked past the same billboard every day that says, “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.” After a while, you just don’t think about it anymore. So I think that at the beginning, it was the most challenging for people. 

One woman I interviewed, she said that when she arrived, she said that “I got through the gates, and I saw all of this stuff.” She thought, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to say something wrong, and somebody is going to shoot me. If I had enough money I’d go home.” But she still lives here. So it’s been—she lasted seventy-seven years. It didn’t stick. She was a perfect example of when she got here, it was quite a shock. But then, she got into the dorm, and made friends and ended up just having a really great time. 

So it was a variety of reactions to the secrecy. Many people, especially, I think, especially those who had people away fighting, thought, “If I’m not allowed to talk about it, I’m not allowed to talk about it. If that’s the sacrifice I have to make, that’s the sacrifice I have to make,” which I think is just difficult for us to understand today because we just always want to know what’s going on. 

Kelly: I think that in your book you mentioned the problem that some spouses had. They’re used to knowing what’s on the mind of their spouse. Suddenly this whole realm of their life, their work, was off limits. Do you want to talk about that?

Kiernan: One of the more interesting aspects of the secrecy was the effect that it had on couples, especially married couples who were used to sharing things with each other. In particular, Vie Warren, who was married to Stafford Warren—Stafford Warren was head of the entire Medical Section for the entire Manhattan Project. His wife Vie was very intelligent, very educated. They had a very close relationship. She was used to sharing all sorts of information. She was used to knowing what her husband was working on. It was quite a difference for her when she came to Oak Ridge. Suddenly she was not allowed to know what was going on in her husband’s life anymore. She understood, but it was still quite a challenge. She sort of dealt with it by writing a column for the newspaper, which is a wonderful column. If you go back to the old Oak Ridgers, they’re lovely to read. 

It’s a very interesting look from the wives’, the spouses’ point of view of life in Oak Ridge. You just think about, a husband comes home from work or a wife comes home from work if they’re both working. You sit down at the dinner table and the conversation. 

“Oh, honey. What did you do today? How was work today?” That’s the one thing you actually can’t talk about. So it really was a challenge for some couples to not be able to share in that daily experience anymore. 

Kelly: There’s another element to that reminded me a little bit of Stasi in East Germany during the postwar years, where you actually had coworkers spying on other coworkers. There were these envelopes that they were supposed to be sending. Do you want to talk about that a little?

Kiernan: In addition to the official security force, people who would get on the buses and make sure you had the appropriate badge and things of that nature, there were also a number of Oak Ridgers who were approached individually to listen in on conversations that were going on in their dorms, at work, in the cafeteria. 

One of the woman who I interviewed, she was taken out of her dorm one evening by two men she’d never known before. They came and requested to see her and took her outside and said, “Would you mind paying close attention to what everybody is saying around you at work, and what they’re saying in the cafeteria, or you’re out on the ball fields playing games? You know we’re not supposed to talk about what’s going on here. If you hear somebody you think being a little too curious or asking too many questions, you can just fill out this form right here. Say who the person was if you know their name and where the conversation took place and what was discussed. You can put it in these little self—these addressed envelopes.” They were sent to, I think it was Acme Insurance in Knoxville, which is hilarious. “It’ll be totally anonymous. There’s a drop box at this particular location. No one will know it’s you.” 

So there was this completely different security force made up of eighteen year-old girls, thirty-five year-old men. So every time you sat down and had a conversation with someone, you were aware that somebody might be reporting back to someone else exactly what it was you were talking about. 

Kelly: A little unnerving.

Kiernan: Yes, I think that it was rather unnerving for some people. Other people thought, “Okay. If somebody is listening to what I’m saying, I don’t care. I know I’m not saying anything wrong.” Some people, it made them very careful what they talked about, and who they said it to. 

Letters were censored as well. One of my ladies, Celia [Szapka Klemski], she was requested by her mother to stop writing letters because the letters kept coming through with all of these black bars over all of the words, because they were censoring out different bits of information. That really unnerved Celia because what she thought was, “Well what did I say?” She didn’t think she’d said anything wrong. She thought that “I don’t know anything. What could I possibly be saying that’s wrong?” So it could be rather confusing as well. 

Kelly: So what were the demographics of Oak Ridge in terms of age and where people came from?

