By Kevin Shannahan
The Trinity Test Site, the scene of the world’s first atomic explosion lies in the northern part of the Army’s White Sands Missile Range. The site holds an open house twice a year at which time the public may tour both the site of the explosion and the place two miles away where the bomb’s plutonium core was assembled. As an amateur historian and former ICBM launch officer, I had always wanted to visit the site and finally got the chance.
I am standing in the “Plutonium Assembly Room.” The phrase brings to mind rooms full of technicians in protective suits and rows of gleaming metal. The reality is a bit more prosaic.
Seventy-four years ago on July 12, 1945 an object that was the end result of billions of dollars, years of effort by thousands of workers spread all over the country and the work of perhaps the greatest concentration of scientific minds in history was in a room in an old abandoned ranch house in the desert of New Mexico. Two hemispheres of plutonium, the core of the first atomic bomb, were delivered to the house along with the other components of the bomb’s core. In what has to be one of the more surreal examples of military bureaucracy in history, Brigadier General Thomas Farrell was asked to sign a receipt for the plutonium. In my time in the military, it was always considered a good idea to check before signing a receipt for an item. General Farrell held a ball of plutonium in his hand before signing. A bedroom in the house had been turned into a “clean room” and the technicians went to work.
The plutonium core of the bomb was finished and brought the 2 miles to the Trinity Test Site on July 13. The plutonium core did not fit into the rest of the bomb on the first try, causing a bit of consternation. After the bomb core and the casing’s temperatures equalized, the core slid into place. The completed bomb was raised to the top of a 100 foot steel tower. The test was supposed to happen at 4:00 a.m. On July 16 rain forced a delay until 5:10 a.m. When the countdown started at 5:29:45 on July 16, 1945 the world saw its first atomic explosion. Less than a month later, a B-29 bomber dropped a Uranium-235 bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. On August 9, 1945 another B-29 dropped a plutonium bomb like the one tested at Trinity on Nagasaki. WWII, and the Manhattan project, drew to a close. Forty years after the Trinity test, I was an officer in the 448 Strategic Missile Squadron in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Any of the three warheads on any of the ten Minuteman III Missiles I signed for upon assuming responsibility for the alert (military peculiarities had not changed since General Ferrell’s day) was an order of magnitude more powerful than both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined.
The open houses are surprisingly popular. I was fortunate to arrive early and thus to have a few minutes in relative solitude at the Trinity site before the crowds arrived. The New Mexico desert is remarkably isolated. A few hours before getting into line, I got out of the car and watched a beautiful desert sunrise. I was standing by the obelisk of black lava rocks that was erected a few feet from ground zero, looking past the fence to the miles of desert and surrounding mountain range. The New Mexico desert is quite different from the North Dakota plains where my old ICBM wing was located, yet there were remarkable similarities. I remember looking past the fence to miles of flat fields as we walked to one of the launch control centers where we would descend 60 feet underground for an alert. Both the Dakotas and the desert are landscapes that offer a severe beauty that is a bit of an acquired taste.
The Trinity open houses are a worthwhile trip for anyone interested in our era’s history.