Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
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A savage thunderstorm, flinging lightning from cloud to cloud and dumping walls of rain, rolled like a bad omen across the northwestern corner of New Mexico’s Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range at 2 a.m. on July 16, 1945.
Hunkered in below, at a base camp called Trinity Site, 30 miles southeast of
Socorro, several hundred scientists, military officers and enlisted men waited anxiously, watching puddles accumulate on the desert floor among an old ranch house and recently constructed barracks, support buildings, bunkers and towers.
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This tempest-tossed day, of all days, had been selected to test the Gadget, the super bomb designed and developed over the previous two years at the top-secret laboratory city of Los Alamos, 225 miles to the north.
Detonation was originally set for 4 a.m., but the storm washed away that plan and threatened to do the same with the rest of the day.
But then a break in the weather’s fury, one maelstrom stepping aside for another. The test was reset for 5:30 a.m., and the countdown to the first atomic explosion was on.
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“They set off the bomb right under the Oscura Mountains, which are sacred to the Mescalero Apaches,” said Karl Laumbach, a Las Cruces archaeologist who has worked Trinity Site. “It started a new world, the end of which we don’t yet know.”
We can only guess where the Atomic Age is going, but we can fix its start.
Officially, the countdown to the first atomic detonation started at 5:10 on that summer morning at Trinity Site 75 years ago.
But in reality, it began in December 1938 in Berlin, when two German chemists unintentionally split a uranium atom.
Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman were puzzled by the results of their 1938 experiment. They did not know they had split an atom. At the time, no one believed that was possible.
Hahn sent a letter describing the experiment to his former assistant, Lise Meitner, an accomplished Austrian physicist of Jewish descent who had been forced by Nazi anti-Semitic laws to leave Berlin for Sweden.
Meitner conferred with her nephew, Otto Frisch, also a physicist, and they determined that Hahn and Strassman had indeed done the “impossible.”
This was immense.
The ability to split atoms, a process Meitner and Frisch termed fission, presented the possibility of nuclear chain reactions that could release huge amounts of energy for producing electric power – or unleashing the destructive horrors of weapons never envisioned before.
In October 1939, the month after Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, initiated World War II by invading Poland, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was given a letter, signed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein, warning him of the potential danger of atomic weapons.
But the U.S. response was sluggish. Not much was done about developing atomic weapons for the United States before Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The U.S. declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the U.S., and it was game on.
“It became a race to get the bomb before Hitler,” said Luis Campos, professor of the history of science at the University of New Mexico.
Jim Walther, director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, said a German atomic bomb became the American government and military’s worst nightmare.
“I’m (impressed) by the energy scientists put into a crash course in developing the bomb for the United States,” Walther said.
That crash course, code-named the Manhattan Project, included research and production at 30 sites in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
The main sites were at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, on New Mexico’s Pajarito Plateau.
Oak Ridge and Hanford were tasked respectively with the production of uranium and plutonium, elements capable of sustaining nuclear chain reactions. Los Alamos, designated with the code name Site Y, was assigned the job of designing and building the bombs.
Army Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who played a leading role in the construction of the Pentagon, was tapped to direct the Manhattan Project. Groves had a brusque, abrasive personality but was recognized for his ability to learn on the go and get things done.
He selected J. Robert Oppenheimer, a gifted physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, to head up the scientific team at Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer came with baggage. He was close to members or former members of the Communist Party, including his wife, Kitty, and his brother, Frank. But Groves believed Oppenheimer’s assets outweighed those concerns.
“Oppie was a complex man,” said Jon Hunner,a retired New Mexico State University history professor and author of books about Oppenheimer and Los Alamos. “He was brilliant, multilingual. He taught himself Sanskrit so he could read the Bhagavad Gita.”
Hunner lives in France, north of Paris. The Journal interviewed him by email.
“At Los Alamos, (Oppenheimer) was able to manage some very difficult egos,” Hunner said. “He was charismatic, charming, but also could be blunt if he thought someone a fool.”
