A-BOMB - THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS
At 5:29:45 AM on July 16, 1945 a 19-kiloton plutonium
bomb, the first in history, was exploded at Trinity. Here's what Trinity
looks like today, what it looked like in 1945 during WWII, the history
of the Manhattan Project and the theory and reasons behind the bomb.
"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds" (a line from
Hindu scripture quoted by Robert Oppenheimer when he observed the test.)
"The effects could well be called
unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying.
No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred
before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country
was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that
of the midday sun." <5>
Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell
The test at 10 seconds. Click image for
larger view. (Photo at site)
AM on July 16, 1945, a 19-kiloton plutonium bomb, the first in history,
was exploded at Trinity. Both the test and the site were named by
Robert Oppenheimer. Life changed for everyone on earth. The site,
51,500 acres, was declared a national historic landmark in 1975.
The landmark includes ground zero as well as the base site and the
McDonald ranch (where the core was assembled.)
In each of
the three atomic bombs, the core of fissionable material was about
the size of a grapefruit. <6>
Ground Zero. Obelisk marks center of crater.
Click image for larger view
of the world's first atomic bomb explosion is only open to the public
two days per year, the first Saturday; in April and October. This
year we made it in October. We stayed at a small RV park in San
Antonio, NM just off I-25 at US 380. The entrance to Trinity is
about 12 miles east on US380, then about 5 miles south to the gate.
We reached the north entrance where a line of cars waited. At 8:00
A.M., after checking our IDs and
presenting us with a pamphlet, they let us in
|for the 17-mile trip into the range. Until
about 11:00 A.M., there were just about 50-100 people there. Shortly
thereafter, a caravan of 117 plus cars and several tour busses arrived
from Los Alamos. There are usually fifteen hundred to three thousand
people at each visit. There were about two thousand today. Usually
the October opening has fewer visitors than the one in April.
all that scary talk about radiation? The radiation at the site of
the worlds first plutonium bomb, 62 years later is low; only 10
times that of the surrounding background levels. To put this in
perspective, here are some comparisons: in one hour at ground zero,
we received ½ mrem of radiation. If we smoked a pack of cigarettes
a day for one year, we would receive 40 mrem. Chest X-rays? = 22
mrem. A whole mouth dental x-rays, 900 mrem. <5>
the plutonium core was assembled, was restored
to its July 12, 1942 condition by the National Park Service in 1984. The
one-story adobe house was built by Franze Schmidt in 1913. It was owned
by George McDonald when it was acquired as part of the Alamogordo Bombing
The remains of the tower base in 2002. Click image for larger view
The crater is relatively small only about
6' deep. The explosion was 100' up in a tower and was directed upward.
The explosion vaporized the tower. Only one concrete footing and
pieces of the steel legs remain. The heat melted the desert sand
turning it into a green glassy substance named Trinitite. Small
amounts are left and are on display both at the entrance and in
a low structure that protects a portion of the original crater.
The McDonald house, where
Remains of tower base after test. General Groves and Robert Oppenheimer
show reporters what's left of the tower base. Click image for larger
view. (Photo at site)
Trinitite. The bomb melted the sand into this greenish glass. It
was named trinitite after Trinity. Click image for larger view..
Gunnery range. It was abandoned until early
1945 when it was put back in use by the Manhattan project personnel.
The northeast room was used as the assembly room and was sealed
with tape and plastic. The crude sign scrawled on the door to that
room was also preserved, "Wipe feet to keep out dust."
I can't imagine it worked. There must still be dust from New Mexico
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The building was hardly damaged by the
explosion two miles away but the barn roof was collapsed in places.
It remains as ruins of the walls today.
McDonald House, 1945, Click image for larger view. (Photo at site)
Door to "clean" room where core was assembled. Click image
for larger view
McDonald House 2002 Click image for larger view (Photo by John
For more information
about visiting the site, contact:
Public Affairs Office
Whit Sands Missile Range, NM 88002
1890s A series of
accomplishments by European and British scientists
1932 James Chadwick, an Englishman, discovered a new subatomic particle,
1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, German scientists, split the uranium
atom. This splitting was later referred to as fission.
1938 Lise Meitner and Otto R Frisch were able to explain the process of
1939 Einstein's famous letter
to President Roosevelt suggesting the feasability of building an atomic
bomb and the possibility that the Germans were well on their way to building
one. Actually, not true, the Germans abandoned their efforts in the fall
1940 Otto Frisch and Rudolf E. Peierls, in England, described the concept
that a specific amount of fissionable material had to come together to
achieve an explosion. This was called "critical mass."
2/1942 Glen T. Seaborg created the first plutonium. It, like Uranium,
is highly fissionable.
9/1942 Leslie R. Groves was placed in charge of MED (the Manhattan Project
see History below) and promoted to Brigadier general.
