Ellen Bradbury Reid was living in a tent in Frijoles Canyon with her mother and brother when the first atomic bomb was detonated 70 years ago this week at White Sands Missile Range, 60 miles northwest of Alamogordo.
Still a child, she was oblivious to the momentous event that would change the course of science and world politics and usher in what became known as the Atomic Age.
Reid’s father, Edward Wilder, a chemical engineer, and the other scientists were working day and night at Los Alamos, the secret city on the Hill, to design and build an atomic weapon before the Germans beat them to it. They believed it was the only way to end World War II.
Reid, at that age, was more interested in squirrels.
But as she grew up, she got to know the Los Alamos scientists and technicians who helped design and test the bomb because her father continued to work there until his retirement.
Some had reservations about President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the deadly devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki three weeks after the Trinity Site test in Southern New Mexico.
Perhaps none more than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who was appointed technical director of the Manhattan Project. Sometimes called the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” he oversaw some 3,000 people working on the theoretical and mechanical problems of what became known as “The Gadget.”
“We knew the world would not be the same,” he said in a recorded interview about that day. “A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent.” Wiping away a tear, he added, “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu was trying persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multiarmed form and says, ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all felt that one way or another.”
Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was also worried about the plan and circulated a petition arguing that a demonstration to the Japanese of the new weapon should occur before its actual use on the enemy.
But overwhelmingly, the men and women who worked on building the bomb felt it was better than allowing the war to continue, Reid said. And these men, now in their 90s, feel that way today.
The atomic sword, however, still hangs over the globe. For more than four decades of cold war, peace depended on a doctrine of “mutual assured destruction.” What deterred a nation from using a nuclear weapon against an enemy was the knowledge that its own population could be wiped out.
Neither the bombs that killed tens of thousands in Japan nor new generations of weapons unleashed in 1945 have been used in war since, but the arms race continues today in unstable areas of the globe. Parts of Los Alamos are still contaminated with radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project. And thousands of people who lived near the blast, or whose parents did, are suffering health effects.
It’s a legacy of terror. Yet for the dwindling number of people still living who had a hand in making the bomb, all the death, fright and global instability that their work unleashed has not, all these many years later, shaken their resolve that they did the right thing.
Glad it worked
Rumors were rampant in the early 1940s about work going on at the secret government facility at the site of a former boys’ school in Los Alamos. They ranged from research into gas warfare, rockets, jet propulsion and death rays to windshield wipers for submarines and a Republican internment camp.
Few people knew the truth. Even many who worked there knew little about the project. Bill Hudgins, a member of the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment, said he didn’t learn the real mission until three months after he started his permanent job, and “the instructions were to never talk about it to anyone on the outside.”
Asked whether he discussed his work with his family, Benjamin Bederson, who was working on the bomb triggers, said, “Are you kidding?”
Even the statement released after the detonation at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945, didn’t tell the truth. A news release sent to the media claimed that an ammunition magazine had accidentally exploded on the Alamogordo Air Base.
But for eyewitnesses, it was unforgettable.
Rex Keller, 91, also assigned to the Special Engineer Detachment, was about 18 miles away with a Geiger counter to measure radiation from the blast. He was only 19 at the time.
The wind had died down. At 5:30 a.m. July 16, 1945, Keller said he saw the flash of light and looked the other way. When he turned around, he saw the fireball, blue lights and then the mushroom cloud rising well over 30,000 feet. “It took 45 minutes for it to top out,” he said. “You never saw such a beautiful sight.”
Keller, who had been assisting scientists with the explosives tests in the hills behind Los Alamos, was relieved. “I was glad it was done,” he said. “Most of us thought it saved a lot of American lives, you see.”
Witnesses to History: Video interviews featuring first-hand accounts of the Trinity test.
Bederson, who later became a physics professor at New York University, was on Trinian in the Mariana Islands, setting up the Nagasaki bomb, known as Fat Man, when The Gadget was detonated at the White Sands Proving Ground. When he got the news, he said, “I was very happy.”
Bederson had been in the Army for two years when he arrived at Los Alamos in January 1944 and was eager to get out. In a recent interview, he said, “It was a terrible war from beginning to end. The only thing any of us could think about was ending [it]. When I found I was working on a bomb, I was thrilled because I knew it would end the war. I never heard a single person who didn’t agree.”
Hudgins, who was studying to be a chemical engineer at The University of New Mexico before the draft board caught up with him, was offered a viewing site of the test at the top of the Sandia Mountains, but he said, “I wasn’t interested. I was somewhat negative at … building a bomb that [could kill] so many people.”
After the successful test, there was no “celebration,” he said. “It was more a big sigh of relief. They didn’t like killing people to save people. But they thought it would stop all this wartime mess, and it did.”
In later candid conversations with the bomb builders, Reid learned that her father-in-law, Norris Bradbury, who prepared The Gadget for the test and later succeeded Oppenheimer as head of the weapons laboratory, was only 70 percent sure that the new plutonium implosion bomb would succeed.
According to Reid, Bradbury said his orders for the day were to “look for four-leaf clovers and rabbits’ feet.”
“It was a wild idea,” she said of the detonation. “Chances were pretty good, but not real good.”
