Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is December 7, 2017, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I am with Jim Eckles. I would like to start by asking him to say his full name and spelling it.
Jim Eckles: Jim Eckles, E-C-K-L-E-S.
Kelly: Terrific. Jim, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your background and how you became so familiar with the Trinity site?
Eckles: I came to Las Cruces to work at White Sands Missile Range back in 1977. The missile range is where Trinity site is located. I had only been in the Public Affairs Office for a couple of weeks when we had the open house, which was always the first Saturday in October at the Trinity site.
I went along with the rest of the office and experienced it. It was a hot day, close to 100 degrees, and we probably had 700 or 800 visitors at the site. It was a very formal kind of a ceremony and whatnot. It was interesting.
I then worked in Public Affairs for the next thirty years, and as the owners of Trinity site, so to speak, I got interested in the history. I wanted to know more about it because people, whenever you do an open house or you had people that you would take on a tour, they would ask you questions about Trinity. “Where is it? What’s it about? Where people were?” Those kinds of things. So you had to gather this information to be able to answer those questions.
It was just a long process of learning about the site, as well as other things at the missile range like wildlife and treasure and UFOs and aliens, and things like that. Those kinds of questions come up at White Sands. But I focused on Trinity site.
I ended up doing a lot of the open houses, organizing them, and conducting a lot of the tours in between. People that had enough clout or people that had a legitimate interest, news media, they were often allowed to go to Trinity site between the open houses. We would escort them in and show them around. I did that for thirty years.
I ended up at the end of that period writing a little brochure for the missile range about Trinity site. The archeologist who got money from the Department of Army asked me to create the metal signs that are out there permanently on display. I did stuff on the website. I retired ten years ago from White Sands, but I continue an association with the White Sands Missile Range and Trinity site. I am a volunteer for the open houses. I sit at ground zero and answer questions. I have is a sign that says “Free answers” behind me on the fence.
When I retired, I wrote a book about White Sands Missile Range called Pocketful of Rockets. It’s kind of the stories and history behind the missile range. It’s not an academic history. It’s more of a social history. There is a large chapter in there on Trinity site.
After that was published, one of the people at White Sands I worked with suggested that I take that chapter out and turn it into a smaller book because more people are interested in Trinity site, as a rule, than they are at White Sands Missile Range. I did that a couple of years later and released that. It’s Trinity Site: The History and Stories of National Atomic [Trinity: The History of an Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark]—I don’t remember what the title is. [Laughter] You guys can look it up.
Anyway, so I wrote that book and that’s now available. It’s pretty much a history of Trinity site. I tried to focus on that. There are so many books, so many shows about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos, that there was no way I was going to be able to wade into that pool. I just focused on Trinity site, because it’s what I know.
I got to meet in that thirty years a number of the scientists, a lot of the support people, the soldiers who lived and worked out there. I got to talk to them about what it was like. I had a little bit of knowledge that’s probably different than the big books that you see.
Kelly: Terrific. That’s exactly what we want you to share with us. This is great. Why don’t we start—if you can give us a little run up to the Trinity site. Why were they testing the bomb in July 1945?
Eckles: Okay, that’s kind of a long story. I will try to keep it as short as possible, because it’s a backstory. I started in my book with James Chadwick, the English scientist, 1932, discovering the neutron. Because up until the 1930s, which isn’t that long ago, we really didn’t know much about the structure of matter, the subatomic particles and charges and stuff.
Chadwick comes up with the neutron. We knew about protons and electrons and how an atom was formed. The scientists, when they saw that there was a neutron, they thought, “Well, that’s interesting, because it won’t be repelled by the negative charges of the electrons, and it won’t be repelled by the positive charges of the protons in the nucleus.” In other words, a neutron could penetrate an atom and actually collide with the nucleus.
Boy, what would happen if it was going fast enough? What happens, of course, eventually, is it’s like a bowling ball going down an alley. When it hits those pins, stuff flies. That’s what a neutron does when it strikes a nucleus. The bonding forces are split apart. Energy is released. Radiation comes flying out. Particles come flying out, and it multiplies.
Now, that was theorized. Of course, they had to prove that it was possible. Enrico Fermi in Italy first does it. He first splits an atom in his laboratory, but he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t realize it. It’s up to the Germans a few years later to actually realize that they have split an atom. They do it in the laboratory. They come up with a simpler atom, barium, in the laboratory. They are the ones that coined the word “fission” that we use now, which means splitting an atom.
This progresses. People start theorizing, “What happens if you could get a chain reaction going? You split an atom, and that sends out enough neutrons out of that splitting to split other atoms. That cascades to more and more atoms. What if that all happens very quickly? Would you have an explosion? What if you did it very slowly? Could you have a nuclear reactor produce continuous heat or energy?” People started to look at that, and run experiments in the lab to see if that was possible.
In that process, Leo Szilard—one of the immigrants, the scientists who fled Europe, along with Edward Teller and a lot of these other Jewish scientists who fled Hitler and came to the United States—realized, “Boy, you might be able to build a bomb, with producing a chain reaction in a fissionable material like uranium.” They decided they needed to warn the United States, because the United States wasn’t paying much attention to it.
Szilard proposed a letter to President [Franklin] Roosevelt. He knew that the U.S. government wasn’t going to pay any attention to him, so he got Albert Einstein to sign it. Albert Einstein being the most famous scientist at the time, in the twentieth century, in fact. Einstein signs the letter, and it goes to the President. The government takes a slow step by step investigation and process to see if this will actually work and stuff.
Let’s back up a little bit. They decided to actually pursue building a bomb. Roosevelt signed the paperwork on December 6, 1941, the day before Pearl Harbor, which I think is pretty interesting. They decide to do this.
It becomes an industrial complex kind of endeavor, because they realized to separate the U-235 from U-238—uranium is a naturally occurring element in the crust of the earth. In fact, it’s more common I think than tin and silver and some of the other elements. There is a lot of it out there. But at the time, we didn’t know that.
It turns out that there are lots of isotopes of uranium. The most common form is U-238. 99.2 percent of all the uranium out there is that form. It doesn’t fission. You can’t do a chain reaction with it. U-235 is a little more unstable and it will fission, but it only accounts for less than one percent of the uranium out there.
The scientists working for the government realized, “We have got to separate the U-235 from the 238.” So they built Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge at the beginning of World War II was nothing. It was farmland, basically. At the end of the war, it was third-largest [misspoke: fifth largest] community in Tennessee. It was a huge complex, industrial complex. It was built to separate 235 from 238.
They used a couple of different methods. One was a filtering process. You would gasify the uranium, run it through these filters. The bigger atoms, the 238, would get held up in the filters. The 235 would go through. You’d scrape off the 238. You are basically getting 235 an atom at a time. Very slow and arduous process.
Another process was to gasify it and run the gas around an electromagnetic field in a curve. The bigger atoms of 238 would go to the outside and the 235, being a little smaller and lighter, would stay to the inside of that curvature. They would filter off the 238s and collect the 235s. Again, an atom at a time, basically. A very slow process.
When Los Alamos was established with [J. Robert] Oppenheimer as its head as the laboratory to design and actually build a bomb based on uranium-235, they came up with a very simple design. To make this work, you have got to get a critical mass of uranium-235. You have got to get the atoms close enough together that when you start splitting them, that that atom breaks apart and two neutrons come out of each one, and it splits two atoms, then that splits four, and so on, it cascades, that you get the atoms close enough together that there is an atom right next door that it can hit to get that chain reaction going.
The idea for the uranium bomb was to simply shoot one lump of uranium into another lump at high speed, using explosives to accelerate it down a gun tube, get the critical mass, and boom. Of course, this cascading of atoms splitting happens in just a few millionths of a second, and you’ve got an explosion.
They were getting plutonium from Hanford, and they realized that in looking at the laboratory results that you can’t send one lump of plutonium into another lump in the gun design. It won’t work. The two pieces, as they get close together will start to fission before they get together as a tight critical mass, and they will blow apart. You’ll get a kind of dirty, low yield explosion. Not what you are looking for if you are in the military.
The people at Los Alamos came up with a different design, a design called implosion where they take a ball of plutonium. It’s about the size of a softball, a youth-sized softball. Surround it with 5,000 pounds of high explosives, divided into 32 individual lenses or chunks of high explosives, and compress that ball down to the size of a golf ball or so, and get that critical mass and get an explosion.
That’s why there’s Trinity site. They didn’t know if that was going to work. The trick—and this was an engineering timing effort, not much science once you got past that point—was to get those 32 lenses of high explosives to all go off at the same exact instant, so you’re compressing that ball from all angles. If you have got one that goes too early or some that go too late, the ball gets warped and out of shape, and you get a low yield explosion. Not much bang, just a dirty explosion. More radiation, probably, than you do explosion. That was the trick.
They decided that they needed to test it, since they were so unsure of it. In fact, before Trinity site, they were testing implosion designs on pipes and stuff at Los Alamos, just the week before they did the test, to make sure that this thing was going to work as designed.
Kelly: That’s great. Tell us about the pressures on the scientists to conduct this test by July 16 . Why was it important to meet that deadline, as opposed to the week after or the week after that? They really thought they needed more time.
Eckles: I think there was pressure at the very beginning. There are a lot of people that talk about the Potsdam conference, that [President Harry] Truman wanted to know before meeting with [Soviet Premier Josef] Stalin what we had and whether it was going to work or not.
The bomb was initially scheduled for July 4. They wanted to make it the ultimate firecracker, the Fourth of July firecracker. Then uncertainties and weather issues started interfering with that schedule, and pushing it to the right further and further. The 16th was a day that the weather guy said looks like a good day based on the typical summer thunderstorms rolling through at that time of year. Of course, it matched up with the Potsdam conference. There must have been some pressure to get it done, to get word to Truman that this thing actually worked.
Of course, that’s not taking into consideration that we already had the [gun-type] bomb design, which is the one used at Hiroshima. We weren’t going to test it. We were pretty sure it was going to work. Truman could have said the same thing to Stalin without the test, because we had the gun design in the bag ready to go.
Kelly: That’s very interesting. You just de-mythified a myth.
Eckles: I think there are a lot of myths associated with this stuff. We will talk about some of that like Trinity site and the glass that was formed, what I learned when I first got there. It’s not true. Not true at all.
Kelly: Talk about how they chose the site and the name of the desert there.
Eckles: Okay, the Los Alamos people wanted a place that was isolated. They had a whole series of criteria. They wanted land that already belonged to the government. They wanted very low population densities, close to Los Alamos, close to highways and railroads, that kind of thing.
They looked at a lot of different places that just came up on the radar, like the sand dunes in southern Colorado, an island off the west coast of California, the sand dunes off the coast of Texas, the lava fields up by Grants. Most of these places had problems, population or land ownership issues and stuff.
They also looked at two places in the Alamogordo Bombing Range. The Alamogordo Bombing Range was created back in 1942. It was a typical southwestern training range. This was for bombing crews for B-24s and B-17s, eventually B-29s. They flew out of what is now Holloman Air Force Base, just west of Alamogordo.
That land was taken from ranchers, or leased from ranchers, starting in 1942 and it ran up through Tularosa Basin from Highway 70 about, up through Mockingbird Gap in the Oscura Mountains to almost Highway 380, and set aside as a bombing range.
Los Alamos went down and looked at those places in 1944. [Kenneth] Bainbridge, the test director, was in charge of finding a site. They looked in the middle of the bombing range, down in the Tularosa Basin, but there were a number of problems there, mainly that Alamogordo and Tularosa are just directly east of the middle of the bombing range. Also, if they had put it there, they would have put the bombing range completely out of business. There would have been no way to run a bombing range with Trinity site in the middle of it.