Kiernan: Oh, goodness. Because of the turnover, in some ways it’s hard to get really specific numbers on some of those things. There were more women than there were men. Most men were away fighting. So there were an awful lot of women here. The average age I believe was twenty-seven, so it was a pretty young town. It was a lot of young single people. There were blacks working here as well. There were black workers, and there were white workers. I believe there were also some Native American workers. I did not have the opportunity to speak to anyone of Native American descent. I don’t really have specifics on any other ethnic groups. But Oak Ridge was segregated. 

Oak Ridge was completely segregated. The black families and black men and women, individual single men and women, lived in a separate area. There were hutments that they lived in. These were sixteen by sixteen, small buildings that held four people; had a little stove in the middle of them. If you were married, black husbands and wives were not allowed to live together. Some people thought they were going to be allowed to live together did not find this out until they arrived in Oak Ridge. So the black men had their own hutment area, and the black women had their hutment area, which was also surrounded by a barbed wire fence, which some of the women started calling “the pen,” some of the women I interviewed. There were security guards. There was limited visitation. 

So the women could go visit the men, but the men were not allowed to visit the women. There was a curfew as well. And so if you were not back in your hut by I think it was ten o’clock, they would come around with the flashlight and see who was where, and you’d get in trouble if you weren’t where you were supposed to be. One of the more heartbreaking aspects of this was that black husbands and wives were not allowed to bring their children to Oak Ridge either. So if you had children, they could not come. They had to stay behind. 

One individual I interviewed, Kattie Stricklund, she and her husband had to leave their children behind in Alabama. She was fortunate that she was able to leave them behind with her mother. She and her husband came to Oak Ridge, in any case, because the amount of money they were able to make here far surpassed—I think Kattie said it was almost twice what she was making back home. So they decided to come and stick out the hardship. They sent an awful lot of money home to her mother and to their children. 

Kelly: So by and large it was a good deal economically, which helped them override all of these less fortunate aspects of it?

Kiernan: It was. When I talked to Kattie, it’s the—economics was the final straw that had them come move to Oak Ridge, because it was very difficult for her to leave her kids behind. She knew that there was no way they were going to make anywhere near that kind of money where they were living in Alabama. Her husband came over first. When he reported back that she could have work, too, that’s when they decided that they would just make it work. And then, when the war was over, they would figure out what was going on. But the economics played a significant factor. 

And in many ways, Oak Ridge was a reflection of the times and the region in which it was placed. It was Tennessee in the 1940s. This was a very segregated time and place in our history. It’s unfortunate and sad, especially the fact that they weren’t allowed to live together as husband and wife. There are a number of letters that were written to bosses, to union leaders, to the—President Roosevelt, even. You can find those in the archives, about people complaining that they did not know that they were not going to be able to live with their spouses when they came to Oak Ridge. The economics? Yes. The economics did play a big role in what brought people to live under such difficult circumstances. 

Kelly: So it really probably wasn’t until after the war that there was even an educational system at all for Afro-Americans. 

Kiernan: That’s right. Kattie and Willie were eventually able to bring their kids. I forget the specific year, but there was eventually a black elementary school, but the high school students were still having to be bused to the black high school in Knoxville because Knoxville had segregated schools as well because this is before Brown vs. the Board of Education, so Knoxville schools were segregated as well. And then eventually, the schooling in Oak Ridge expanded. But then, once Brown vs. the Board of Education came through, Oak Ridge was the first—I believe Oak Ridge was the first city in the state of Tennessee to desegregate their schools. Oak Ridge was the first. Kattie’s daughter was the last valedictorian or the valedictorian of the last class to graduate from the segregated Oak Ridge schools. 

Kelly: I’m so interested in your answers. What were some of the most surprising things you learned in studying Oak Ridge?

Kiernan: Hmm. There were things that just kind of floored me in a variety of ways as I researched Oak Ridge. 

There was this incredible amount of construction. I still remain stunned at the speed by which this place came into being. When you think about them moving folks off of their land in late 1942—that was also surprising to me, the number of families who were displaced by Oak Ridge and that some of those families had two weeks to kind of pack up and get out. That was definitely surprising for me. I learned that there were some families, that was the third time that they had to move. They had to move for the Great Smoky National Park, they had to move for the Norris Dam, and they had to move for Oak Ridge when it was constructed. I just can’t imagine having to go through that once, let alone three times. 

