The Nuclear Age's Blinding DawnOn July 16, 1945, the United States detonated the first atomic bomb. The test, code-named Trinity, was the conclusion of the Manhattan Project to build the bomb in a frantic race with Adolf Hitler's scientists. The explosion ushered in the nuclear age, gave rise to New Mexico's modern economy, led to Japan's surrender and set off 50 years of debate about the morality of using such awesome force.
By Larry Calloway Of the Journal
For Joe McKibben, the Nuclear Age came in the back door without knocking. For Jack Aeby, it slipped blindingly through a crack in his welder's goggles. For Berlyn Brixner, it rose in dead silence like an awesome new desert sun.
After 50 years, they are among the few who remain to tell about the test of the first atomic bomb, made in the secret wartime city of Los Alamos and code named Trinity by lab director J. Robert Oppenheimer. The survivors are among the dwindling few on Earth who have seen any nuclear explosion. It's been 32 years since the last U.S. atmospheric test.
On that Monday, July 16, 1945, at 5:10 a.m., the senatorialvoice of physicist Sam Allison began what's now called a countdown. "Minus 20 minutes" boomed over the loudspeakers and shortwave radios in the dark Jornada del Muerto in New Mexico's dry Tularosa Basin.
By space-age standards, it was a very short countdown, but it was probably the first in the about-to-be-born world of big science. "Sam seemed to think it was," McKibben says. "He told me, 'I think I'm the first person to count backward.' ''
Just as Allison is remembered for the Trinity countdown, McKibben will probably be remembered as the guy who pushed the button. "That kind of annoys me," says McKibben, 82, folding himself down on a couch in his cluttered study in White Rock. "I consider it a minor part of my work." Exhaustive preparation
It wasn't minor at the time, of course. McKibben, a lanky Missouri farm boy turned Ph.D physicist, sat at the Trinity control panel. For three months, he had been wiring instruments across 360 square miles of desert around a 100-foot steel tower. The fat implosion bomb, 5 feet round, 5 tons heavy, squatted in a harness of cables on a platform on top. And the desert floor was scattered with instruments.
McKibben, of the University of Wisconsin, had spent the night at the tower on guard duty with two Harvard physicists, Trinity director Kenneth Bainbridge and Russian explosives wizard George Kistiakowsky, a former Cossack.
This was the second night of uneasy thunderstorms with close strikes of lightning in the Jornada.
McKibben fell asleep under some tarps on the clean linoleum floor at the tower base where the final assembly team had done its job carefully, very carefully.
And McKibben had a dream. It was simple, peaceful. "I started dreaming Kistiakowsky had gotten a garden hose and was sprinkling the bomb. Then I woke up and realized there was rain in my face." Everything in place
Soon the rain paused, and Bainbridge rescheduled the shot for 5:30 a.m. After closing the last open circuits, the three physicists drove south in a jeep as fast as they could on the straight blacktop road.
They were the last men out of the zone of lethal heat, blast and radiation. The nearest humans were in bunkers called North 10,000, West 10,000 and South 10,000 because they were 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) from Ground Zero.
"We got to South 10,000 (the control bunker) at 5:10, and that was the time I needed to throw the first switch," McKibben recalls. Allison took up the microphone in the countdown booth. A quick young Harvard physicist named Donald Hornig, who would become President Johnson's science adviser 18 years later, took his place near McKibben at an abort switch. Hornig's job was to stop everything if the detonation circuit faltered, in order to save the first precious production of the Hanford, Wash., plutonium plant.
Kistiakowsky, who would become President Eisenhower's science adviser, was in and out of the crowded room. An 18-year-old soldier named Val Fitch was attending British scientist Ernest Titterton at a set of vacuum tubes that would deliver the detonating voltage across 6 miles of cable. Fitch would win the 1980 Nobel Prize in physics. Also there was Navy Cmdr. Norris Bradbury, who would become director of the Los Alamos lab from 1945-70.
McKibben recalls these men but says, "I didn't see Oppenheimer. I was told that he came in the door and observed me at the controls and went away. Just to see that I was sane." And he laughs.
Hundreds turned their expectant eyes to the unforgiving New Mexico desert; it was a who's who of the scientific world.
At North 10,000, Berlyn Brixner was in the open on top of the bunker at the controls of a fast movie camera with a blackened viewfinder. "I was one of the few people given permission to look directly at the bomb at zero time," says Brixner, an amiable man of 84 sitting in his minimalist living room in a ponderosa-shaded Los Alamos neighborhood.
Brixner's assignment as chief photographer was this: Shoot movies in 16-millimeter black-and-white, from every angle and distance and at every speed, of an unknown event beginning with the brightest flash ever produced on Earth.
"The theoretical people had calculated a ... 10-sun brightness. So that was easy," Brixner says. "All I had to do was go out and point my camera at the sun and take some pictures. Ten times that was easy to calculate."
