this week marking the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima -- the devastating
nuclear attack on a Japanese city that led to the end of World
War Two -- this revised “Texas Tales” explaining how Texas was
considered as the site for the first test explosion of an atomic bomb
is being redistributed in commemoration of that pivotal event.
16, 1945 saw three dawns.
At 5:29.45 a.m. Mountain War Time, scientists detonated the world’s
first atomic bomb 171 miles north of El
Paso at a site on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in
New Mexico. That was the first dawn, followed by the natural rising
of the sun. The third dawn marked the beginning of the Atomic Age.
The nuclear explosion sent a blinding flash of light into the sky,
turning the pre-dawn into high noon. A ball of energy 10,000 times
hotter than the sun rose more than 38,000 feet into the atmosphere.
Scientists later calculated the blast to be equal to 20,000 tons of
In El Paso,
school teacher A.O. Wynn was up early. When he saw the burst of light,
he dismissed it as a distant forest fire, albeit a big one. A trainman
at the El Paso
rail yard correctly assumed the light to have been caused by an explosion
of some sort. But neither of these Texans, nor the many others who
either saw the brilliant flash or heard what sounded like thunder
on a perfectly clear morning, would know the real story for nearly
another two months.
The military issued a news release dismissing the incident as the
explosion of a munitions warehouse and, it being wartime, no one challenged
Though the military deemed disinformation in the name of national
security an acceptable reason to lie to the public about what had
happened, for posterity’s sake, Brig. Gen. T.F. Farrell described
what really happened:
“The effects could well be called…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…”
story of the Manhattan Project and its result, the use on August 6
and 9, 1945 of atomic bombs against Japan, has been well told. But
buried in all the official documents is another story, far less known.
As work proceeded on the development of the bomb, the military considered
eight possible locations for the first test. Four sites were in New
Mexico, in the same state as the project headquarters at Los Alamos.
California had two of the sites and one was in Colorado. Finally,
one site lay in Texas: Padre Island.
On some levels, using Padre Island as a secret test site made sense.
Christi offered rail service and had a deep water port. Too, it
had a busy Naval Air Station. And Padre Island, extending for some
120 miles nearly all the way to Mexico and already being used as a
bombing range, amounted to one of the most remote locations in the
Earlier in the war, in fact, the island was off-limits to civilians.
U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the island’s lonely beaches by horseback
and in jeeps. Their two-fold mission was to look for any survivors
washed ashore from oil tankers torpedoed by German U-boats and to
guard against any landing by Nazi saboteurs.
As the war progressed, the military cleared the Gulf of Mexico of
enemy submarines. The Allies eventually gained the momentum, but both
the U.S. and Germany were working to develop terrible new weapons,
including a bomb like no other.
Fortunately for the sake of democracy, the U.S. made the best progress,
building three bombs. The first would be a test devise.
The Army finally decided to test the bomb on an existing military
range north of Blythe, CA. Coming in as second choice was the Alamogordo
site in the aptly named Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) Valley
north of El Paso.
Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, heading the military aspect of the operation,
opted not to use the California range because he didn’t want to have
to deal with the base’s cantankerous commander, Gen. George S. Patton.
Following the test in New Mexico, the government kept what came to
be called the Trinity site closed to the public for decades. Even
now, it can only be visited twice a year.
The successful testing of the world’s first atomic bomb changed history.
Much farther down the significance scale, the explosion eventually
gave New Mexico another tourist attraction, albeit one of the state’s
Had the explosion occurred on Padre Island, turning some of its white
sand into glass, Texas would have had the future tourist destination.
But given the highly controlled access that would have followed the
explosion, it might have prevented the island’s eventual transformation
into a 130,454-acre Padre Island National Seashore – the longest undeveloped
stretch of barrier island in the world.
Clearly, not making the cut is not always a bad thing.
© Mike Cox
- August 6, 2015 Column
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