12/2/1942 The first self sustaining chain reaction accomplished by a team
of scientists led by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
3/15/1943 Robert Oppenheimer arrived as director of the weapons laboratory
at Los Alamos (yet to be built.) He named the test and the test site "Trinity."
7/16/1945 The first atomic bomb tested at Trinity
plutonium were fissionable (able to be split),
two sites were built to obtain adequate amounts.
Control Bunker,10,000 yards from ground zero.
Robert Oppenheimer watched from here. All bunkers were torn down
by 1965. Click image for larger view. (Photo at site)
a letter dated August 2nd 1939, Albert Einstein, pushed by Leo
Szilard, a Hungarian scientist living in the US, wrote to President
Roosevelt suggesting that it was possible to build a bomb that,
if delivered by ship ". . . might very well destroy the whole
port . . ." Two years later on October 9th 1941, Roosevelt,
influenced also by the British "MAUD" report, made the
decision to build the bomb. Soon a special section of the Army named
Manhattan Engineer Division (MED) was established to undertake the
job. It was later commonly referred to as the Manhattan Project.
The Manhattan Project was three large facilities.
Since uranium and
Oak Ridge TN where huge gas diffusion and electromagnet
process plants were built to separate U235 from it's more common U238.
This is known as "enrichment" or enriched uranium.
Hanford Washington Nuclear reactors that produced
plutonium. Plutonium is, for all practical purposes, man made. It is
not then one of the 92 elements existing in nature (except as traces)
and is a by-product of a chain reaction pile.
Los Alamos was to
design and build the bombs. It started as a private residential boys'
school called the Los Alamos Ranch School. It was located on a remote
mesa 35 miles NW of Santa Fe. It was converted to an Army base and sealed
off from the rest of the world. Its population is estimated at about five
thousand in 1945.
bomb would not work that they devised a plan to
prevent the spread of the very dangerous plutonium across the area if the
conventional explosives exploded but did not cause the plutonium to reach
critical mass. Introduce "Jumbo!" Jumbo was a steel capsule 25'
long, 10' in diameter and weighed 214 tons. They hoped that the plutonium
would be contained in Jumbo if the TNT
Jumbo remains, October, 2002. Click image for larger view (Photo
by John Hopkins)
When they decided that the plutonium bomb needed
testing (see "The Theory" below) they searched for a place
to explode it. The Alamogordo Bombing Range was established in land
already controlled by the government in 1942. The area known as
Jornada del Muerto (journey of the dead) was chosen for its isolation.
They were so concerned that the plutonium
My hand showing size of Jumbo's wall. Click image for larger view
exploded but the plutonium did not.
Later, they decided not to use Jumbo because
they became more confident that
the device would work. During the explosion, Jumbo was under a steel
tower about 800 yards from ground zero. The blast destroyed the
steel tower but left Jumbo undamaged. In 1946, they set off eight
500# bombs inside Jumbo. The ends were blown out. The main part
of Jumbo stands today at the entrance to ground zero. Three
observation points were built around ground zero none are
left. At ground zero a 100 foot steel tower was built. The complicated
device, now nicknamed the "gadget" was lifted to a small
shack on top. At 5:29:45 the plutonium bomb exploded successfully.
Jumbo under tower where it was placed before the explosion 800 ft
away.. Click image for larger view.
(Photo at site)
To build a bomb,
they had to devise a way to transport and handle the fissionable material
but be able to create a critical mass instantly from the two or more non-critical
masses. They had the two elements that were fissionable and would support
a chain reaction (in theory) so they came up with two methods of combining
the sub-critical masses into critical mass for the bombs.
A uranium bomb's
method of combining the masses using the "gun" method was relatively
simple so they decided to use it without testing. The plutonium bomb,
using the implosion method was much more complicated so they felt it needed
The two methods
of compressing the fissionable core into a critical mass were: the gun
method where the core was built in two sub critical pieces. One was then
fired against the other in a tube receiver, creating a critical mass
the uranium bomb (Hiroshima, called Little Boy estimated 12,500 tons of
TNT) used this method. The other method was to build the core into a sub
critical sphere of plutonium (Nagasaki, called Fat Man estimated 20,000
tons of TNT) and surround it with lens shaped conventional explosives.
The force was directed inwards crushing the plutonium uniformly into a
critical mass. In each case, the explosion of the now critical mass was
When a chain reaction
starts, reaction increases speed as atoms split. This releases a great
amount of energy as well as free neutrons. They, in turn, strike more
atoms releasing more energy and neutrons until the fissionable material
is used up. This all occurs in a millionth of a second, even though billions
of atoms are split.
efforts at civilizing warfare for a long time,
culminating in the Geneva Convention. At one time, they even thought there
was honor and glory in war. Bill Goodman
writing for All Aviation
Flight Line Online specifically
STORY: THIS IS IT!