The theoretical people also knew a little about radiation, which fogs film, and Brixner consequently shielded two of his near-tower cameras behind 12-inch-thick leaded glass. Some of his cameras were so fast they shot 100 feet of film in a second. Some were 20 miles away and ran for 10 minutes.
And now he waited on top of the bunker, gripping the panning mechanism of his movie camera, which like all the others would be turned on by signals from McKibben's control panel. Sneaking a camera in
At Base Camp, the old David McDonald ranch house 10 miles south of the tower, the box-seat audience included Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, the hard-driving director of the Manhattan Project, and its presidential overseers -- Carnegie Institute president Vannevar Bush and Harvard president James Bryant Conant. Among the physicists at Base Camp were I.I. Rabi, a New Yorker who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, and the revered Italian Enrico Fermi, who had led the research on the first nuclear chain reaction. Among the 250 lab workers and 125 soldiers was a young civilian technician named Jack Aeby who was exempt from the draft because he'd suffered from tuberculosis.
Now 72 and retired from a Los Alamos career in health physics, Aeby sits in his solar home near Española and recalls how his job in the weeks leading to the test was to help the Italian physicist Emilio Segre set radiation detectors near the tower. Some of the instruments were hung on barrage balloons tethered 800 yards from the tower. They'd be vaporized a millisecond after they transmitted their nuclear data.
Aeby carried his personal 35 millimeter still camera, which Segré got through security, and as the countdown started, he was planning to take a new Anscochrome color transparency picture of the bomb. Aeby had carried a chair out into the darkness and was sitting there with the camera propped on the back and pointed north. He put on his government-issue welding goggles, not noticing in the dark that there was a crack in one lens. And he listened to the countdown on the Base Camp loudspeakers. Preparing for the best
At the VIP viewing area called Compania Hill, 20 miles northwest of the tower and about 10 miles southeast of the village of San Antonio, N.M., two refugee physicists put on sunscreen in the dark. They were Edward Teller of Hungary and Hans Bethe of Germany. Teller would become famous as an advocate of the hydrogen bomb, and Bethe would win the 1967 Nobel Prize in physics.
Teller put on gloves to protect his hands and sunglasses under his welder's goggles, for extra protection. "I expected it to work," Teller, now 87 and bent, said in a June interview.
Not far away was German Communist refugee Klaus Fuchs, who would be uncovered as a Russian spy five years later.
Outside the Jornada, of course, New Mexico had eyes and ears. Teller said that many Los Alamos employees, including his secretary Mary Argo, slipped away to Sandia Crest for a direct 100-mile view of the shot that morning.
And in Potsdam, just outside the rubble of bombed-out Berlin, President Truman waited for coded messages so he could tell Josef Stalin what the Russians already knew.
But the rest of the world didn't have a clue. Not the B-29 pilots who had hit Tokyo, again, with 3,000 conventional bombs that Friday. Not the 750,000 American troops that would be needed in the planned Nov. 1 invasion of Japan.
A bellow of "Zero!" Silence.
A flash of light brighter than the rising of the sun.
Then the shock wave hit, and the blast's roar echoed off the mountains.
At minus 45 seconds, McKibben cut in an automatic timing drum he and Clarence Turner had made to generate the final 20 relay signals, including the big one. The drum turned once a second, and McKibben says he had attached a chime that struck once each revolution. So there were 44 chimes before Allison bellowed: "Zero!"
It was 5:29.45 a.m. Mountain War Time, the same as Mountain Daylight Time.
McKibben's bunker was under dirt on the north, and there was a small open door on the south, facing away from the shot.
"Suddenly, I realized there was a hell of a lot more light coming in the back door," McKibben says. "A very brilliant light. It outdid the light I had on the control panel many times over. I looked out the back door and I could see everything brighter than daylight."
Aeby had put his Perfex 44 camera on "bulb" and in the dark before "Zero" opened up the shutter, figuring that way he'd get a good image of the flash. Suddenly, the light cut a sharp white line across his vision. "I could see that crack for some time afterward," he says.
It was daylight, and Aeby flung off the goggles to reset his camera. "I released the shutter, cranked the diaphragm down, changed the shutter speed and fired three times in succession," he says. "I quit at three because I was out of film."
Brixner, at North 10,000, was stunned. "The whole filter seemed to light up as bright as the sun. I was temporarily blinded. I looked to the side. The Oscura Mountains were as bright as day. I saw this tremendous ball of fire, and it was rising. I was just spellbound! I followed it as it rose. Then it dawned on me. I'm the photographer! I've gotta get that ball of fire." He jerked the camera up.
One thing more, he says: "There was no sound! It all took place in absolute silence." Unique sights, sounds
By the time the blast hit, 30 seconds after the flash, most of Brixner's 55 cameras in the desert were finished. Some had done their work in a second. There would be 100,000 frames to develop in black and white and a few in temperamental Kodachrome.
