During a recent trip to New Mexico my wife and I along with our daughter and son-in-law took a trip to Los Alamos, the town where the first atomic weapons were developed, later to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nestled in the beautiful Jemez Mountains, Los Alamos back in 1942 wasn’t even a town, only the site of a boys summer camp. But as it became clear to President Roosevelt and the high military command, Germany was moving forward with an atomic weapons program that would change the face of the war. The United States needed to act quickly. And so the military picked the area around Los Alamos and in lightning fashion built a town where 130,000 scientists, technicians and their familes lived and worked for over two years to build a new generation of weapons. Many of the key scientists were immigrants from Nazi Germany or countries overrun by Germany. Their expertise proved invaluable as the Manhattan Project moved forward.
The Los Alamos site was an ultra- secret military installation where the key figures in the research were given aliases, their mail was delivered to a phony address and security was so tight that the civilians in the area had little idea what was going on out in the high desert. The military commander was General Lesley Groves and the civilian head was Robert Oppenheimer, a rather odd team as Groves was a no nonesense guy, while Oppenheimer was a shy, quiet scientist. Together they worked tirelessly with the thousands of Los Alamos workers to take the existing knowledge of atomic reactions and the power contained in uranium and plutonium to build atomic bombs.
By early 1945 the Manhattan Project team was ready to test the first atomic weapon at what became known as the Trinity site. After a number of snafus, the bomb was detonated and the atomic age began. The scientists watching the explosion were overwhelmed by the destructive power they had created and many including Oppenheimer realized that they had changed the world.
With the successful explosion the Manhattan Project moved forward to build two bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man ( named after British Prime Minister Winston Churchhill). The components were loaded on trains, sent to San Francisco and shipped out to the Pacific Island of Tinian where two aircraft–specially equipped B-29s- waited to be loaded and sent on their way to Japan.
On August 6, 1945 the Enola Gay B-29 dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima and three days later the other B-29 Bockscar dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki. In Hiroshima 80,000 people died immediately and thousands more later from radiation poisoning. At the Nagasaki site 35,000 people were killed and thousands more later also from radiation poisoning. Within weeks the Japanese surrendered, although historians dispute whether it was because of the bombing, since many of the Japanese military high command wanted to fight on. It was only the Emperor who demanded an end to the war.
Today Los Alamos remains a $ 2 billion research site largely devoted to military and national security objectives, although there are new areas of science including nanotechnology, environmental sustatinability and medical device development. But for the change of focus Los Alamos, New Mexico will always remain the atomic town where the new weapons of mass destruction were built. Second guessing about the wisdom of building the bombs will always abound, along with their use on civilian populations. The war with Japan did end but Robert Oppenheimer was filled with doubt about what he had done in building Little Boy and Fat Man. We should always remember that the United States is the only country to use an atomic weapon of mass destruction on an enemy.