But once they started building, basically from breaking ground in late 1942 to spring of 1945, less than three years, they suddenly had 80,000 people living here, closer to 100,000 inside the gates when you took into consideration people who commuted here from nearby towns, and using more electricity than New York City. Building and cafeterias and buses around the clock and roller rinks and bowling leagues, and all of that happened in under three years. That’s on top of the plants that they built. I found that stunning. 

There were some other things that were surprising about Oak Ridge in a more disturbing way. I came across the files related to plutonium research and research into the effect of plutonium on human beings. There was a black construction worker who was coming into work at K-25 one morning who got in a car accident, he and the guys in the car with him—there was a car accident about a mile away from K-25. He was taken to the hospital, and he had a broken leg among other injuries. Instead of having his leg set immediately, they injected him with plutonium without his consent. They wanted to track that plutonium, and see where it went through his body, which is why they did not set his leg immediately. They would take urine and feces samples at certain intervals. They wanted to see whether or not it had penetrated his teeth. So they removed, I think it was fifteen of his teeth to see if it had gone there. So that testing was something that I was really bowled over and shocked by. 

A lot of this information just became available in the 90s. There was a [Advisory] Commission on Human Radiation Experiments under, I think it was during the Clinton Administration. They said that “We want all of these records out. We want everybody to be able to look into them.” They interviewed a lot of the doctors who were a part of it, and released as many files and as many papers as they could. That was quite shocking! That might be the most shocking thing that I came across when I was working on the book. 

Kelly: How do you feel that most people reacted to the news that they had been working on an atomic bomb?

Kiernan: What I found so interesting about the way people reacted to learning their role in the bombing of Hiroshima, because Oak Ridge supplied the fuel for the bomb that was detonated over Hiroshima, was—and I tried to portray this in The Girls of Atomic City—was that these people really had lived in two completely different worlds. They lived in a world with nuclear weapons, and they lived in a world without nuclear weapons. Now I’ve never lived in that other world. I’ve known what “the bomb” is my entire life, and what that means, and that someone somewhere can push a button and something happens. I remember that from when I was a kid. But these folks didn’t. 

And so when the news first broke, there was no television. It was either you got a phone call, but very few people had phones In Oak Ridge. You heard in the newspaper. You heard by word of mouth. Pretty quickly, people heard there was this huge development having to do with the war, and that there was going to be an address from the President. There had been a bombing and there was going to be an address from the President. So everyone gathers around their radios, as you did, and listened to the President talk about this new bomb and this new weapon that was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and goes—and harnessing the power of the atom etc.—into all of this not too much detail because everything was still pretty secret. 

And towards the end of this address, he actually mentions Oak Ridge by name. People were already kind of processing the fact that there had been this bomb of a size that no one could even comprehend. 

And then, they heard the name Oak Ridge. Then, they were just floored because they thought—they had gotten so used to just not knowing what was going on there. So not only did they know what they had been working on, but it turned out what they had been working on was apparently a part of something very big. Just how big it was really came in waves, in a sense. Early on a lot of the images coming out of Japan were censored, so some of the images that are very familiar to those of us today people didn’t see for several months. The devastation I think was hit more—when I talk to people, the devastation hit them more when they saw some of the aftermath photos that had people in them, because the photos that initially came over were pretty much you didn’t see a lot of people in them. You saw building and things like that. 

It was a big mix of feelings, and I got people on all parts of the spectrum. People saying that “This is war! That’s what you do in war.” And then, people saying that “I’m really sorry we had to do that, but I was really glad the war was over.” And then, other people who felt really upset that they had been a part of something that had taken—that had just caused so much devastation. 

So it was a very interesting mix of feeling that people had. One woman I interviewed I think put it very simply but in a very clear, poignant way. She said that “I was so happy that the war was over and that my brother was going to come home.” She said, “But I was really sad because I like people and a lot of people died.” I thought that was very true. 

It was a very difficult moment because if you see pictures at the end of World War II, you see sailors kissing girls in Times Square and everybody saying “Hooray!” People in Oak Ridge were happy that the war was over too. Everybody was happy that the war was over, but they had this added issue that they had been a part of something that was quite interesting and quite different and quite significant. Being a part of that, some people were proud that they’d made a contribution too. Like everybody else, you were asked to help the government to help the war effort. That’s what they did. 

