5:30 A.M. July 16, 1945


The only color photo of the first nuclear explosion (c) Jack Aeby

(Some notes on Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer:”  

The re-enactment of the Trinity test setup in the unpopulated desert west of Alamogordo, NM, is true to life in my opinion, based on inteviews for the 50th anniversary series I wrote for the Albuquerque Journal. The location setting centered on the steel girder tower as well as the five-foot sphere of the plutonium bomb so carefully elevated are to scale with historic photos. Nolan makes dramatic use of the approximately 30-second delay between the blinding light and arrival of the sound and shock at the test control bunker 10,000 meters away. My digest of  the Journal series is below.

But first, a comment on the scene, which Nolan acknowledges is fiction, that has Oppenheimer seeking advice from Albert Einstein as the test date approached. The scene and its artful repetitions carry a metphorical message and the message is consistent with Einstein’s writings about the bomb.  

The portrayal of Oppenheimer seems consistent with what I learned in interviews of  several who worked in the Manhattan Project. Though he was one of the few Americans at the time who understood quantum physics and the possibility of releasing the binding energy of the atomic nucleus, Oppenheimer was not the kind of theoretical genius that Einstein represents. Oppie’s personal genius was nonetheless essential to administration of the project. The “father of the atomic bomb” probably originated with Time magazine. Oppie did not seek that honorific in the way that Edward Teller named himself  “father of the hydrogen bomb” (and emphasized it in my interview with him). 

The late David Hawkins, who served as Oppenheimer’s trouble-shooting assistant at Los Alamos, characterized his friend from their Berkeley days this way in my interview:  Oppenheimer “had a high-powered intellect of a certain type that would grasp the essence of an argument or a situation and be able to describe it to great eloquence — in any field he turned his serious attention to,” Hawkins said. The skill, I believe,  was more literary than scientific. I say this without questioning his sccientific understanding. As a young man Oppenheimer published in a literary magazine  poetry and essays  that were, Hawkins said, “very elite and . . . of a rather precious kind.”

In a current New York Times inteview Kip Thorne, a Nobel laureate physicist, describes Oppenheimer similarly. Thorne had attended seminars run by Oppenheimer in his last years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Nolan arranged for Thorne to talk to actor Cillian Murphy about Oppenheimer.  Thorne, according to Nolan, “was able to speak to how Oppie would allow a sort of group discussion to take place and then step in at just the right moment to summarize. Apparently he could do this very quickly. He could summarize something very long and complex that a fellow scientist had said, then move the discussion to the next stage.”)



Asked for his first thought when the Trinity bomb went off, J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds,” words from the Bhagavad-Gita, which he studied in Sanskrit. He was a strange physicist, mixing science and sacred text. “Trinity” itself, was his allusion to a Christian poem by John Donne.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a justification of war and warriors that also speaks of “wondrous forms not seen before,” and “the light of a thousand suns” and “time grown old, creating world destruction.” That’s the way it was, for some, at Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert at 5:30 a.m., Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945. For those who understood what was happening, it was a cosmic revelation that would change the world forever. For those who didn’t, it was still one hell of a big bang.

Georgia Green, 18, of Socorro was in a car 50 miles north on Highway 85. She was being driven by her brother-in-law, Joe Wills, to a music lesson in Albuquerque. There was a tremendous flash. “What’s that?” she said. Georgia was blind.

Richard Harkey and his dad, Sparky Harkey, were waiting in the dark for a train at Ancho station. “Everything suddenly got brighter than daylight. My dad thought for sure the steam locomotive had blown up.” They were 50 miles and a mountain range away from Trinity Site, built in super secrecy in a place so desolate the Spanish called it Jornada del Muerto, or journey of death.

John R. Lugo was flying a U.S. Navy transport at 10,000 feet 30 miles east of Albuquerque en route to the West Coast. “My first impression was, like, the sun was coming up in the south. What a ball of fire! It was so bright it lit up the cockpit of the plane.” Lugo radioed Albuquerque. He got no explanation for the blast, but was told, “Don’t fly south.”

Rowena Baca, among those interviewed by the Albuquerque Journal’s Fritz Thompson on the 50th anniversary, remembered the red light reflecting off the walls and the ceiling in her grandparents’ house at San Antonio, 35 miles northwest of Trinity Site. “My grandmother shoved me and my cousin under a bed,” she remembered, “because she thought it was the end of the world.”

Her grandfather Jose Miera owned the Owl Bar, where scientists and soldiers had been stopping for months. Although they were working on the world’s most important secret, he knew from watching and listening that something was up. And the night before, some MP’s had tipped him that if he’d stand in the street before dawn he’d see something he’d never seen before. Sure enough.

Grace Lucero of San Antonio said soldiers who stopped at her husband’s place, another bar in the little roadside town, disclosed they were building a tower in the desert. “They said they didn’t know what it was for.”

At daybreak, rancher Dolly Onsrud of Oscuro woke up, looked out her window and saw a strange cloud rising from the other side of the mountains — right about where her cattle-grazing land had been before the U.S. Army took it over three years earlier.

William Wrye and his wife, Helen, on their ranch 20 miles northeast of Trinity, also had slept through the event. They were eating breakfast when some soldiers with a black box appeared near the stock tank. “I went out there and asked what they were doing, and they said they were looking for radioactivity. Well, we had no idea what radioactivity was back then. I told them we didn’t even have the radio on.”

