LOS ALAMOS AND THE ATOMIC BOMB
Updated: Aug 12
Imagine a town miles from anywhere, isolated from the world. A town with no name, with equally nameless streets and buildings. A town that never appears on any map. A town with hundreds of mysterious residents, with an average age of 29. No-one, not even their closest family, knows where these people are or what they are up to. This is a secret society. On the rare occasion any resident does venture out on a journey, he always travels under a fictitious name. Except for the few who live here, the town does not exist. All outside contact is via a P.O. Box number - 1663. That is the address on the driving licenses and all documents. If a child is born here, that number is the given address on the birth certificate.
Have we entered the Twilight Zone? Well, almost.
To explain, we have to go back to 1939. Hitler and his Nazi war machine were about to blitzkrieg their way through Europe. His neighboring countries were to fall like dominoes. Even France, the strong, proud country of Napoleon, was to surrender after just 39 days of invasion and rampage.
Lone Britain fought on heroically, supported by the Lease/Lend convoys from the US. But Intelligence deduced that Hitler could be on his way to unleashing the ultimate weapon. He was getting his hands on uranium from Czechoslavakia. Nuclear science had arrived and the unthinkable possibility of Der Fürher releasing atomic armageddon was becoming thinkable. What if Hitler, who had taken on the world to create his Third Reich, joined by Italy and then Japan, was the one to develop an atom bomb - first? The British alerted the Americans of their doomsday scenario. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt agreed they must work together. If the ultimate bomb was to be created, they had to do it first. All agreed that the research and development had to be based in the US as England during the blitz was no place to set up home for such a critical project. But where? Time was of the essence.
For three years the brightest brains had tried to break nature's code in laboratories across the States, but it just wasn’t happening fast enough. It was now 1943. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the US was in the War and battling in the Pacific, in Europe and around the world. But Hitler marched on, right arm and jackboots stretched out before him. Albert Einstein wrote to his President pleading in his inimitable way that they needed to gather all these genii together in one place, and quickly. Roosevelt and Churchill agreed and issued the instruction to find somewhere miles from any significant population, somewhere with clear year-round weather, inland and safe from attack and, above all, somewhere where its very existence could be hidden. A place that the world, friend and foe, didn't know existed.
Bring on Julius Robert Oppenheimer. He was born in New York, the son of a wealthy Jewish immigrant who fled persecution in Germany. They had lived in an apartment in Manhattan. Oppenheimer Jr's academic career was astronomic and he soon became a brilliant lecturer, teaching his students all his theories on electrons, positrons, nuclear fusion, and quantum physics.
It was perfect casting that the affable Oppenheimer should be drafted in as the inspirational leader of this vital and challenging project, aided by the fearsome General Leslie Groves, a no-nonsense human fortress who had just delivered the completion of building the Pentagon - on time and below budget. These two completely different characters soon became a complementary and unstoppable force that was to change the world.
J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R Groves
The young Oppenheimer had loved trekking in New Mexico and put his hand up to say 'I know just the place'.
That place was Los Alamos, a small flat area in the Pajarito Plateau surrounded by steep canyons, 7,300ft above sea level, 35 miles from Sante Fe. A place where you could disappear, the perfect place to become non-existent.
The only thing up there were a few farms and, bizarrely, an outward-bound prep school for the sons of wealthy east-coasters, run by one Ashley Pond Jr. The 40 or so boys were subjected to a 'vigorous' boy scouts' life of 6.30am daily outside exercise, horseback riding, camping, river swimming, skiing and hiking, and a tough academic program. But, scouts or no scouts, the Department of War needed the land now and requisitioned the whole area. Farmers got between $7 and $15 per acre and the Ranch School, which was destined to be the center of operations, got $225 per acre. In weeks, the farmers, teachers and pupils were gone, the school buildings converted and, unknown to the world, laboratories and makeshift homes assembled. The scientists, on getting the secret call, headed for New Mexico. And so "Site Y", a top secret laboratory, was born. And the Manhattan Project was designed in a race against time to create the most awesome weapon ever known to man, a weapon that would end the War.
Pupils at the Fuller Lodge at the stoic Ranch School in Los Alamos
Fuller Lodge today
Suppertime at Fuller Lodge 1938
The same hall today
Scientists from America, Britain and Canada, amongst them many European emigrés, congregated and were assigned their tasks. To their families, they just disappeared. By August 1943, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL for short) and the Manhattan Project was in full 24 hour motion.
One team developed the gun-type uranium bomb, where particles were 'fired' at each other. This was to become "Little Boy". But this system wouldn't work with plutonium, which had do be 'squashed' to become volatile. So they packed it in a capsule and surrounded it with dozens of mini-bombs that imploded when triggered. This was to become "Fat Man".
An actual-size replica of 'Little Boy', the gun-type uranium bomb
An actual-size replica of 'Fat Man', the plutonium implosion-type bomb
The 'Fat Man' prototype - the first nuclear explosion
The trigger mechanism of 'Fat Man' that simultaneously fired dozens of implosions.
On July 16, 1945 they tested Fat Boy 250 miles south of Los Alamos in the New Mexico desert and the first nuclear cloud ripped the skies asunder. While the war in Europe was over and Germany had surrendered after 15 million deaths Imperial Japan, the Pearl Harbor attackers, fought on. It was proving a costly and deadly battle for the Americans to be left fighting to overcome the Japanese kamikaze forces. They were as war-weary as their European allies. How many thousands more would die in this final traditional war of attrition?
Suddenly, they had the undefendable coup de force in their grasp. And they would waste no time in using it. The atomic bomb, the Allies decided, would end World War II in one fell swoop. Brutal but decisive.
Days later, on August 6, Little Boy was dropped from the Enola Gay on Hiroshima. Japan still didn't surrender. On August 9, Fat Boy was let loose on Nagasaki. The rest is history.
The Manhattan Project was immediately disbanded, mission accomplished. The scientists and staff could openly resume their old identities once more.
A visit to Los Alamos is one incredible experience. The laboratories are still top-secret and continue to develop things we can only imagine. This is James Bond country. The adjacent town is a safe and welcoming retreat, giving this bizarre world some sense of normality and R&R. It even has a great department store, CB Fox in Central Avenue and a recommenced bar/ restaurant next door, the Blue Window. If you come to Santa Fe and do nothing else, you must take the high road through the beautiful carved mountains to discover for yourself this incredible secret world that will always have a mysterious and definitive place in modern history.
The local town museum is missable but the Bradbury Science Museum, very much the official showcase of the 'bomb', answers all your questions. How was this all created? What was it like living and working here? How did they win this race to nuclear holocaust? What did the bombs look like? How did it all work? The last question is beyond the average person's comprehension, but in a simple way you can't help but come away feeling enlightened, amazed and... shocked.
An aerial pic of LANL as it is today
Los Alamos is more than a absolute 'must'. It is essential to our understanding of how man can arrive at such a point where the most destructive force imaginable is let loose on one's fellows. You leave with the stark realization that the genie has exploded out of bottle. God help us all.
We were always told "it gets cold in the desert at night". But the desert always seemed far, far away. Well, now we are here, we can confirm it. Bloody cold. 15F last night. But still magical...
Sunset outside our RV at the Santa Fe Skies RV Park
Early morning snow. Nature imitating art.
.Artie, a true Florida cat. looking appropriately confused.