The Day the World Changed

We aren’t going to make it in time; I’m sure of it. Departure time crept up on us, it took longer to get going than it should have, and now we are running seriously behind. The convoy departs at eight am, sharp, we have been informed, and we are further advised to be at least 30 minutes early. This is a problem because it is already seven thirty-five, we still have another few miles to go, and we know only the approximate location of our destination, a parking lot on the grounds of Tularosa High School. Missing this window will be a real problem, and will force a lengthy, time-consuming detour.

Luckily, there are signs pointing the way, and at seven forty-one we arrive, finally, at the rendezvous point. At the entrance to the parking lot we bear right and come to a halt in front of a pair of bright young volunteers, who proffer pamphlets as they helpfully point us in the right direction. Moments later, another volunteer guides us into position in the middle of a rapidly growing line of vehicles. Within seconds, an SUV has pulled in behind us, and more vehicles quickly follow. Fully expecting to be late, I had pushed it hard the last few miles, hoping not to be the last through the gate. But such haste turns out to have been unnecessary. Although a couple of hundred have already arrived, another couple hundred will follow, and we are safely in the middle of the pack.

The local Kiwanis Club has set up a booth selling coffee and snacks, and business is brisk. With a few minutes to kill, people emerge from their vehicles and roam about, stretching their legs, scoping out the growing throng. The mood is pretty buoyant overall, as though some lighthearted outing is in the offing. Which seems a little odd, in my mind at least, because this is a serious thing we are about to do. Along with everyone else, my two companions and I have come, on the one day of the year our government allows, to visit the Trinity Site, location of the world’s first nuclear detonation, on July 16, 1945.

Our emotions are mixed about this. On the one hand we are delighted to be in this place of stunning vistas and magical light, having driven up from Austin two days before. And going to this exotic place in the middle of nowhere is certainly an adventure. But there are dark undertones. For my little group, at least, this isn’t a lark. We aren’t here as thrill seekers. We are very clear on the historical significance of Trinity, and respect its powerful symbolism. Each of us knows that at this place, on that day, the hinge of history irrevocably turned, and the world would never again be the same.

The official website for all things Trinity informs you, in a paragraph dotted with all caps for emphasis, that to get onto the White  Sands Missile Range you must have a valid picture ID, proof of insurance, and plenty of gas. Roving volunteers repeat this to you in person as you wait in line. This puts me in a rather worried frame of mind. The gas and the ID are no problem, but the insurance part might just be a deal breaker because the car is a rental and there’s no indemnity card. I begin mentally rehearsing the argument I will use should this become an issue. There turns out to be plenty of slack, though, as only one of our trio is queried, and she not all that closely. And so I tuck the rental contract safely away, stow the driver license, and take a few deep breaths to drop my blood pressure back into the normal range again.

Men in uniform walk the lines of vehicles, handing each driver a numbered pass printed on bright pink paper, to be placed on the driver-side dash. Eight o’clock blows by, then eight-fifteen, without a flicker of urgency. Finally, at about eight twenty-five, there is a stirring at the far end of the parking lot, and the exodus begins. Led by an official escort, the mass of vehicles unravels from right to left, one line at  a time, and heads out of the parking lot toward White Sands Missile Range.

As we exit the parking lot, we pass through a knot of of protesters lining both sides of the road. There were rumors that some kind of group with a grievance would be here, so this is not a surprise. They hold crudely hand-lettered signs lamenting loss of land, loss of health, general unjust treatment at the hands of the government. “Trinity failed us,” reads one such banner. You expect them to be angry, but mostly they wear pleading, downtrodden expressions. They are, literally, a sad-looking lot. Please listen to us, they seem to be saying, striving to make eye contact as we hurry past.

We turn right, onto a country lane leading out of town. Perhaps we are behind schedule, as our escort quickly accelerates to around twice the posted speed limit, his drawn-out entourage struggling to keep pace close behind. In only a couple of minutes we are at the gate. Every car slows to to the speed of a fast walk to allow the sentry to check off, one by one, each pink pass as it goes by.

The phrase “Missile Range” conjures up some pretty exotic imagery, but the transition is completely unmemorable. As it turns out, White Sands Missile Range looks pretty much like the rest of the country hereabouts. The vegetation is sparse, the land gently rolling, the scenery unremarkable in every way but for its sheer emptiness. Facilities are very few, judging from the signage, and very far between. Not one vehicle passes us going the other direction.  Good place to put a missile range, you think.