Another site they looked at up to the north, north out of Tularosa Basin just to the west of the Oscura Mountains, was at the very north end of the bombing range. They could take that and not kill the bombing range. It was wide open country, very few communities, especially downwind from there. No large ones, anyway. So 1944, the middle of ’44, they decided to go there.
The area just to the west of that is called the Jornada del Muerto. This was all part of the Spanish empire for centuries. People don’t realize that the Spaniards were here longer than the United States has been a country. They came out of Mexico and came up the Rio Grande at El Paso and established the capital at Santa Fe. The road they built along the Rio Grande was called the Camino Real. North of what’s now Las Cruces, the river takes a lot of bends. There are some canyons in it and stuff. It makes it hard going if you are trying to pull carts and stuff to Santa Fe. But if you went out to the east between the San Andres Mountains and the river, that’s just kind of flat plains. The going is pretty quick.
The only problem with that is, there is no water there, or very little. Plus the Apache hang out in the mountains around there. The Spaniards built their road on those plains, and they got attacked a lot. A lot of them died of thirst or starvation. There were a lot of deaths on the road. They nicknamed the road, “The journey or road of death” from Las Cruces basically up to about Socorro, which would be directly west of Trinity site. The Jornada del Muerto was actually an area, a road area from Las Cruces to Socorro.
Journalists and authors for decades couldn’t help making that symbolic jump from Trinity site, where the atomic bomb was born, to “The journey of death” or “Road of death” to the west. They wanted to smash those two things together and make some kind of symbolism. We made fun of it in my office for a long time. I don’t see it very much anymore. But it is desert, mostly creosote and mesquite bushes.
Manhattan Project had an 18 by 24 mile rectangle of property at the north end of the bombing range to use. One of the most common questions at Trinity site now, “Why this spot for ground zero?” There is nothing that I found in the records, but we have theorized it’s because of the nature of the bomb. You have a chunk of land that you are restricted to. You know the wind is going to be blowing basically year round. You know that you don’t want to be downwind from an atomic bomb explosion because of fallout.
You think about that. You realize that you want your ground zero then—since the winds are out of the west and southwest—you want your ground zero to be on the east side of your rectangle. Then you want to put all of your bunkers, your instrumentation, all your personnel in a semi-circle upwind to the west and southwest and the north a little bit. Using that kind of logic, that dictates where you put ground zero and then where you put all the instrumentation in your rectangle, and it works.
You set up ground zero. That’s the most important point, and then everything is built off of that. You go and you establish your bunkers and your base camp, your control bunker, and all of those things. That started in 1944, in December of 1944.
The military police were the first military personnel on site. They were from Los Alamos. Marvin Davis, one of the MPs I got to know fairly well, talked about going down there. He talks about going to Los Alamos at first. They were a mounted unit. They rode patrol around Los Alamos on horseback. He said they didn’t even have weapons at first. They used flashlights and billy clubs as weapons.
A lot of those guys then moved to Trinity site at base camp, and brought their horses with them. Horses were quickly abandoned, because the distances were much too great to ride horses. Plus you can see for miles. It’s easy to see ten miles across the Jornada del Muerto from an elevated spot. You didn’t need to go ride boundary. You can just sit at a high point and watch.
They got there in ’44, December. According to Marvin, a lot of the buildings were already there because Bainbridge and his guys had hired a contract to assemble old CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps buildings that they took from other places in the state and erected down at base camp, which was ten miles from ground zero. These guys, these scientists, these soldiers, technicians, support people could live while they worked on developing the site. They had a mess hall and barracks and PX and laboratory space for some of the scientists. A small cluster, a small little city of buildings, so to speak.
Kelly: How many people ended up living there, and for how long?
Eckles: That’s hard to put an exact number on it, because it was constantly in flux. There was permanent party: military police, cooks, engineers, folks like that, that were military personnel. From the photos, it looks like there were fifty, sixty of those guys.
But then there were scientists and other folks always coming and going, people that were interested in setting up instrumentation at the site, building structures at the site that they were going to be using during the test. They would come maybe for a week, go back to Los Alamos, come back later. That number was always fluctuating. At its peak times, they talk about the mess hall producing hundreds of meals a day.
At the site, you get ground zero, and the scientists made the decision that nobody was going to be closer than ten miles outside of a bunker. They built bunkers at 10,000 yards, which was a little over five miles, on the south, west, and north basic compass points. People were in those bunkers for the test.
The north and west bunkers were basically camera bunkers, the north one being the prime one for the photos that we see. The motion picture footage and all of those still images of very early stages of the explosion and stuff were taken from the north 10,000 yard bunker.
The south 10,000 yard bunker was the control bunker. Everything fed out of there. When you see pictures of that, you will see commo [communication] lines coming out of the backside of it. There is an adjoining bunker for power, the power to everything that was inside the control bunker. Because everything was set to go off on this timer sequence that they had, they wanted to make sure the cameras, seismographs and all the instrumentation all turned on at the right time.
Again, we have got cameras out there that were running 1,000 frames a second. Now, it doesn’t take very long for a camera running that speed to run out of film. It’s shooting through there. If you turn on that camera a couple of seconds too early, the film is gone by the time the explosion occurs. If you turn it on a little late, well, you’re just too late. They had to get all of that exact. In south 10,000, there was a master switch that fed everything to turn everything on, around the site, set off the flares and all that as well.
Berlyn Brixner was one of the photographers. He was the one at north 10,000 that is credited for getting most of those photos of the explosion. The test was supposed to be on going at 4:00 a.m., but got delayed until 5:30 because of storm clouds. Brixner said that he knew there was a delay, but he couldn’t hear the loudspeaker, he was so far away. He had no idea when the test was set to go. He was just sitting around twiddling his thumbs waiting for something to happen, and his camera turned on. He knew at that point that the test was going to come up in a few seconds, and it was time to go to work. South 10,000 was very important for that reason. That triggered everything that took place out on the site. Those are manned bunkers.
There were also unmanned bunkers closer to ground zero that were constructed. Some of those were just 800 yards out. For instance, there was one that people drive by on their way into Trinity site. It’s right on the south side of the road. It’s 800 yards from ground zero. It was initially intended to be a photo bunker. If you go into it, you can look out the tubes in the east end of the bunker, and they look right where the tower was standing. However, they found that that close in, the camera—since it’s looking straight out at the tower—radiation, gamma radiation would have come flying through and right into the camera and spoiled the film. They had to come up with a different plan.
Brixner talks about taking cameras and putting them in lead boxes and pointing them straight up in the air. Then above the box—they put leaded glass in the top of each box and put a mirror there, angled it 45 degrees or so, so the camera is looking off the mirror at the tower. So the straight line of sight radiation wouldn’t affect the film. Those boxes were set on a sled right beside this 800 yard bunker. It had a 1,000 foot cable on it, so the guys could pull it back right after the test and did not have to try to go up and try to retrieve the cameras that close to ground zero. It would have been unsafe.
There is another couple of bunkers, unmanned bunkers on the north side that are still standing. Those are kind of the only relics left from the explosion or the test at Trinity site.
Then base camp being ten miles away upwind was the old Dave McDonald ranch house, ranch area. That’s where the cluster of buildings was constructed.
Kelly: In your book, you explained the difference between the different ranch houses. Was this George McDonald ranch house among the cluster? Tell us about this.
Eckles: Right. There is often confusion about the McDonald ranch house at Trinity site and the National Historic Landmark. There are actually two McDonald ranch houses. That’s the confusion. They were brothers.
The one close to ground zero, about two miles from ground zero, belonged to George. It was actually built in 1913 by the Schmidt family. Franz Schmidt was a German immigrant, married a gal from Texas. They came into the area below the Oscura Mountains and homesteaded there, and had a ranch where they raised cows and sheep. It was quite a big operation.
Their house burned down in 1912. So they lived in the barn, and had this new house built in 1913. It’s four rooms. It’s adobe. It’s a very nice structure with oak floors and all that. The Schmidt family, though, left in 1920. I think the McDonalds bought it then. George McDonald was living there then when the Alamogordo Bombing Range was formed in 1942, forcing them out. That house was a convenient location to make the clean room for the assembly of the plutonium core for the test.
The other McDonald house belonged to Dave. It was actually a partnership, Dave and Ross, I think, his brother had a ranch to the west, to the southwest. That ended up belonging or being the set up for base camp.
There was a third McDonald ranch in the area, but nobody knows about it. It doesn’t confuse anybody. It was Tom McDonald. Just to the south of George’s place over Mockingbird Gap, in a little canyon where there is good water, was Tom. He was the father to George and Dave and Ross. In fact, when he was forced to leave, he met the Army with a gun in hand. He wasn’t going to leave. Family members were able to convince him to give up the gun and leave.
Those are the ranches that were used. The George McDonald ranch house was convenient, because it was the nicest permanent structure close to ground zero. They took the master bedroom and turned it into a clean room. They put plastic over the windows and taped up all the cracks and stuff. There is a sign they chalked on the door about cleaning before entering the room, trying to seal it up to keep dust out of it, for this assembly of the plutonium core.
It’s part of the open house now. You can go see this house. It’s been restored. Most people think, “Why wasn’t it blown apart, being two miles from ground zero? Because we have all seen that footage from Nevada where houses are blown apart in nuclear explosions.
Shock waves do funny things. From the ranch house, you cannot see ground zero. There is a little bit of a ridge. The shock wave may have just kind of bounced over the ranch house. It did knock out the windows to the house and the doors, but the house was pretty much undamaged structurally by the explosion.
Kelly: What about the base camp? Was that undamaged as well?
Eckles: Right, base camp being ten miles away, the witnesses were told to lay on the ground. There is a dirt berm there used for catching water for the livestock. They were told to lay along that facing away. Everybody had welder’s glass, either goggles or a piece of glass mounted on a piece of cardboard. They were told, after the few first seconds that they could turn and look at the explosion through their welder’s glass. Some looked at it straight away, wanted to see that bright flash of light and stuff at the very beginning of the explosion. Others followed orders.
Some didn’t follow orders about being in the bunkers at south 10,000. For instance, Lieutenant [Howard] Bush, who was camp commander and head of security, decided he was not going to sit in the bunker at south 10,000. He went outside. He kind of was in a hunch on his haunches, looking away with his head down.
He said in his account that the light was so bright that it was filtering through his eyelids. He touched his eyelids to make sure that his eyes were closed, it was that bright. Then he stood up, and the shock wave blew him over. It didn’t hurt him or anything, but it did knock him down. I think there was another person there, the same thing, but I don’t know who it was.
Damage, of course varies, by where you are. Some damage was reported over 100 miles away, windows broken, for instance.
Kelly: How about you mentioned the clean room and I know you have a story of Herb Lehr, who took the plutonium down there. Why don’t you talk about that? There is a photo of him.
Eckles: Okay, coming in. The plutonium core, as I said earlier was about the size of a softball. I use a softball now as a visual aid at Trinity site ground zero. People are amazed that something that small could produce an atomic bomb explosion equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.
It was two hemispheres, though, when he brought it down because they were going to insert another little sphere inside, the plutonium core. That was a neutron initiator. It was a ball made of polonium and beryllium. When those are squeezed together, they naturally produce neutrons, which it was felt could kick start the chain reaction in the plutonium, which is being squashed all around it.
So at the clean room, they are going to assemble the core. You’ve got two pieces of plutonium. Herb Lehr is carrying those in a special padded box. There is a famous picture of him coming through the door to the bedroom of the McDonald ranch house. On that door, in the photo, you can see some of the words, “Wipe your feet before entering,” etc. He’s got this box.
Now, the little urchin they called it, the little initiator with the polonium and beryllium, came down—I am trying to remember who had that. He carried it in his pocket. There were two of them. There was an active one, and then there was a dummy one. The story was that he would go up to a guy and move them around in his hand and say, “Which one is the real one?”
They were aghast, because they were going to go, “What if you put the dummy one in the bomb?” I mean, it’s not going to work. He reassured them that the real one produced its own heat. It was warm to the touch. The dummy one, of course, was cold ambient temperature. It was easy to tell them apart.
Lehr brings that into the clean room at the McDonald. I always called it the Schmidt-McDonald ranch house, because the Schmidts should get credit. They built the house and established the ranch and everything. Anyway, he brings it in there and then they proceed to put those pieces together.
There is a step in there that most people never talk about. It explains one of the pictures. Lehr is bringing this box in, carrying it in one hand because it only weighs 13, 14 pounds. It’s very light. For a ball of metal that size, it’s fairly dense and heavy, but it’s nothing that you can’t carry in one hand. In the photo where they are loading the core into the sedan to take to ground zero, two guys are carrying the core in a box in on a litter. You’re going, “What’s that about if it only weighs 14 pounds? That’s crazy.”
That’s because in there, once they get the core together, they insert that into a uranium plug. This plug is a column of uranium, and it’s got a point in it so you can insert this ball. You’ve got one cylinder then that’s going to slide into the center of the bomb mechanism down at ground zero. This uranium plug adds a lot of metal to this equation. In fact, it turns out that the plug then, the total plug package, is probably about 120 pounds. That’s why there are two guys carrying it between them on a litter to put it in the back seat of a sedan.
The house is part of the National Historic Landmark, because it’s a pretty important part of the process there. There are other stories associated with it. One of the stories is that they had Jeeps outside or vehicles outside with the engines running, just in case they had to get away quickly. I think that’s probably a baloney story because the scientists realized that if something went wrong in there, they were dead anyway. There wouldn’t have been time to get in the car, to run out of the room and get in the car. They would have received such a massive dose of radiation, they wouldn’t have made it. So I think that’s probably not true.
There are other stories too, like raising the bomb to the top of the tower. When I first heard it, it was that the guys were piling mattresses under it. You could see that in the footage. They were putting these big bundles of mattresses from base camp underneath the bomb as they raised it up, because it’s going up very slowly. The story I heard was, they didn’t want it to explode if they dropped it. Bainbridge, I found some document where he said, “I didn’t worry about it exploding.” They didn’t want to break it if they dropped it. Whole different story.
That’s what happened at the ranch house. Again, it’s part of the National Historic Landmark. It’s important because of the work done there for the Manhattan Project. But it’s also a really cool old ranch house that dates back to the pre-statehood time or right at statehood for New Mexico. It was a tough life.
Kelly: Maybe this is a good time to talk about the land. If they were ranchers, how much land do you need to sustain a head of cattle?
Eckles: Right, the southern part of New Mexico is ranch land out there. It’s desert ranch land, so it’s not very good ranch land. You will get into arguments, and it’s kind of a sensitive issue. But the amount of land needed to raise a nice herd of cows so that you can make a living and make a profit off of it gets to be kind of large. The Bureau of Land Management, for instance, in this area, the southern part of the state, leases land to ranchers so that they can graze their cattle on public property. They go out and look at that land to see what the carrying capacity is, how many cows per square mile that land can support. How much water is there and how much grass is there. Here in the southern part of the state, some of that carrying capacity is only six to eight cows per square mile. Up around the Trinity site area, it was ten to twelve cows per square mile.
Dave McDonald, where base camp was located, he and his brother controlled—they only owned one square mile. That’s 640 acres outright. That enabled them to lease from the state and federal governments land for grazing. They leased over 20,000 acres of land. I think it was over 30 square miles of land to support two families, to have a herd large enough of several hundred cows you would need to support that family.
Ranching around here is big ranches. It’s not like back in the Midwest or the South or something where you can raise that many cows on, you know, a few dozen acres, especially if you have got feed for them and stuff. It’s a tough existence out here.
Kelly: That’s very interesting. One more thing, maybe you could mention how much rain you typically get.
Eckles: Okay, rain in the southern part of the state varies a lot because of the terrain. The terrain kind of drives how rainfall is distributed. Here in Las Cruces, we probably get about eight inches a year. That’s pretty typical for the flats. But every time you have a mountain range like to the east of us and the Organ Mountains that top out at 9,000 feet, and in the summer when that damp air comes off the coast and gets shoved up by the winds up into the upper atmosphere by the mountains, it starts to condense and form clouds right over the mountains. Those quickly build into summer thunderstorms that then move off the mountains and drop rain, usually on the east side of those mountain ranges.
Here in Las Cruces, we can be sitting here and see those clouds building there. We may not get any rain, but just ten, fifteen miles to the east of us, somebody may get two, three, four inches in a big storm burst or something like that. It varies from place to place, with the folks right on the east side of the mountain ranges getting much more than those of us on the west side. Eight inches is common here. On the east side where the missile range headquarters is, more like twelve, thirteen inches a year. So it does vary a lot.
Then the vagaries of year to year climate really have an effect because when you have a ranch and you use public property, the idea is that you are getting grazing rights very cheaply and the natural grass is what is going to feed these cows. Hopefully, you have got windmills and springs to water them, so it doesn’t really matter too much if it doesn’t rain.
But the grass doesn’t grow. If it doesn’t rain, there won’t be any grass growing. You need grass. Suddenly, you are faced as a rancher with bringing in supplemental feed, moving your cows to another pasture somewhere else maybe out of state, or selling your cows, because they are going to die. That figures into the equation as well. When there is a drought year and very little rain, it gets really tough for ranchers.
Our rainy season, when we get this eight inches of rain, 75, 80 percent of it comes in July, August, first part, first week or so of September. It’s almost like clockwork. It’s based on how the high and low pressures set up and push moisture our way. Everybody knows that. We call it “the monsoon season.”
For the folks at Trinity site, they were just there at the beginning of July, and everybody talked about—in the old days, of monsoon starting in July 4. Everybody associated with the project that was familiar with New Mexico knew that the thunderstorms were going to be an issue at that time of year. Boy, they are pretty unpredictable and it really would have been tough back in those days. They didn’t have the satellite imagery and all of that. It would have been based on fronts pushing moisture this way or not pushing, the timing of all of that. It would have been difficult for the weather guys to predict.
Then the vagaries day to day: how big those storms are going to be, how ferocious they are going to be, whether they are going to be at this spot, or twenty miles up this way, or this way. It’s all very unpredictable. It would have been quite a nightmare. A lot of pressure on the weather guy for Trinity site.
The night before the explosion, as I said, it was scheduled for 4:00 a.m., but there were thunderstorms in the area during the night. They would have been coming off the mountains to the west, San Mateos and other ranges, the Black Range to the west of the Rio Grande, and drifting towards Trinity site. What happens when those storms—depending on their size, as they drift off the mountains, they start to lose some of their punch. The rain lets up and gets less and less, and eventually the clouds will break apart and just become clouds and they won’t have rain in them.
You will read about the Trinity site test about it raining at the site. One of the guys talks about south 10,000, that Oppenheimer and [General Leslie R.] Groves when they are talking about the delay are dodging puddles of water in the asphalt. It makes it sounds like it rained all over the place. But I think it was more typical. I think it was very spotty and very light. Because when I have talked to guys who are at base camp, which is about eight miles, seven miles from south 10,000, they were supposed to lie in the dirt and look away from the explosion. I said, “Well, gee, was it muddy? Was it wet?”
They go, “No, not at all.” Then in fact, then I ran across an account a few years ago from a guy who wrote about his experiences for his family. It was a personal account. He said that he had seen a lot of this stuff about the rain and all that. He said, “They didn’t get any rain.” It was very spotty and very light. It was kind of a drizzle at times.
In my mind, that’s pretty typical of what happens, especially that late into the night, for a thunderstorm. The weather guy predicted they would get better weather by about 5:30, so they rescheduled from 4:00 to 5:30.
Kelly: What was the danger of such a storm or even a thunderstorm to the project’s test?
Eckles: There are a number of things to take into consideration if you have storms. One is wind, high winds. Thunderstorms, it can be calm one minute and the next minute, the wind is blowing fifty miles an hour. If you’ve got a storm like that blowing during the test, you are going to have radiation fallout going God knows where, because storms have got swirling winds and stuff. That would have been very unpredictable.
Also, if you are trying to set off the test during the storm, you have got to understand: this is a test. It’s not a test just to see if it works. That’s a big part of it, but you also want to try to get as much information as you can to see how it works, to collect as much data as you can, to see how that implosion process is working and how sweet it’s going to be as far as the design and stuff. To be able to collect that data, you need pretty good weather. You need those cameras to be able to see things five and a half miles away. You can’t do that in a thunderstorm. Those were a couple of the big issues that were driving it.
Then there is the whole issue of lightning while the bomb is sitting on the tower, which is another reason driving the decision not to wait a day until the next morning, but to go at 5:30 instead of 4:00. There is some pressure to get this test done, because you have got an armed bomb on top of a steel tower and lightning flashing around. It might set off the bomb—probably not, but it might damage the bomb. Then you are back to square one, and you have got to start all over. A lot of pressure to go ahead and get the test done at 5:30.
Kelly: That’s good. One of the things that the “Dr. Atomic” opera dramatizes is the poor weatherman’s position.
Eckles: Right, and there was nothing he could do. It’s not in his hands at all. The poor guy, all he can do is do his best job. He probably considers himself very lucky afterwards.
For the test, the decision was made to place the bomb on top of a 100 foot steel tower, not drop it. That’s one of the misconceptions when people arrive at Trinity site. You will hear people talking about, “They dropped the bomb from 100 foot tower here.” No. It was sitting static on top of the 100 foot tower.
Now, the steel tower was built to support this heavy bomb because the bomb is composed of this plutonium core, which doesn’t weigh much. It’s got a heavy uranium sphere around it. Then there is 5,000 pounds of explosives around that, then a steel casing around that, a small one. This thing is pretty hefty. They had to raise it up and put it on top of the tower.
Now, the reason they did it on top of the tower was because they wanted to maximize the shock wave, the blast effect on the ground. A bomb, if it strikes the ground and explodes, the ground and the structures immediately around it absorb so much of the energy that you don’t have much damage very far out. On the other hand, if you explode that bomb say 2,000 feet above the ground, the shock wave spreads from the bomb and spreads like a megaphone coming down in a triangle and will flatten a much larger area.
I think that the military people that are in the Pentagon and everybody else that’s working on this, is thinking “shock wave” when they start thinking, “exploding the bomb over Japan, doing the maximum amount of physical damage that they can do.” The 100 foot tower gives them a scaled version of this.
Another thing that’s important about this is, it gives them a really good view with these cameras and other instruments miles away of the bomb as it explodes on the tower. If they had put the bomb on the ground, it would have been hard to see it. They would have been blocked by brush and all these other things, the undulations in the ground. By putting it up there, they had a nice, unobstructed view from everywhere of the beginnings of the explosion, etc. Those are the two main reasons.
A third byproduct kind of reason for that is, if they had exploded the bomb on the ground, they would have made a huge crater, an absolutely gigantic crater. That would have meant a lot of sand and dirt being engulfed, sucked into the fireball and activated and turned into fallout. The fallout cloud from the Trinity test would have been much, much larger if they had exploded it on the ground. As it was, it was fairly large, much larger than Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but they kept it to a minimum by exploding it on the tower.