Said "Cordell Hull later was involved in peace negotiations with the
Japanese. Negotiations became very tense just prior to December 7, 1941.
We had copies of the instructions to the Japanese negotiators but Hull refused
to read them even though the information indicated that a war was imminent
saying "Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail."" Armies,
when all hope is lost, surrendered and lived to see their home again but
not in the Pacific! The Japanese did not believe in surrender. On every
island both the Japanese soldier and the American Marine or GI knew that
no quarter was asked or given. Each and every Japanese combatant had to
be individually killed or they would kill you. Nathan Miller, writing in
War at Sea, said "Manila again demonstrated that the Japanese,
although doomed by Western standards, would continue to fight in hopes that
their very ferocity would demoralize the enemy which had much to
do with the eventual Allied decision to use the atomic bomb."<7>
The bomb being lifted into place atop the tower. The core was installed
in the shack after it was lifted. Click image for larger view. (Photo
is impossible for someone in this relatively clean, safe world to
imagine the savagery and brutality of WWII. This was especially
true in the Pacific. "The Japanese soldier turned all Western
logic on its head. If surrounded, a German would surrender; a Japanese
would fight on. If wounded and disabled, an Englishman would allow
himself to surrender; a Japanese would wait and blow himself and
his captor up." <1>
In the West, there had been
The A-bomb (nicknamed the gadget) assembled and ready in the shack
atop the tower. Click image for larger view. (Photo at site)
last great banzai charge (that had served the Japanese so well in the
Russian war and in China) was on Saipan. (See
Rainbow over Hell) There they realized that the firepower brought
to bear by the Americans threw the obsolete banzai charge on the dust
heaps of history. There were several small or individual ones that continued,
when all was lost, as a last effort to take an American to death with
them but no more mass, organized charges. On Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the
tactics changed. The commander at Iwo Jima, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, Hirohito's
"most redoubtable" commander (See ,)
decided that there would be no banzai charges. He knew he had to do what
he could with no help from Tokyo so he built thirteen thousand yards of
tunnels and five thousand cave entrances or pillbox gun emplacements
on eight square miles of island! "They meant to make the conquest
of Iwo Jima so costly that the Americans would recoil from the thought
of invading their homeland."<2>
They did! 25, 850 young Marine casualties. See The
Marines fought in World War II for forty-three months. Yet in one month
on Iwo Jima , one third of their total deaths occurred."
<1> 25,850 Marines on one stinking
(literally it's name in Japanese means Sulfur Island) eight square
mile island. It is hard to grasp that figure. Three thousand were lost
in the World Trade center. 2403 were lost at Pearl Harbor,
<4> nearly two hundred at the Alamo,
Almost 26,000 casualties on Iwo Jima. If these casualties were laid end
to end, they would reach from Dallas to fort Worth, from Manhattan to
New Brunswick or from Beverly Hills to the Queen Mary.
On the much larger
Okinawa, 207, 283 <2>
combatants and civilians died (more than 50,000 American.) <3>
This is more than died from either atom bomb. As the carnage to discourage
the invasion of Japan continued under General Mitsura Ushijima, waves
of kamikazes called "kikusui" (floating chrysanthemums) desperately
and effectively added to the mounting losses that included the Allied
Commander, General Buckner; the Japanese commander, General Mitsura; and
Ernie Pile. The total cost in casualties of taking the two islands, Iwo
Jima and Okinawa, exceeded those of the previous three years of war in
in Goodbye Darkness wrote "Rooting them out became a bloody
business which reached its ultimate horrors in the last months of the
war.. You think of the lives that would have been lost in an invasion
of Japan's home islands a staggering number of American lives but
millions more of Japanese and you thank God for the atomic bomb."<2>
Speaking on the History Channel about
the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Colonel Walter Boyne, USAF retired
said: "As horrible as it is to say, it was a blessing because the
Japanese people were able to surrender then. Their military did not permit
them to surrender wouldn't countenance it until finally, after
the second bomb was dropped, the Emperor insisted on it. Had they continued
fighting, there would have been all the casualties on the American side.
There would have been all Japanese casualties during the invasion and
there would have been five or six million Japanese deaths to starvation
because they were completely isolated from their food supplies."