At one point a line of dunes become visible low on the horizon some miles away to the southwest, glowing brilliant white in the sun, and you understand suddenly how this place got its name. For a mile or two, stray drifts of the sugar-white, powdery stuff dot the landscape close by. Every so often you pass a forlorn-looking collection of nondescript buildings, their locations marked by acronyms or cryptic milspeak shorthand. A few familiar terms pop out: “test bed,” “proving ground,” “firing range.” But the rest of it might as well be written in a foreign tongue. Secret facility or not, it is a pretty dull scene, and the romance fades quickly.

A few miles in, the convoy comes to an unexplained halt. Five, ten, fifteen minutes go by without any forward movement. Looking up and down the line of cars you can see drivers and passengers alike getting fidgety, their body language broadcasting impatience. Although we have been warned, albeit not all that sternly, against either taking pictures or exiting our vehicles along the route to the Trinity site, plenty of both begins to happen after about twenty minutes of unexplained stoppage. People clamber onto the roofs of their vehicles and peer into the distance, hoping to spot whatever is causing the delay. Vainly, as it turns out, because the head of the convoy is invisible, somewhere beyond a gentle rise maybe a mile ahead.

After about thirty minutes, the convoy once again resumes moving without explanation, and soon the miles are ticking rapidly by. Ignoring the posted  limit of fifty-five, our convoy settles in at around seventy, with occasional spikes up to eighty or so. Cresting a rise at one point, we are able to see the entire parade, stretching a couple of miles or more ahead and a like distance behind.

White Sands Missile Range comprises a rough rectangle, thirty to forty-five miles wide and about a hundred and fifty miles from top to bottom, a little left of  center in the southern part of New Mexico. The terrain is mostly classic Chihuahan desert throughout, cobbly hardpan crowned by a veneer of creosote bush, sagebrush, and ocotillo. The desolation is broken here and there by lonely mountains with names you’ve never heard: Oscura, Silver Top, Skillet Knob, Hardscrabble, Big Gyp. Apparently the Department of Defense would just as soon keep it that way.

If you’ve ever used Google Earth, you have probably noticed the photographs that appear as if by magic along the bottom of the screen. It’s a feature Google calls, sensibly, Tour Guide. Wherever you go, you are guaranteed a steady stream of relevant photos submitted by users. The selection of photos depends, more or less, on the center of your field of view, and as you scroll across the landscape, the selection changes to match the terrain. In preparing for this trip I decided to review the route we would take through the Missile Range itself. On a moderately close-up view, as you scroll east to west you have the usual parade of images, right up edge of the Range. And then nothing. The last image is of the West Gate itself. Fortunately, the aerial views remained unimpeded. So I was easily able to deduce the route we were likely to take.

After an unimpressive start, about halfway to Trinity the backdrop shifts into scenic mode as a series of lonely mesas and rugged mountains pass into and out of view. The vista stretches for miles in every direction, and you have the sense of being at the exact center of a vast space lacking precise borders. At times you can see easily a hundred miles or more into the distance.

Immersed in so much emptiness, it is natural to feel alone and exposed, so the company of all these strangers is welcome. You realize how lucky you are to be safely ensconced in your speeding conveyance of glass and steel, accompanied by many others. Were you by yourself and your vehicle were suddenly to cease operation it could be a cause for serious worry. You imagine how forbidding this terrain must have been to travelers of a couple of centuries ago, who would have known this place as el Jornada del muerto–Dead Man’s Journey–a name derived from the fate that often awaited those who did not carry enough water, or who encountered the famously hostile aboriginals.

The convoy slows to a crawl as its leading edge nears the Trinity site. We are not the only ones here. In the distance you can see a steady stream of vehicles incoming from the Mustang Gate, on the far north end of the Range. The turnout is impressively large, especially given the remoteness of the location, and the spacious parking lot is filled almost to capacity. At any given moment, there appear to be at least a couple of thousand people in attendance.

The gravel parking lot is a maze of cars, buses, RVs, and meandering pedestrians, but there is not even a moment of confusion. With brisk, military efficiency, a series of fatigues-clad young men guide you through the labyrinth. There are no decisions to make as each specialist unambiguously directs you another, who does the same, until at last you are handed off to the young man who guides you into your parking space, which turns out to be pretty tight. So for a moment this fellow necessarily captures your full attention  Keep coming keep coming a little to the left keep coming STOP! before turning abruptly to the next vehicle in line. It is impressively well-organized, and flows so smoothly that you experience a surge of respect for whoever it is that happens to be in charge of it. If this were a combat operation, that person would probably earn a medal. But it isn’t, so he probably won’t.

