Saturday, October 1, 2011


At 5:29 a.m., on July 16, 1945, much of New Mexico was awaken by a huge shock wave, accompanied by breaking windows. A brilliant yellow light was seen as far north as Albuquerque and Los Alamos, as far west as Silver City, and as far south as El Paso, Texas! Army officials told the public that a munitions storage area had accidentally exploded at the Alamagordo Bombing Range.

It was not until after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6 of that same year, that President Truman announced that the United States had created an "atomic bomb," which had first been tested in New Mexico . . . on July 16, 1945. Three days after Hiroshima, on August 9, a third bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 14 the Japanese surrendered.

The secret development of the atomic bomb was code-named the Manhattan Project, and the site where the first a-bomb was detonated is known as Trinity and is located on the White Sands Missile Range. Most of the time it is locked down, but twice a year the public is invited to visit. Today was one of those days, and Dan and I made the two-and-a-half-hour trip down to see the Trinity site.

There isn't actually much there to see. Originally there was a 100-foot steel tower, with a shelter on top, where the bomb was placed and eventually detonated. The tower was vaporized in the blast. All that is left to see is one of the footings from that tower.

A Ground Zero monument has been constructed at precisely the location beneath where the atom bomb perched on the tower. A replica of the Fatman bomb casing (the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki) is on display, and a number of historic photographs hang on the perimeter fence. It isn't so much what you can see; it's more about the sense of awe inspired by standing in the place where such a monumental historic event occurred.

Scientists estimate that the temperature of the fireball created from the explosion was approximately 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit! It was so hot that it melted the desert sand beneath the tower and turned it into a sheet of radio active green glass. This green material was dubbed Trinitite. In 1952 the Atomic Energy Commission contracted to have most of the Trinitite scraped up and buried. However, there are still very tiny pebbles of it all over the ground at Ground Zero. It is against federal law to remove any of the Trinitite from the ground. It is still somewhat radio active.

The site is still somewhat radio active, however they reassure you that you would get more radiation doing some rather routine things . . . a chest x-ray would give you about 12 times as much radiation as one hour at Trinity; a coast-to-coast commercial flight would give you about 4 times as much radiation. I have to admit I felt a little leery standing there, but, as you can see, the resident lizards really do have four legs and only one tail!

Buses are available to take visitors the two miles to the old McDonald Ranch house. The main bedroom in this old adobe-covered-in-plaster house was used as the assembly room for the Manhattan Project. I enjoyed walking through it. It has tons of character and must have been a lovely home when it was lived in by the McDonald family. Many of the Manhattan Project staff actually witnessed the explosion from this house -- only TWO MILES AWAY!

After leaving Trinity, we made a stop at The Owl Cafe in San Antonio, NM, about 34 miles away and on our route home. The Owl is one of those places that you MUSTN'T miss if you are anywhere in the area. It is most famous for its green chili cheese burgers, and the burgers are made with beef they grind, themselves, at the cafe. The reason we felt compelled to stop there was the historic connection the cafe has with Trinity. Trinity personnel frequented The Owl, and some say the green chili cheeseburgers were first made to satisfy their appetites. Another story we've heard, but I can't confirm, is that The Owl had the only telephone within miles, and that the report of the success of the bomb's detonation was reported from that phone.

The building is one of those places that is built like a maze. You enter into one room, and then wind your way through room after connecting room to find a place to sit. It's dark inside, and the walls are covered in paper money, scrawled with messages and names of those customers who tacked them there. Once a year the money is taken down and given to charity. I read that as of 2009 more than $19,700 had been donated. (This section of wall, below, was mostly or entirely foreign currency, but there are many walls plastered with good old U.S. of A. dollar bills.)


Mommy said...

How neat! I would love to visit there someday. My dad's dad was a scientist on the Manhattan Project. Just recently we found a certificate from the Secretary of War, signed August 14th, 1945, personally thanking him for his help in ending the war. He never even mentioned it to his kids. Absolutely fascinating!!! I never got to meet him, as the constant radiation exposure took it's toll on him and he passed away before I was born. I love learning about him and what all he did though.

Anonymous said...

Linda, it was SO interesting to read this and to see your pictures of this place. You and Dan certainly have some terrific outings.

(Note to was fascinating to read about your grandfather's part in this. You have a real treasure in that letter. Thanks for sharing that story.)


Gloria R.