The tower was there, and they ran big cables off of it because they had instruments even next to the bomb trying to measure to measure the neutron flux at the instant of explosion. Those ran down these big coaxial cables to the north. One of the north bunkers is where they had all the instruments to collect this data and record it. They had so much stuff in there that they had to air condition the bunker, because all that tube technology made the bunker so hot that it wasn’t going to work. They had a generator there, and they ran air conditioners to air condition the instruments. This cable came off the tower underground to the bunker about 1,000 yards to the north.
Of course, that tower was vaporized in the explosion. A lot of people come and they don’t understand that. They think it was just blown to pieces. It was turned to gas. It was sublimated from a solid to a gas in a fraction of second, and joined the fireball going up.
The fallout created in the explosion was all the metal in the bomb itself, the tower, and then what ground, what sand and material got sucked up into the fireball. That all became part of the fallout cloud.
The plutonium core and its plug comes from the ranch house and is taken to the tower, where they have put some tenting around the base of it. They have got the bomb mechanism there, which has come down from Los Alamos. They take the plug and they have got a hole in the side of the mechanism to lower the plug into it, down into the center of the bomb, in the center of the explosives. Lo and behold, when they tried to do this, it doesn’t work. They’ve got pretty tight tolerances on everything. It’s not going.
One of the scientists realizes that it’s probably a temperature differential. The plutonium core and everything is pretty warm. It does generate a little of its own heat. The rest of the bomb mechanism has been sitting there overnight, and it’s pretty cool. They let the two rest in contact with each other for a while, and the temperatures equalize and it slides home.
So they button that up. Then I think there is an idea that they did the rest of the assembly of the bomb, putting it together there at the base of the tower. But in looking at the footage of them raising the bomb on the hoist to the top, none of the wiring and stuff is there. They must have taken the bomb to the top and set it on the wooden platform that they had up there and then connected all the detonators, put all the wiring in to make it so that it would work.
Kelly: Now, the recreation of the tower at Albuquerque [at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History] has a cabin up there. Can you describe that?
Eckles: Right. There was a bit of a shelter on top and a couple of sides. It was just a tin roofing that you would see on a ranch house or something like that, just put up on along the railings around the side and then a roof over the top to shelter them from the sun. It was not adequate to protect from rain and wind and stuff like that. But it did give them some shelter from the wind and the sun while they were doing the assembly.
You’ve got the bomb all assembled and it’s sitting there ready to go and you have got these nuclear materials in there, and there is radiation and whatnot. There is concern about, “What happens if a chain reaction just kind of starts, because we have never gone here before?”
They had a way of putting a wire—they had a little hole in the frame of the bomb. They could put a wire all the way down to the core. I can’t remember if it was magnesium. I don’t think it was magnesium. Manganese? Manganese, I think it is. This wire, if it’s in the presence of neutrons, gets activated itself, and it’s measurable. So every few hours, they would pull the wire out and put a new one in, and go back to the lab and analyze this wire to see what the neutron flux was doing inside the bomb to make sure that it was stable. It was fine. Somebody had to climb the tower and do that every four hours I think, something like that.
Kelly: Interesting. Do you want to talk any more about the high speed photography and how they set the cameras up?
Eckles: Yeah, we probably ought to talk a little bit about that because I can talk about the color, lack of color, too.
To take pictures of this—the scientists are going to get a bright flash of light. How bright, how much, how long, etc., all of those are unknowns. At the west and north bunkers, there are lots of cameras that have been set up. There are 35mm Mitchell cameras, which were kind of state of the art at that time. Gone with the Wind was filmed with 35mm Mitchell cameras.
These things at like north 10,000, where Brixner was located, there were three Mitchell cameras. They all had fixed lenses on them. One basically a normal-sized lens that would give you what an eyeball view is like, and a couple of telephoto lenses to give you a closer view of what was happening. They were running at different speeds also. Some to give you a nice slow motion image, and some to give you a normal development of the explosion.
Then there were whole arrays of 16mm cameras, for instance, arranged on boards. There are pictures of this, looking at ground zero. At both sites, they had these arrays of cameras to take as many images and running at different speeds and stuff that they could.
There was color film. You never see color images and color footage of the explosion, because none of it came out. The film got spoiled or they had the exposures wrong, something. It just wasn’t any good. There was only color still image from the test. That was taken by—I’m blocking on his name.
Kelly: Jack Aeby.
Eckles: Jack Aeby. Jack was a kind of a jack of all trades, doing a bunch of things. He was working for [Emilio] Segrè who gave him a camera with a little bit of film at base camp, told him to walk out and try to get a picture of the explosion.
Jack took a chair out there, much like I am sitting in, and turned it around and sat his arms up on the back and had his camera. He expected some little poof of light, so he opened the aperture all the way. Then of course the sky lit up, and he realized that, oops, that wasn’t going to work, and he cranked it all the way down. He clicked off three images, he said. The middle one I think is the one that was saved, and is the color image that is used now in all the stuff.
You can tell if it’s right or not. There are a lot of photos that get used. Look on the internet. You will see images, color images of tests. They are identified as Trinity site and they are not, because it’s broad daylight for one thing. No, no, it can’t be broad daylight. Others things are nice clean images. Jack’s is pretty dirty, got stuff all over it. But also the key is, there is a rooster tail, a cloud of dust and stuff that is being ejected as the explosion takes place. In Jack’s photo, it’s on the left.
On Brixner’s photo, because he is 180 degrees opposite at north 10,000, it’s on the right. So we think what’s happened on some of the pictures is that they have taken Brixner’s black and white picture and put it in Photoshop and colorized it, because you’ve got the thing coming off here on the right and you know, “That can’t be right.” Of course, they could have taken Jack’s and flip flopped the negative. It’s hard to tell anymore. But that telltale sign of the rooster tail on the right or left, depending on your point of view, from where you were sitting. Those were the photos that were taken.
There were also people watching and photos taken from Compania Hill, which was twenty miles way. It’s up by Stallion Range Center. That’s where the VIPs came. Edward Teller and folks like that—that didn’t have anything to do with actually running the test—were brought in by bus. They watched. We know there was a camera up on top of one of the hills there, but I have never seen any photos taken from there. It’s a long ways away.
Those guys were bussed in in the dark and left before it got light. I talked to one of them. I said, “Do you remember which hill it was?” Because we are not sure. There are a whole string of hills there.
He said, “No, we left in the dark. I don’t know where we were exactly.” He was not familiar with the place, so that he could tell that.
Ernest Lawrence was there. The reporter [William] Laurence was there. Klaus Fuchs, our spy, Russian spy, was at Compania Hill as well, because he got to watch. John von Neumann was there at Compania Hill. There were a number of people there that got to watch the explosion.
Kelly: Nobody remembers—is there a number known of how many people were actually eyewitnesses to this, let’s say at more or less at the site?
Eckles: Yeah, it was several hundred. I can tell you that for sure, but I don’t think you could nail it down. I bet Bainbridge couldn’t even nail it down at that time.
There were other people that were witnesses. I got an account from a guy who said he was a numbers puncher at Los Alamos. He knew about the explosion, knew about the test, but he wasn’t invited. He wanted to see it. He basically found out where the site was and he looked at topo maps, and he came down the highway down there south of San Antonio and Socorro, and he found a hill. He climbed up on that.
He was expecting the explosion at 4:00 a.m. and nothing happened, because he has no idea. He is sitting there, and he sat there and he sat there. He said about 5:30 he decided to leave. He got up and he had a blanket that he was sitting on. He folded it up and threw it over his shoulder, and started down the hill back to his car. He was looking east. Whoosh, it lit up. So he got to witness it. There were probably others.
There is a story that the guy who owned the Owl Bar in the little motel that was there in San Antonio, some of the project people, the military police were there using those rooms. They told him to come out and watch. They didn’t tell him what it was, just to watch, so he could see it.
Kelly: Is that the Owl Café?
Eckles: Yes. The Owl Bar and Café. It’s still going strong. Great chile cheeseburgers.
We didn’t talk about who was at the other places. At south 10,000, where you are going to trigger the bomb, you’ve got Oppenheimer because he’s the chief guy of developing and designing and building this bomb. He is there with Bainbridge, who is the test director.
Groves is not there, because they had a rule that Groves and Oppenheimer couldn’t be in the same place when anything dangerous was happening at the same time. For instance, they didn’t ever fly together. They could ride the same train together, but they never flew together. And they weren’t together there. Groves was at base camp.
Also Frank Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer’s brother, was there and a number of other support. Lieutenant Bush was there as the camp commander and security guy. There was a small group of people there that were in charge of actually triggering the bomb.
Most people were at base camp. That’s where Groves was. He was there with a couple of the guys from Washington. They were there at base camp. [Enrico] Fermi was at base camp doing his little experiment dropping the pieces of paper. Plus all those support people that were assigned to the program and a number of the other folks. A lot of these people ended up writing accounts of what they saw later on, which are really fun to read.
This is something that’s not covered much. A number of guys were out manning stations around the test site at some distance to measure radiation. There were soldiers out there prepared to evacuate people if the radiation levels got too high and fallout situation in their areas.
This Marvin Davis, who was an MP that came down in 1944, he said in his account that he was on the west boundary of the Trinity site area, which would have been west of base camp, with a guy with a Geiger counter. He was the escort for the guy with the Geiger counter. They were in a Jeep driving up the boundary.
There were also people up on U.S. Highway 380, military personnel with guys, scientists with Geiger counters, all the way over to Carrizozo. Their job was to measure fallout after the explosion. So those people weren’t in base camp, but they were part of the test.
Kelly: Maybe you can talk about the fallout. How far did it go? What do we know about the intensity and its effects?
Eckles: Right. You know, a lot of people come to Trinity site thinking that the scientists didn’t know what they were doing, didn’t know what to expect. Based on the precautions they took—the welder’s goggles, the bright flash of light, the people, the personnel out there ready to evacuate civilians in case the radiation, the fallout levels got too [high]—they had some idea what was going to happen. Now, the scale of it probably was beyond what they expected.
In fact, you can see that when you look at the—they had a pool for the explosion, what the yield would be. The scientists would buy in a number of yield. They had set amounts. I think [I. I] Rabi won that, because he was late and he had to take 18,000 or 20,000 tons of TNT. That was the only number left, because all the low numbers had been taken. I think most of the scientists didn’t expect this compression of the sphere to be quite as good or as “sweet,” as they often said, as it could be. So they took the low numbers.
The fallout which was generated in the explosion, this uptake of metal and sand and earth into the fireball and gets irradiated. You get all of these elements made, these radioactive elements, beyond the plutonium, cesium, radioactive iodine, etc., etc. Most of them fall back to steady states pretty quickly, but a lot of them have long half-lives. They live on as the fireball rises. Of course, it forms a mushroom cloud and goes up to 40,000 feet. We know that altitude is pretty accurate, because the B-29 was flying around. [William S.] Parsons was in there, and they report that they think the cloud is at 40,000 feet.
Then the prevailing winds start carrying that cloud to the northeast. Your bigger dust particles, materials are falling out at ground zero and immediately to the north. The smaller stuff starts falling out beyond that. You have got a plume of material distributed to the northeast. You go straight down the middle of that plume, and you’ve got fallout materials. As you get out perpendicular to that, it gets less and less and less. It’s measurable.
There are guys out there measuring it. This 40,000 feet gets this radioactive fallout up into the upper winds. It ends up going completely around the planet. It ends up going up out of New Mexico, up in the Midwest. Kodak reports that some of their packing material around film has got some radioactive dust in it apparently, and fogs some of their film.
Kelly: Where were they located?
Eckles: Kodak? Well, I don’t know. It’s the straw that they used, which I think came from the Midwest, the Kansas, Nebraska area, Iowa, somewhere in there, is where the straw came from. It was closer to New Mexico than Rochester, New York, or anything like that.