Trinity is, by any objective measure, a memorial, and hence, in theory at least, a place for solemn behavior. Although no one died at Trinity, the place and the thing that happened there are massively symbolic. The Atomic Age, that twin-edged sword of golden promise and instant Armageddon, began right here, in a single blinding moment. Trinity’s successful execution gave the green light to the bombing of Nagasaki, which killed tens of thousands and left tens of thousands more with grievous, gruesome injuries. Everybody remembers Hiroshima, but the bombing of Nagasaki was arguably the more important event. It is generally agreed that Nagasaki was the final devastating blow that pushed a tottering but suicidally resolute nation over the edge, into the abyss of once-inconceivable surrender. And with the Japanese surrender, World War II, the single most destructive event in human history, came mercifully to an end. With this much history surrounding it, Trinity ought to inspire respect, hushed voices, reverent manners, quiet reflection.

Or so you would think. But the cognitive dissonance begins before you even get out of your car because little such decorum is on display. The prevailing behavioral protocol seems more like what you might expect of a visit to Vegas, or perhaps the Jungle Room at Graceland. People are laughing and joking, cutting up, carrying on, acting out. A few stroll about sporting kitschy fake alien antennas with jiggling eyes on the ends. A few others wear costumes, as though play-acting some scenario. Out-of-control kids race about, screaming. A group of coeds, incongruous and bored-looking, hold exaggerated fake smiles for a few seconds as they pose for a group photo in front of Jumbo, an enormous steel vessel built to contain the bomb but never actually used. All over the place people yell loudly into cellphones, attempting to compensate for poor reception. A line fifteen deep forms to the t-shirt kiosk, which is doing a banner business. Vendors hawk sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps, books, trinkets. I immediately lose sight of my companions in the throng.

At least the weather is cooperating, though. The sun has disappeared behind a wall of low, gray cloud, and a chilly gale-force wind howls out of the the southeast, imparting the requisite somber and desolate feel. As the wind whips across the desert, it picks up much dust along with small broken pieces of vegetation, and after a time my fleece jacket looks as though I have rolled around on the ground. A few sensitive types cover their mouth and nose with mufflers or scarves, giving them a Bedouin look.

A number of journalists conspicuously roam the grounds, hunting for stories, one eye on deadline. Some, obviously pushing the “character” angle, interview every offbeat-looking person they can find. Others go the conventional route, and pick thoughtful-looking attendees as interview subjects. The young ladies who accompany me on this excursion have chosen to carry out a private, personal healing ritual, and they immediately draw the attention of a reporter from the New York Times, who reveals though his line of questioning that he is working the “flake” angle. This irritates my companions very much, and they spend the next half-hour impatiently explaining themselves.

There are also several film crews, including at least one from Japan. The Japanese crew is not happy. They look bewildered, hurt, maybe even a little angry. And honestly, I can’t blame them. Were I in their shoes I would take the appalling lack of manners very personally. We lost the war to THIS? I imagine them thinking. The crew appears to consist of a camera operator, a sound man, two on-screen presenters, and a fixer. The fixer speaks good English, and for a few minutes I shadow him, trying to engineer an encounter that would allow me to convey my apologies. In this I am unsuccessful, and so I mutter an unheard sorry-about-that as they load up and depart.

There are, however, at least a couple of groups who do not share in the general amusement. A substantial number of Pacific War veterans are in attendance. To a man they do not smile or laugh. They stare fixedly toward the memorial and move with purpose. Many are too frail to walk the short distance to the monument and are ferried by golf carts provided by the organizers. This being the seventieth anniversary, even the youngest would have to be nearing ninety. This is their last hurrah, and they know it. It occurs to me that these men are probably here to pay their respects, a right and proper thing given that were it not for Trinity, many of them would not be alive.

There is also a sizable contingent of Japanese visitors, including a number of elderly persons bearing visible burn scars. I half-expect an ugly confrontation between the two groups, but no such unpleasantness occurs. At one point I see a young Japanese man spontaneously offer a helping hand to a veteran slowly and painfully making his way. There is surprise, a moment of hesitation, then acceptance.

People are often disappointed to find that there is no crater at Trinity. They come expecting a ruined wasteland and instead find a place that is almost indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain. But if you step back a bit and view the site from just the right angle, you can actually see the imprint of the explosion. Because the bomb was detonated on a 100-foot tower, the impact of the blast was blunted by the cushion of air surrounding the fireball. Even so, the enormous force of the blast compressed the ground beneath by as much as ten feet, leaving a clear indentation, in the same way that a block of wood bears the imprint of a hammer blow. The indentation was partially filled in in the 1950s for reasons nobody can remember anymore, but the imprint remains.

