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BOOK REVIEW: "Trinity: The History of an Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark" by Jim Eckles

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BOOK REVIEW: Trinity: The History of an Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark by Jim Eckles (CreateSpace/Fiddlebike) 2015

Unlike Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s 2012 graphic historical novel Trinity, which we reviewed here, which focused on the Manhattan Project’s rush to build the first atomic bomb during World War II, author Jim Eckles’ straightforward and no-nonsense 160-page book about the history of the Trinity Site, which is open to the public twice a year - in April and October - as part of their "open house" to inform visitors about Trinity.

For 30 years, Nebraska native Jim Eckles, now living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, served at the White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs Office, retiring in 2007. Eckles also wrote Pocketful of Rockets: History and Stories Behind White Sands Missile Range.

But in that time, the exceedingly knowledgeable and history-minded man served as a guide at the historic Trinity Site, where the U.S. government first tested and detonated an atomic bomb on the morning of July 16, 1945. 

The Trinity Site (so named by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and head of the Manhattan Project, as a reference to a John Donne poem, although that is not settled history) was settled on, rather hurriedly, in light of Germany and Japan's rush to get their own powerful weapons, after looking at sites in south Texas, Colorado, off the California coast and sites in northwest New Mexico.

But Trinity was suitable because it was on the northern part of the Alamogordo Bombing Range (later White Sands MIssle Range) being far from population centers, while being closer to Los Alamos, some highways and a rail line. 

With the Oscura Mountains to the east, and the land sloping toward the Rio Grande, 25 miles away, is the "desolate stretch of desert" where Trinity was picked. This is the Jornada del Muerto, Spain's "Journey of the Dead Man" trail between Mexico City and Santa Fe. It was an historically inhospitable place, the perfect place to detonate an atomic bomb. 

Adds Eckles: "Because of these difficulties many people died on the route. Usually Jornada del Muerto is translated as 'road of death' or 'journey of death.' However, authors are always trying to come up with new angles, so there are many other translations out there. This tidbit of local history has been used by many writers in an attemp to create a spot of symbolism for their articles and books about the first atomic bomb test. Many have not been able to resist forcing a connection between the birthplace of the atomic bomb and Spain's road of death."

And while there are a lot of mystical explanations as to the source of the name "Trinity," one that makes sense is that it is a reference to the three sites that were working toward the creation of the bomb: Los Alamos, where the bomb was designed and built; Hanford in Washington state, where plutonium was manufactured; and Oak Ridge, Tenn., which provided the uranium. "They were places wholly invented to build the bomb," writes Eckles. 

It is here that one gets the impression that Eckles has seen and heard it all. He has met hard-right militarists, lefty anti-war folks, protesters, New Agers, Christians and Buddhist monks ... all have their own thoughts and feelings about what Trinity means. And even at the end of the book, you sense Eckles was pretty much down the middle on it all. 

Eckles tells us in his book that he took many people to Trinity Site, which includes the black, lava obelisk, informing people of what happened there in ’45, along with remaining bits of rebar (which weren’t vaporized in the explosion of the “Gadget”) where the bomb tower stood and, also over to see what remains of the “Jumbo” steel cylinder which survived the nuclear explosion, and the Schmidt/McDonald ranch house, where, four days before the test and two miles from Ground Zero, the plutonium core of the bomb was assembled. A famous photo shows Sgt. Herbert Lehr bringing the two plutonium hemispheres into the Schmidt/McDonald ranch house, something that seems, of course, shocking and reckless today. 

Sgt. Herb Lehr taking the plutonium hemispheres into the Schmidt/McDonald ranch house, July 1945. (Los Alamos Nat'l Laboratory)

We learn about Trinitite, the greenish "glass" that appeared at the site after the explosion, created by the superheating of the surrounding sand, and which can still be found today, in small amounts, although Eckles discourages this. 

The author lets us know about life at the test site by the Army's soldiers stationed there. The equipment used by the Army to prepare for the test, including the Hollywood-level cameras used to film the explosion.

U.S. Army Gen. Leslie Groves was in charge of the Manhattan Project, from the military side of things. 

"I estimate the energy generated to be in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT," Groves would tell the War Department. And regarding Ground Zero (GZ), at the Trinity Site, Groves notes that "all vegetation had vanished" and that the crater the explosion created with 1,200 feet in diameter with "a slight slope toward the center." In the center was "a shallow bowl 130 feet in diameter and six feet in depth." He notes how pretty much all the steel was vaporized and that Jumbo was damaged. He added that in light of the test, he no longer considered the Pentagon to be "a safe shelter from such a bomb."

Jumbo, after the Trinity Test. (Image via Carl Rudder)

Groves would also report on the radioactive fallout in a "wide area," mainly north and east of the test site. Again, while mostly unpopulated, a few, overlooked pockets, including Hoot Owl Canyon - later called "Hot Canyon" by Los Alamos personnel - about 20 miles northeast of Trinity's Ground Zero.

Occupied by the Ratliffs, which included an elderly couple and their grandson, Groves notes the family saw "a fine white ash covering everything outside." It got into the Ratliffs water supply, which was a concern. But, unsurprisingly, Los Alamos did not clue the Ratliffs into their concerns about exposure to radioactive fallout, only inquiring about the health of these ranchers on the sly. This would be the case for many years afterward, from the Marshallese in the Pacific, to the "downwinders" in Nevada and Utah. Recall that actor John Wayne most likely got cancer after filming The Conqueror near St. George, Utah in 1955, following an atomic bomb test downwind from the nearby Nevada Test Site.

While Oppenheimer offered the most mystical assessment of the Trinity Test and the birth of the Atomic Age, Eckles notes "ostentatious" comments made by Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell after viewing the test, comments collected by Gen. Groves in a report he made two days after the test.

From Farrell: "No matter what might happen now, all knew that the impossible scientific job had been done. Atomic fission would no longer be hidden in the cloisters of the theoretical physicists' dreams. It was almost full grown at birth. It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil. There was a feeling in that shelter that those concerned with its nativity should dedicate their lives to the mission that it would always be used for good and never for evil."

The above image is a rendering of the Manhattan Project mission patch which was issued to 3,500 military personnel who served on the secret project. Featured on a blue background, which represented the universe, in the middle was a white (mushroom?) cloud and lightning bolt which formed a question mark which symbolized the "unknown results and secrecy surrounding the project." While the lightning bolt extended down to "split a yellow atom that repressented atomic fission.

Also, writes Eckles, "A red and blue star in the center of the question mark was the insignia for the Army Service Forces to which the Manhattan Project military were assigned."

So, are there still radiation risks at Trinity's Ground Zero? Eckles lets us know that the residual radiation from the test is in the form of alpha particles. As a result, he writes, "it is not particularly dangerous." Of course any exposure to radioactive sources is potentially dangerous on some level. 

And the myths and misinformation out there? Eckles does devote some space to addressing "oddities" linked to Trinity. One man wrote to Eckles and said aliens living inside the Earth were concerned about the Trinity test and sent a craft and crew to investigate. This, the man said, was the ship that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in July 1947 - some two years after the test. 

The author does a great job including historical and archived photographs at Trinity, including his own time serving at White Sands. He even reproduces the 1939 letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt about how uranium could be turned into a source of power for a new type of bomb.

All in all, Jim Eckles' Trinity is a great slice of history and personal insight into an important historic landmark that deserves to be preserved and recognized, regardless of your personal views on the creation of nuclear weapons. This is where it all started.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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