Kelly: There have been a lot of people concerned, who were farmers or ranchers who lived nearby, that there were long term effects of this fallout. What evidence is there?
Eckles: That’s kind of tough, because Los Alamos did not—the government, I should probably say, didn’t do a very good job of follow-up. They measured quickly right afterwards. They have done some studies immediately afterwards. Of course, the fallout, once it hits the sandy soil, gets buried in the ground pretty quickly, so it doesn’t become much of a hazard. It was probably a hazard for those first few weeks after the explosion when it would have been close to the ground, on buildings, on foliage, things like that.
The government didn’t do much follow-up on that. Standards were not the standards we have today either. They tolerated much more radiological exposure than we would today. The map that they made is pretty clear cut. You can see it on the web. There are colored versions of it.
There is a group right now, for instance, the Downwinders, the Tularosa Downwinders, claiming that ranchers in their area were exposed. The only problem they have is that in that map that Los Alamos produced where they measured radiation, Tularosa and immediate area is not in that plume at all. So they are probably going to have to prove that fallout actually came to their area before they are going to have a legitimate claim with the government. How they do that, I don’t know. The fallout is still there, buried in the soil somewhere. Whether you can find it and prove that it came from Trinity site, that’s something I don’t know anything about.
It’s still a sensitive issue. At the open houses, we have protesters that sit outside the gate and carry signs, letting the public know that this is still a concern for some people.
Kelly: The protesters’ messages are about the Downwinders?
Eckles: Yes, yes. It doesn’t have anything to do with current use of nuclear weapons or anything like that. It’s tied specifically to the test back in 1945.
Kelly: Was there compensation? Did they decide that some of the ranchers needed to be compensated for singed hides?
Eckles: Yes, in a sense. There is a famous case of the cows that had fallout on one side hit their hides. The hide or the hair was burned, so it was white on one side.
Those cattle were purchased by the government and studied after the first year. They did reproduction studies and all that to see if the offspring had genetic damage. I really don’t know much about that, except that there wasn’t much found. The cattle then were released. Eventually their hair fell out and a lot of them, it grew back, so you couldn’t tell them apart from regular cows anymore. Some of the cattle went to the zoo in Alamogordo. Alamogordo had its atomic cattle on display for quite a while.
You know, the big thing for fallout and real concern early on would have been the radioactive iodine. Iodine would have been one of the products. Iodine gets in the food chain because as it falls out onto the grass, cows might eat that grass. It can become part of the milk that the cow produces, then a child, especially children, would drink that milk. That iodine, of course, goes to your thyroid. That’s why we have iodized salt, because your thyroid needs iodine. But it doesn’t need radioactive iodine. One of the dangers would have been this radioactive iodine becoming lodged in a child’s thyroid, and being there long enough to produce a cancer or a tumor or something like that.
The thing, though, is that radioactive iodine has a very short half-life. Within—I don’t know what it is off the top of my head—but within, months that hazard probably disappeared.
Kelly: How about the eyewitnesses’ account? Do you want to talk about any of that?
Eckles: Oh yeah. Eyewitnesses, they pretty much agree on the basics of what they saw. However, being scientists, they are very aware of the limitations of being an eyewitness, being a human observer, and not having instruments. A lot of them preface their account by saying that. There are lot of accounts saying, “It was brighter than the sun at noonday.” A lot of them say, “Well, it was very bright, but I am not sure it was as bright as noon day, because my eyes were night acclimated at the time of the explosion. My pupils were wide open. So I can’t say that.”
One of them actually tried a test. He said, “I watched the explosion with my welder’s goggles, and then the next day I looked at the sun with my welder’s goggles on, and determined that probably the explosion was close to the brightness of the sun, or not.” That kind of thing.
They all agreed that there was this huge flash of white, intense white light, at the very instant of the explosion. Everybody agrees to that. A blinding kind of explosion.
At the same time, they felt heat on their skin. The infrared radiation was hitting them. Marvin Davis says, “It was like opening the door to an oven to check on the cookies.” A lot of them described that. In fact, the guys at Compania Hill, Teller and that crew, put on sunburn lotion. They didn’t have sunscreen per se, but they put on oil on their exposed portions of their face, because they knew they were going to get some infrared from the explosion. They all agree on that.
Then they talk about this ball forming on the ground and starting to grow upward, and it being a reddish, glowing red, roiling with dark smoky stuff in it. Just a fascinating thing, because there is dirt mixed into it. It’s like it’s on fire, an oil fire or something. Then it starts to raise up on this column. That column is boiling and red and whatnot.
Eventually, that light, that internal light goes away. It’s replaced by a glow in the ball itself, the fireball, which is a purplish, bluish purplish tint. Several of them talk about that. That’s from the radiation, they say. The radiation is so intense in that ball as it rises that it’s glowing on its own. Eventually, of course, that rises and the glow goes away and it starts to fold over as a mushroom cloud, the typical mushroom cloud that we have all seen, which is typical of any big explosion. It’s not necessarily a nuclear explosion.
After that, we start to get some discrepancies. The shock wave, the sound, when the sound hits them. They are reporting from all of these different locations. Some have got mountains behind, in front of them. Some don’t, etc. Some of them talk about a rolling thunder kind of a noise. Some of them talk about a pop that hits them in the chest, and then a secondary pop or rolling thunder because the mountains reflect the shock wave as it rolls back at them a second time. You can kind of map those based on their locations on the test bed. Those are the observations, and they are described in some detail.
My favorite though is General, the deputy, Farrell. General [Thomas] Farrell was Groves’ deputy. But he describes some of the explosion very nicely. I used it on the Trinity site brochure that I created for the missile range. Underneath a picture of the fireball forming, I’ve got General Farrell’s, one of his quotes in there.
Now and I want to talk about the trinitite, the glass. Because when I first saw Trinity site back in 1977, the accepted explanation of why the crater floor was once covered with this green glass was that the fireball sitting there as it started to rise heated the sandy bottom enough, to create glass, to melt it, turn it to glass. That’s what we told people for decades.
Then we got contacted by Rob Hermes and Bill Strickfaden, up in Los Alamos. Hermes is a polymer chemist and Strickfaden was a physicist. They said they wanted to recalculate what the yield was. You read about it and people say various things, everything from 18,000 tons to 21,000 tons of TNT. They said, “In today’s world, we ought to be able to backtrack that and deduce what the yield actually was. But we need sand from ground zero, and sand back away where there was no involvement with the Trinity test.”
“Okay, we can do that for you.” We sent bags of sand up there.
Rob Hermes is a sand collector, and he knows the value of ant sand. He says, “Oh, by the way, are there any ant hills in ground zero?”
I go, “Yeah.”
He says, “Can we get some of that?” So we sent him a bag of ant sand. They look at the sand.
In the meantime, Bill Strickfaden runs a model of the test using the Los Alamos models, because they have got all kinds of models now. He says, “You know what, this idea that the fireball was there and melted the surface? Can’t happen. It’s not there long enough to melt sand and have half inch thick pieces of glass. It just doesn’t happen. It goes up, and heat goes away.”
They said, “We need to come up with a different mechanism to get glass on the ground.” They started looking at the sand. There are pieces of trinitite in the sand. In the ant sand, they start finding little bitty spheres. Not just chunks but spheres, perfect little spheres or balls of trinitite, green glass. How does that happen? Certainly, it can’t happen with the fireball on top of it or anything like that. That got them thinking about some other way to have glass on the ground.
They came up with this idea that the tower is vaporized in the fireball. They looked at the ground zero pictures after the explosion, and deduced the center section where it’s not just a depression, it’s actually gouged out. The sand is gone. It probably got lifted up into the fireball. It goes flashing into a liquid, maybe a gas, comes back to a liquid. In other words, we get a mist up in the fireball of liquid rock. It becomes raindrop physics after that. Stuff starts bumping together, and they start falling out.
Some of it—well a lot of it—the little spheres of raindrops of glass hardened and remained intact on the ground. Thus they are in an anthill, these little bitty droplets. Some of it comes down still in a liquid, puddles, and starts to form bigger puddles. The heat still coming from above gives it a nice smooth surface on the top. In some places, there is no glass. This mechanism starts to explain pretty much everything that we see at Trinity site.
When they went in afterwards, they found asphalt. They had asphalted the area of the tower. There is glass on top of the asphalt, which doesn’t get explained by a fireball above. There is trinitite or glass on top of rocks, on top of fence posts, etc. The raining down idea of this material coming down, some of it is liquid, some of it as hard spheres or dumbbells, or other shapes, explains all that.
The guys, they do a paper about it, explaining all this. They started looking through other old documents at Los Alamos. Lo and behold, they find a document from 1946 by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who proposed the rain mechanism in 1946, but the document was classified for decades. Nobody ever had access to it. So Rob and Bill can’t say they invented this theory. They rediscovered it and popularized it. Now that’s our accepted version of how glass got on ground zero.
Now, most of the radiation at the site comes from this glass material. The Atomic Energy Commission in 1952 or so, when they were getting ready to turn the site over to White Sands Missile Range, said they were going to clean it up. Los Alamos objected vehemently. They said, “You’re going to screw up the site. You are going to screw up any further study we can do at the site.”
The AEC people said, “We don’t care,” because the lawyers said it was a legal medical decision, not a science decision. In other words, they didn’t want anybody suing them for some supposed danger or whatever by leaving this glass exposed.
So they bulldozed it. They bulldozed up a lot of it. It got buried into garbage cans at the site. Most of it, though, is just mixed with sand and covering, blading over and smoothing out the crater floor. So you have got a mixture of sand and glass now that goes down I think sixteen, eighteen inches.
The pieces of trinitite are always on the surface now as it rains and the winds blow and stuff comes up. When we have an open house, kids are always bringing us those pieces of trinitite. We have tried to hammer it in their heads that they can’t take it home with them. They bring it to us and we throw it away afterwards, throw it back on the ground.
We have displays of the glass. We have a really nice display—the missile range does—at the health physics display. Our health physicists are there with Geiger counters, showing what common sources of radiation look like, like a banana, cigarettes, a smoke detector in your house, all of those things, leaded glass, etc. But they also have a big display, a case of big chunks of trinitite, so that people can see what that glass really looked like back in 1945 and ’46 before it got all messed up.
Kelly: Do you have some that are larger sheets that may have been—
Eckles: After the explosion, the National Park Service, right away in 1946, wanted to make Trinity site a national monument. Boom. The military objected to that, because that was at the north end of this brand new White Sands Missile Range. It was called Proving Ground in those days. They were going to start firing V-2 rockets. To cut off the north end of it was going to greatly limit what they could do with that. So the military rejected it.
The Park Service then tried to get it a monument a number of times. There has been back and forth about that. Finally in ’65, the Park Service made it a National Historic Landmark, which the Army was able to live with and what it is now.
In those early days, there were discussions and meetings about all this stuff. Then when the AEC was turning it over to White Sands, there was a meeting involving the Park Service, the AEC, Los Alamos was there, Holloman Air Force Base was there because they had an interest in the land. In fact, they owned Trinity site for a while.
They decided that they needed to protect an original portion of the crater floor. They had already erected a shelter over a spot to the west of where the tower was. It was a set of poles with a tin roof or a wooden roof over it. They agreed to enclose that at that point, and further protect that portion of the crater floor. When they bulldozed it in ’52, they did not touch that ground in there.
Since then, when I arrived in ’77, that wooden box was still there. You couldn’t see into it or anything. In ’84, when General [Niles] Fulwyler got money to restore the McDonald ranch house, some of that money was also used to knock down that old wooden structure and put a nice structure.