The first observers to arrive at Ground Zero after the blast rode in special tanks lined with lead to protect them from the intense radioactivity. The observers were astounded to find that the ground was paved with a strange green glassy-looking material. Trinitite, as it came to be called, was formed from the fusing of desert sand and soil by the intense heat of the explosion. After years of unregulated collecting, the government banned the further removal of trinitite in the early 1970s. Over the years, erosion and renegade souvenir hunters have buried or removed much of what remained. But if you pay attention, you can still find plenty of it, hiding in plain sight. Everybody looks for it and few are disappointed.

Websites and pamphlets all warn you that removing trinitite is a federal offense, and this is reinforced by signs posted at prominent locations throughout the site. Yet few seem concerned. All over the place, you see people picking up pieces, inspecting them, passing them around. Testing the boundaries, I pointedly pick up a few pieces and openly carry them about to see if it draws an official reaction. It does not, and I conclude that the warnings are probably just for effect. But after a few minutes of internal debate, I decide not to pocket my pieces after all, and unceremoniously toss them back onto the ground for someone else to find.

Despite official assurances that Trinity is safe, people often express concerns about radioactivity, concerns hardly allayed by the ominous-looking signs at the entrance to the site. But in reality very little radiation remains. Dozens of radioactive compounds were generated by the blast, but most were very unstable forms that decayed in seconds or minutes, quickly reduced to irrelevance by the inexorable law of the half life. What little plutonium survived the blast was vaporized, scattered to negligible thinness over many square miles, and further dispersed or buried by erosion. Trinitite is still slightly radioactive and will activate a hand-held detector placed close by. But it, too, fades slowly away, surrendering year by year to sun and wind and rain, returning to the soil from whence it came.

The heart of the the Trinity site lies about a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot, between low fences labeled, every fifty feet or so, Keep Out. Not that there is any serious temptation to stray, as the land beyond the fence is desolate and uninviting. A high fence encloses the site, forming a circle perhaps 200 yards across, the dimensions, more or less, of the fireball created by the explosion. It is, overall, a very austere place, with little to engage the eye.

At the exact center of the circle stands a simple stone obelisk marking Ground Zero, the point directly beneath the bomb when it was detonated, atop the hundred-foot tower built specifically for the test. All that remains of this tower is a small piece of one of the four concrete and steel footings that supported it; the rest was vaporized in the explosion. A low steel railing, rusted with years of exposure to the elements, surrounds this remnant. It is there as much to keep the unwary from tripping over the footing, one suspects, as to protect the footing itself. It seems to be obligatory to inspect this otherwise unremarkable hunk of rubble, and pretty much everyone does, myself included. Presently, I feel the urge to reach out and touch it. This seems like a violation, somehow, and I notice that no one else is doing it. But there is no sign that says Don’t, so I do. Tentatively at first, as though afraid of what might occur, and then with firmness, I touch the rough concrete and inch-thick rebar, which has been cut close but still bears unmistakable signs of having been bent by a titanic force.

The act of making contact with this remnant of history brings forth an unexpected rush of emotion. And for a moment I fully appreciate the pressure that every single participant must have felt that summer, seventy short years ago. It must have seemed to them as though the fate of the world hung in the balance. And in a way it did. A successful test raised dramatically the odds that Japan would surrender, and that the years-long bloodbath would be over. A failure would likely have meant that the war would have to be carried to the Japanese mainland, all but ensuring the death of a million or more Americans and many, many millions of Japanese. And setting the stage for a very different post-war world.

Along with everyone else, I pause to study the obelisk marking Ground Zero. It is simple and austere, an elongated pyramid of dark volcanic rock bearing the legend:

Trinity Site

Where the world’s first nuclear device was exploded

July 16, 1945

The starkness of this setting seems to have a calming effect, and for a few moments, at least, the crowd is mostly subdued. Nevertheless, few can resist the impulse to pose for a picture with the obelisk. Photographing it by itself turns out to be a waiting game, and a good ten minutes passes before there is a momentary break in the parade of grinning tourists snapping selfies.

