Sixty Years under a Mushroom Cloud

Wednesday, 15 November 2006, 11:30 p.m.

The following piece was first published in the Alamogordo (N.M.) Daily News on Sunday, October 14, 1984, p 16-a.

A trek to trinity: reflections

by Tom Seddon

“We weren’t really prepared … ,”admitted Robert Krohn, searching for words to express what he had experienced nearly 40 years ago in the pre-dawn vastness of the Jornada del Muerto.  At 5:30 a.m. Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945, an intense flash of light as brilliant as the desert’s sun in high summer signaled the detonation, and immediately, a red, writhing ball of flames sprouted from the desert, quickly fading to the billowing clouds of a dull grey mushroom.

Mr. Krohn remembers, “It was a thrilling moment,” but reveals that his most memorable feelings, mingled with awe and shock, were those of relief that the device actually worked!  Mr. Krohn, then a very junior physicist, all of 25 years old that summer of 1945, was speaking at the annual Trinity Site Open House, Saturday, Oct. 6, 1984.  He shared the platform, a flat bed Army trailer placed adjacent to the pylon of lava rock marking Ground Zero, with a full-size mock-up of the weapon that destroyed Nagasaki less than a month after the test; the weapon whose lethally successful design was so awesomely verified at Trinity Site.

Mr. Krohn reminisced, and his audience of hundreds of sightseers was attentive and responsive.  He told of an accidental bombing of base camp by planes from Alamogordo Air Base, of eating antelope steak, and of the terrifying lightning storm the very night of the test.  The crowd listened, strolled around the broad, shallow crater, still lettered with curious green, fused globules of sand, and photographed each other standing in front of the Ground Zero plaque.  But the crowd was generally, perhaps surprisingly, quiet and subdued.

“Why do people come here?” someone asked Mr. Krohn.  “I don’t know,” he replied, “I have memories here, but why they come here, I don’t know … “ Undoubtedly some came of sheer curiosity, perhaps hoping to add “Trinity Site” to a line of decals on their RV windows.  But some, in the same spirit as this reporter, came in quest of feelings, to taste and smell as well as to view, to immerse oneself in memories and impressions of the actual spot, hoping to transcend time itself, to touch another age, and by reliving, re-feeling those days almost 40 years ago, to experience what was experienced, so as never to forget.

Paramount in this task of recapturing the past, of glimpsing images, was the trip through the McDonald Ranch house, meticulously restored by the National Park Service to its appearance the night of the test.  Attention to details such as a section of the hand thrown plaster being missing thus exposing the adobe, the missing length of porch railing, the hastily daubed warnings in white paint on the door to the “clean room” in which the actual bomb core was assembled heightened the atmosphere.  Gen. Niles Fulwyler, Commander of White Sands Missile Range, is to be congratulated for initiating the restoration work while salvage was still possible.  He has saved a bit of our past, a bit of us.  Either strolling the grounds, examining the broken-down Chicago Aeromotor windmill (which was already broken-down in 1945) or admiring the delicate plaster decoration inside or contemplating the contrast of greasewood scrub landscape with the Victorian tracery of a wrought iron gate allows us to feel we were there, participants in history.

Despite the sympathetic support of the setting, however, we can never hope to recapture the sense of the times that made the use of such dreadful weapons inevitable.  We cannot recapture the four years of hardship, of suffering, of fear, uncertainty and death, and because of this limitation younger generations will always ask, “Why did they go ahead; why not a demonstration first?”  No, without having lived it we cannot really understand, but we can sympathize.  Despite the temptation to seek a morality of hindsight, we must admit that the bomb once built had to be used, and to be used against a military-civilian target best suited to its destructive capability.  Thus, the war ended.

Agreeing to the political-military necessity of using the bomb, once built, begs the question, “Why did we have to build it, anyway?”  Addressing himself to the question of the social responsibility of scientists, Mr. Krohn avoided the platitudes of “taming the genie we had let out of the bottle” and was refreshingly candid.  “If the bomb could be built,” he said, “it had to built by us.”  Can one imagine a history in which only Hitler worked on a Bomb, and was successful, or only the Japanese, hard-pressed and driven back to their home islands?  What if the Japanese did have a Bomb, would we have used ours?  Probably not, and on just such a standoff, the fate of our civilization rests today.

“Probably, the best thing that could have happened,” Mr. Krohn concluded, “was that it couldn’t be built.”  But it could be built, and he is right, of course, once it was possible, we had to build it, had to use it.

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  Tom Seddon was graduated from Alamogordo High School in 1962 and went on to major in physics at M.I.T.  He also holds master degrees in science education from Cornell and in theology from Episcopal Divinity School.  He currently is a science instructor at Mid High in Alamogordo.  He will write periodically on science subjects for the Alamogordo Daily News.)

Words! Mere Words! Was there anything so real as words? - Dorian Gray