Some people I talked to said that they started to have concerns about, like, “Well am I okay? What is this stuff called radiation?” Because then there was this whole new language people had to get used to. The phrase “radiation sickness” hadn’t existed really in the common language. Now this was something people heard about. And people started eventually after a few months, they started hearing about this strange cancer in Japan where the people had been bombed. That’s what some of them referred to it as, this kind of, “What is that?” So much information came out really after August 6th. August 6th was just the beginning to understand of what the bombing was. And then, there was more information. 

A lot of people were very happy. People were very happy the war was over, but it was a very interesting moment for a lot of people, and continues to be probably the most significant of the twentieth century for everyone. 

It affects our lives. It continues to affect our lives. It affects our economics. It affects our politics, the way we relate to other countries. Nuclear medicine has become a staple in every hospital in the world. So nuclear medicine, nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, all of that goes back to Oak Ridge. All of that goes back to eighteen years old girls sitting in front of panels turning knobs and flipping switches. It’s quite an interesting history.

Kelly: Indeed. You covered a lot of territory. Whoa! Oh, that’s great! That’s wonderful! So what was it like for children here? Did you have conversations?

Kiernan: One of the women I profiled, Colleen [Black], she was with a very big family and came over with her family. The youngest of her siblings I think was around four or five and was going to nursery school. Colleen likes to joke that she would always mispronounce it so she would say, “Nazi school.” They lived in Happy Valley, and some of the trailers that they would put up, because there was such a high demand for housing, they were running out of space, so they would bring in these trailers and people would live with them. And Colleen’s family’s trailer was close to the fence near the edge of the reservation, and one of her youngest siblings was convinced that “The Germans” were on the other side of the fence. So she would stay away from the fence because if you went to the fence, “The Germans” were on the other side of the fence. 

So I think that the kids living here grew up very aware of the war and fences, and one side of the fence is good and the other side of the fence is bad. The little ones had badges too because everybody had to have their badges. In other ways, it was quite normal. They walked past the security guards and go to school. They wanted to make sure that the school system here was good because they were bringing so many people from other parts of the country. They were bringing in scientists from all over and people who were not going to let their children get a poor education. These were Nobel Prize winners who wanted their kids to get a good education. So the schools here became quite something. They brought in teachers and resources from all over. 

So on the one hand it was kind of normal, but if you were living in a trailer and thinking, “The Germans were on the other side of the fence,” you see guys with guns every day, it was a little different than some of them were used to, certainly. It was unique. The one thing that I notice when I talk to people is, even those people who left and didn’t continue to live in Oak Ridge after the war or people who hated the food or people for whom it wasn’t sort of the best of times, they all still talk about what a unique experience it was. I think especially for those kids growing up around all of that, it was particularly unique. 

Kelly: One of the things that Helen Jernigan talked about today was her work on both the newsletter and—that went to the workers—and recreation association trying to provide for essentially distractions. How big of a role were these recreation outlets for the young people from your studies here?

Kiernan: When I talk to people about what they remembered fondly—if you talked to people about what they didn’t like, it was the mud and the food were the two most common answers. When I talked to people about what they have fond memories of, the dances is always number one. The dances, what started as maybe once a week, there were dances at the end I think at least three times a week in different parts of the reservation. And the sports league and the theater, and there was just so much to do. I think that it played a very important role. I think that it allowed people to decompress a little. 

When you’re living in a town that operates twenty-four hours a day, and you’re being told that what you’re doing is so important for the war, but we can’t tell you what it is, we’re all racing—it’s a race against the clock, but we can’t tell you when the deadline is—it’s not your normal working situation. 

No one was from here. They might have been from near here, but this was a new place. You were going to a new place where you might have known the people you arrived with, but besides that you didn’t know any of these other people. I think that recreational activities not only let people blow off steam, but also helped them make friends and helped them meet people who they might not meet at work. You immediately had to start talking about sort of who you were and where you were from because if you met someone at the dance, you couldn’t ask them what they did. 