Considering what happened here that day gives me an involuntary shudder. You cannot help but imagine the indescribably violent event. In an instant, an unremarkable hunk of dull gray trans-uranic metal the size of a softball was transformed into a seething plasma hotter than the center of the sun, so violently energetic that anything it touched would have been instantly disaggregated into its constituent atoms. For a moment blazed a light of astronomically rare brilliance, never before seen on this planet. You imagine the Universe sitting up and taking notice of this abrupt and unexpected release of primordial energy in a formerly quiet sector. At the moment of the explosion, J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the Father of the Bomb, claimed to have quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, shatterer of worlds.” I choose a less erudite selection for my imagined reenactment, recalling instead the fictional words of Obi Wan Kenobi: “I feel a great disturbance in the Force.”

A short shuttle bus ride from the parking lot is the Johnson family ranch house, which served as headquarters for the Trinity project after its inhabitants were sent packing. Except for some minor maintenance, the house has been left exactly as it was when the last workers departed. In the days leading up to the test the house also served as an impromptu clean room for the final assembly of the bomb’s plutonium core, a fact driven home by the sign reading “Plutonium Assembly Room” which still hangs, helpfully, in the middle of the front room. Along every wall of the tiny room, maybe fifteen by fifteen, are wooden benches where the dicey, delicate work was carried out. A series of rare, once-classified photos hanging above the workbenches document the process. To reduce the threat of contamination by ever-present dust, the doors and windows were shut tight and every crack and seam in the house was completely sealed, and so the house became unbearably hot in the intense summer sun.

It occurs to me that every principal in the Manhattan Project must have passed through these doors in the days leading up to the test. Oppenheimer, Groves, Szilard, von Neumann, Teller. They were all here. It is a weird and unsettling experience to be in a place of so much concentrated history, and the hairs on the back of my neck involuntarily stand up at the eeriness of it. It is almost as though the energy of those who stood at this juncture of history still somehow lingers. I notice the younger of my two companions wearing what might almost qualify as a stricken look, which concerns me a little because after knowing her only two days I have developed quite a crush. She says “I swear I can feel their presence.” Which might ordinarily strike me as kind of flaky, except it happens to be exactly what I am also thinking.

Trinity was the fruit of the Manhattan Project, the massive, ultra-secret program to develop the atomic bomb. The idea of a powerful new weapon was first brought to the attention of President Franklin Roosevelt in a letter written by Albert Einstein in August of 1939, which drew on discoveries that had been made by scientists working in–ironically–Nazi Germany, the previous year.

The theory, in its broad outlines, was simple. Certain elements are fundamentally unstable, and under the right conditions, their constituent atoms could be made made to split apart. Breaking the atomic nucleus apart instantly released the tremendous binding energy that held the atom together. At the same time the broken nucleus would eject additional neutrons (a type of sub-nuclear particle) which would strike other atoms, causing them, in turn, to split and release energy and additional neutrons, and so on. If the unstable element could be made sufficiently dense, it would become “supercritical,” causing the chain reaction to unfold very quickly and explosively.

The energy released by the fission process was phenomenal. It was calculated that the energy released by a single splitting atom of  Uranium 235, for example, could cause a grain of sand to jump. To put it in perspective, this is roughly equivalent to something the size of a paramecium causing Long Island to leap hundreds of meters into the air.

Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed that he authorized the formation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium. The project advanced slowly at first. The Advisory Committee on Uranium was replaced by the National Defense Research Committee, which in turn morphed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development. In June of 1942 the project was taken over by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Manhattan District, and suddenly things began to pop. Brigadier General Leslie Groves, a sharp-elbowed, short-tempered, blunt-speaking man not known for tact or gentle manners, was chosen as overall director of the Project. But what Groves lacked in finesse he made up for in sheer organizational virtuosity and unsurpassed ability to get things done.

A remote mesa at the edge of the Jemez Mountains in north-central New Mexico was chosen as the headquarters of the Project. Los Alamos had been the site of an exclusive prep school for boys. This school and the surrounding 9000 acres were purchased by the government in 1942. Initially planned to hold working facilities and housing for 30 or so physicists and their families, Los Alamos grew rapidly as the Project advanced, eventually becoming a self-contained city of about 6000.

The Manhattan Project actually developed two separate bomb designs. One, a relatively simple design that came to be called Little Boy, used a core of uranium 235. This design was considered to be so reliable that a full-scale test was determined to be unnecessary. Work on this design was completed in only a few months. However, plutonium turned out to be unusable in this configuration, and under even the most optimistic scenarios there would only be enough U-235 for one bomb of this type. So an alternate design became necessary.