We had always heard that building was there to preserve an original portion of the crater. They knocked it down, it was just like desert. You couldn’t tell any difference. But they put a building over it, they put windows in it to look in. We would open the windows, you couldn’t see anything. We got another iteration of the building later on.
I went up in the ‘90s with our archeologist, Bob Burton, and we got inside the shelter. We had had a big door there. We dug down. We did it like archaeologists. It was pretty cool for me. We got paintbrushes. We get down to the hard stuff. We uncovered an area like this of glass. It was all cracked and whatnot. It wasn’t a nice clean sheet, but it was green glass. In there, there is a section of crater floor protected.
Now, we tried to open it. We uncovered it to make it possible for visitors to go by, walk by and look at it. We brushed it off. Well, the next six months would go by, and dust would blow in it. As soon as you get a little dust on it, you can’t see it. You can’t see that shine. We did that a couple of times. We decided, “You know, we are probably destroying this by cleaning it off each time.” We just locked it up and we don’t bother trying to show it to people. They can see trinitite in the display at radiological health, or they can buy a piece on eBay.
Kelly: Do you think that there may be other places where below six inches, or however many inches, below the surface, that there are sheets?
Eckles: I think in that building that I was describing, which is—I can’t remember what the dimensions are, but it’s at least forty feet long and ten feet wide, or maybe a little more. Underneath most of that is trinitite, underneath that sand. There is a good chunk of it.
In the future, it will be available for researchers to be able to go in there and do something, if Los Alamos needs to come down. Or if someday Trinity site does turn into a national monument, they can build a structure over it where you can walk through a cleaned area and keep the dust off of it without destroying it. Through an elevated catwalk or something like that, you could walk through and see it. That might be pretty cool. But I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.
Kelly: Let’s see. Maybe you could just talk about the crater, how deep it was.
Eckles: When I first got there, we talked about a plate shaped depression 1,200 feet across. In other words, at the edges, there is very little depression. It gets a little deeper and a little deeper until you get to the center, and that’s it. We didn’t know about a gouged out area and whatnot in the center. We viewed it as simply the explosion smashing down the ground, pulverizing the ground and compressing it, and then bouncing and going up.
But Rob and Bill, when they were doing their research, pulled out the old pictures and looked at them more closely and they got some of these reports. At about 120, 150 feet diameter, right inside that ground zero, they found an area where the sand was gouged out.
You’ve got a deeper area, an actual depression that is probably six to eight, nine feet deep, depending on which eyewitness you talk to. That’s the sand we were talking about that got up into the fireball and turned into the trinitite that rained down on the site. All of that is gone now.
It’s on a bit of a side of a hill, this ground zero area. So people often ask that, “Can we see that depression a little bit?” I think maybe you can, on the uphill side of it. The hill comes down. There is a little steeper bit of a hill, as it comes down to where the obelisk is that marks exact ground zero.
It’s interesting, though, that the green glass, while it existed shone like water. The people talk about seeing the reflection off that surface miles away when the sun was at the right angle, because it’s just glass and being very, very visible. They walked on it and drove on it. People stole it. It quickly got broken up, so it wasn’t as shiny after a while. Pretty neat stuff.
Kelly: This green glass, it would have extended in this 1,200—
Eckles: That’s about the extent of it. The pictures are hard to—the aerial photos, because they are black and white photos, it’s hard to see what was charred and what was glass and stuff. I don’t have an eye for it. It’s one of those things that you see, but you don’t think about. Probably if we get somebody to do a really good study and look at those pictures in real detail, you can probably get a really nice view, explanation of where the glass was. I am sure that there is more glass downwind, because the wind would have been pushing it that way than there is, say, on the south side of the crater.
Kelly: So those classic pictures of Oppenheimer and Groves, who went to the site in September. Is there any indication that there is this great crater?
Eckles: No, you know that’s one thing that bothers me about the description of this six to eight foot gouged area, because they are standing—the picture is a very tight picture. You really can’t see very well. But there are other photos of the tower stubs at ground zero. There is glass on them. It doesn’t look like a deep, gouged out area.
I am still a little uncertain about all that. I would like to see a broader image taken weeks later, but I haven’t seen one. I don’t know if there is one or not. Some of the guys afterwards that were there, stuck at Trinity site up through 1946, took pictures. But again, they are pretty tight photos and they are not particularly good photos of the ground zero area.
But standing there with Oppenheimer and Groves at one of the footings, you don’t have any indication that that is a gouged out area. In fact, they dug those out. The piers for the tower legs are right below the surface there, the concrete piers.
Kelly: They dug those out?
Eckles: I put a picture of it in my book, of one of those piers. They excavated two of them to see how cracked and fractured they were. I ran one of those photos. I had never seen those before, until I started. Los Alamos now has a lot of their photos available, and high definition images. It’s really nice to use those to look at that stuff.
Kelly: Tell us about Jumbo.
Eckles: Ah, Jumbo. That’s another one of those mythological beasts at Trinity site. You will hear people, if you stand—the Public Affairs has a little building there, right beside Jumbo in the gate going into Trinity site. You sit there and you listen to people walking by, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s what’s left of the atomic bomb. That’s the atomic bomb casing,” and stuff. Well, how could that be?
Because of the uncertainty, we get back to that uncertainty of this explosion, whether you are going to be able to get those sphere lenses of TNT or high explosives to all compress that ball of plutonium exactly correctly and get the nuclear explosion. What happens if it’s a little lopsided and whatnot or some of them don’t explode? Yu know some of them are going to go off. You are going to have some sort of explosion, but are you going to get any kind of a nuclear explosion?
They thought that they would have Jumbo built. This was ordered in early ’44, I think. Babcock and Wilcox in Ohio were tasked to build it. It’s a huge, huge container. A lot of people talk about it being like an old thermos jug, the insert for a thermos, because it’s a long cylinder, and rounded at both ends.
Babcock and Wilcox built this thing. The specs were for the interior diameter to be ten feet. Then the walls 15 inches thick, solid steel. They had to take these big huge pieces of steel. They started with six and a half inches, thick pieces of steel. They had to roll them and bend them and then weld them together into a cylinder.
I always challenge people that are visiting, “Go see if you can find the welds in Jumbo because they are there.” But then they put that on a lathe and turned it down to six inches thick. Then they covered that with nine inches of plate steel. These are sheets of steel that were a quarter inch thick. To get nine inches, you need 36 layers of this. They are overlaid like a brick wall would be overlaid. Then of course, the rounded caps on either end. This thing ended up weighing 214 tons. It was the largest piece of steel, single piece of steel ever manufactured.
Babcock and Wilcox, as they built it, this thing started to sink into the floor and they had to shore it up. There was only rail car in the United States that could actually handle Jumbo. It came from one of the steel companies. They used it to haul these big ladles of steel around their plant.
They got Jumbo onto the rail car to move it from Ohio to New Mexico. Well, they couldn’t just go straight through, because bridges, tunnels, couldn’t handle the size of this thing. They had to loop up through the upper Midwest and come back down. They ended up at what they called Pope Siding on a railroad west of Trinity site. It’s down by the Rio Grande. They unloaded Jumbo on a huge trailer that had 64 wheels on it. They used a bunch of bulldozers to push and pull it up to ground zero.
By the time they got this all manufactured, hauled to the site and all that stuff, they decided not to use it, because it would interfere a lot with measurements—again, this idea of collecting data. If the bomb is all locked up in a bottle, you can’t see anything until the bottle gets vaporized or blown to pieces. There is very little chance of collecting much information. Plus, they were more confident it was going to work.
Jumbo simply sat on the ground 800 yards from ground zero during the test. The tower around Jumbo was just boom, blown over, twisted, and mangled. Jumbo was undamaged, being a chunk of hot solid steel.
Later on, Groves used the destruction of the tower to describe to the folks in the Pentagon the power of the explosion. He equated it to a so-many storied building of good steel structure. Now it was just mangled and twisted. At the end, he said he would not consider the Pentagon as a safe haven from such an explosion or such a bomb.
Then in 1946, the Army who was up there, White Sands Missile Range, put eight 500 pound bombs in Jumbo, still standing on end, and managed to blow off both ends and it fell over. Los Alamos was really peeved. They had spent all this money to have this thing built. Then the Army had gone and blown off both ends, and they got no data. They have no idea what pressures were like. Plus the Army put the bombs in one end at the bottom end instead of the middle where the bomb would have been, the atomic bomb. They were upset this thing was destroyed.
Jumbo then laid in the arroyo, basically, for years. In the ‘50s, the nine inches of plating around the outer cylinder disappeared. We don’t know how or why. We’ve got a picture from the early Fifties of it intact, but by 1960 it’s gone.
Then in 1979, the missile range had it moved to the parking lot, so the people could see it. People are always asking about it. “Where is Jumbo? Can I see Jumbo?” We used a little Egyptian technology to move it over there and put it on display. People walk by it. The kids love playing in it. In there, you can see the jagged portion of one end of Jumbo where the bombs were placed, where they gouged out chunks of steel from the inside of Jumbo.
So that’s the sad story of Jumbo.
Eckles: Oh, the calibration test. Yeah, again, because we are testing and we want to collect as much data as we can for the test and we don’t know what exactly is going to happen, we probably ought to know how it’s going to go with our timing mechanism, how our cameras are going to work, how our blast gauges, seismographs, make sure that all that stuff works before the real event.
On May 7, they stacked 100 tons of TNT on a 20-foot wooden platform just south of ground zero. It’s just east of our present parking lot out there. The boxes of TNT came in freight cars. From the railroad, they trucked it up there. They had a little elevator device on one side. They lifted it up so the guys didn’t have to carry it up the stairs, because these were like 75, 80-pound boxes of TNT.
Then they set about stacking it. They didn’t stack it in a square. They designed it so that it was kind of a circle, so that it would have more of a smooth, circular wave front, the shock wave. They interlaced in it some tubes that they filled with radioactive slurry from one of the reactors at Hanford, so they could go in afterwards and kind of look for the dispersion of that radioactive material with Geiger counters or detection devices.
They did the test. They exploded it early in the morning. It’s lucky they did it because they found out the timing on I think some of the cameras was off. They had to reset that to make sure that the cameras turned on at exactly the right time.
They created a crater. They even ran their lead-lined tank—they had two lead-lined tanks to collect data at the ground zero crater after that test. They ran one of the tanks through their little crater they created with the 100-ton test.
That was quite an explosion, but nobody reports hearing anything in the surrounding area. You would think 100 tons going off would be loud.
Kelly: I think they had a ready story.
Eckles: Oh, I am sure they did. Another explosion or an ammo dump or whatever, which is what they used for the main explosion.
A common concern for visitors is the amount of radiation left at Trinity site. Some people aren’t aware that there is any. Some people think there is a lot, that it’s dangerous, etc. It’s pretty typical that Americans don’t have much of a scientific background, so they don’t know about these things. There is some fear as well.
For instance, just a few years ago, after everybody left the parking lot, we saw something out in the parking out. We went out there. There were three pairs of shoes and pairs of socks laying in the parking lot. How do three people leave behind their shoes? We figured that they were afraid to take home any kind of radioactive dust they might have collected at ground zero on their shoes, so they’d left their shoes behind.
The site, when you have an atomic bomb explosion, you got high levels of radiation. Those first minutes, hours, and days after the explosion, ground zero is very radioactive. You wouldn’t want to be there.
But a lot of these materials, the half-life is very short and they are going back to stable states very quickly. The longer half-life materials are the ones that we are in now. In fact, when you plot this, you have got radiation levels up here on the vertical axis and time on the bottom. You go out far and the radiation drops very quickly and then kind of flattens out, plateaus out. It’s going to be like that for years and centuries, etc., as we get down.
