Remembering the Impact of the First Atomic Bomb Test
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Paul Ratje, OZY Author Contact Paul Ratje