This Monday in May honors all the brave American Armed Forces men and women who sacrificed their lives to provide the freedoms we currently enjoy. A good day to also share my visit to a very thought-provoking military national landmark in central New Mexico this past April.
I began the morning of April 4th at around 5:30 a.m. in the pitch black darkness before sunrise. It was time to witness another burst of orange in the sky-- a lunar eclipse (a.k.a. “blood moon”).
While still somewhat brisk, this New Mexico morning was not as nearly cold as photographing the eclipse a year ago from my snowy backyard in Chicago in the middle of the night! With that “astro-geek” mission accomplished, I returned to the RV for breakfast and to prepare for the real event of the day—a visit to the Trinity Site.
Next month, marks the 70th anniversary of the world’s first atomic bomb explosion, and it occurred just 40 miles east of Bosque del Apache NWR. Now called the Trinity Site National Historic Landmark, it is only open to the general public two days a year—one Saturday in April, and another in October.
Two fellow Bosque volunteers (Pam and Wendy) and I carpooled together to attend the April 4th open house. As we entered the north end of the White Sands Missile Range at Stallion Gate, we realized that we were not the only ones coming to visit the Trinity Site on this cloudy Spring day in the middle of nowhere--
Approximately 5,500 other visitors had flocked to see the site on this day too. To manage the crowds at Ground Zero itself, the Army only allowed a certain number of people to enter at a time, so it took about an hour of waiting in line for our turn to finally make the remaining 17-mile drive from the entrance gate to the Trinity Site.
When we finally arrived to the Site’s parking lot, a line of white military shuttle buses were waiting to take new visitors to the McDonald Ranch about 2 miles away. So, Wendy & Pam posed for a quick pic, and we hopped aboard with front-row seats.
The bus had common warning signs posted such as “Watch Your Step,” but also had this sign too!
We exited the bus to find this rustic old ranch house (and, thankfully, no snakes).
The George McDonald Ranch House, located approximately 2 miles from Ground Zero, was used to do the final assembly of the bomb’s internal core. The bomb was designed (and its plutonium core constructed) under the direction of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos Laboratory in northern New Mexico as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project started in 1942.
The McDonald Ranch’s master bedroom was turned into a “clean room” by covering windows with plastic and keeping all dirt and dust our of the room—the sign above the front door is still visible: “Please Wipe Feet,” which of course we all did!
When the bomb exploded, all the windows of the ranch house shattered (as did windows in nearly every other building in a 120-mile radius in central New Mexico. At the time, local residents were simply told that a munitions storage facility at White Sands had exploded).
But other than glass damage, the stone and adobe ranch house survived the blast intact. The house was originally built in 1913 by the Schmidt family and was most-recently restored in 1984 by the National Park Service.
While the house itself was restored, other parts of the ranch, such as the barn, water tower, and water storage tanks have stayed in their “post-blast” state.
The cement water storage tanks had been used as an impromptu swimming pool in the Spring and Summer of 1945 by the soldiers preparing the Trinity site for the bomb’s testing. They also enjoyed playing a bit of polo at the ranch too!
After visiting the ranch, Wendy, Pam, and I headed back to see the main Trinity Site. A sign greeted us showing mileages from Trinity to various towns:
The Ground Zero site is surrounded by a tall chain-linked fence over a mile long with radioactive warning signs.posted all around it.
That certainly got our attention…as did this visitor doing his own readings of the radioactive levels at the site! The Army and Park Service both claim that an hour spent at the Trinity Site will expose a visitor to just a 1/2 mrem of radiation. In comparison, a cross-country airline flight exposes passengers to 2 mrems and a chest x-ray generates 6 mrems.
The remnants of a huge steel casing called “Jumbo” sit at the entrance to Ground Zero.
Jumbo was originally built and transported to New Mexico via a custom 64-wheel trailer. The idea was to explode the atomic bomb inside of Jumbo so if the atomic chain-reaction should fail to occur, the bomb’s plutonium would not be scattered all across the test site by the TNT ignition. In the end though, scientists were confident enough in the bomb’s design that Jumbo was not used. Instead, a 100-foot tall steel tower was built with a platform on top to hold the bomb (it looked sort of like a simple fire lookout station used in many national forests).
When the bomb was detonated from atop the tower, it sucked up and vaporized the desert sand beneath it (along with the steel tower itself), and created greenish rock crystals called Trinitite. Most of the trinitite was cleaned up and removed from the site in 1950’s and 1960’s, but an example of the stuff and a warning sign still remain, should a curious visitor ever happen to find one of these.
As we approached Ground Zero, another bomb casing came into view. This 5,000-pound white casing called “Fat Man” is what the bomb that dropped on Nagasaki, Japan looked like.
The marker at Ground Zero was constructed in 1965 out of black lava rock found locally nearby.
The magnitude and solemnity of the site, of course, was lost by some of the visitors of our day who gleefully posed in front of the marker for their iPad photos.
But, in general, most visitors were subdued and reverent. Historic photos lined the fence behind Ground Zero with images of that fateful morning of July 16, 1945 at 5:30 a.m. For a brief moment, I imagined what life might have been like at Bosque del Apache in the pitch black of that morning. Imagine waking up to see this burst of light rather than just a “blood moon” lunar eclipse.
The clouds above Trinity this day billowed to almost look like 70 little mushroom clouds.
I came away from this visit as conflicted as ever about this unique moment in history.
For certain, the deadly force of this new creation would forever change our world and our sense of security within it. Just two of these bombs killed a staggering 115,000 to 175,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August of 1945.
But, on the other hand, this visit made me appreciate the fears and mindset of a 1940’s America desperate to put an end to what remains the deadliest war in human history, World War II, which obliterated 3% of the world’s population—an unfathomable 60 million people.
Over 400,000 U.S. armed forces lost their lives fighting to keep this war from reaching the Continental U.S. shores. That was on top of the 115,000 deaths lost just a few decades previously in World War 1.
The Manhattan Project was launched in 1942 because of growing evidence that Germany was close to having an atomic bomb of their own. What would our world have been like today if the first atomic bombs had been dropped by Hitler on U.S. cities? A chilling thought that most certainly justified the efforts of all involved in the Manhattan Project.
The bomb was “the” game-changer that brought an immediate surrender by Japan to finally end the war (on Aug. 16, 1945 just under 1 month after the Trinity test), but this game-changer also continues to this very day to be our most potent risk to humanity ahead of global warming.
Freedom, indeed, isn’t free.