Los Alamos scientists, she added, “were just glad it worked.”
According to the historical record, Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the nuclear test, turned to Oppenheimer after the successful explosion and said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
The headline of a story published on Aug. 9, 1945, in The New Mexican said, “Atomic bomb sobers Los Alamos scientists.” Several, including Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who became associate director of the laboratory, were described as “emotionally shaken by the results of their labor.”
The paper reported that, “Their statements suggested that possibly, like Frankenstein, they had created a monster,” but they hoped “that their creation would serve mankind.”
Charles Loeber, author of Building the Bombs: A History of the Nuclear Weapons Complex, knew a number of the men involved who later worked at Sandia National Laboratories. One of them, the late Ben Benjamin, who photographed the blast, later helped him lead groups of tourists around Trinity Site.
“The folks I knew were normal,” Loeber said. “I don’t know anybody who was traumatized by the events or felt they did something wrong. All felt that while the killing of so many at Hiroshima or Nagasaki was terrible, it was the lesser evil compared to an invasion of Japan. They felt they did a good thing in being part of the early bombs.”
His friend Leon Smith, one of the three trained weaponeers for the first test, was a kind, gentle man, Loeber said, who believed the bomb “contributed to keeping the world safe from communism. Keeping us strong and free. And hindsight would say he was right.” And, Loeber added, “deterrence, while frightening, really works. We never used it after Aug. 9, 1945.”
Hudgins, who initially got hired at the lab after writing a letter to the secret office at 109 E. Palace Avenue and having a brief interview with Dorothy McKibbin, the gatekeeper in the Santa Fe office, is 90 but still remembers the details of his work on the Hill.
“I think it has prevented a lot of wars since then,” said Hudgins, who retired from the lab in 1984. “But I don’t think 100 percent for sure that there won’t be some wild culture that will think it’s completely alright to have an atomic war. It would ruin the entire plant. A lot of people who choose to do war, you can’t depend on them thinking intelligently. Look at the Middle East now.”
Nobody believed a bomb was a good thing, said Bederson, the scientist who worked on the trigger. “Everybody knew in the end it would cause trouble, but there was no choice. Millions of Japanese would have been killed if we had invaded, not to mention the Americans. That’s still true.”
Keller, whose father had fought in World War I in Europe, said, “Wars are terrible. I really hate it. But more people would have been killed, and the war might have lasted another year.”
As for the bombs, Keller, who now lives in Florida, said, “I hope they don’t use them. They’re making them much bigger now, you see.”
Most of the scientists and staff at Los Alamos in the early 1940s were young, Reid pointed out, and “for the men, this was not a deeply philosophical point in their lives” — unlike the older Oppenheimer, who had more experience in the world.
Moreover, it was a terrible war in which the general public was much more involved than it is in conflicts of today. But, she said, “I never heard anyone racked with regret.”
They scientists were working against time, sleeping on the floors of the laboratories. Their tools were slide rules and their own minds rather than computers. “It’s such a different time,” Reid said. “The test was a big deal when it worked. … Being on spot doesn’t mean you’ll have this flash of great comprehension.”
Marina Whitman, an economist, former General Motors executive and professor at the University of Michigan, knew her father, Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann, was doing some “terribly secret war work” because he was always traveling to Los Alamos.
In 1946, when she was 9 or 10 years old, he took her there and explained to her more about the building of the bomb.
“As far as he was concerned, it was a desperately important job,” she said, necessary for civilization to survive.
“Oppenheimer, he had all these kinds of philosophical musings, but my father did not,” she noted. “He was very much of a hawk on the whole issue. He, I think, felt very strongly that we had to win the war at all costs. I don’t think he ever changed his mind.”
She added that during the Cold War, he felt it was “pretty important to stay ahead of the Russians.”
On the other hand, he was pessimistic in some ways, she said. “He was concerned about mankind’s ability to keep things under control.”
Armenian-born Nerses “Krik” Krikorian, 94, worked on the Manhattan Project in Niagara Falls, N.Y., developing high purity uranium, and didn’t get assigned to Los Alamos to work on weapons systems until 1946. But his late wife, known as “Pat,” a member of the Women’s Army Corps, arrived there in 1943. They both felt, he said, that “you’re in a war, you better win it. You’re not playing games. If you don’t win, things are going to be a problem for you.”
According to Reid, many of the scientists and technicians told her this was the “most exciting time in their lives.” Some of them stayed around after 1945, including her father. “He didn’t ever want to go back to Kentucky. He worked with high explosives until he retired. It was much more exciting here. We immediately plunged into the Cold War, and there were more problems.”
Many New Mexicans, and people from nearby states, continue to visit Trinity Site during the few occasions it is open, and there are efforts to tell the story of the atomic bomb to younger Americans and to keep its memory alive in the public mind.
More than a dozen veterans shared stories about their role in the Manhattan Project at a symposium last month at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., organized by the Atomic Heritage Association. They discussed how sites in Los Alamos; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Hanford, Wash.; Chicago and New York City contributed to the top-secret effort.
Last year, Congress passed a law establishing a new national park to be called the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. The act includes provisions to enhance public access, management, interpretation and historical preservation at three sites: Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford. The Los Alamos Historical Society is collecting oral histories of the people involved.
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.