There are many different time periods in the history of mankind. Some have been explored extensively, while others remain a mystery. What makes one time period more intriguing than another?
The nagasaki ground zero is the site of the first atomic bomb ever detonated. It was also the site of the second nuclear attack, which took place just three days after the bombing.
It’s early Saturday morning, April 4, and I’m driving down I-25 through mountains, farms, railway lines, and the Rio Grande’s leisurely flow. I’m driving to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to see a wind-worn crater.
On the morning of July 16, 1945, a fraction of a second before 5:30 a.m., an explosion equivalent to 19 kilotons of TNT lit up the countryside with the brightness of 20 suns before its blast column rose thousands of feet aloft, sending winds that warmed distant spectators like a campfire.
This was the Trinity test, and with it, the atomic bomb was transformed from a scientific hypothesis to a world-changing reality.
I use the compass on my phone to try to find the test location as I travel. It’s another 90 miles distant, but considering the magnitude of the explosion, that’s nothing. When Santa Fe train engineer Ed Lane witnessed the explosion, he was only down the lines in Belen.
In Ferenc Morton Szasz’s The Day the Sun Rose Twice, Lane described how “all of a sudden it looked as though the sun had suddenly risen in the sky out of darkness.” “All of a sudden, there was a huge white flash.
This was followed by a bright red glare and three massive smoke rings high in the sky. The tallest was hundreds of feet tall. They twisted and swirled as though stirred by a powerful force.
The brightness lasted approximately three minutes until the darkness returned, with dawn rising in the east.” I attempt to project this image onto the vast blue expanse in front of me, but the desert defies any sense of size.
The last stretch of road leading to White Sands’ Stallion Gate demonstrates why the desert, appropriately called Jornada del Muerto—Journey of the Dead—was an obvious choice for a nuclear test.
The San Andres and San Mateo Mountains, to the east and west, respectively, comprise a 27-plus-mile flat area of rock, sand, and scrub broken only by the odd yucca. In 1945, the population of Socorro County was 11,422, which is just approximately 6,000 people less than it is now.
The Jornada has you covered if you want to release an unfathomable payload without damaging anything valuable, while concealing the event from the outside world while being able to watch the explosion from every angle—all while being within easy commuting distance of Los Alamos.
Of all, the weather, the most irascible element in battle, was still a factor in the Trinity Test. Planners had little historical meteorological data, and the Jornada, like many of New Mexico’s high deserts, has its own weather patterns.
Jack M. Hubbard, Trinity’s new chief meteorologist, had to find a window for testing in March 1945 that was clear and dry, with quiet winds and steady air temperatures.
He suggested July 18 to 21 to avoid a tropical system; a higher-up selected July 16 as the date. “What son-of-a-bitch could have done this right in the midst of a thunderstorm,” Hubbard wrote in his journal.
President Harry S. Truman, it turned out, was expecting for a major revelation at Potsdam. Rain and winds abated, allowing Truman’s 4 a.m. start to be delayed just 90 minutes.
The Jornada is in a haze this April morning, like it was before the test. As I creep through the hour-long entrance queue, I’m thankful for the softerened glare. The site is only accessible in the spring and autumn, rather than around the July anniversary, when temperatures in the 90s are common.
After a brief warning not to take photographs anyplace except the Trinity Site, I’m flying by anonymous equipment bunkers and silos labeled “Permanent High Explosives Test Site.”
A queue of vehicles is pulling out of the parking area next to ground zero as I approach. It’s 9:30 a.m., an hour and a half after the gate opened, and hundreds of pilgrims have already arrived.
The Trinity Site in New Mexico represents the desolation that attracted Manhattan Project planners. (Burchyski, Aleta)
I follow the stream of tourists to Trinity’s ill-used sentinel: a rust-colored, open-ended, bus-size cylinder known as Jumbo. Army ROTC students direct me to a parking spot. Project scientists were concerned that a botched explosion would squander valuable fissionable plutonium before to the test.
The answer was to enclose the bomb in a 25-foot-long, 10-foot-wide steel cylinder, from which material could be retrieved for a second test explosion. As test director Kenneth Bainbridge subsequently put it, Jumbo was “the tangible embodiment of the Laboratory’s lowest point in hopes.”
The Manhattan Project plutonium reactors were in full operation by the time Jumbo was complete, and confidence in the weapon’s design had increased. Instead, Jumbo would be 800 yards from ground zero when he encounters Trinity.
The steel container was unharmed by the explosion, but not by the postwar years. The army filled it with eight explosives in 1946, which blew out both ends. It was buried until the army discovered it in the early 1970s; Jumbo has remained at its present location since 1979.
To get a good look at Jumbo, I had to push my way past the throng, which resonates with youngsters racing about its insides.
It seems appropriate to honor Jumbo in this manner, considering that it resembles playground equipment and has a fun name—as well as the fact that Trinity’s success made it obsolete in a flash.
The procession is quiet as it makes its way down the dusty quarter-mile route to ground zero. The pace is sluggish, and the conversations are quiet. The last steps inside the 240-foot-diameter chainlink ring have a satisfying weight to them.
The Gadget, a five-foot-wide spherical bomb, was used to release the atom here. The New Mexico desert, on the other hand, proved to be the stronger force, devouring the evidence almost quickly.
The explosion created a four-foot hole in the earth, melting the sand into a green glass crust known as Trinitite. The Gadget’s tower was reduced to an inconspicuous protrusion with a rebar bristle.
Except for the fence preserving the crater’s last foot of slope, the crater is now indistinguishable from the surrounding desert. The site’s radiation levels are modest; an hour there provides approximately a tenth of the radiation delivered by a chest x-ray.
The Trinity Site opened to the public in 1953, and in 1965, the army placed an obelisk made of local volcanic rock in the middle of ground zero.
The replica of Fat Man—a plutonium bomb, similar to the Gadget, dropped on Nagasaki three days after another A-bomb devastated Hiroshima—sitting nearby on a tractor-trailer bed has become a mainstay of tourist photographs.
After a loop around the fence, I return to the parking lot and catch the bus that transports employees to and from the Gadget’s plutonium core assembly site.
The 1913 McDonald ranch house is a spooky small farmhouse with tumbledown fieldstone structures and derelict spans of barbed wire, located 3,400 yards southeast of ground zero.
It seems more like a ghost town than a piece of global history, since it is one of just two surviving wartime buildings.
Shortly after the test, the base camp, where people lived and worked before to the test, was dismantled. Concrete shelters were also destroyed, where scientists and others sat front row for the explosion 10,000 yards distant.
The other surviving structure is an instrument bunker on the site’s access road, 800 yards west of ground zero. I drive to the bunker, climb up its sandy slope, and attempt to picture its bigger brethren, packed with scientists, with one final glimpse at Jumbo and the obelisk beyond.
In the distance, North Oscura Peak may be seen. I’m still baffled as to what kind of light might be dazzling enough to shine brighter than day on its night-shrouded shoulders.
With nowhere else to go after the test, I followed the lead of a few Trinity scientists and drove another hour south to rest and recharge at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, a 24,500-acre man-made paradise that is already bustling this early in the season.
I pay the $8 nightly charge and drive about a mile down the dune-swept coast to a quiet cove. I pitch my tent there and succumb to the diluted rhythms of country music floating over the lake, as well as the odd splash of a trout diving for late-afternoon gnats.
Originally published in World War II magazine’s September/October 2015 edition. Here’s where you may sign up.
Ground zero meaning military is the location at which an explosive device detonates. It was the original point of impact for the first atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan.