First Atomic Bomb Test
On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 AM, the Manhattan Project ended as the first atom bomb was successfully tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
This is a difficult day for me, the first of three each summer. Today, and the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, have been difficult for many years.
I spent 9.5 of my 11.5 years in the Air Force working as a missile systems analyst on nuclear armed Minuteman III, Peacekeeper, and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM).
I had periodic nightmares about nuclear war then, of seeing contrails in the sky and watching them arc down toward the ground. I knew several other airmen who also had nightmares, although we couldn’t talk about them outside of a small group of friends, because if we did we would lose our ability to work.
It’s a complicated story, but it’s due to something called PRP, the Personnel Reliability Program. Having nightmares about nuclear weapons means you have a mental health issue and therefore you aren’t reliable enough to work with nuclear weapons. I would think the opposite would be true, but the Air Force did not.
I still have nightmares occasionally, but my fascination with the technology kept me at it back then, year after year. It was, after all, rocket science. Rocket science that eventually became routine. Absurd, but driving 100 miles across the prairies of Nebraska, armed with .38 revolvers, with a guard holding an M-16 rifle in the backseat of the truck, to load launch codes into a Minuteman III missile topped with three nuclear warheads (10 warheads on a Peacekeeper missile), became routine.
The difficulty was staying awake. Once we were set up and the data was being uploaded into the Missile Guidance Set, we had little to do but wait. It was easy to fall asleep, because you had been up since 3:00 AM. But sleeping was forbidden, since two people had to remain alert and in sight of each other anytime a team went below ground into the silo. The Two Man Rule. Nuclear surety. Sleeping was forbidden.
I’m now a peace activist in part because of my experience with nuclear weapons.
On Monday, I listened to a hibakusha, a Japanese survivor of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, speak via Zoom at a peace conference. He was five years-old when the bomb was dropped, standing beside his mother outside of their home, about 2 kilometers (a little over a mile) from ground zero. They were blown off their feet by the explosion, landing in rubble several meters away. Both received serious burns.
What he saw as a five year-old child no one should ever see.
I was an instructor for much of my career, training new members of the 90th Strategic Missile Wing in Wyoming (and later the 303rd Tactical Missile Wing in England) on how to safely work with and around nuclear-tipped missiles. We did a lot of electronics and electrical work, and we loaded 1/2 of the launch codes into the Missile Guidance Set (the other half was loaded by a remote launch crew if a launch order was received).
I saw a lot of footage of what happens during a nuclear explosion — we used it to impress students on the hazards of nuclear weapons, although an accidental nuclear detonation during maintenance, even if a warhead was dropped, was all but impossible. Nonetheless, the films of the destruction caused by a nuclear blast were sobering.
If you’re interested, there is archival footage available of Japanese atomic bomb survivors, naked, burned, and shivering in the rubble. If you’re interested.
I don’t recommend viewing it, though.
I observed a Minuteman III missile test launch from Vandenburg AFB in California, and I imagined a hundred of them, or three hundred, thrusting into the sky. Later, I hid in the English countryside during exercises with a camouflaged GLCM battery (four missiles). The missiles would likely be targeted for Germany, around or just beyond the Fulda Gap, in case (a likelihood back then) NATO forces were overrun by Soviet tanks and our A-10 attack aircraft never returned to base for a hot refueling.
In other words, we spent our days preparing not for the end of human civilization, but to be the cause of the end of human civilization. I still think about that.
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb said, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita as he watched the first atomic explosion.
The U.S. is the only nation to use a nuclear weapon in anger. Twice. I think about that. As of 2019, we had 6,185 warheads in our inventory. Of those, 2,385 were retired and awaiting dismantlement, and 3,800 were part of the active stockpile — in other words, deployed or deployable on launch systems: aircraft (missiles and bombs) and ground- and sea-based missiles.
Other men and women are on duty as you read this, preparing to end human civilization. I think about that, too.
From This Day in History
Plans for the creation of a uranium bomb by the Allies were established as early as 1939, when Italian emigre physicist Enrico Fermi met with U.S. Navy department officials at Columbia University to discuss the use of fissionable materials for military purposes.
That same year, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt supporting the theory that an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction had great potential as a basis for a weapon of mass destruction.
In February 1940, the federal government granted a total of $6,000 for research. But in early 1942, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, and fear mounting that Germany was working on its own uranium bomb, the War Department took a more active interest, and limits on resources for the project were removed.
Brigadier-General Leslie R. Groves, himself an engineer, was now in complete charge of a project to assemble the greatest minds in science and discover how to harness the power of the atom as a means of bringing the war to a decisive end.
The Manhattan Project (so-called because of where the research began) would wind its way through many locations during the early period of theoretical exploration, most importantly, the University of Chicago, where Enrico Fermi successfully set off the first fission chain reaction.
But the Project took final form in the desert of New Mexico, where, in 1943, Robert J. Oppenheimer began directing Project Y at a laboratory at Los Alamos, along with such minds as Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Fermi.
Here theory and practice came together, as the problems of achieving critical mass — a nuclear explosion — and the construction of a deliverable bomb were worked out.
Finally, on the morning of July 16, in the New Mexico desert 120 miles south of Santa Fe, the first atomic bomb was detonated.
The scientists and a few dignitaries had removed themselves 10,000 yards away to observe as the first mushroom cloud of searing light stretched 40,000 feet into the air and generated the destructive power of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT.
The tower on which the bomb sat when detonated was vaporized.
The question now became — on whom was the bomb to be dropped? Germany was the original target, but the Germans had already surrendered. The only belligerent remaining was Japan.
A footnote: The original $6,000 budget for the Manhattan Project finally ballooned to a total cost of $2 billion.