This alternate design, which came to be known as Fat Man, was much more complex, and relied on a relatively small core of plutonium-239, a non-naturally occurring element created by bombarding U-238 with neutrons. U-235 and P-239 have the rare quality of being fissile, meaning that they could support a chain reaction. Problem was, neither of these elements was available in more than trace quantities at the start of the Project. And procuring them using available methods was extremely difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. And so two gigantic facilities were constructed to supply the precious materials, one at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and one at Hanford, Washington. The scale of operations at these plants was staggering. At peak production, the Oak Ridge facility alone employed 75,000 workers and consumed one-seventh of the the total electrical output of the entire United States.

The Manhattan Project tested the limits of mathematics and physics, metallurgy, explosives, machine technology, engineering, and human endurance. A frenetic, insanely workaholic pace became the norm, and it was not uncommon for people to work nonstop until they simply dropped of exhaustion. Even by the epic standards of World War II–the greatest organized expenditure of human effort in history–the Manhattan Project was an undertaking of breathtaking scope, involving hundreds of thousands of individuals working at dozens of locations across the lower 48, all in strict secrecy. It was arguably the greatest organizational feat of all time. And at the tip of its spear was the greatest gathering of brainpower the world had ever seen.

The Manhattan Project was a Who’s Who of mathematical, scientific, and technical talent. At its peak, many of the most brilliant people on the planet were in its employ, a group of such stellar intellect that Albert Einstein himself would have been of middling rank among them. Los Alamos teemed with extraordinary individuals, prodigies such as Jon Von Neumann, a Hungarian mathematician who could read, write, and speak half a dozen languages with ease, could effortlessly recall in perfect detail everything he had ever read or heard, and could instantly perform in his head calculations that would take others hours to complete by hand. Fifteen past and future Nobel Prize winners were part of the Los Alamos crew.

Presiding over the disparate crew of geniuses was the brilliant and charismatic J. Robert Oppenheimer. Personally selected by General Groves, Oppenheimer seemed a most unlikely candidate for the grueling job of Science Director. Though acknowledged as a top-flight physicist, Oppenheimer was also a polarizing figure with a reputation. Tall and painfully thin with piercing blue eyes, Oppenheimer was the sort of man people either adored or loathed. Many serious persons with no axe to grind saw him as an arrogant flake, and sharply questioned the wisdom of his selection for such a critical role.

General Groves had an intuition about Oppenheimer, though. He had seen something in the man from Berkeley that others had not, and Oppenheimer rewarded Groves’ confidence by rising to the challenge with a deftness that even his most ardent admirers would not have anticipated. Oppenheimer’s towering intelligence, energy, political acumen, and skill in managing difficult, high-maintenance talent were indispensable in pushing the Manhattan Project to completion. Despite having vastly different personalities, Groves and Oppenheimer forged a colossally successful partnership based on mutual respect, a commitment to hard work, and the fact that they “got” each other in ways that no one else ever did.

The Gadget, they called it, once it was far enough along to have a name. Even some of its designers doubted that it would work. General Groves gave it no more than a 50 percent chance of success. The doubts were understandable, given that the Gadget was perhaps the most complicated technical feat ever attempted. A successful detonation would require an intricate series of ultra high-energy events to unfold in exact order, to a precision of less than one ten-thousandth of an inch, with a margin of error of less than ten-millionths of a second.

Three observation bunkers were constructed to monitor the blast, 10,000 yards north, south, and west, respectively, of Ground Zero. Based on predicted favorable weather conditions, planners selected the early morning hours of July 16 to carry out the test. As the zero hour approached, activity reached a fever pitch. At three a.m., two and a half hours before the test, a dozen workers still scurried about Ground Zero, carrying out last-minute tasks. By four-thirty, only three remained. At four fifty-five, they set the last switches, coupled the last electrical connections and headed for the safety of South 10,000, where all the principals had gathered. Thirty-five minutes to go. A warning siren sounded.

At ten minutes after five, a voice came over the loudspeaker and announced Twenty minutes, beginning the world’s first countdown. The radio, tuned to the Los Alamos frequency, crackled every few seconds with terse updates. Technicians checked and re-checked their instruments. Oppenheimer drummed his fingers nervously and looked at his watch every few seconds. Groves fiddled with his tie and paced. No one spoke. Sweat and tension filled the small room. At T minus five minutes, a warning rocket was fired and the countdown escalated to thirty-second intervals. Time slowed to a crawl as the critical moment approached. At T minus two minutes another warning rocket fired. The radio crackled a little and went silent. At T minus one minute, the last set of switches was thrown, triggering the automated final countdown sequence. There was nothing left to to do but wait. Another warning rocket was fired as the final sixty-second countdown began. With about ten seconds to go, a local radio station suddenly came on line, overlapping the Los Alamos frequency, and for a few moments the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite could be clearly heard over the countdown.

At time Zero, the automated timer tripped a relay, closing a circuit and sending a powerful surge of current from a bank of capacitors to detonators mounted in each of thirty-two precisely machined, hexagonal lenses of Composition B high explosive, arranged in a spherical, soccer-ball pattern around the bomb core. In a microsecond, the thin gold wire at the heart of each detonator heated to several thousand degrees Fahrenheit and vaporized, igniting its enclosing cylinder of PETN high explosive, which in turn ignited the explosive lens in which it was embedded. All thirty-two lenses ignited within a hundred-millionth of a second of each other, sending thirty-two powerful, perfectly aligned shock waves racing toward the core at over twenty-five thousand feet per second. The shock waves ignited a second, inner, layer of precisely shaped lenses of baratol, a slower-burning type of high explosive. The slightly concave shock waves from the baratol lenses combined with the slightly convex waves of the composition B to form a nearly perfect imploding sphere of crushing compressive force, which ignited yet another precisely machined layer of composition B. Three shock waves joined into one, exerting a combined force of tens of millions of pounds per square inch upon a hollow aluminum sphere, which collapsed symmetrically upon the hollow sphere of Uranium-238 contained within, which in turn collapsed upon the plutonium core, the heart of the bomb and the source of its enormous power.

At the center of the the plutonium core, which consisted of two matching halves separated by a thin gold gasket, was a hollow space containing the initiator, a spheroidal device housing two cavities separated by a foil membrane. One cavity was filled with polonium 210, the other with pure beryllium. The imploding layer of U-238 compressed the plutonium sphere to about forty percent of its original diameter and crushed the initiator. The instantaneous blending of polonium and beryllium released a shower of neutrons into the newly supercritical plutonium, jump-starting the chain reaction. For the tiniest fraction of a second the apparatus hung together as a million billion quadrillion atoms split apart in incomprehensibly rapid succession. But at some point the gargantuan pressure generated by the fissioning mass ripped the device apart, and the superhot froth of neutrons, atomic fragments, and elementary particles spilled forth with the energy of forty million pounds of exploding TNT.

At the instant of the explosion, for two hundred miles around, virtually everyone awake and moving about noticed and understood instinctively that Something Had Happened. The explosion released energy locked within the atomic nucleus since before the birth of the Solar System, creating a fireball that expanded outward at an initial velocity of a hundred thousand feet per second. Everything within a thousand feet was simply vaporized; anything organic within a mile was burned to cinders. Six miles from Ground Zero, human observers suffered instant sunburn from the burst of radiant energy, and were hurled to the ground by the force of the shock wave seconds later. Anyone within ten miles who happened to look directly at the explosion–but how could you not?–was blinded. Fifteen miles away, a sleeping shepherd was rudely awakened when the expanding shock wave upended his cot. Georgia Green, a music student being driven to Albuquerque when the bomb went off, asked “What was that?” Which might not have been remarkable but for the fact that she was blind.

After the successful test at Trinity, the sheer destructive power of the bomb was no longer a mere abstraction, and many of its builders began to experience acute buyers’ remorse. A heated debate raged about the morality of using such a powerful weapon against, inevitably, a mostly civilian population. It was proposed that the bomb be detonated on an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan as a demonstration. Surely, went the logic, the Japanese would come to their senses and surrender when faced with the certainty of complete annihilation. But after serious consideration, this approach was rejected. The Japanese would only be persuaded by a psychologically devastating blow, it was decided.

A  little after eight in the morning local time, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, entered the airspace above Hiroshima. The plane and its companion, another B-29 bearing measuring instruments and observers, were immediately spotted by Japanese radar. For a few minutes the air raid sirens sounded until it was officially determined that the pair were merely reconnaissance craft, at which point the alert was cancelled and the order for fighters to intercept rescinded. At eight-twelve local time, with the distinctive Aioi Bridge squarely centered in the Norden bombsight, the bay doors were opened, and the single bomb within released upon the unsuspecting city below. After three and a half minutes of freefall, Little Boy detonated at a preset altitude of 1900 feet over the city center. In a fraction of a second, the city lay in ruins and thousands lay dead: vaporized, cremated, crushed, or asphyxiated. Thousands more suffered grievous, gruesome injuries from heat or radiation.

An official Allied ultimatum to surrender went unanswered, so three days later, Fat Man number two was dropped over Nagasaki. Despite an explosive yield roughly fifty percent greater than that delivered by Little Boy, Fat Man inflicted considerably less damage on its target due to mountainous terrain, which largely deflected the blast wave. Nevertheless, the point had been unambiguously and brutally made. The following day, August 10, 1945, Japan signaled its intention to honor the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. But the formal announcement was accompanied by a back-channel query: Would the sovereignty of the Emperor be preserved? Threading the needle, the US officially rejected the offer, saying, essentially, “what part of ‘unconditional’ don’t you understand?” while informally offering assurances.

To a nation steeped in the code of Bushido, surrender was simply unthinkable, and it took the personal intervention of Emperor Hirohito to render it thinkable. Hardly a standard-issue monarch, Hirohito, like all Japanese Emperors, was revered as a living divinity and the embodiment of Japanese history and culture. His word was, quite literally, law. In a four-minute radio address at noon on August 15, 1945 Emperor Hirohito spoke to the Japanese nation for the very first time. Using a stilted, medieval form of Japanese that was hard to understand, the unfamiliar high-pitched voice intoned that “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”

The surrender was officially ratified on September 1 1945, in a ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Supreme Allied Commander General Douglas MacArthur presided over the somber and dignified event, in which top-hatted Imperial representatives, delegates of the Allied Powers, and MacArthur himself came forward, one by one, to sign the formal Instrument of Surrender. And with MacArthur’s concluding words “These Proceedings are closed” ringing in everyone’s ears, the terrible war came to an end.

Seventy years after, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to be the hottest of hot-button issues. Absolutely everyone has an opinion, and they come in as many flavors as there are individuals. And as with any complex subject having strong moral overtones, there is a mix of serious and well-considered opinions along with a great deal of facile and simplistic thinking about the only use of nuclear weapons in wartime. We shoulda bombed ’em back to the stone age marks one extreme and The bombings were a war crime defines the other.

I have myself wrestled with the issue since first becoming aware of it in childhood. Once firmly in the Moral Outrage camp, after careful re-consideration I have come to the conclusion that the bombings were a classic necessary evil. An atomic holocaust was the price that had to be paid in order for Japan to be delivered from its apocalyptic psychosis, so all-consuming that the “glorious” suicide of a hundred million Japanese, “beautiful in its tragedy, like shattered jewels,” was considered infinitely preferable to the ignominy of capitulation. The ghastly one-two punch was precisely the psychic jolt needed to bring Japan to its senses. And so millions lived who otherwise would have died, the Japanese nation was spared complete destruction, and the stage was set for perhaps the greatest turnaround of all time.

In the history of warfare, no people have ever been as gently treated in defeat as the Japanese after World War II. And just as Robert Oppenheimer, the airy idealist, was the perfect man to lead the creation of the atomic bomb, Douglas MacArthur, the born warrior, was the perfect man to wage peace upon the vanquished foe. Vain and self-important, cultured, imperious, steeped in history, keenly intelligent, politically astute, shrewd, and flamboyantly self-promoting, MacArthur deftly engineered the ultimate Extreme Makeover of an entire society.

With a restrained, humane, and pragmatic approach, MacArthur gradually earned the trust and respect of the wary Japanese, who had been conditioned by years of ugly propaganda to think of Americans as subhuman brutes. And in conspicuously demonstrating to the Japanese that they had been lied to about their American enemies, MacArthur subtly conveyed to them that their leaders had also lied about pretty much everything else. And thus was set in motion a profound societal shift.

Seizing the historic opportunity, MacArthur skillfully redirected the ancient society away from its martial, feudal past toward a modern, civil, future. It was not a hard sell; after twenty years of endless, ultimately pointless war and sacrifice the Japanese were more than ready. It is no accident that Douglas MacArthur was universally revered among the wartime generation of Japanese, now mostly gone. Thanks to an enlightened Occupation, Japan arose from the ashes of total defeat to become a modern and democratic nation, an economic powerhouse, and a reliable American ally.

I am reminded of this most unlikely of outcomes as I survey the Trinity parking lot, overflowing with Toyota after Honda after Nissan after Subaru. How odd, I think, that from an event of such singular violence was born something so indisputably, powerfully, positive. Because of what happened at Trinity, we live in a new and different world, intertwined, interdependent, and unprecedentedly peaceful. And this new world has moved so far away from the old in thought and action that the greatest conflict in human history, concluded less than a lifetime ago, is now little more than a memory, almost a myth, and so very foreign as to be nearly incomprehensible.




© 2015 By Scott P. Snell

Right of reuse is freely granted with proper attribution.

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