Lab with a view
It was Oppenheimer who suggested New Mexico as the location for Site Y.
“Oppie first came to New Mexico when he was in his late teens, after being sick for a year,” Hunner said. “He took a trip through the Southwest to regain his health and stayed at a ranch above Pecos. He returned to New Mexico once he started teaching in California and bought a cabin (in the Jemez Mountains) even before he bought a house in Berkeley.”
Groves and Oppenheimer settled on the Los Alamos Ranch School, a private school for boys, as the place to build Site Y. The government purchased the property in November 1942. Construction of Manhattan Project facilities started at Los Alamos in December 1942 and was completed in November 1943.
Located near San Ildefonso Pueblo, the property was culturally intriguing and scenically spectacular. Hunner believes those facts played an important role in the development of the bomb.
“While scientific experiments can be done in a lab anywhere, New Mexico helped the scientists to be more creative – to think outside the box – because most of them had never experienced the diverse peoples, the desert, the high mountains and the distinctive light of New Mexico,” he said. “It put them in a different mindset.”
‘Collection of crackpots’
The Los Alamos scientists were an impressive lot. According to Ferenc Szasz, late UNM history professor and author of “The Day the Sun Rose Twice,” nearly every important American physicist was working at Site Y by 1944.
“Los Alamos had Nobel Prize-winning scientists and their families, refugee scientists from Europe and their families,” Hunner said.
The Los Alamos scientific team included Niels Bohr, a Dane; the Italian immigrants Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segré; the Hungarian-born Edward Teller; Hungarian émigré John von Neumann; and German émigré Hans A. Bethe; as well as such American-born geniuses as Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman.
The collective intelligence of these scientists was never in doubt, but they could be difficult, eccentric, prima donnas.
In “The Day the Sun Rose Twice,” Szasz writes that Groves proclaimed them “the largest collection of crackpots ever seen.”
Of course, it took more than scientists to make Los Alamos function.
“There were military experts on munitions and their families; military men, some back from combat; and women who provided security, did administrative duties and were human calculators,” Hunner said. “There were employees from northern New Mexico who did everything from manual labor to assisting in the labs and Native Americans from nearby pueblos. This was an instant city with an incredible collection of people from all walks of life.”
It’s a secret
And since it was a secret city, care was taken to keep what was going on at Los Alamos confined to an inner circle of scientists and administrators. Wives; people in Española, Santa Fe, San Ildefonso Pueblo and other nearby communities; even local people trucked in to work at Site Y were kept in the dark. At least that was the intent.
Richard Melzer, retired UNM-Valencia Campus history professor, tells about workers from Española and San Ildefonso being put in backs of trucks covered with canvas so they would be unable to see where they were going during their ride to Los Alamos.
“It was so foolish because these men had grown up in the area and knew every bump and turn in the road,” Melzer said.
Stories about what was going on “up on The Hill” spread through northern New Mexico.
Some, such as Los Alamos being a base for manufacturing submarines or producing windshield wipers for submarines, were just jokes.
Others were based on observation.
Since the wives of scientists, military personnel and others were permitted to live at Los Alamos, locals started to notice a lot of pregnant women who were unknown to them circulating in communities near the secret facility. During the war years, 208 babies were born at Los Alamos.
This was the basis for a rumor that Los Alamos was a sanctuary for pregnant members of the Women’s Army Corps, or WACs.
And how about this one. Northern New Mexico in the 1940s was a pretty laid-back, easy-going place. But suddenly there were all these men walking around in coats and ties.
Melzer said that’s what started the story about Los Alamos being a concentration camp for Republicans.
It could happen. After all, there was a Democrat in the White House.
Los Alamos worked hard on security, even, under pretense of providing protection, keeping close scrutiny on Oppenheimer because of his communist affiliations.
But because security personnel lacked resources and worked overtime looking at the wrong people, at least three spies at Los Alamos passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, an American ally at the time but also a potential enemy.
