Trinity Launched the Atomic Age

July 16, 2015 0

The world’s first nuclear blast set the stage for Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War by PAUL HUARD In the beginning was the Trinity. Before Little Boy...

The world’s first nuclear blast set the stage for Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War


In the beginning was the Trinity.

Before Little Boy and Fat Man obliterated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki scientists had to prove atomic weapons would work.

In the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos, tucked in an obscure corner of the Alamagordo Bombing Range called the Jornada del Muerto — the Journey of Death — the first nuclear explosion lit the sky with the brilliance of several suns.

The world had entered the Atomic Age — and we have never been the same.

“That brilliant flash which illuminated the pre-dawn desert on July 16, 1945, could well be called ‘the dawn of the nuclear age,’” Gregory Walker, who’s Trinity Atomic website chronicles the early days of nuclear weapons development, told War Is Boring.

“From that point forward nuclear energy had left the laboratory to become a force in warfare and the politics of nations.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s scientific director, was shocked at the bomb’s destructive power. Years later, he recalled a quote from the Bhagavad Gita — “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Test director Kenneth Bainbridge’s less-known comment wasn’t poetic but it was equally blunt. “Now we are all sons of bitches,” he told Oppenheimer as they watched Trinity’s mushroom cloud climb into the sky.

It all began in 1939. Scientists in Nazi Germany were making impressive progress in the field of atomic energy, a force so powerful that many prominent physicists believed the Third Reich’s goal was the creation of an atomic weapon.

World-famous scientist Albert Einstein — a committed pacifist but also an escapee from Nazi persecution — signed a letter to Pres. Franklin Roosevelt written by fellow physicist Leo Szilard urging FDR to authorize an American atomic energy program.

By late 1941, the U.S. government began the highly classified Manhattan Project. It would cost $25 billion in today’s money and employ nearly 130,000 people across the United States.

“It was feared that if Hitler got the bomb first, he would use it immediately and we would lose the war,” Duane Hughes, a volunteer guide and nuclear history expert at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History told War Is Boring.

“We had no intelligence on what the Germans were actually doing, but we did know that they had a source of uranium, the best scientists, the technology, and the industrial capability to build the first atomic bomb and win the war.”

But Los Alamos was where the project’s scientists and engineers would make and test a bomb. Even though the war in Europe ended in May 1945, combat in the Pacific Theater against Imperial Japan raged on.

Germany had been the original target for a nuke — a fact not lost on the Jewish scientists working on the project. Many had fled the Third Reich. But, for many reasons, Pres. Harry Truman allowed development to continue after Germany surrendered.

American casualties in the Pacific were horrendous. The Japanese killed or wounded nearly 10,000 Americans a month. The Allies planned to invade the Japanese home islands in 1946, and they estimated the casualties would exceed more than one million American and British soldiers.

The Allies had firebombed Japan’s major cities, set up a naval blockade and pushed the Empire out of the Philippines. Yet Japan would not surrender — and its soldiers often fought to the last man or committed honorable suicide. Some thought Japan’s strategy was to fight the United States until the death toll was so unacceptable the Americans would be willing to enter peace talks.

There are various theories as to why America dropped the bomb. One theory goes that Washington wanted to thwart Soviet ambitions by showing Russia and the world it possessed a weapon of unspeakable power. And there was even a desire for revenge — Americans still remembered Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March.

Another theory has it that the U.S. government didn’t realize what they were about to unleash. America had already firebombed Japan and killed hundreds of thousands of people. A nuclear bomb was merely the logical conclusion of total war. All these complicated factors led to a final decision. If the atomic bomb worked, America would use it on Japan.

Oppenheimer chose the code name Trinity as a nod to John Donne, one of his favorite poets. Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, a poem about transformation through the power of God, begins “Batter my heart, three-personed God.”

The Gadget — the world’s first nuclear device — suspended on its shot tower, July 15, 1945. At top — the Trinity explosion 10 seconds after the initial detonation, July 16, 1945. U.S. Department of Energy photos

No one knew if the test would work. Some scientists considered The Gadget, as they called the Trinity device, the biggest gamble in the history of atomic physics. And it was an amazingly complex device.

The Gadget was a five-foot diameter sphere of high explosives shaped like the 32 facets of a soccer ball. Each of these 32 facets contained a detonator that ignited an explosive “lens,” producing detonation waves aimed at a small sphere of plutonium at The Gadget’s core that would double its density.

The implosion would cause the assembly to go critical and explode — but all 32 detonators had to go off exactly simultaneously to create the required spherical shock wave. If the 32 imploding waves did not form a perfect sphere on the surface of the plutonium, the assembly would simply blow apart.

As scientists and military observers huddled in four bunkers located at each point of the compass 10,000 yards away from Ground Zero, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi offered a wager to anyone listening. The bet — whether the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico … or the world.

Edward Teller, future father of the hydrogen bomb, slathered liberal amounts of sunscreen on his exposed skin. Even Oppenheimer wagered $10 against fellow scientist and friend George Kistiakowsky’s pay for the month that the bomb would fizzle.

The engineers had designed a 200-ton steel container nicknamed Jumbo to hold the plutonium. If the Gadget worked, the explosion would vaporize Jumbo. If it didn’t, then the scientists could recover the expensive plutonium.

But it wasn’t a dud.

The explosive power of The Gadget was amazing by any scientific standards of the day. In a microsecond, nuclear fission transformed six kilograms of plutonium — roughly the weight of a bowling ball — into an explosion equivalent to 19,000 tons of TNT.

People saw the flash and felt the blast hundreds of miles away.

“Thirty seconds after the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty,” Brig Gen. Thomas F. Farrell, deputy commanding general of the Manhattan Project, said about the test.

“Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.”

The test shot created a fireball many times hotter than the surface of the sun. It scooped out a 10-foot deep crater, vaporized the steel tower that suspended the bomb, and fused all the soil and asphalt underneath into green radioactive glass.

Most of the project members were jubilant. But Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, military commander of the Manhattan Project, soberly reminded them the next step was to weaponize the device … and use it.

15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation

“We are all fully conscious that our real goal is still before us,” Groves wrote in his report about Trinity to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. “The battle test is what counts in the war with Japan.”

In the end, the Los Alamos scientists and engineers used a different, simpler design for the first true atomic bomb. It was a kind of cannon that fired one set of Uranium-235 rings into another set of Uranium-235 target rings — the “Little Boy” bomb used against Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

The immediate blast at Hiroshima killed more than 66,000 people. Only 20,000 were Imperial Japanese soldiers.

The second bomb — Fat Man — used the same design as The Gadget with devastating effect on Nagasaki three days later. Heat and blast from the explosion killed at least 40,000 people in the blink of an eye.

On Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of Japan. And the Fat Man implosion assembly, born out of the Trinity test, became the basic design for much of the United States’ nuclear arsenal during the earliest years of the Cold War.

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