Radiation levels were fairly low within two months at ground zero. That’s why Oppenheimer and Groves took the news media out there in September. However, their time was limited, probably to less than thirty minutes at the site because it was still fairly hot. Later on in that year, we had people going out there for hours at a time and receiving dosages less than the standard limit for that time.
I am going to use dosimeters, I mean millirems as my measure. They use a more modern terminology now, but I know millirems and that’s what I can equate it to. It really doesn’t matter if you are comparing one thing to another.
Now at ground zero, if you spend an hour there, you will get one half to three quarters of a millirem of exposure. To put that in perspective, we always talk about other kinds of exposure, like a chest x-ray may be many millirems. We are talking about a fraction of a chest x-ray or a dental x-ray. The easiest one to compare it to is airline flight. Airplanes flying at 35,000 feet are exposed to cosmic radiation, gamma rays, etc. That exposure rate is almost the same as ground zero at Trinity site. If you are a pilot or a stewardess in an airplane, or a passenger flying at 35,000 feet, your exposure rate is about half a millirem per hour, same thing as at ground zero.
I have been going to Trinity site for forty years now. I have probably gotten a certain accumulated dose, but it’s probably less than the long haul pilots, copilots, etc., that have been working a full career flying transatlantic flights. Because they are up there for hours and hours at a time, whereas I am only at ground zero for a few hours at a time and only a few days of the year.
It’s considered totally safe as long as you don’t eat the trinitite. The trinitite, if it’s ingested in your body could lodge in an organ or your bones or something like that, and continue to emit the alpha/beta particles that are coming out of it and could cause a cancer. We don’t anticipate that as an issue, because nobody has tried to eat it yet.
The area itself is about ten times higher than background radiation for southern New Mexico. Of course, there is radiation everywhere. I once had a person come up to me after I explained that. That there is background radiation wherever you go. There are places on the planet naturally more radioactive than ground zero at Trinity site. She came up to me and said, “Well, is there any place safe?”
I’m going, “Well, sorry. You are a product of it. There is nowhere to go.” Because once you leave the atmosphere of the planet, space is filled with radiation, something we don’t really talk about with astronauts much. They get big doses, too.
So it’s not a hazard. We try to educate the public on it at the radiological health place. Again, with a Geiger counter and common sources of radiation.
One year, great story: Lisa Blevins was our radiological health person up there. She used to do it every year. Her partner, Robert Huffmeyer, had thyroid issues long before this. He had a bunch of health problems. He had to have his thyroid destroyed. They used radioactive iodine to basically burn up the thyroid. He had this procedure done a day or two before the open house.
He came to the open house and worked with Lisa. Lisa would get a big crowd of people there. She would have on the table all these items. She would take the Geiger counter in front of each time. It would go “Click click click click.” You know, it was no big deal. She would get to the end and she would put it up to Robert’s throat, and it would just go “Buzz!” off the scale. She would explain the medical benefits of radiation, and it’s making Robert’s life a little better now. Education.
Kelly: Can you talk about the significance of the Trinity test?
Eckles: It’s so obviously important that the National Park Service wanted to make it a national monument in a heartbeat. I think most people realize that. Most folks realize—and they have been told this a lot—that this is the beginning of the atomic age. This is the beginning of nuclear weapons. It influences everything about our lives. We don’t think about it much as citizens, but those weapons are still out there. They are still part of strategic planning and everything. They are part of our lives, whether we like it or not.
Some people, the picky folks and a lot of the scientists, will argue that Trinity site is not the beginning of the atomic age, that Fermi’s nuclear reactor in Chicago is actually the beginning of the nuclear age because he proved that you could get a chain reaction going and sustain it. The next step was obviously to get a quick chain reaction for the atomic bomb. Fermi’s work at the squash court under the football stadium at Chicago is often cited as the beginning of the atomic age. But it doesn’t have the pizzazz of a nuclear bomb explosion, the sex of an explosion. Most people will tap into the bomb explosion there.
It had great repercussions in the Second World War. We can talk about that. That’s something that comes up. It used to come up more than it does now. People wanted to argue about, “Should we have used it against Japan or not?” There are a lot of arguments for and against, lots of arguments. I tried to summarize some of those in the book and stuff.
But there is one thing you can’t argue about is, that the bombs were dropped on August 6. The Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb, the gun bomb. August 9 was the implosion bomb, the same thing tested at Trinity site. Less than a week later, the war was over. Boom, it ended. That result is probably hard to argue with.
Kelly: It’s interesting that you mentioned this young radio reporter.
Eckles: Cremeens, George?
Kelly: Yes. Can you talk about that tape?
George Cremeens somehow talked to the Manhattan Project and finagled a visit for himself all alone as a radio reporter from Des Moines, Iowa. The Civil Air Patrol of Iowa flew him to New Mexico. The week after the big visit, Cremeens visits. He gets permission to fly over the crater in the airplane, and part of the tape is him commenting about what they are seeing below.
Then he gets to go to ground zero. He doesn’t have Oppenheimer and Groves. He gets to interview [Kenneth] Bainbridge at the site. There are photos. I have included a number of them in my book of him being interviewed, of Bush being there. Lieutenant [Howard C.] Bush is the security guy. So he’s there. These support soldiers are there. Cremeens then goes to down to base camp and interviews the soldiers that are stuck there after the war is over. They are talking about what they saw at the site. He also interviews people at Socorro. He’s there for several days.
He goes back to Iowa and turns this into four fifteen minute reports that air in Des Moines. The ABC radio network then gets a hold of it and puts it all together in a mishmash of a single fifteen minute report. That’s the tape that we had.
George called me up. I eventually took him to ground zero. That’s where we got the photos. He gave me an envelope of the photos. We were able to make copies. He gave me a tape. We were able to reproduce that. He did not have the original tapes that he made in Des Moines, just the ABC one.
We thought, “This is great.” We tried to play it at Schmidt McDonald ranch house. We had a portable recorder up there, a playback player. That was a big mistake, because it’s fifteen minutes long. People stood around and listened to it. They wanted to hear the whole fifteen minutes. They just started to pile up in the ranch house. The buses are bringing them and bringing them. Then it replays again. We have got a big gaggle of people. We decided that was not the way to go. We quit doing that. The tape resided in public affairs for a long time.
I am hoping you can get a copy of that because you think it’s going to be great because he’s talking to Bainbridge and stuff and they’re flying over. But it’s like, it’s so nothing. It’s so general, that it says nothing. “Yeah, it was a big explosion and yeah, it was bright and yeah, we could feel the heat. Yeah.” There is just not much said. It’s kind of disappointing. You thought you might learn something and you don’t.
Kelly: Even the fifteen minute version?
Eckles: That’s what I am talking about is the fifteen minute version. Bainbridge is so tightlipped. He is under such restrictions of what he can say. Of course, also, the science is perceived as being, “Nobody is going to understand that. My gosh.” They don’t talk about it at all.
Kelly: That’s interesting. You mentioned in your book a discussion or an interview with Bainbridge and Robert Wilson at Trinity in 1988 by the Smithsonian, the interview there.
Eckles: You know what, I don’t remember. I was there as a lackey to make sure it happened. I remember them being interviewed and listening, but I don’t remember what they said. It was just pretty general, I think about the site. You could probably see pretty much anything they have said online anywhere now.
I remember, though, , I got a picture of them toasting. It was hot. We had ice water for them. It was down in base camp. They toasted their paper cups of ice water. That was kind of neat.
Kelly: When we started out, you thought you might talk a little bit about a couple of their personalities, including Bob Wilson and Bainbridge. Do you want to?
Eckles: Being a typical American set-up, I mean, the reporting on Trinity site is—and part of the Manhattan Project and everything else—is always about Oppenheimer and Groves. They rarely delve down to the other people. There are so many interesting characters involved in this that deserve books and shows unto themselves.
For Trinity site, Wilson was an important character because he was in charge of instrumentation. He is in charge of making sure they collect that data—not just the photos, but the nuclear stuff and whatnot. They don’t necessarily have off the shelf instrumentation that they could use. They have got to improvise. So they do that. Wilson is the head of that program. Bainbridge is the test director. He’s got to pull all of this stuff together and keep all these people organized. Both of these guys are great scientists and doing all these other things.
I love Wilson’s comment. Later on, he is the first director of the Fermilab. That’s not a slouch position. His influence is everywhere there, because he was on board when they built it. The sculptures and all that stuff, the buffalo herd, all those things that he made happen.
My favorite is that when he was being grilled in front of a Senate committee for funding for the Fermilab, a Senator—well, the group in general—they were in favor of this. They want to support him. They know that if they can tie his work at the Fermilab to defense during the Cold War, that the the money spigot will just turn on. It’s a given. They keep asking him about it. “What does the Fermilab do for the defense of the country?”
Wilson is a a very honest, straightforward guy. He says, “This is pure science. It doesn’t have anything to do with the defense.” Finally, he gets a little fed up with it. The Senator asks one more time, and Wilson gives him a nice little talk about what makes the country valuable: it’s people, it’s arts, it’s sciences, etc., that the Fermilab doesn’t do anything for the defense of the country, but it’s what makes the country worth defending.
I am paraphrasing, but boy, that hit home for me. I love that. I think we lose sight of that in this country so much.
When I first got to Trinity site and started learning about it and heard the people talking about it, they would talk about the first atomic bomb. Everybody knows that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima from the Enola Gay and [Colonel Paul] Tibbets was the commander. The second bomb, Nagasaki, not so much. “Well, okay, it was dropped from Bock’s Car. Sweeney was the pilot.” It’s not nearly as big a deal as the first one.
When people said that, I always assumed, since it was a B-29, which was built to carry a lot of load of bombs, that they were saying B-O-X C-A-R, box car, like a railroad box car. I’m going, “That makes sense, box car.”
Not until years later did I learn the real story of this, that the airplane was Fred Bock’s, B-O-C-K, his airplane. He was the pilot for that airplane. They had named it B-O-C-K’S car for his bombing runs. He was tagged for the Nagasaki run to fly his airplane and provide camera support and collect data.
It turned out, Sweeney was supposed to fly and drop the bomb, but Sweeney’s airplane, The Great Artiste, wasn’t ready to carry the bomb. They switcheroo’d airplanes. Sweeney flew Bock’s Car and dropped the bomb, and Fred Bock flew The Great Artiste and provided data collection during it.
I got to meet Fred Bock at Trinity site. The 509th came for one of the open houses and stuff. We talked about that. I thought that was kind of funny. He was a nice guy.
A lot of them had interesting stories. Carl Rudder, we got a lot of photos from him that are not official photos. Rudder was a guy who had specific skills. He was drafted probably for Trinity site or Los Alamos I will contrast that to Felix DePaula. Rudder worked for the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] in Tennessee. He thought when he signed up for the Army that he was going to work for the TVA in an essential position there, bringing his lineman and his mechanical expertise.
He gets drafted. He goes to basic training. This is like January of 1945. He goes to basic training for like two days. They then shipped him to another camp. Then he goes to another camp. And he ends up at Trinity site, like two weeks after he gets inducted in the Army. No basic training or anything.
He is in charge of all the machinery, the generators, the pumps, the lines, and all that stuff, all the power-based stuff and keeping it running, because there is no hard power at base camp. It’s all supplied by generators. He’s got to keep all that stuff going. He nicknamed it, he called it—I am probably paraphrasing a little bit here—the East Jesus Socorro Light and Water Company, that he was in charge of. But he had these specific skills that made it possible for him to skip all the Army stuff and go directly to Trinity site.
