Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Second of a two-part series
At 7:30 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, Navy Capt. William Sterling “Deak” Parsons squeezed his way into the dark bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay.
The big American bomber was in flight at about 31,000 feet, 45 minutes from the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Parsons, 43 at the time and the weaponeer on the Enola Gay, grew up in Fort Sumner. An exceptional student, he spoke Spanish fluently, finished at Fort Sumner High in 1918 and was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, from which he graduated in 1922.
Parsons’ military specialty was ordnance (weapons). He was associate director at Los Alamos during the development of nuclear weapons there, and he had observed, from the vantage point of an airborne B-29, the detonation of the first atomic bomb at New Mexico’s Trinity Site on July 16, 1945.
Now, three weeks after the test explosion at Trinity, Parsons was aboard another B-29. He sidled his way up to a 10-foot-long atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy and armed it.
At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Little Boy dropped from the Enola Gay, exploded at 1,800 feet above Hiroshima and immediately killed 70,000 to 80,000 people, 30% of the city’s population, mostly civilians, and wiped out 4.7 square miles.
“Maybe another 60,000 to 70,000 people died within several months afterwards from radiation,” said history professor Jon Hunner, now retired from New Mexico State University. “With nuclear weapons, we now have the possibility of ending human history, the threat of mutual assured destruction.”
A second atomic bomb, Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. It killed more than 45,000 people on detonation.
Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, ending World War II.
Both Little Boy and Fat Man had been designed and built at Los Alamos, as had the Gadget, a plutonium bomb tested at Trinity Site, a portion of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, 30 miles southeast of Socorro.
All this was part of the Manhattan Project, the United States’ effort to create an atomic bomb for use in World War II.
New Mexico was vital to the building of the bomb, but the bomb proved as essential to the building of New Mexico.
“It had a huge impact on the state,” said Luis Campos, professor of the history of science at the University of New Mexico. “The investment of federal monies in the labs was a huge factor in the development of New Mexico.”
Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque were spawned by the bomb, as was uranium mining in the state and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a radioactive waste repository near Carlsbad.
Other byproducts of the nuclear industry in the state include radioactive fallout from the July 1945 test at Trinity Site, an accidental uranium mill spill that released radioactive material into the Puerco River at Church Rock in July 1979, an airborne release of radioactive material at WIPP in 2014 and, as recently as last month, the potential exposure of 15 employees to plutonium-238 at LANL.
“There would be people who would disagree that the development of the bomb was a good thing for the state or the nation,” said Jim Walther, director of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque.
A bomb boost
“The Manhattan Project (affect) on New Mexico is manifold,” said history professor Hunner, author of books about Los Alamos and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who directed the science team at Los Alamos.
Hunner lives in France. The Journal interviewed him by email.
During World War II, Hunner said the Manhattan Project brought high-paying jobs into a part of the state that could use them.
“People from northern New Mexico, from the Española Valley and the pueblos, from the villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains came to Los Alamos and found employment,” he said. “Granted, few New Mexicans worked in the labs as scientists, but still the federal jobs were better-paying ones than those often found in the state.”
He said some used that money after the war to send their children to university and others were able to keep alive their traditional farming lifestyles supplemented by the salaries at Los Alamos.
“The Manhattan Project helped propel New Mex ico into a high-tech role with research,” Hunner said. “Not just in nuclear weapons but in high-speed computers, lasers, human genomes, nuclear medicine and alternative energy.
“On the other hand, the legacy of releasing radioactive substances and waste into the environment will last thousands of years with some of these elements.”
The downwind side
Not long after the July 16, 1945, atomic test at Trinity Site, eerie stories started to circulate in the parts of New Mexico closest to the detonation, especially in those counties – Lincoln, Otero, Socorro and Sierra – downwind from the blast.