People weren’t even supposed to talk about which plant they worked at. I mean, if you worked at Y-12, you never laid eyes on any other plants. You never got on any buses that went anywhere else. The conversation was always about, “Where are you from? Do you have family? What songs do you like?” And all of that sort of stuff. Living in a place that was contained, and that was clearly so dedicated toward work and production and the war effort, I think that having the recreational facilities and all of those activities allowed everybody to just feel a little more at ease and kind of enjoy what free time they had.

Kelly: Indeed. Is there something that I haven’t asked that I should have that you think would be helpful when people—

Kiernan: I found it interesting that when the war was over, one of the big questions everybody had was: “Is Oak Ridge closing? Like, is that it? Are we pulling up tent stakes and heading out of town?” Actually, a lot of people did start leaving. A lot of people said, “The war is over. I want to be home when my son gets home. I want to be home when my boyfriend gets home. I’m getting out of here.” Other people thought, “If there’s still going to be jobs here, I’m kind of getting used to this place.” All of those things that we talked about, all of those recreational activities and all of those bonds that people formed, in many ways, do kind of remind me of the bonds you form at college. 

You go away to school. You are all kind of in this new place together. I think some very interesting bonds formed among these people, and so many of them were young and single that there were a lot of marriages. There started to be a lot of babies. As strange and muddy and different as it was, Oak Ridge really started to feel like home for people, and especially those who knew they were the first—not many of us can ever say, I mean, very few. 

I can’t think of another town besides Oak Ridge off the top of my head can say, “I was the first inhabitant of a town. I’ve been here as long as this town has been here. We’re the original pioneers of this place.” So I think that for a lot of people it really started to feel like home. So once it became clear that the military was not going to just shut down Oak Ridge and I guess tear the buildings down, I don’t know what they thought they’d do with all those huge plants. For some people, that was quite a relief because they had actually gotten used to it here and felt quite at home.

Kelly: I know I just looked at your book, and it’s a really wonderful book. We want people to read it. Memorize the main plot. Right. So, and that’s not the point. I think you’ve really done a nice job on sort of summarizing these things. Is there any way you can talk about the Chapel on the Hill a little bit?

Kiernan: Oh, the Chapel on the Hill. The Chapel on the Hill was an incredibly interesting place, I thought, because here you had all of these people away from home. One of the things that’s important in people’s lives is to be able to continue following whatever religion they followed when they were back home. At first they had to kind of work with what they had. There would be services in the rec halls. There would be services in the priest’s home. They would make due however they could. And then, they constructed the Chapel on the Hill. 

But of course, it wasn’t as though there was just one denomination or one faith here that they had to cater to. So the Chapel on the Hill pretty much served everybody. There were Baptists. There were Catholics. There were synagogues. There were Jewish services, Episcopal and pretty much everything you can think of. And so it was one of those situations where the Catholics would come in at one time, and then they’d finish up. The crucifix would come down and maybe the Star of David goes up. And then, it’s somebody else’s turn. I just thought that that was such an interesting use of a religious facility that it really embraced out of need all of these different faiths in the exact same space. And of course, the Chapel on the Hill is still there, and is still a functioning church. I believe it’s a Unitarian church. I might be mistaken. Yes. I found the Chapel on the Hill to be quite an interesting aspect of life in Oak Ridge. 

Kelly: Can you talk a little bit about Jackson Square and how it was an innovation for its time?

Kiernan: Jackson Square in many ways to my mind was kind of like the first strip mall and the first gated community, if you think of Oak Ridge as a gated community. The Townsite—originally when they were planning Oak Ridge—they were planning for about 13,000. That went out of the window pretty quickly. They wanted to keep the living area pretty compact. That’s what they originally referred to as “Townsite.” They want that to be where the dorms were and where the cafeteria was, and where they little sundry store where you could do a little bit of shopping, and a little grocer. They wanted all of that to be in the same place. 

So what ended up happening is, there was this green, which was probably muddy some of the time because everything here was muddy, and there was a cafeteria and a rec hall and a movie theater and stores. It was all in one little place, which was quite unique in a country where Main Street was the norm. You would have quite a long stretch in a town where you would go down the street and all these different businesses would be there, but they kind of had it all in one spot because that was what they thought would best serve the Townsite community. It was really the heart of Oak Ridge. When major events took place, V-E Day, Jackson Square was the place to be. The end of the war, Jackson Square was the place to be. If there were big announcements, it was a natural place for people to congregate to, but in some ways quite ahead of its time. 

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