Now Felix DePaula, on the other hand, was at base camp as well as a soldier. He was an eighteen-year old enlisted guy from New York City. Never been out of New York City any length of time or anything. He had no skills. He was out of high school. That’s what he had.
He was assigned to the engineers at base camp. When they were giving out jobs and stuff, they had someone that needed to go around to all the buildings and tents and stuff and pick up trash. He volunteered to do that. That was his job. In fact, when he came back to visit, he pointed out to our archeologist where he thought the dump was, which hopefully they have got that information, because that would be a fantastic dig to do someday. He had no skills, as opposed to Rudder.
But Felix was afraid of snakes, so he always carried a big stick with him. He always beat the desert in front of him as he walked, so he would scare the snakes away. He came out of his barracks one day and he had his big stick with him. There was a snake slithering under some boards. He figured it was a bull snake. It looked like a bull snake. He knew it wasn’t poisonous. He was trying to get the snake out from the boards with his big stick. The stick gets hung up under one of the boards. He has got it underneath the snake and he can’t get it out. He gives it a big jerk, and it lets loose.
He ends up flinging the snake over the building beside him, completely over it. His buddy is with him. He says he gives his buddy a look like, “Don’t say a word.” They walk out between the buildings, and there is a line of men standing waiting to get in the mess hall because it’s next to the barracks.
The snake has fallen down into the line with the men. He says he looked around there and they are all looking up in the air, trying to figure out where the snake had come from. They thought it was a hawk or an eagle had dropped the snake.
Felix said he told this story then for the Smithsonian at Trinity site. He said that’s the first time he has come clean on this and told the public that that’s how the snake fell amongst those people at base camp.
Kelly: That’s funny. You know, he’s still alive.
Eckles: Is he?
Eckles: That’s great.
Kelly: He is on our list to be interviewed. We almost interviewed him last February, but he wasn’t available.
Eckles: Be sure to ask him about his snake.
Kelly: Yes, I will. I certainly will. Then there is Marvin Davis. Does he have any—
Eckles: Marvin is gone now, but he was an MP, he wasn’t a scientist or a technician or anything. He was there the whole time. He came December 1944, all through 1945 and did not leave Trinity site until 1946, early ’46. A lot of them were that way, before they finally got to go home.
Marvin was there pretty much most of his time, although he did serve in Los Alamos as an MP up there before that. He was into it. He was interested in all this. He was tickled by the fact that he was there and he got to see all this. He wrote us letters. He came a couple of times. He came to a couple of the open houses. I know I interviewed him for our television out there once. I don’t know what happened to the tape, if it’s still around or not.
His letters were the best, because then you are thinking about what you are writing, every word, and you get more information. Then he would, a year later, he would say, “I remember this.” He talked to other men that he was with, trying to get them to send us pictures. He wasn’t very lucky at that. But he was a really nice guy and gave us stuff, too. He donated a few things to the museum for the Trinity site room that we have at the White Sands Missile Range.
For instance, he had a twisted bolt that’s probably from the 100 ton test on May 7. The wooden structure was all bolted together. It was probably sprayed out, material all over the place. He got one of those bolts.
He also had his last dosimeter badge, which had a piece of film material in it and also a piece of capsule of phosphorus to measure different kinds of radiation. I think in the book in the back I have got Los Alamos’ analysis. We sent it up to Los Alamos to ask them what it was. They looked at it.
Kelly: Let’s see, David Rudolph?
Eckles: Yeah, I only met David a little bit and we really didn’t get to talk, but I did read years ago his account a little bit. I used one quote from it about—let’s see, “Los Alamos was remote. Trinity site was penal,” I think is what he said. That was tough.
The guys talk about that. Being isolated, not knowing what you are doing. None of them really—they weren’t scientists. They weren’t picking up on what was going to happen. They were just given orders to do things. They kind of gathered that there would be an explosion of some sort, I think. But not really anything else.
They talk about dealing with the day to day living up there, about hard the water was out of the wells. They couldn’t run it through the pipes at base camp because it just plugged them up within a few weeks. They ended up trucking all of their water from Socorro. In fact, Marvin sent a picture of himself on the water truck, because he ended up driving it to Socorro to fill it with water lots of the time. Food was bleak military fare.
Lieutenant Bush, who was a real leader, understood the importance of keeping the morale of these guys up so they are doing a good job. He let his trusted personnel take the military rifles out and hunt. There are a lot of photos, Carl Rudder’s scrapbook has photos of deer, antelope that the guys shot. That meat then went to the mess hall and got put into the stews, whatever other junk that the Army sent them. So they had some fresh meat in there.
One account—I am trying to remember who this was. Maybe it was the fire marshal. It was a guy named Bord or something. He confiscated a bunch of alcohol from the lab. I think it was after the test, and they considered it a fire hazard. Then the word went out to all the soldiers to bring whatever soft drink or whatever you mixed with booze to the fire house, whatever that was, tent. They would all drink booze, the alcohol mixed with pop or whatever. Root beer, I guess, was the popular thing. That was interesting.
Of course, after the explosion, there wasn’t much pressure to keep up with things. Marvin talked about Bush bringing in a busload of WACS from Los Alamos for Christmas. He said twenty or twenty-five of them came down to spend Christmas, have dinner with the soldiers, maybe dance. Marvin said, “The women were wilder than the antelope.” He did not elaborate.
Apparently, Groves called him on it, because he was panicking some of the soldiers. He said, “You know, you’ve got to quit doing that.” Because it wasn’t really a problem.
I mean, sure, anything is possible. Like in the next ten seconds, we are going to be hit by an asteroid and kill us right here, right now. Not likely. Not likely that this was going to happen either. They were sure it wasn’t going to ignite the atmosphere and burn up the planet.
But writers—and this is my comment about writers, being a writer myself—you know, you have got to have an angle. You have got to have some way to interest people. When you are writing something about Trinity site and Manhattan Project, there have been so many things done already, you have got to have a new angle. Otherwise, you are just repeating all the other stuff. If it’s sexy or exciting, that’s better. So igniting the atmosphere, “Boy, that’s danger, etc., etc.” So people play that up, or used to. Not so much anymore.
The thing that they get played up in the last decade or so is why it’s called Trinity site. The traditional story is that—and Groves wanted to know this too. He wrote a letter afterward to Oppenheimer and said, “Why did you call it Trinity site?”
Oppenheimer responded, saying, well he wasn’t real sure, but he kind of remembers reading some John Donne poetry and that brought to mind a John Donne line about, “Batter my heart, ye three faced God.” He said, “Okay, let’s call it Trinity site.”
That’s what he said to Groves, but he said, he wasn’t real sure. That left the window open for speculation. People have been speculating. A few of the more recent books have got pages of speculation about why it’s called Trinity site. We have got Near-Eastern Buddhist stuff, mumbo jumbo, Native American spiritualism worked into it, etc. etc. etc.
We in the Public Affairs office, we got involved, too. I mean, why not? We can make something up, too. We tell people this at open houses, “Trinity site is the culmination of the work done at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos, all those three sites. That’s a triad, a trinity. All that work came together at this site to produce the first atomic bomb, Trinity site.”
People look at us and go, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense!” But just because it makes sense doesn’t make it true. Unfortunately, we can’t claim that, but it is a better explanation.
You know, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki —and I can’t remember all the details of this. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, fires were what destroyed most of their cities. The Buddhist monks at one of the cities collected some burning material and used it to keep an eternal flame going then. Then after that, they worked all around the world for peace. They wanted the elimination basically of nuclear weapons, certainly not their use, etc.
At the end of sixty years, that’s a normal lifespan or cycle for the Buddhists. They wanted to end that cycle. They asked for permission to end it at Trinity site, where it began. They brought—I can’t remember if they actually brought a flame, or material they were going to light at Trinity site and put it out. The Army, surprisingly, was good enough to let them in and let them do this, walk down to ground zero. There was a crew there filming everything. They did some prayers. No big deal, it happened. It didn’t seem to make a difference, but they were hoping that the cycle would end.
We have had at open houses people expressing themselves in all kinds of ways. The fascinating thing about Trinity site is when you have been doing it forty years is, the site itself has lost a little bit of its luster, but the people are always interesting. To watch them come in, just in the last year or two, we have been commenting about how this has evolved. How forty years ago, the only people that had tattoos were sailors and some motorcycle gang guys. Now, beautiful young women are walking in with tattoos all over their bodies, and young men with tattoos, and everybody has got tattoos. Of course, in the summertime, it’s all exposed. I go, “Wow, look at that.
That’s just a simple thing that’s changed. But the crowds that are attracted to Trinity site cover all the bases. In the old days, we used to get a lot of World War II vets. You would have a guy come up to you and say, “You know, this saved my life. I didn’t have to go to the Pacific. I was in Germany or whatever, and I was heading for the Pacific.” You don’t see very many of them anymore.
But you see school kids on a class assignment, young families pushing baby buggies with kids in them, older folks, and just everything in between. Motorcycle gangs show up. There is just a variety of people that are there to see this site and to wonder what it’s all about.
I think that’s kind of interesting, to see those people and then talk to them and what they are thinking. Because I think they have changed a little bit in their thoughts. Like I said earlier, I don’t think they are quite ready to argue much about the use on Japan. I think this group now is more accepting of the use that it ended the war, saved a lot of lives, etc. They’re good with that.
Kelly: That’s very interesting. How many Japanese visitors do you have?
Eckles: There are usually some. Every once in a while, somebody will come and pray, or something like that. We don’t bother them, as long as they don’t bother anybody else. We let folks pray, or do whatever they need to do for self-fulfillment.
In the past, we’ve had a lot of Japanese journalists. You know, in my book, I put in there that I am in Japanese Playboy Magazine from 1980, I think it is. I had a photojournalist that I took in. He took a lot of pictures, and then wrote a big story. He included a photo of me unlocking the gates to ground zero. So I am in Playboy. Very few people can say that, guys that work for the government, anyway.
I have done a lot of different things for Japanese journalists, TV people. Picked up pieces of trinitite for them. It’s interesting. They are remarkably afraid of it. I will sit there and hold a piece of trinitite in my hand so they can film it, but I go like this and they back away. They have no understanding of the science and what is involved and what the risks are or not are. They are just there to do a story.
They’re there. They attract a lot of attention. If there is a Japanese person there, the American news media will glom onto them and ask them for their feelings, their reactions to the site, whether they are news media or just a civilian visitor coming to see the site, tourist.
Kelly: Did you do that yourself? Are there people like with the Japanese news media who have expressed their—
Eckles: Most of them are very professional and just ask you for the information, do an interview. They are very straightforward.
One or two are accusatory. They want to ask you, “Well, you have done this to my people,” or something like that. You just have to go on. It’s an emotional issue. You can’t argue. There is no point in it. You can’t win. “Okay, that’s your point of view. Let’s go on with the interview.”
I learned that with the missile range, too. We deal in risk, because we test missiles and rocket and stuff explodes, stuff falls out of the sky. At one point, we were looking at launching rockets and missiles off the missile range, over the public’s head into the missile range itself, using the missile range as a target. We had done this before back in the ‘60s, wanted to resurrect it in the ‘90s.
I learned very quickly that generally people don’t like risk imposed on them. They are quite willing to take risks themselves: smoke cigarettes, drive 100 miles an hour, drive drunk, jump out of airplanes in a heartbeat. But have the government say, “We are going to fly a missile over your house and it’s a million in one that something might happen,” they don’t like that. It’s that perception of risk, control of risk, all those things figure into it. Emotions that are aroused and that part of it.
Of course, an atomic bomb elicits similar kind of emotions, because of the risks involved.