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UNHOLY TRINITY
Trinity Site New Mexico, United States 2 Apr 11
Odometer 70,632 m 113,671 km

Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition amid charges of witchcraft, German-immigrant Bernardo Gruber escaped his prison cell and rode south on the only established route out of Santa Fe. The year was 1670. The route, known as
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, led all the way from the northern pueblos of New Mexico to old Mexico City, by way of El Paso. Incarcerated for two years with no hearing in sight, Gruber chose to take his chances out in the open desert. He gambled. And he lost.


An unrelenting summer sun beating down on a waterless expanse of ancient lava flows was just the first of many obstacles he would face. There was no firewood or forage for his horse. A manhunt was underway. The odds, never in his favor, only worsened with dehydration and exhaustion, but exactly how he finally succumbed is unclear. All we know for sure is that five Spanish traders heading south over the same 90-mile stretch of wasteland, east of the Rio Grande and west of the San Andreas Mountains, stumbled upon his desiccated corpse.

The Spaniards gathered his remains for burial in El Paso, then erected a proper Christian crucifix on the spot where he and his horse had perished.
La Cruz de Aleman (The German’s Cross) subsequently became a significant landmark, helping to earn this tortuous section of the Camino its name: Jornada del Muerto or “Dead Man’s Journey.”

The
Jornada remained true to its moniker over the coming centuries, as its inhospitable nature and hostile natives took their toll on all who would attempt to cross it. When the Pueblo Indians revolted against Spanish rule in 1680, they forced the Europeans to retreat to El Paso, some 300 miles south. The resulting death march killed 574 people (both Spanish and allied natives), or a quarter of those who set out. Later, the U.S. Cavalry built Fort Craig on the north end of the Jornada and Fort Selden to the south, in a lackluster attempt to protect settlers from marauding Mescalero Apache. And while modern roadways would eventually bypass this entire difficult-to-traverse area, it remained in the business of doling out death on a scale the pioneers could scarcely imagine.
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It was here, in the heart of the Jornada del Muerto, at the original ground zero dubbed Trinity Site, that the United States military detonated the world’s first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945. Developed to prevent the Axis Alliance (Germany - Italy - Japan) from winning World War II, it’s with more than a little irony that I roll up to the site on my German motorcycle, shooting pictures with my Japanese camera. Fortunately, times change, and our once mortal enemies are now friends.

The atomic testing grounds where this first-of-its-kind experiment took place lie deep within the U.S. military’s White Sands Missile Range and are open for public viewing only twice per calendar year. Upon arrival, I was struck by how much the place that
changed everything was so utterly non-descript. Where once stood a giant crater and various pieces of twisted metal, radioactive sand fused into glass (Trinitite) and assorted relics of the original blast, now sits just a stone monument surrounded by chain-link fence. Interpretive signs describe the seminal event. A couple miles further south stands the MacDonald Ranch house, where the nuclear core was assembled. The house too, oddly enough, has German roots, having been built by immigrant Franz Schmidt in 1913.


To review, it was December 1941 when the United States got enmeshed in World War II. Within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the U.S. had declared war on the Axis. Without detailing all of the bloody statistics of what occurred when, it took only until August 1942, less than a year later, for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to sanction the Manhattan Engineer District. Made up of some of the country’s brightest scientists, the “District” was tasked with developing the mother of all weapon systems.

Progress was slow. It was no small task to turn theory into practical design, create the required building blocks, assemble them in a far-flung location, and keep it all secret--without getting blown up. Interestingly, the military even kept the Manhattan Project secret from President Truman, their commander-in-chief, who only learned of the skunkworks on April 13, 1945 from Secretary of War Henry Stimpson. That’s only three months prior to Trinity and four months prior to Truman’s approval to drop the resulting bombs on Japan!

On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered.

Since I wasn’t there on July 16th to observe the Trinity blast myself, I’ll leave it to Brigadier General Thomas Farrell to describe it. “The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.”

