Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
On a black, wet morning, 75 years ago today, Otto Frisch, an Austrian-born British physicist, stood on a hill in southern New Mexico waiting for a preview of the end of the world.
At least the end of the world as it had been up until that day, Monday, July 16, 1945.
The physicist was one of about 90 scientists and others associated with atomic weapons research at Los Alamos who had ridden down in buses from that secret city to watch the testing of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site, 30 miles southeast of Socorro.
For Frisch, in particular, this day marked the most recent mile in an amazing journey that started in snowy Sweden in December 1938.
Won’t be missed
Frisch and the others not directly involved in the test were gathered on a hill about 20 miles northwest of Ground Zero, the point at which the Gadget, a plutonium bomb, sat on top of a 100-foot steel tower.
The fact the bomb was there at all owed much to Frisch.
It was while visiting his aunt, Lise Meitner, also a physicist, in Sweden during the Christmas holidays in 1938 that Frisch and Meitner unraveled the theory of splitting atoms, a process they dubbed fission and which made possible the development of nuclear weapons.
Now, more than six years later, Frisch waited to see his theory go up in fire and smoke in the midst of the remote, rattlesnake-infested, arid and alkali-dusted badlands of New Mexico.
“I always tell my students they chose New Mexico for the test because no one knew we were here to begin with, so (if things went badly) no one would miss us,” said Richard Melzer, retired University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus history professor.
A good fit
Trinity Site, which in 1945 was on the northwest section of what was then the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, was not the only site considered for testing the bomb.
Other prospective sites included San Nicolas Island, 61 miles off the coast of Southern California; a desert training area near Rice, California, at the southern tip of the Mojave Desert; sand bars 10 miles off the coast of Texas; the San Luis Valley of Colorado; and a few other locations in New Mexico, including the malpais region near Grants.
The malpais is close enough to Los Alamos to make it convenient, but anyone who has tried to walk across that terrain understands why the government went with Trinity Site instead.
Now part of the White Sands Missile Range, Trinity Site had several things in its favor, said Jim Eckles, who worked with the missile range’s public affairs office for 30 years, and is the author of books about White Sands and Trinity Site.
“Trinity was close to highways and a railroad, in proximity to Los Alamos and was already under the control of the military,” Eckles said in a phone interview from Las Cruces. “It fit all the requirements.”
Wild West duty
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed up the atomic research team at Los Alamos, is credited with giving Trinity Site its name. He said it was inspired by the poetry of John Donne.
But it’s likely that the military men who served there in the months leading up to the test and for months afterwards did not see much poetic about the rugged and challenging landscape.
There were about 50 Army military policemen and 40 Army engineers at Trinity Base Camp. A dozen MPs were the first to get there, arriving Dec. 30, 1944.
More MPs and engineers, a term used for servicemen who did all kinds of construction and maintenance jobs, arrived in January and February 1945.
These men, many of them from other parts of the country, must have thought they had been stationed in the Wild West. For sure, there were deer and antelope at play in the neighborhood.
“Two large herds of antelope roamed the region, and several people worried they might run through and snap the drooping (instrument) wires,” late University of New Mexico history professor Ferenc Szasz wrote in his 1984 book “The Day the Sun Rose Twice.”
But, Szasz wrote, “Although the herds raced across the region at full speed, they always ducked under the wires at just the right moment.”
Deer and antelope weren’t so bad. Occasionally, the men, with the permission of base camp commander Lt. Howard C. Bush, hunted the animals.
“Marvin Davis (Trinity Base MP) said they killed a pronghorn or two and a few deer,” Eckles said. “The pronghorns they didn’t like. But the venison steaks were pretty tasty.”
There were things at Trinity that might hunt back.
“The men were also on guard against rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas – black tarantulas 6 inches across, standing 2 or 3 inches tall,” wrote Thomas Merlan, New Mexico Historic Preservation Officer from the late 1970s to 2000, in “Life at Trinity Base Camp,” a 2001 report prepared for White Sands Missile Range.
Merlan noted that the scorpions were especially fond of latrines.
Eckles said that Trinity Base engineer Felix DePaula, an 18-year-old Brooklyn native and probably the youngest person at the base camp, carried a long stick with him to ward off snakes.
“He sees this big (non-venomous) bull snake crawling into a pile of construction wood and gets his pole in there to get it out,” Eckles said. “He gets the pole under the snake but it gets stuck in the wood. He tries to pull it free and ends up flinging this big snake over a building and into men lined up for the mess hall.”
Eckles said DePaula runs around the building to find understandably agitated men looking up into the sky.
“They think a hawk must have dropped the snake on them, and DePaula decides not to tell them any different,” Eckles said.
The Trinity Base Camp military policemen were a mounted unit. They had 16 horses at the base camp, but discovered that the distances they needed to patrol were so vast that jeeps and trucks served the purpose better.
Horses were used for short patrols, recreational riding by the men and for polo.
Base commander Bush, by all accounts a very popular officer, did all he could to diminish the monotony suffered by men serving in an isolated area as part of a top-secret project.
He brought in movies, arranged for volleyball and baseball games, and, since they had horses available and mostly unused, got his men polo equipment.
Most of the men did not know anything about polo, but they were game.
“Instead of using the polo mallets and polo balls Bush got them,” Eckles said, “they used cut-off broom sticks and volleyballs. Those polo balls wouldn’t roll in that soft sand.”
But as the days melted down to July 16, test day, monotony gave way to tension. The big show, the one they were all here for, was about to start.
Detonation of the plutonium bomb was set for 5:30 a.m. Back up on the hill, Frisch, who had forgotten to bring the dark goggles he meant to wear, sat on the ground with his back to Ground Zero and waited.
“And then, without a sound, the sun was shining; or so it looked,” Frisch wrote later. “The sand hills at the edge of the desert were shimmering in a very bright light, almost colorless and shapeless.”
After the explosion dimmed, he turned to look. He saw fire rising into the sky, but still connected to the ground by a gray stem of swirling dust.
“I thought of a red-hot elephant balanced on its trunk,” he wrote.
In a phone interview from Santa Fe, Merlan, who had not been born at the time of the test, envisioned the blast this way.
“It’s a picture of our entirely new state of being,” he said. “It’s a picture of the prospective end of the world.”