Recently, The Wesley Ridge Retirement Community book club read the historical fiction novel, The Atomic City Girls. The group was lucky to have the author, Janet Beard, visit to discuss the book and meet with the residents who read it.
The novel chronicles the making of the atomic bomb in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where hundreds of young women were hired to work on special tasks, which were never truly explained. The workers at Oak Ridge were instructed that they were helping to win the war, but were told to ask no questions and to reveal nothing to outsiders.
While all of our Wesley Ridge book club members were excited to meet with the author, one resident in particular, Janet Herring, had an even greater enthusiasm, because she was one of the young women who worked at Oak Ridge in 1945.
Janet was gracious enough to sit down with us to talk about her time at Oak Ridge and the impact it has had on her — not just during her time there, but also now, later in life.
When Janet was in between her freshman and sophomore years of college at Maryville College in Tennessee, she was looking for a local job where she could make some money rather than going home for the summer. While searching in the areas around her, she and a fellow student she knew, Marie, learned about work opportunities available in Knoxville. At the time, however, Janet and Marie did not know they would be going to Oak Ridge. To apply for the work in Knoxville, both Janet and Marie had to take a test assessing their qualifications – and each of them passed with flying colors. From there, they were given minimal information, mostly just about when and where to arrive for work.
Once Janet and Marie arrived in Knoxville, they were taken to Oak Ridge, but it took three days before they were given information pertaining to their jobs or provided with any training. The day did come, however, and they were directed to the bus they would take every morning and then they were guided to the building they would be working in. From there, they were introduced to four soldiers, who looked to be in their mid-to late twenties. The soldiers trained them on their job. At the time, neither realized the importance of their work.
Janet and Marie were assigned to the chemical department, which Janet found interesting as she knew very little about chemistry and was actually studying music. They were tasked with working on a set of glass tubing through which a chemical would be processed. Janet explained that while being trained, they were told that at the end of their shifts, they would end up with a chemical mixture in the glass tubing, which the next shift of employees would use. During training, one of the soldiers very seriously said to them both, “I cannot tell you what the chemical in the tubing is, but what I can tell you is that if you ever spill or drop one of these tubes, run out of the room as fast as you can.” Janet and Marie later found out that the chemical in the tubing was Uranium 235, a main component in the making of the atomic bomb.
When asked how she felt about keeping her work at Oak Ridge a secret, Janet explained that while she couldn’t remember the exact words, something was said to her by a higher up employee that was so frightening, she never even imagined sharing with anyone where she was working.
Janet did mention that one night, two days after she had been at Oak Ridge, her mother called her very worried demanding to know where she was working. Her mother expressed that the FBI had shown up at their house wanting to confirm that Janet was indeed her daughter and lived at that residence. Janet knew she couldn’t tell anyone, not even her mother, until after her time there when the bomb was dropped and the world knew. Janet said she never really questioned her work or why she couldn’t tell anyone either. Remember, that she was too afraid to tell anyone, but she also said she was young and simply just looking for a summer job that paid her. That was all, and she didn’t question it.
Janet talked about how her time working at Oak Ridge was one that she did enjoy. The soldiers that trained her became friends and they often they joked with each other and had fun.
Later in life, Janet said she didn’t realize just how unique and impactful her time at Oak Ridge was. She never really shared her story with others until she began reading about Oak Ridge and meeting people who expressed interest in her story and WWII. A Wesley Ridge resident for 13 years, Janet has since held a few speaking engagements at our community and has been featured in the resident newsletter as well as some local newspapers.
Janet expressed that she was so happy with how well the author of The Atomic City Girls, Janet Beard, depicted the story. There were often times while Janet was reading that she would pause for a moment and remember all of the details of her time there, the words on the pages taking her right back to Oak Ridge. For her 91st birthday, Janet’s daughter surprised her and took her to the museum at Oak Ridge. She had a wonderful time and even though she wasn’t able to go into the building she worked in, Janet said it felt just like it did when she was 18.
With a truly special and interesting past, we are lucky to have Janet Herring as part of The Wesley Communities.