Other first-hand accounts are summarized on the Trinity Atomic website. “The light was seen over the entire state of New Mexico and in parts of Arizona, Texas, and Mexico. The resultant mushroom cloud rose to over 38,000 feet within minutes, and the heat of the explosion was 10,000 times hotter than the surface of the sun! At ten miles away, this heat was described as like standing directly in front of a roaring fireplace. Every living thing within a mile of the tower was obliterated. The power of the bomb was estimated to be equal to 20,000 tons of TNT, or equivalent to the bomb load of 2,000 B-29, Superfortresses!”

But perhaps the most succinct and penetrating observation came from Dr Kenneth Bainbridge, the Director of Trinity Test. He, unlike many of the others, fully understood the implications of their success.
“Now we are all sons-of-bitches,” he deadpanned.


Scarcely three weeks later, the A-bomb was successfully weaponized, euphemistically named Little Boy, and dropped without warning from 31,000 feet over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The result: 90,000 to 166,000 men, women and children were killed.
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Located deep within the Army's White Sands Missile Range, access to the Trinity Site is strictly controlled by the US military.
When the Japanese government refused to immediately and unconditionally surrender, Truman ordered a second bomb, this one called Fat Man, dropped again without warning just three days later on the city of Nagasaki. This time 60,000 to 80,000 civilians were killed.

Japan surrendered five days later on August 14, 1945, as the U.S. readied yet another nuclear device to drop on Tokyo.


Back at Trinity Site, I wandered the grounds and ranch house for most of the day, trying to envision the stressful scene back in 1945. And while quietly stealing a photo or two, I surreptitiously listened to visitors asking questions and bellowing platitudes. Their unsolicited commentary ran the gamut from perplexing to revolting.

Oddly, most attendees viewed the bomb as an object of adulation. It was a real chest thumper, something to glorify, one of many Yankee inventions to be proud of and boast about. We were number one, as it should be, so don’t tread on us--
or else.

Really, I despaired? Is this the best we can do?

Crafting the bomb may have been a stunning technical achievement, but to what end?
Mutually assured destruction is not a foreign policy. In fact, it’s this sort of simplistic thinking that got us into the mess we're in, in the first place. And from the sounds of it, little has changed since 1945.

Now, some say the U.S. should have never dropped the bombs--the only nuclear weapons ever launched against an enemy--that the war would have ended soon, anyway. Remember, the Germans had already capitulated back in May; the Japanese were running out of everything; it was only a matter of time before they too gave up the fight. Surprisingly, two early critics of the bombings were scientists who spurred the initial research, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, the latter of whom felt that had the Germans dropped atomic bombs on New York--we would have hung them at Nuremberg for war crimes.

Others claim dropping the bombs ended the war
sooner, thereby saving more lives than they destroyed. And still others believe dropping the bombs had little to do with the war at all; they were to show the Soviets that the U.S. was not to be messed with.

Regardless, let’s face it, there’s no
nice way to kill someone in a war. Medieval combat, Gettysburg, Stalin’s Gulag, the Holocaust, Cambodia’s killing fields, Rwanda’s genocide--they were no picnic either. But there’s something especially callous about indiscriminately vaporizing scores of people, killing even more through long-term radiation poisoning, and scorching the earth lifeless for decades--maybe centuries--all from within the air-conditioned confines of your comfortable headquarters.
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Sixty-six years after Trinity, a mere blink of the eye on the scale of human history, the events of that fateful day still radiate. Today, nuclear weapons are only more prevalent, powerful and pinpoint.

But just as a child must learn the inherent danger of playing with matches, we too must realize that the monster we’ve created is far more powerful than our ability to control it. This thing is not a stick. It’s not a knife or bow and arrow. It’s not even a gun. This weapon is unlike any other.


At 5:30 AM everyone within a 160-mile radius of ground zero felt Trinity’s blinding flash and shock wave. Windows were shattered 120 miles away. The
Jornada del Muerto wasn’t finished killing yet. Only this time, instead of a lone man expiring beneath the merciless New Mexico sun, mankind risks suffering the same fate.
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