Jen Larsen
Residents of Oak Ridge, Tenn., a secret site of the Manhattan Project, waiting at the post office.

Credit: James Edward Westcott, courtesy of the National Archives

(WOMENSENEWS)– Southbound trains pierced the early morning humidity. The iron and steel of progress cut through the waking landscape.

Celia sat in her berth, the delicate folds of her brand-new dress draping over her knees as she gazed out the window of the train. Southbound. That much she knew, and that she had a sleeping berth because it was going to take a while to get to her destination. Towns and stations simmering in the August heat rippled past her view. Buildings and farms bubbled up above the horizon as the train sped by. Still, nothing she saw through the streaked glass answered the most pressing question in her mind: Where was she going?

Already many hours long, Celia’s trip felt more endless because her final stop remained a mystery. She had no way to measure the distance left to travel or to let her subconscious noodle over what portion of the trip had already elapsed. There was only the expanding landscape and the company of a small group of women, previously unknown to her, but with whom she was now sharing this secrecy-soaked adventure. Celia had quite willingly embarked on a journey without first obtaining much tangible information. So she sat, waiting to arrive at the unknown.

A wavy-haired 24-year-old, Celia was always up for a change of scenery, and this trip was not her first. Her hair was a deep brown, not quite as black as the coal ash that coated life in the Pennsylvania town that she had left behind: Shenandoah. It was a town about 100 miles and roughly the equivalent in light-years from Philadelphia, and which writer George Ross Leighton referred to as “a memorial to the age of rampant industry.” He described her “once-prosperous” hometown as one that was, in many ways, reminiscent of so many other American towns: past its prime, fighting to survive and abandoned by the business that had spawned its heyday, a business that kept the lion’s share of profits far from the reach of the rock-shredded, blackened hands that had built it. It was already a region in decline, even back in 1939. But that mining town had given Polish families like hers–and Czechs, Russians, Slovaks–work. Sometimes it was steady, most times not, but it was a chance at a decent living.

A New Future

That was behind her now. Every passing moment separated Celia from what could have been an ash-covered existence as the wife of another miner. She had never wanted that future but only recently realized that it was not carved in stone. As for her new employment and soon-to-be home, “secret” was the operative word. It was repeated frequently and rendered the most innocuous of questions audaciously nosy. When Celia had asked the obvious–Where am I going? What will I be doing?–the answer was that she was not allowed to know any more than she had already been told. She would be given only the information that she needed to get where she was going. Asking questions was frowned upon.

She had gotten a taste of this “don’t ask” world of work during the short time she had spent working as a secretary for the Project in New York City. Secrets were secret for a reason. She had to believe that. If there was a need for her to know something critical, she would be told when the time was right. Whatever “it” was, it must have been very important. That said, hopping a train with her one, simple suitcase in hand had felt more than a little odd. Would she know her stop? Would something jump out at her from the landscape, some detail of its appearance crying out to her, “Yes, Celia Szapka! This is it!” Then again, she had never ventured south and she was now southbound. That much she knew.

Everything will be taken care of . . .

Celia had chosen to trust her boss, and so far what little he told her had proven true. The limo had picked her up the morning before from her sister’s home in Paterson, N.J. She sat alone in the car and the driver made no other stops as the car motored south through the industrial heart of the Garden State before arriving at the train station in Newark. There she boarded the train, situated her scant belongings in her prearranged berth and waited to depart. Once at the station, she had been joined by other young women, most seeming to be about her age, and none of them any more informed than she was.

In the Same Boat

Celia was somewhat relieved to know that she was not the only one being kept in the dark. She and all the other young (and she assumed single) women sitting around her were heading in the same direction. They were all in the same boat. Neither Celia nor any of the other girls sitting on the train would complain about the secrecy. Complaining was not in fashion in 1943, not with so many sacrifices being made thousands of miles away, across oceans she had never seen. So much loss of life and family. How could she or anyone else heading to a good, safe job complain? The war permeated every aspect of existence, from sugar, gas and meat rations to scrap metal drives and the draft. Businesses across the country were abandoning the manufacturing of their usual wares–from kitchen appliances to nylons–in order to churn out everything from tires and tanks to ammunition and airplanes.

Everyone’s patience and nerves were being tested, and Celia’s were no exception. Certainly the Szapka family had endured their share of difficulties. Despite it all–the tight money, her father’s long hours in the coal mines, the ceaseless work at home–they persevered. Complaining would not help secure the safe return of her brothers Al and Clem. It wouldn’t make her father’s work any more steady or do anything to clear his persistent cough, which seemed to be getting worse with each labored breath.

This was how Celia was doing her part. She quickly learned that all the women on the train had been told that their new jobs served one purpose only: to bring a speedy and victorious end to the war. That was enough for her.

Excerpted from “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.” Copyright © 2013 by Denise Kiernan. Excerpted with permission by Touchstone, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

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