Remembering the Impact of the First Atomic Bomb Test

A woman takes a photo inside the remains of "Jumbo," which was designed to contain the atomic bomb and prevent loss of plutonium.
SourcePaul Ratje

Remembering the Impact of the First Atomic Bomb Test

By Paul Ratje


Because it's a chilling reminder of what happened in 1945 and what's possible in 2019.

By Paul Ratje

Twice per year since 1953, Trinity Site, the location in southern New Mexico where the first nuclear device was detonated during World War II, opens to the public. Each open house sees around 2,000 to 3,000 visitors. They turn up for different reasons — some wanting to satisfy their curiosity and others who have worked in the military. But regardless of opinions toward weapons of mass destruction, it’s the significance of the site itself that draws people here.

Cars line up at the gates for the Trinity Site open house earlier this month. Twice a year, visitors are allowed to tour the site where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 5, 1945, just southeast of Soccoro, New Mexico, in the northern part of White Sands Missile Range. Colonial Spaniards called this area “Jornada del Muerto” or Journey of Death. – Paul Ratje

But there’s not a lot to see. The test site is nothing but a flat piece of land roughly the size of a football field, surrounded by a chain-link fence. In the middle, there’s an obelisk monument with the inscription, “Where the world’s first nuclear device was exploded on July 16, 1945.” Less than a month later, on Aug. 6 and 9, atomic bombs were detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people perished in the bombings, and on Aug. 15, Japan surrendered to the allies. Use of these weapons remains a controversial topic.

This aerial view of the atomic bomb testing site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, shows the shallow crater caused by the blast 300 feet around the tower from which the bomb hung. The sand, in an area 2,400 feet around the tower, was seared into jade green glasslike cinders. The area devastated by the bomb measures 4,800 feet in diameter, and the steel tower was entirely disintegrated.

There can be an almost celebratory atmosphere at this biannual event. Near the site entrance, a trailer with posters marked “Trinity Site Resale” with a picture of an enormous fireball sells souvenirs and T-shirts. Photos of the blast and key characters and places involved in the construction of the bomb hang on the chain-link fence. People crowd around the obelisk, snapping selfies. Parents position their kids next to a replica casing of the “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, for photos. Others hunt the grounds for traces of Trinitite, a green, glasslike mineral that was created from the sand blown up into the fireball during the blast.

The variety of visitors come with a variety of opinions about the bomb. “Hundreds of thousands of American lives and Japanese lives were saved by the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs,” says Gladys Young, a retired Air Force colonel dressed in an American flag jumpsuit. “The Japanese were not going to surrender; they were arming young children and elderly people to fight back during our invasion. It was a necessary evil.”

Others, like Ian Maddieson, an English transplant to Albuquerque, have a more critical view, seeing the site as both important but tragic. “This is where the most destructive force ever devised was let loose on the world,” says the professor of linguistics. He sports a T-shirt of the famous opera Doctor Atomic, which portrayed the characters involved in the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in the weeks before the Trinity Site test.

The mushroom cloud of the Trinity test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.
(Source: CORBIS via Getty Images)

However you view this site, and the nature of this event, you can’t help but be swept into the apocalyptic fascination of this place. The impending threat of nuclear conflict has always lingered in the back of the world’s psyche, and this place surfaces those fears and anxieties, reminding us of what’s possible.