Off Beat: Book profiles ‘Atomic City Girls,’ including Camas native



Phyllis Cady Johnson's 2010 final salute

Phyllis Cady Johnson’s 2010 final salute

While they’ve been dubbed “The Girls of Atomic City,” one of them actually was from Camas.

“The Girls” is a new book by Denise Kiernan, who subtitled it: “The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.”

Phyllis Cady Johnson, a 1939 graduate of Camas High School, was one of those women.

The Columbian did tell her story — a brief version of it, at least — as a final-salute package following Johnson’s death in 2010.

Kiernan has expanded that hidden chapter in American history through interviews with women who helped develop the atomic bomb.

And one of them, Jane Greer Puckett, was a friend of Phyllis Cady Johnson. They worked together at Oak Ridge, a top-secret facility in Tennessee that was part of the Manhattan Project.

“I knew from the beginning that Phyllis was an extremely bright woman,” Puckett told The Columbian in 2010.

Johnson had earned a degree in mathematics at the University of Washington.

Puckett had earned her math degree at the University of Tennessee — after the engineering department wouldn’t let her enroll.

They helped oversee the calculations required for high-level physics in those pre-computer days. Eight clerks sat at each table, where they worked with six adding machines and two electrically powered mechanical calculating machines.

Along with a third teammate, Johnson and Puckett “were in charge of checking everything out, make sure figures were properly calculated,” Puckett said. “We sat at adding machines, holding strips of adding machine paper and calling out numbers. They were unbelievable .000 numbers.”

Zip your lips

“It was top-top-top secret. You threw one piece of paper away, and it went into a red basket and an armed guard took it away. We had to zip our lips,” Puckett said.

They worked at the Y-12 plant, where scientists created the fuel for the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

Did the Oak Ridge workers realize their role in that history-making event?

“We had an idea. We talked about it when the bomb burst. We knew it was powerful,” Puckett told The Columbian, “but not what form it would be used in.”

The zip-your-lip secrecy didn’t end when the fighting stopped, by the way. According to the Johnson family, Phyllis was unable to travel overseas until the 1970s.

Because of her access to classified information, she wasn’t allowed to get a passport until 30 years after World War II ended.

— Tom Vogt

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.