It has to be recognized that,
in one way, the Japanese tactics worked. Did they win the battles of
Iwo Jima and Okinawa because of this? The Allies certainly did
recoil at the thought of invading the Japanese islands. MacArthur
predicted more than one million American dead and untold millions of Japanese
civilians would die. Old men, women, and children were already being taught
to fight to the death with anything available but take at least
one American with them. Americans invading Japan would now have to fear
approaching Japanese children instead of giving them chocolate as in Europe
or shoot beautiful petite Japanese women instead of admiring them. Was
it one result of the new tactics that the "unconditional surrender"
of Japan had many conditions, not the least of which was the preservation
of the Emperor and much milder prosecution of war crimes than in Europe
(177 German war criminals tried while only 28 Japanese)?<3>
territory? As it was, the Soviets seized the Kuru
islands and large chunks of Manchuria. The Soviets, if they could, would
have insisted on the partition of Japan like Germany and Korea. Would Japan
have remained partitioned until 1989 like Germany or still like Korea? Could
the exhausted and war weary Allies maintain the strength and combat readiness
of millions of men in the Pacific indefinitely? Fortunately, for America
and Japan, another option presented itself. A weapon that was so
horrendous that even the Japanese were forced to surrender without more
loss of life. The A-bomb!
Fat Man Casing, 1945. The bomb was encased in a steel bullet proof
case for Nagasaki to prevent premature explosion if it was attacked.
Click image for larger view. (Photo at site)
|So, in 1945, as their tactics seemed
to be working, that Japanese tenacity forced upon the Allies a horrible
dilemma: invade at unbelievable loss of life or blockade Japan and
wait for it to wither the vine. Japan, like England, is an island
and must import much of its food. Could the Allies wait for more a
year (as Generals Marshall and MacArthur predicted) for the Japanese
to starve while they sought to develop their own a bomb and the Soviets
moved into more Japanese
Fat Man Casing at ground zero. Click image for larger view
Some today question
the decision to drop the bomb. There is little of that feeling on the
part of those who were living then. Almost without exception, the people
living then, whose lives were at stake, had none of these regrets. They,
who were closest, say "thank God for the atomic bomb."
Not only was Truman torn making the decision to use the atomic bomb but
according to his papers, was actually considering the other options when
Secretary Byrnes suggested that he also consider what he would say during
his impeachment for letting millions die when he could have stopped the
war. What would he say to the mothers of young men who died when he could
have prevented it?
Actually, both cities were flooded with leaflets warning civilians to
leave the city. The Potsdam declaration warned of "complete destruction"
if Japan did not surrender. Both were ignored.
Ken Burns, who for over 25 years, has
been the best at documentary films, weighs in on the number of
bombs after Nagasaki. Among his productions are
Bomb? This was also suggested
at the time. Here are a few considerations: The Allies only had three,
only two left after the test. Of course they didn't let on, implying
they had many more. If a demo had been used, offshore perhaps, and
Japan still required two before surrendering, it would have been months
before enough plutonium or uranium 235 was prepared for another. There
was also the concern that the Soviets would enter the war during the
The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994),
Jazz (2001), The War (2007), The National Parks: America's Best
Idea (2009) and Prohibition (2011).
The War by Ken Burns!
A Book, an ebook, an audio boo, a TV Mini series, and a movie.
On the book The War, he weighs in on
the number of atomic bombs after Nagasaki. In A-Bomb The
Destroyer of Worlds, Kilroy (my nom-de-plume when writing for the
site) stated at there were only two left after Trinity (see Demonstration
Since the writing, several people have
weighed in, convinced that there was a forth bomb in waiting if
Japan did not surrender. In his book, The War. Ken Burns agrees
that there was only three and stated it would be weeks before another
could have been made ready.
Obelisk Plaque. Click image for larger view. (Photo by John Hopkins)
result was that WWII, at long last, ended. How much more suffering
and loss of life can only be guessed at but ask anyone who was waiting
on Saipan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima or Tinian to go to almost certain death
in the invasion of the Japanese homeland and he is very clear
"the A-bombs saved my life." I suspect the suffering people
of Japan were also quietly relieved when it finally ended, especially
when they found that GIs were not monsters and were prepared to
be magnanimous in victory.
Obelisk marking center of ground zero. Click image for larger view.
(Photo by John Hopkins)
longer view, wars that were so common throughout history became too terrible
to seriously contemplate. The immense power that nuclear combatants could
bring to bear forced a more careful decision to start one. Though just
as brutal to the participants, hot wars every generation became cold wars
and small wars, wars of liberation, and police actions. The cold war lasted
half a century without using the full power of any country.
Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley, Bantom Books,
Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester, Little, brown and Co., 1979
War Stories, Ollie North, Fox News Channel
Infamy by John Toland, Berkley Books, 1983
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE 2000-844-916
The Manhattan Project: A Secret Wartime Mission edited by Kenneth M. Deitch,
Discovery Enterprises Ltd, 1995
War at Sea, A Naval History of World War II by Nathan Miller, Scribner,
See Dr. Burl Gilliland's
comments on the decision to use the bomb.
here or see Volume 7, Letters, page 2
See Oscar H. McNew's comments on the decision to use
here or see Volume 7, Letters, page 2