First atom bomb test: 'It was just like the sun had come up and suddenly gone down again'

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The motion picture "Oppenheimer" is the story of American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.

The movie opened in theaters July 21.

As scientific director of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer played a leading role in ending World War II. He was a physics professor at the University of California but owned a ranch in New Mexico. Oppenheimer wanted a secluded spot for the government's secret laboratory, but also one with an available work force. Los Alamos seemed right to him, and it became home to the lab originally called Project Y.

"Trinity" was the code name the U.S. military used for its project to detonate a nuclear bomb. After years of work, Oppenheimer and his team successfully detonated a nuclear bomb that they nicknamed "The Gadget" at 5:29 a.m. July 16, 1945. "The Gadget" was the same design as the bomb known as "Fat Man" that would be detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, less than a month later.

The Manhattan Project was top secret and did not become public knowledge until after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Newspaper coverage lacking

The July 16, 1945, explosion was seen as far away as El Paso. There was no report of the explosion in the El Paso Times on July 17. The July 18 edition carried a two-sentence explanation from the Associated Press:

ALAMOGORDO (AP) — Explosion of an ammunition magazine on the Alamogordo Air Base reservation Monday morning, heard and seen for many miles, was reported by William O. Eareckson, commanding officer. There was no loss of life or injuries to persons, Eareckson said.

Meanwhile, the El Paso Herald Post ran a lengthy article on the explosion, still describing it as an ammunition magazine explosion.

Army ammunition explosion rocks Southwest area

Great blast near San Marcial lights El Paso

An ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosive and pyrotechnics exploded at 5:30 a.m. in the New Mexico desert near San Marcial on a remote section of the Alamogordo Air Base reservation.

No one was hurt.

The blast was seen and felt throughout an area extending from El Paso to Silver City, Gallup, Socorro and Albuquerque.

Many persons saw a flash light up the sky, like daylight, and felt earth tremors. They thought an earthquake had struck.

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Official statement

William O. Eareckson, commanding officer of the Alamogordo Air Base, release the following statement:

“Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air Base reservation this morning.

“A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.

“There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives’ magazine itself was negligible.

“Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes.”

El Paso men going to work at 5:30 a.m. said the flash illuminated Mt. Franklin. E.R. Carpenter, Louie Ratliff and Jack Couleham, riding down Alabama avenue, said the whole sky was ablaze with light.

Mr. Carpenter, mechanical superintendent of the Newspaper Printing Corp., said many persons called the newspaper’s composing room to report seeing the flash and hearing the explosion. Callers asked if a meteor had fallen.

GROUND ZERO INSPECTION: Workers at the site of the first atomic bomb explosion are shown in this government file photo inspecting ground zero after the July 16, 1945, blast. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the bomb project, is third from left. Shown is what remained after the explosion of a 100-foot tower, atop which the bomb sat before detonation.

Big light in sky

L.R. Lessell, Gila forest headquarters superior, said rangers reported the shock was felt throughout the Mogollon mountains.

Rangers at Chloride reported the blast lighted the sky brightly in the area of San Marcial. The blast was followed by a terrific explosion, like a detonation, rangers said.

Forest rangers, believing that an earthquake had struck, checked with Alfred E. Moore at the Smithsonian Observatory on Burro Mountain. The observatory is near Tyrone and 800 feet high.

Mr. Moore confirmed the flash, saying it was distinctly visible at the observatory, but said the shock was unlike earthquake vibrations. The observatory head has experienced earthquakes in South America and Mexico.

Silver City shaken

Silver City residents reported three distinct blasts were felt there. The shock cracked plate glass windows in downtown buildings.

“The blasts sounded like heavy claps of thunder,” Don Lusk of Silver City said. “Houses shook. People were roused from sleep by the noise and tremors.”

Mrs. H. E. Wieselman saw the explosion as she crossed the Arizona–New Mexico state line. She was en route to El Paso from California.

“We had just left Safford, and it was still dark,” Mrs. Wieselman said. “Suddenly, the top of high mountains by which we were passing were lighted up by a reddish, orange light.

“The surrounding countryside was illuminated like daylight for about three seconds.

“Then, it was dark again.

“The experiences scared me. It was just like the sun had come up and then suddenly gone down again.”

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Front seat at sky show

Ed Lane, Santa Fe railroad engineer, was at Belen, N.M., when the blast occurrent.

He said he had a front seat to the greatest fireworks show he ever had seen. The blast was in the direction of San Marcial and seemed to be only a few miles from Belen, he said.

“I was coming to El Paso,” Mr. Lane said. “My engine was standing still. All at once it seemed as if the sun had suddenly appeared in the sky out of darkness. There was a tremendous white flash. This was followed by a great red glare and high in the sky were three tremendous smoke rings. The highest was many hundreds of feet high. They swirled and twisted as if being agitated by a great force. The glare lasted about three minutes and then everything was dark again, with dawn breaking in the east.”

DESCRIBES ATOMIC EXPLOSION: Maj. Craig L. Jackson, Holloman Air Force Base, told of the first atomic explosion and the measures used to guard the secret of the atomic preparations as tourists viewed the scene of the blast that revolutionized warfare. The tour culminated over two years of effort by the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce to secure permission from the Atomic Energy Commission to visit the site. To the left of Jackson is H.N. Baxley, chairman of the Tourist Development Committee of the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce.

Trinity Site open house

Twice a year, the first Saturday in April and the third Saturday in October, White Sands Missile Range opens the Trinity Site to visitors.

Upcoming Dates:Oct. 21, 2023, and April 6, 2024.

Stallion Gate hours: 8 a.m. - 2 p.m.

Trinity Site prompt closure: 3:30 p.m.

Stallion Gate entrance

Exit I-25 on mile marker 139 (San Antonio, New Mexico) and head 12 miles east, or exit U.S. Highway 54 onto U.S. Highway 380 and head west 53 miles of Carrizozo, New Mexico. Turn south on New Mexico State Highway 525 and head south 5 miles to the Stallion Gate.

The White Sands Public Affairs website added the following information about the Oct. 21 open house:

Due to the release of the movie, "Oppenheimer," in July, we are expecting a larger than normal crowd at the 21 October open house. You may experience wait times of up to two hours getting onto the site. If you are not one of the first 5,000 visitors, you might not get through the gate prior to its closure at 2 p.m.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are unable to provide handicapped transportation from the parking lot to ground zero for those who cannot make the 1/4-mile walk.

Trish Long may be reached at or 915-546-6179.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Witnesses share descriptions of first atom bomb test in the world