The dawn of the Nuclear Age: From Los Alamos to Hiroshima

The dawn of the Nuclear Age: From Los Alamos to Hiroshima

Author’s note: On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this two-part series entitled “The Dawn of the Nuclear Age” will focus upon the major locations/events in the evolution and deployment of the world’s first atomic bomb. Today, part one will cover two sites in New Mexico: Los Alamos where the bomb was perfected and the Trinity Site at White Sands Missile Range where the bomb was tested. Part two will cover Tinian Island in the Northern Mariana Islands where a B-29 Superfortress bomber known as the “Enola Gay” bearing the first atomic bomb took off for its flight to Hiroshima and the Peace Park there marking the spot where the bomb exploded.

The 45-minute drive from Santa Fe to Los Alamos is a picturesque one to be sure. In the early morning light when I drove this 40-mile route, I spent a good bit of extra time stopping at several of the overlooks for photos and simply to enjoy the breathtaking views of New Mexico’s rugged peaks and mountains. The rays from the morning sun danced on the peaks and valleys along the cliff lines for as far as I could see. The shadows that lay in my line of vision gradually gave way to the evolving light of the new day. The views, to me, were reminiscent of a “mini” grand canyon.

I had decided to drive to this relatively small city of 12,000 people because I wanted to visit the place where work on the top-secret “Manhattan Project” was ultimately completed. This Herculean effort culminated with the production of the world’s first atomic bomb. Although the research that led to the bomb’s creation occurred in several locations in various countries, Los Alamos National Laboratory is certainly the most famous federal government laboratory and is widely recognized as having served as the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

During 1943, the U.S. government, exercising its right of eminent domain, acquired what had been a “ranch” school owned and operated by Ashley Pond II, a Detroit businessman, as well as all the other smaller homesteads in the area. The area was so remote that it would serve perfectly as a top-secret site for the final years of research and testing needed to produce the bomb. Facilities for research and development were quickly erected, many of wooden construction.

Scientists from all over the world were brought here to live and to work. The town itself, as well as information about what was going on here, was held completely away from the public. Many of these top-secret research labs were built around a tiny lake. While none of the buildings have survived, a government website contains black and white photos of the site around 1944-1945.

My first stop in Los Alamos was at this lake, which is today a downtown park, as well as an historic landmark. The lake has been named “Ashley Pond” after the founder of the Los Alamos Ranch School that once stood at this location. I took my time here thinking about how a small 10-acre tract could have such a monumental effect upon human history. As I was walking along the paved path that runs around the lake, I found a bench to rest, reflect, and take photos. There were several other pedestrians enjoying the park that day, and a young teenager, who arrived on a skateboard, sat down beside me. We began to chat, and, after a bit, I asked if she knew what used to stand here on this site. She did not, so I told her a little about the Manhattan Project and the perfection of the atomic bomb which took place right on this spot in hastily constructed buildings that once dotted the shores of this lake. Her response, as she got up to resume her skateboarding, was typical of her age if not a bit disconcerting: “cool,” she exclaimed exhibiting a healthy dose of youthful innocence, if not downright ignorance.

Late in the afternoon I departed Los Alamos for the 200-mile drive to Carrizozo, NM–one of the closest places to the White Sands Missile Range that offers motel accommodations. It was still dark the next morning when, just before 5 a.m., I checked out of the motel for the 50-mile drive to the Trinity Site which is located at the north end of the White Sands Missile Range. This range includes the spot where the world’s first atomic bomb was tested in the early morning hours of July 16, 1945. There is no charge to visit the site; however, the site is only opened to the public twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and October. I had read that hundreds of visitors flock here on these days so I had vowed to depart early and secure a place in line for the site’s opening at 8 a.m. 

You cannot imagine my surprise when I reached the gate at Trinity around 6 a.m. that October morning only to discover a line of vehicles that stretched as far as I could see. Actually the long line started moving well before 8 a.m., and by 8:30 I was being directed to a slot in a large parking area. I walked a few hundred yards to ground zero where the “test” bomb was exploded.

The U.S. Parks Department operates the site, and their rangers offer visitors reading materials and answer general questions about the Manhattan Project. On the perimeter fences are pictures and information about Trinity. At the exact center of the site there stands a black lava-rock obelisk that marks the exact spot where the explosion occurred. Nearby you can see what remains of one leg of the obliterated tower which was constructed to hold the bomb several feet above ground level. A plaque on the obelisk reads simply: “Trinity Site Where the World’s First Nuclear Device Was Exploded on July 16, 1945.”

Samples of the glassy residue left on the desert floor following the test are on display for visitors to view. Sometimes referred to as “trinitite,” these glass-like particles were melted by the explosion of the plutonium-based bomb and are composed of arkosic sand, quartz grains, and feldspar. They usually appear as a light shade of green, although their color varies. They remain “mildly” radioactive but safe to handle according to the rangers. There are other exhibits on display as well. One included life-sized models of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Visitors also can ride a missile-range shuttle bus about two miles to the McDonald ranch house. This is the place where the scientists assembled the plutonium core of the bomb. The one-story, 1,750-square-foot house has been restored by the U.S. Parks Department so it appears as it did in July 1945. I walked through the house and listened as a park ranger explained how the bomb had been assembled on tables that stood in these rooms on that fateful day 1945.

Next time we will visit the museum where the B-29 that carried the bomb is on display, Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands where it began its flight and the place of detonation in Hiroshima, Japan. 

Dr. Watson E. Mills writes, “The breathtaking views of the New Mexico landscape between Santa Fe and Los Alamos are somewhat overshadowed when you consider the significance of the work on the A-bomb that was carried out in this area. At the Trinity Site there stands a plaque that includes an ominous warning attributed to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the los Alamos Nuclear Physics Laboratory. It reads: ‘Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ The quotation is from the Bhagavad Gita 11:32 and underscores Oppenheimer’s reservations about the ultimate end of the very thing he had labored so long and hard to help create.”