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Exploring Trinity Site legends (some are true!) on 75th anniversary

Jim Eckles
For the Sun-News

Trinity Site is a National Historic Landmark just 96 miles northeast of Las Cruces. At 5:30 a.m. Mountain War Time, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated there on Monday, July 16, 1945. The explosion was equal to 44 million pounds of TNT and thrust us into the Nuclear Age in the blink of an eye.

Trinity is on the north end of White Sands Missile Range which normally opens the site to the public twice a year, the first Saturdays of April and October. I worked my first Trinity open house in 1977 and have been continuously associated with it for 43 years. I have coordinated the open houses, conducted many VIP tours, designed the signs at the site and currently act as a “subject matter expect” now that I’m retired from the missile range. Some people think I’ve been to Trinity Site more than any other human being.

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Myths and Legends

In talking to visitors, I hear many myths and legends — some are true and some are not. For instance, the military police providing security did indeed play polo at base camp.

First Lieutenant Howard Bush was the head of security at the site. His police unit patrolled Los Alamos on horseback before being assigned to Trinity. When they moved south in December 1944, they took their horses, assuming they would patrol with them.

The horses turned out to be totally impractical given the distances the men needed to cover each day. A jeep or truck was much more useful.

Bush, always interested in providing recreational opportunities for his men, managed to get polo equipment shipped to New Mexico. They had horses so polo made some sort of sense. However, none of them had ever played and the soft, sandy ground was no good for the standard wooden balls and mallets. But, being clever folks, the men improvised. They substituted brooms for the mallets and used a volleyball in place of the three-inch regulation ball.

Soldiers play polo at Trinity Site’s base camp. They are using cut off brooms and a volleyball instead of the standard equipment.

In 2000, Polo: Players Edition Magazine got wind of the story and requested information from the missile range. The March 2001 issue came out with a full-page story about the players. The only problem was the lead sentence that said, “About 40 miles outside of San Antonio, Texas, the U.S. Army had a top secret site …” It was another fine example of “One of our 50 is missing.”

For the test, Bush, as head of security was at the South 10,000-yard bunker where the bomb was triggered — the control bunker. This is where Dr. Robert Oppenheimer watched from. Bush elected to be outside the bunker for the test. In his report, he said he was looking away from Ground Zero and was crouched down with his arms over his head. Like many others, he reported the incredible intense white light during the first moments of the explosion. Depending on cloud conditions, the skies over southern New Mexico were lit up for over a hundred miles. Bush said the light was so bright, he touched his eyelids with his finger to make sure his eyes were closed.

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The crème brulee effect

On the other hand, some stories are so absurd they never gain any traction. A few years ago a seller on eBay was peddling a nice old color postcard of the dunes at White Sands National Monument. In the description, the seller claimed the sand was bleached white by the explosion at Trinity Site. Since the park existed before 1945, that one made no sense at all.

Sometimes, even knowledgeable people accept a story with a nod of the head because it appeals to their common sense. For decades everyone, including the folks at Los Alamos, offered the explanation that the glass on the Trinity Site crater, dubbed Trinitite, was formed by the explosion’s fireball bouncing off the ground and melting the surface. When you hear that temperatures in the fireball reached thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, it seems like a reasonable explanation. In the missile range Public Affairs Office, we called it the crème brulee effect.

This is what 100 tons of TNT looks like stacked on top of a 20-foot wooden platform. This pile, located to the south of Ground Zero, was exploded on May 7, 1945. The test served as a dress rehearsal for the actual explosion and a way to calibrate instruments designed to measure blast effects. Note that the atomic explosion was 220 times stronger than the TNT blast.

In 2003, Los Alamos scientists Robb Hermes and Bill Strickfaden nuked that myth. As part of their Trinitite analysis they determined the fireball was not in the vicinity of the crater surface long enough to create glass approaching a half-inch thick.

The two decided they needed a different mechanism to account for the glass on the ground. It didn’t take long for them to see that the 100-foot steel tower and a great deal of sand on the crater floor were sucked up into the fireball that was a 14,000-degree blast furnace. In such conditions, the material would have turned to a gas, soon to condense back to a liquid form.

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In other words, the fireball was filled with a mist of liquid steel and rock, all mixing together. The rest of the story is just raindrop physics. As droplets bumped into each other in the cloud, they got bigger and heavier. Just like rain, this liquid dropped to the ground to form pools of melted glass that grew and intermingled. However, some of the tiny drops hardened enough to keep their shape when they hit the ground which explains the spheres found on site. The theory nicely explains how glass ended up on fence posts and rocks.

The Trinity test

Hermes and Strickfaden published an article about their findings in the Fall 2005 issue of Nuclear Weapons Journal. As part of the their work, the researchers confirmed the green color of Trinitite is from iron, both from the steel tower and the sand. Also, pieces of rare red Trinitite were examined at Los Alamos and the red color is from copper, probably the large coaxial cables coming off the north side of the 100-foot tower.

The photos of Trinite beads and bars are identical except for the source of light. On the left, the pieces are illuminated by light from above and on the right the same set up is lit with light shining up through the glass. The photo on the right emphasizes the glassy nature of Trinitite. For reference, the beads are only about two millimeters across.

One myth has disappeared simply because of the changes in technology. Before digital cameras, we used to sometimes hear from visitors fearing the residual radiation at Trinity Site would fog the film in their cameras. We proved that was false by putting a roll of film next to a bag of Trinitite for a day and then developing the film. There was no effect.

It is true that Ground Zero is still radioactive. The level is very low, only about 10 times higher than the background levels in Las Cruces. In fact, it is roughly the same per hour as a flight in a jet airliner at 35,000 feet. The bottom line is that a visit during one of the open houses exposes a visitor to less radiation than a flight from Albuquerque to New York City.

After the Trinity test, all efforts shifted to the Pacific and preparing bombs to use against Japan. On Aug. 6, a uranium-fueled bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and on Aug. 9, another plutonium-fueled bomb, identical to the Trinity bomb, was exploded over Nagasaki. The war suddenly ended when Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15, just under a month after the Trinity Site test.

Jim Eckles is a member of the White Sands Missile Range Hall of Fame and is the author of "Trinity: The History Of An Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark."