THR Web Features   /   March 11, 2024

Driving to Trinity Site: Just Another Day at the Office

Today, Ground Zero is marked by a rough-hewn obelisk of black volcanic rock.

Vincent Ercolano

( The first nuclear test explosion, July 16, 1945, by Jack W. Aeby, a civilian worker at Los Alamos; public domain, Wikimedia Commons.)

I am become Death,
The shatterer of worlds.
—from the Hindu epic poem Bhagavad-Gita recollected by J. Robert Oppenheimer at the moment the atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site

“We need somebody to take a couple journalists up to Trinity Site tomorrow. Before you head home, could you stop by the motor pool and reserve a station wagon?” It was not unusual for me or one of my colleagues to field a request like this from our boss as we prepared to leave the office for the day—the office being in our case the public affairs shop at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Trinity Site, where on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated, is 100 miles north of White Sands post headquarters, but it’s still well within the confines of the largest military installation in the United States (at 3,400 square miles, more than three times the size of Rhode Island). So a two-hour drive over mountain foothills and desert was in order whenever I was assigned to take members of the press up to Ground Zero.

On one such occasion I was told I’d be escorting two West German newsmen to Trinity. It was 1983, and there was much international concern, especially among the NATO allies, about the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I’d recently been part of a public affairs crew present at a training exercise for troops of the West German air force: the test firing of a Pershing missile. It was an exciting occasion—first the silent flash as the rocket engine ignited (the speed of light being nearly 900 times greater than the speed of that slowpoke, sound), then, moments later, the crack-the-sky rumble as the Pershing lifted off. I recall that the officers and men burst into martial song as the green arrow with the fiery tail gained altitude. 

In his 1965 book Day of Trinity, Lansing Lamont predicted that the restless desert would, in time, efface all traces of Trinity Site: “Alone, abandoned, its relics sink beneath the creeping sagebrush and the wind-whipped sands. Soon there will be nothing.” But by the 1980s, efforts were underway to stabilize and even preserve some of the remaining structures—the most significant being the adobe ranch house, two miles from Ground Zero, where Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues had assembled the plutonium core of what they euphemistically called “the gadget.” Also still there in the days when I made my occasional visits was a catchment basin from which cattle had once drawn water that had been put to use as a swimming hole by the Manhattan Project scientists and soldiers. One hot afternoon, leaning over the low wall that encircled the now empty basin, I saw dozens of rattlesnakes coiled at the bottom in the cool shadows. 

In July of 1945, the bomb spent its last fifty-five hours before detonation in a corrugated shed atop a 100-foot modified radar tower that, when Zero Hour arrived, 5:29.45 am on the 16th, was blown nearly to vapor. Only the stumps of the tower’s footings remained, peeking from a fragment of its concrete base. Today, Ground Zero is marked by a rough-hewn obelisk of black volcanic rock, fourteen feet high, that was erected by the Army in 1965 (presumably slightly after Lansing Lamont consigned Trinity Site to oblivion). Ten years later, Trinity was designated a national historic landmark. 

Since the early 1950s, Trinity Site has been made accessible to the public in a carefully managed open house one or two times a year.  The man regarded as the missile range’s unofficial historian, retired public affairs officer Jim Eckles, says that this event can be depended on to attract about three thousand people of all ages, though, he observes, “the WWII folks are mostly gone. I no longer have people coming up to me saying, ‘This saved my life...I had orders for deployment to the Pacific.’” Some visitors come to scavenge for Trinitite, a product of the 100- million-degree heat that fused the desert sand into friable, seawater-green fragments of cobbly glass. Although it’s against federal law to remove it (the Trinitite being, strictly speaking, government property), it’s a safe bet that you could turn up a hunk or two of the stuff in many a home in southern New Mexico and West Texas. Trinitite is radioactive, though not dangerously so. In any event, unless you eat it, it poses no real health hazard. Nor does Trinity Site itself—the amount of radiation absorbed during a one-hour visit is one third to one tenth of that absorbed during a coast-to-coast plane flight

Although there was not a lot to look at, I had some difficulty getting the two West German journalists to wrap up their note taking and photography at Ground Zero. A sandstorm was kicking up (you may recall the one the night before the Trinity test in Oppenheimer), and there’s nothing that can kill an internal combustion engine quicker than fine-grained sand blowing through the grille at 50 miles per hour. If the possibility were not so pressing that we, along with our vehicle, might perish of asphyxiation, I might’ve felt some sympathy with the journalists’ desire to linger. How often do most people get to see a sandstorm, other than on a TV or movie screen?

Once I got my charges into the station wagon, fired up the engine, and got us through Mockingbird Gap, a legendarily hairy dogleg pass that puts you down on the lee side of the mountains that separate Trinity Site from the rest of the missile range, the two journalists were mostly quiet, going over their notes and intermittently asking me about some structure or other on the desolate landscape—a battered Aermotor windmill, the very image of the Old West, spinning furiously in nothing more than a light wind, its years of bringing water up through the sand decades past, or one of the hundreds of weathered white domes that had once housed telescopes and cameras that tracked missiles in flight. Some of these igloo-like structures were labeled with women’s names of the kind popular in the ’40s and ’50s—Laura, Nancy, Carmen. There was also one called Lonesome. 

After a protracted spell of silence, it occurred to me to ask my passengers, “Do you think the two Germanies will ever be reunited?” The response was immediate: “It will never happen,” said one. The other chuckled in rueful, but firm, agreement.

I’ve never forgotten the certainty in the voices of those two men. Whenever world affairs look particularly bleak, I think back on that day in 1983, and another day six years later, when the Berlin Wall came down. At that joyful moment in 1989, the decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, and the human folly in certain great capitals of the world that compelled an American president to weigh that fateful choice, had seemed part of a distant, grotesque past. Today, despite fresh follies in other great capitals, the nuclear firestorms that cremated thousands of living human beings remain unrepeated. For all its foolishness, humankind still keeps “Death, the shatterer of worlds,” at bay.