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Trinity at 50 -- July 16, 1995

 

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A Visit to Trinity Site on its 50th Anniversary

I visited Trinity Atomic Test Site in search of history. I hoped to hear stories from the original participants and actually stand at ground zero, the Zero Point not only for the first atomic explosion but for the nuclear age to follow.

The National Atomic Museum -- bombs, bombs, and more bombs.

[Trinity Monument Icon]I started my journey at the National Atomic Museum on Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You see the B-52 on display outside long before you see the Museum itself. The building has a phallanx of missles guarding the entrance. Once inside the visitor is lead through the history of nuclear weapons development. You first encounter Little Boy and Fatman , the crude but effective bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Continuing beyond later and more sophisticated versions of Fatman, you come to the first hydrogen bomb that could actually be lifted into an airplane. From that point on the mind is overwhelmed and bewildered by the sheer number and variety of warheads on display. Here is one to be dropped from an airplane, there is one the rides atop a missile, and farther on is a nuclear depth charge to be used against submarines.

Perhaps the most astonishing weapon on display was Davy Crockett, the smallest nuclear device ever created. The brain-child of Theodore Taylor, it weighs 76 pounds and explodes with a force of 250 tons of TNT. It can be carried in a jeep and launched by one man. Understandably, Ted Taylor has been vocal in his concern about the dangers from nuclear terrorists.

I did not have time to linger among the myriad weapons on display. This was to be a short trip and I was determined to collect some memorabilia. A stop at the museum gift shop was well-rewarded. Along with books and trinkets, I bought a "Trinity" T-shirt with a mushroom cloud emblazoned on the front. I wanted to wear it proudly at Trinity Site.

Socorro, NM -- echoes in thunder.

Saturday afternoon I drove my rented car one hour south to Socorro, New Mexico. As a favor to a long-time friend, I found myself acting as chaufeur to three peace activitists who had ridden from Amarillo, Texas, to Albuquerque in an old and very crowded pick-up truck. My destination was a series of videos and lectures arranged by The Socorro County Chamber of Commerce. I was surprised and a little amused that the peace activists had no intention of attending the videos or lectures. They felt the lectures would be too "pro-nuclear." So much for an open-minded inquiry into history.

The afternoon sky was overcast. An occasional thunderstorm passed through, booming an eerie echo to that other stormy day, 50 years before.

Who owns history?

Ferenc Szasz began his lecture with a black-and-white photograph of old men standing in a line. They were the Confederate veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg, gathered at the 50th anniversary of that conflict. They re-enacted their famous charge by marching across the field toward the stone wall where Union veterans waited. When the Confederates reached the stone wall to confront their former enemies, they all shook hands and went off to drink coffee together. Mr. Szasz commented that our nation has not reached such a reconciliation over the creation of the atomic bomb and its use against Japan at the end of World War II. If anything, the polarization over those events has grown with the years. He said that different factions are battling for the "ownership of history" in an effort to promote their interpretation of events. In the morning the battle lines would be drawn over "ownership" of the battles fought 50 years before.

If you bomb it, they will come.

We left the motel in Socorro at 4:00am assuming that we would have plenty of time to reach ground zero by 5:30, zero hour. As we turned south off U.S. Highway 380 toward the Stallion Gate entrance to White Sands Missile Range we soon found ourselves stopped in a long line of cars, the line of red taillights disappearing into darkness far ahead. While we waited for the gate to open at 5:00am I stepped out of the car to stretch and look around. The night air held an invigorating chill that comes to the high desert even in summer. The air was pungent with the smell of sagebrush and creosote bush; to a desert rat like myself it was pure perfume.

To the south a line of red tail lights stretched into the distance. To the north I saw a similar line of white headlights and an even more striking sight. From east and west along Highway 380 came a progression of moving white headlights, converging into the line behind us. In the blackness of that empty desert the lights stretched to the distant horizon. It was breath-taking and strangely familiar, as if life was determined to imitate art. I almost thought I heard a whisper drifting through the sagebrush, "If you bomb it, they will come."

[Overview of Trinity Site](The picture on the left is from a Video Overview of Trinity Site (2 Mbyte AVI, no sound), showing the crowd, a mounted patrol of MP's, and part of the CNN satellite setup near the entrance to the fenced-in crater.)

The Blood is on Your Hands!

The Army opened Stallion Gate promptly at 5:00am, but given the long line of cars, we entered it just before 5:30am. As we drove the 20 miles to Trinity Site I remarked, "Well, at least we would have seen the flash from here." We left our car in the parking lot just outside the outer fence with its faded radiation signs. We hurried down the 400 yard barbed-wire corridor between the outer and inner fences, to arrive at ground zero around 6:00am. The sky was overcast and the light for photography was marginal at best.