In the silence, McKibben stepped out the back door of South 10,000 and looked north over the bunker. "It was quite a pretty sight. Colored. Purplish. No doubt from the iron in the tower and a lot of soil off the ground that had been vaporized. I was surprised at the enormity of it and immediately felt it had gone big."
McKibben ducked behind the bunker just as the shock wave hit. "Then an amazing thing: It was followed by echoes from the mountains. There was one echo after another. A real symphony of echoes."
As the shock wave hit Base Camp, Aeby saw Enrico Fermi with a handful of torn paper. "He was dribbling it in the air. When the shock wave came it moved the confetti."
Fermi had just estimated the yield of the first nuclear explosion at the equivalent of 10,000 tons of TNT. Later measures put the yield nearly twice as much, at 18.6 kilotons. And this terrible new energy came from a plutonium ball weighing 13.6 pounds.
The test's success brought elation yet was tempered for many by the knowledge that the world had suddenly taken a hazardous turn.
Robert Van Gemert of Albuquerque, now 79, who was at Base Camp after the shot, says, "I'm just amazed how those scientists whipped out so many bottles of gin or whatever they could find. And it was rapidly consumed, I can tell you that."
Writer Lansing Lamont in 1965 recorded secondhand some GI exclamations: "Buddy, you just saw the end of the war!" "Now we've got the world by the tail!"
At South 10,000, Frank Oppenheimer recalled, his brother probably said, "It worked!" Kistiakowsky is supposed to have said to Robert Oppenheimer, "You owe me 10 dollars" because of a bet they had. Bainbridge is supposed to have told Oppie, "Now we are all sons of bitches."
At Compania Hill, Teller remembers, "I was impressed."
Hans Bethe, now 89, remembers his first thought was, "We've done it!" and his second was, "What a terrible weapon have we fashioned." Fleeing the radiation
At North 10,000, Brixner and the others were thinking suddenly only of a kind of hazard the world had never known. "I was looking up, and I noticed there was a red haze up there, and it seemed to be coming down on us," he says.
"Pretty soon the radiation monitors said, 'The radiation is rising! We've got to evacuate!' I said, 'That's fine, but not until I get all the film from my cameras.' '' In the midst of the world's first fallout, somebody helped Brixner throw his last three cameras in an Army car, and they all got out of there fast. Film badges later showed they got low doses -- by the standards of the time.
About 160 men were waiting secretly north of the Jornada with enough vehicles to evacuate the small communities in the probable fallout path. Gen. Groves had phoned Gov. John Dempsey before the test to warn him that he might be asked to declare martial law in southwest New Mexico.
But the radiation readings from people secretly stationed all over New Mexico stayed safe -- again by the standards of the time.
The test was shrouded in secrecy, but, within weeks, the world would know what science had wrought in a lonely stretch of New Mexico desert.
When Teller returned to his Los Alamos office, he says, Mary Argo ran to him, breaking all the secrecy rules, " 'Mr. Teller! Mr. Teller! Did you ever see such a thing in your life?' I laughed. And she laughed," he says with joy in his voice. "Does that tell you something?"
At community radio station KRS in Los Alamos, Bob Porton, a GI, was about to rebroadcast the noon news, courtesy of KOB. "Suddenly, about 30 or 40 scientists all came in and stood around," he says. "We knew something was up."
The lead story, Porton says, was this: "The commanding officer of Alamogordo Air Base announced this morning a huge ammunition dump had blown up, but there were no injuries."
"All these scientists jumped up and down and slapped each other on the back," Porton says. "I was familiar with secrecy. I never asked any questions. But I knew it was something big."
It was something big. What they'd heard was the coverup story for the first atomic bomb blast. Counting backward again
Brixner was on his way to Hollywood to get his film developed in secrecy at a studio lab. One reel showed his jerk of the camera.
Aeby developed his color film that night in Los Alamos, using the complex system of a half dozen Ansco chemicals. The first shot of the bomb was overexposed off the scale, but one of the next three became the only good color picture known of the first atomic explosion.
Weeks later, Ellen Wilder Bradbury of Santa Fe recalls, the Wilder family tuned in the only radio they had, in their car, to hear a wire recording broadcast over KRS. Ellen was about five and hadn't understood about Hiroshima. And now she was hearing a recording made in the cockpit of Bock's Car, the B-29 that dropped "Fat Man," identical in design to the Trinity bomb, on Nagasaki.
Ellen, who would marry Norris Bradbury's son, recalls the now-lost recording clearly: "They said, 'We've got an opening in the clouds. OK. We're going ahead.' And then they counted down to drop it. And they did say, 'Bombs away!' But I had just learned to count, and I was most impressed by the fact that they could count backwards."