According to “The Day the Sun Rose Twice,” by late University of New Mexico history professor Ferenc Szasz, there were reports of a substance like white flour falling from the sky for days after the test. The beard of a rancher was said to have turned half-white, as did half of a previously black ranch cat.
Several weeks after the test, Szasz wrote, the hair fell out of the hides of area cattle and grew back white in color, making for some strangely mottled livestock.
“I heard of a Hereford (red-and-white breed) cow that turned plumb white,” said Karl Laumbach, a Las Cruces archaeologist who has worked surveys and digs at and around Trinity Site.
The Gadget test bomb was detonated on top of a 100-foot steel tower. When the fireball hit the ground, it vaporized an estimated 100 to 250 tons of sand and sucked it up into a mushroom cloud that climbed to an altitude of 7 miles and drifted from New Mexico across Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, upstate New York, New England and then out over the Atlantic Ocean. The New York Times reported in May 1946 that the New Mexico test bomb contaminated the air over an area the size of Australia.
“The government was not at all prepared for the fallout,” said Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, organized in 2005 to collect data about cancers and other diseases affecting communities near Trinity Site and to seek justice and compensation for victims of the atomic test and its ongoing consequences.
“We had families living within 12 miles of the test,” Cordova said. “People in these communities (today) don’t ask if they are going to get cancer but when. I see no positive legacy from Trinity. It’s not about the science and the industry for us. It’s about suffering and death.”
Cordova, a survivor of thyroid cancer, grew up in Tularosa, a village in Otero County, one of the downwind counties.
“I am the fourth generation in my family to get cancer,” she said. “Both my great-grandfathers died of stomach cancer in 1955. Both my grandmothers had cancer but did not die from it. My father had neck cancer. My sister is being treated for skin cancer.”
Cordova said that there are absolutely higher-than-average rates of cancer in areas near the Trinity Site and that there were state Health Department reports of a threefold to fourfold increase in New Mexico infant mortality rates in the three months after the Trinity Site test.
Because areas in the vicinity of Trinity are mostly ranches or rural communities, Cordova said, people who develop cancer in these places are more at risk than those who live in urban centers.
“They have less access to health care, don’t see doctors as often as they should, have to wait longer to get appointments and don’t have the resources to travel (for medical care),” she said.
Worst of all, Cordova said, apparent victims of the Trinity Site test are not eligible for Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act benefits made available to those who suffer illnesses from exposure to atmospheric nuclear testing after World War II or from working in the uranium industry. She continues to campaign to remedy that situation.
“I won’t stop,” she said. “This is my life’s work. Other American citizens in other places were taken care of, but not those who lived close to the first (atomic) test. The (government) left; they never looked back.
“We are the sacrifice zone.”
Even before the atomic bomb test at Trinity Site, Los Alamos science director Oppenheimer was looking for a site for the continuation of weapons development – especially the non-nuclear aspects of that work.
In July 1945, Z Division, the ancestor of what is now Sandia National Laboratories, was established at Albuquerque’s Oxnard Field, part of Kirtland Field, an Army Air Forces base.
“Los Alamos knew it was going to need to grow if they were going to continue to make nuclear weapons,” said Rebecca Ullrich, Sandia National Laboratories historian. “There was no space left up on the hill (Los Alamos).”
Today, Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration research and development laboratory with a primary mission of ensuring that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is safe, secure, reliable and able to support the nation’s deterrent policy.
It is also a major player in the economy of Albuquerque and New Mexico.
UNM professor Campos said it is difficult to imagine what Albuquerque would be like without Sandia.
“Sandia charted a whole new path that would not have been otherwise,” he said. “It imported brain power. And the legacy of the lab is not all atomic.”
Research at Sandia today envelops energy and environmental programs, computing science, bioscience, engineering science, materials science and microsystems.
But just after World War II, when development of Z Division had just started, Ullrich said, staffers assigned to the division were headed to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands to take part in the July 1, 1946, Able Shot, the first atomic weapon test since Trinity.