According to history professor Melzer’s 2000 book, “Breakdown: How the Secret of the Atomic Bomb was Stolen During World War II,” the Los Alamos spies were Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass and Theodore Hall.
Fuchs was a German native and Communist Party member who had emigrated to Great Britain. His Communist Party background was apparently overlooked or suppressed, because Fuchs was one of 22 British scientists sent to work at Los Alamos.
Between June and September 1945, Fuchs reportedly passed enough information to Soviet courier Harry Gold in Santa Fe to put the Soviet Union two years ahead in its nuclear research.
Greenglass, a native of New York City, was the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg, who, with her husband Julius, was executed by the U.S. government for espionage in 1953.
An Army tech sergeant and machinist at Los Alamos, Greenglass passed secrets about the explosive lens component of an atomic bomb to Soviet courier Gold. The exchange took place in June 1945 at an apartment Greenglass and his wife rented at 209 High Street NE in Albuquerque.
Like Greenglass, Hall was born in New York City. He was a physics prodigy, graduating from Harvard at age 18 and joining the scientific research team at Los Alamos when he was just 19.
Hall, who had socialist sympathies, passed valuable information about the plutonium bomb, the kind of bomb tested at Trinity Site, to Soviet courier Lona Cohen in August 1945 on the UNM campus. As a result, the Soviet Union knew the most essential elements of America’s secret weapon less than a month after the Trinity detonation.
The Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949.
“If it had not been for the spies, it would have taken a lot longer for the Soviets to develop the bomb,” said Museum of Nuclear Science director Walther.
Melzer said the three spies did not play their risky game for money.
“They were in it for their ideology,” he said. “They wanted to make sure both great powers had the bomb so neither of them could use it.”
Melzer said the story of Soviet courier Cohen’s departure from the Las Vegas, N.M., railway station with the plutonium bomb secrets given her by Hall sounds like something from a John le Carré or Eric Ambler spy novel.
Cohen had hidden the plans in the bottom of a Kleenex box. When she was stopped by a plainclothes agent questioning passengers boarding her train, she handed him the box so she could find her ticket in her handbag.
After being cleared to board, Cohen, counting on the chivalry of the agent to return the box, walked away as if she had forgotten about it.
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Germany surrendered in May 1945. There was no longer any fear of Hitler getting the bomb. But Japan was still in the war, so the work at Los Alamos continued.
Despite years of intense research, Los Alamos scientists were still uncertain just what kind of monsters they had created. Testing would be beneficial.
However, they were pretty confident that Little Boy, an atomic bomb that used a gun-type mechanism to trigger a uranium chain reaction, would detonate. Besides there was not enough uranium available to make a test of this type of bomb feasible.
But they were less certain about Fat Man, a bomb that contained a sphere of plutonium touched off by a method called implosion. And plutonium was more plentiful and easier to make. So scientists gathered at Trinity Site to test the Gadget, a bomb like Fat Man.
What happened if Gadget detonated was another uncertainty. Scientists calculated there was about a three in a million chance it would initiate a chain reaction that would destroy the planet, our whole world.
On departing for the test at Trinity, one Los Alamos scientist told his wife there were three possible outcomes – the bomb might be a dud, it might work as expected, or “we all may be blown to bits.”
On the night before the test, Italian Nobel Prize-winning physicist Fermi was taking bets on whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere and, if so, whether it would destroy the whole world or only New Mexico.
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At about T minus 9 seconds, according to Szasz’s “The Day the Sun Rose Twice,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” broadcast by a local radio station on the same wave length, broke into the countdown.
But a few half notes later, the early morning darkness was shoved aside by the brightness of many suns and a mushroom cloud, variously described as changing in color from yellow to red to orange, to purple to green to white, climbed 7.5 miles into the sky.
The atomic test at Trinity Site did not blow up the planet, not even New Mexico. But it changed the world and the state forever.
First of a two-part series