Suddenly there was a bustle of activity among the soldiers on duty and a fire truck pulled up. A peace activist had thrown some kind of fake blood on the monument at ground zero. The firemen proceeded to wash off the monument while, in the background, a young woman was screaming, "The blood is on your hands! You can never wash it off!" I was taken aback by the intensity of her anger. She seemed too young to have experienced the deep divisiveness of the Vietnam War. Did she really blame these soldiers for Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War, the Arms Race, and all the rest of it? Did she not know that disarmament was now the official policy of the U.S. Government? In any case, the fire truck soon retreated and the soldiers formed a tight cordon around the monument. No one was allowed close to it.

Geiger Counts and Indian Chants

[Crater Shelter Photo]I turned on my pocket geiger counter and wandered off to see what the residual radioactivity was like around the crater. Where the soil was sandy and covered with grass, the counts were fairly low. This was fill dirt that the Army brought in when they were "decontaminating" the crater. Some areas were covered by bare gravel and stones where the count rate was much higher. These spots were more likely the original soil at the time of the Trinity Test. One part of the original crater with its green Trinitite has been preserved under a low shelter with windows in the roof. The view inside was disappointing. It looked as brown and dusty as the ground outside the shelter.

[Peace Activists Chanting]The peace activists had by now arranged themselves into lines to one side of the Trinity monument. (The picture at right is from a Video of the monument, footing from the original shot tower, and chanting protestors ( 1.2Mbyte AVI with sound)). As I walked through the crowd of on-lookers I learned that I was not the only one who found the chanting to be incongruous, if not actually annoying. Why Indian chants? What was the message? I had wanted to have a quiet time to meditate on this patch of ground and its significance in history, but the activists were determined to grasp ownership of this particular place and this particular moment .

The MacDonald Ranch House -- Echoes in the Pit Assembly Room

[McDonald Ranch House Photo]I walked back down the 400-yard corridor to the outer fence and parking lot beyond. Here were more vendors selling memorabilia and I took advantage of the opportunity. I bought a great "Trinity Site: Ground Zero" gimme cap to go with my T-shirt. Here also I caught a shuttle bus for the two-mile ride to the McDonald Ranch House ( 2.0MByte AVI, no sound), where the plutonium core for the Trinity "gadget" was assembled. For many years this house deteriorated under the not-so-benign neglect of the U.S. Army. (This can be seen in Jon Else's documentary video "The Day After Trinity," made in 1981.) In recent years the U.S. Park Service has restored the house to the way it looked in 1945. It was also pleasant to see Park Service rangers on duty instead of soldiers in combat fatigues.

It was sobering to stand in the room where the plutonium "pit" was assembled and think of the men who worked here 50 years before. The Pit Assembly (G-1) team consisted of M. G. Holloway, P. Morrison, R. F. Bacher, R. E. Schreiber, H. K. Daghlian, L. Slotin, B. D. McDaniel, and C. S. Smith. P. Morrison was Philip Morrison, the well-known physicist who still writes a column for Scientific American magazine. Within a year of Trinity, both Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin would be dead from massive over-doses of radiation. These "criticality accidents" were caused when the plutonium cores they were working on started an uncontrolled fission chain reaction.

To Everything A Season -- Endings and Beginnings

It was 10:00am when I descended from the return shuttle into the parking lot. The cloud cover had burned off by now and the ball of nuclear fire in the sky reminded me why this area was named the Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death. To every thing there is a season, but summer is not the season for mid-day strolls through the desert. It was time to seek the oasis of my rented car and retrace my journey across the desolate miles to the Albuquerque airport. Though my vist to Trinity Site was coming to an end, a new resolve was beginning to form. I was determined to learn more about this momentous event and how it has shaped the latter half of our century. Thus began this Trinity Atomic Web Site.

Epilogue -- Radiation, Natural and Otherwise

When my flight home had reached the cruising altitude of 20,000 feet, I turned on my geiger counter out of curiosity. I was astounded at vigorous rattling sound that came issued from its tiny speaker. It was higher than any count that I had registered at Trinity Site. So much for worries about radioactivity at ground zero. I stowed my geiger counter, leaned back in my seat, and closed my eyes. Time to relax; time to reflect.


Creator of Trinity Atomic Web Site:

Copyright 1996 by Gregory Walker (gwalker@netcom.com)
Permission is hereby granted to freely copy and re-use the text, photos, and digital video that I have created as long as a statement of authorship and this copyright notice are included with all copies.

All other materials presented here are believed to be in the public domain, unless specifically noted.

Last updated: August 25, 1996.
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