Was it necessary?
About 2,060 nuclear tests have been conducted since the Trinity Site test, most of them by the United States (1,032) and the Soviet Union (715).
Only three countries are known to have done tests since the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty went on the table for signatures in 1996. India and Pakistan both did two sets of tests in 1998, and North Korea conducted six announced tests from 2006 to 2017.
Campos said test-ban treaties are controversial.
“One argument is that the treaties don’t work any more because countries such as Russia are not adhering to them and other countries are not party to them,” he said. “Another view is that the treaties are what have reduced the number of nuclear weapons and stopped (to a large degree) the tests.”
The total number of nuclear weapons, once estimated at 70,000 to 80,000, is now believed to be about 14,000.
But the biggest question of all is whether there was a need to test the first bomb at Trinity Site or drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The atomic bombs didn’t win the war,” Hunner said. “That was won by August of 1945. It was just a matter of time, of when the Japanese would surrender. The bombs just forced the Japanese to surrender then.”
Without the bombs, Hunner said, he believes an invasion of the Japanese home islands may have been necessary.
“Imagine the number of dead – for U.S. troops, that number is highly debated, from 50,000 to 1 million – but also the number of Japanese, both military and civilians, who would have died trying to defend their land.”
Campos said some historians believe that “avoid the invasion” argument is just one of several the U.S. government devised later to defend using the atomic bombs.
“Saving lives was never the issue at the time,” he said. “Using the weapons at hand to win was the issue.”
Still another theory was that dropping the bombs was not intended so much to defeat the Japanese as it was to send a message to the Soviet Union, the U.S. ally poised to become a powerful rival.
On Aug. 14, 1945, the day before the Japanese surrender, in a brief public relations film interview on Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean, Deak Parsons described the flight to Hiroshima in the Enola Gay.
He is precise, poised, military in bearing as he tells his story. Until the very end, that is.
“The bomb was finally released exactly at the designated hour, and the explosion occurred as planned,” he said.
But as he concludes that sentence, he turns his head abruptly to the left, folds in his bottom lip and swallows back a lump in his throat, as if suddenly overcome by the immensity of the memory, the overwhelming emotion of it all.
It was not rare for those involved in the Manhattan Project to be haunted by some aspect of it, to have second thoughts about what they had brought into the world.
When meeting at the White House with President Harry Truman in October 1945, Oppenheimer told the chief executive he felt as if he if he had blood on his hands, perhaps not the best thing to confide to the man who had accepted responsibility for using the bombs.
Truman dismissed Oppenheimer rather quickly and then reportedly told an aide he didn’t “want to see that (SOB) in this office again.”
Oppenheimer’s association with members or former members of the Communist Party, including his wife and brother, had been disregarded during the Manhattan Project years because of his value to the mission at Los Alamos.
But on June 29, 1954, during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration and the Red Scare days of searching out communists in government, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked, eliminating his role in government-related atomic research.
“From most accounts, the loss of his security clearance devastated him,” Hunner said of Oppenheimer. “He did continue to lead the Institute for Advanced Study (a prominent independent research center), and some people said he did a better job at that since he didn’t have to be involved in the debates and arguments about atomic matters at the Atomic Energy Commission and among the scientific community.”
Deak Parsons, a close friend of Oppenheimer’s since Los Alamos days, was visibly agitated when he learned that Oppenheimer’s access to classified material had been barred. He suffered chest pains that night and died the next day while being examined at Bethesda (Maryland) Naval Hospital.
The atomic bomb continues to claim victims in various ways, even as nuclear science offers good jobs and the promise of advances in medicine, energy and other fields.
“Radioactivity is used to determine the age of the Earth,” Campos said. “But what is real with the atomic bomb is radiation illness, thousands and thousands of people suffering from radiation illnesses. The issues are not gone; they are not past.
“Trinity is a story that needs to be told again and again.”
Second of a two-part series