Later that summer, Wrye’s whiskers stopped growing. When they came back a few months later, they were white, then returned to black. Cattle sprouted white hair along one side. Half the coat on Wrye’s black cat turned white.

Bill Gallacher, then 15, was up early at the family ranch at the north end of the Oscura range, 30 miles from Trinity. The flash lighted the sky and the rooms in the house, much brighter than a bolt of lightning. His father, evidently a man of few words, was just getting out of bed.
He said: “Damn.” Then he went to have his morning coffee.

The world’s top physicists – Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Emilio Segr‚ Edward Teller, among others – knew immediately that the new theory of matter and energy was verified. Six kilograms of an element not found in nature had produced an explosive power equal to 18,600 tons (the calculation was done later) of TNT. They had released the binding energy of the atomic nucleus. The effects were in the ballpark of their predictions, although the deadly mysteries of the radioactive fireball and of the colorful cloud floating away in the wind would not be completely understood for years.

For physicist Joe McKibben, the Atomic Age came in the back door without knocking. For technician Jack Aeby it slipped blindingly through a crack in his welder’s goggles. For photographer Berlyn Brixner it rose in dead silence like an awesome new desert sun.

The Manhattan Project, as it was code named, cost about $2 billion at a time when the average annual per capita income in the United States was around $1,000. The brilliant emigrant scientists working under the American Oppenheimer were essential, but the project also involved hundreds of engineers, machinists, technicians, photographers, secretaries, police officers, drivers and builders – military and civilian.

It could not have been done without the wealth of the American government and the ingenuity of American industry. More than 100,000 civilian workers were involved in making the materials for first atomic bombs. The director for all the sites – Tennessee, Washington, Idaho as well as New Mexico — was a military man, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who had supervised the building of the Pentagon.

The crash program, with all its inefficiencies and trials and errors, had come down to this: 6 kilograms, or about 13.6 pounds, of the new artificial element plutonium, delivered from a massive plant on the Columbia River at Hanford, Wash. The design theory was to slam together two carefully machined hemispheres of the new metal with absolute explosive precision, creating a critical mass and a chain reaction.

The only New Mexican in Oppenheimer’s inner circle probably was David Hawkins. Designated as the official historian of Los Alamos, he was high enough on the “need-to-know” pyramid that he had seen one of the super-secret plutonium hemispheres.

He held it in his hands, he told me. It was warm, like a living thing.

Just as Oppenheimer chose Los Alamos for the site of the development of the bomb, Hawkins suggested the general areas for its test. Hawkins, whose father was a prominent lawyer, grew up at La Luz, New Mexico, near Alamogordo and the White Sands desert.

David Hawkins

When I interviewed him in 1995 at his home in Boulder, Colo., he was 82 and an emeritusprofessor of philosophy at the University of Colorado whose honors included a McArthur Foundation “genius” award. But rather than talk about his career, he dwelled on memories of youthful explorations in the desert. “I had horses to ride, and I had a Model A Ford pickup truck to drive. We wandered all over the Tularosa Basin, one way or another, looking for minerals, looking for excitement, looking for rattlesnakes, looking for adventure of the desert kind.”

His buddy on some of the explorations was Berlyn Brixner, a boy from a poor family who loved photography. As a result of their friendship, Brixner would become chief photographer for the Trinity test and would spend the rest of his life at Los Alamos.

Hawkins and Oppenheimer met at the University of California Berkeley, where Hawkins was completing his doctoral work in mathematical probability and Oppenheimer was teaching. They had leftist politics and New Mexico in common. Oppenheimer’s parents had sent the brilliant young New Yorker on a horseback tour of northern New Mexico between high school and college. During the trip he saw the Los Alamos Boys Ranch.

The Berkeley politics they had in common would lose them both their security clearances in the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. “We were the self-appointed left-wing protectors of political wisdom on the campus,” Hawkins said. It seems tame in retrospect: their main leftist activity was to help organize a teacher’s union, he said.

Their group also tried to focus political attention on the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi military buildup. Oppenheimer’s family, American Jews with relatives in Germany, “knew a lot more about Hitler than most Americans at that time,” Hawkins said.

Oppenheimer “had a high-powered intellect of a certain type that would grasp the essence of an argument or a situation and be able to describe it to great eloquence — in any field he turned his serious attention to,” he said.
As a young man Oppenheimer published poetry and essays in a literary magazine called Hound and Horn that was, Hawkins said, “very elite poetry and prose of a rather precious kind.”

After his three-year blaze through Harvard with honors, Oppenheimer studied in Germany and Denmark. “He was one of the people who quickly assimilated the ideas of Niels Bohr, which were still new and still causing much distress to traditional-minded physicists,” Hawkins said.

When Oppenheimer returned, “he was probably the only physicist in the United States for a while that was a real master of this developing discipline called quantum mechanics. What came out of it was the physics of the atom and in particular the turning of attention to the nucleus of the atom,” he said.

Soon physicists were probing nuclei with high-energy particles. Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago had what Hawkins called “an intuition about the heavy metals, particularly Uranium,” and Fermi accomplished the first controlled nuclear reaction. Leo Szilard had already conjectured that some heavy elements might fission in a chain reaction, creating an atomic bomb.

In late 1941, Oppenheimer became scarce at Berkeley, and early in 1943, Hawkins got a call from him on a bad circuit, saying, “We need you.”

“I knew immediately that this thing was on, and I didn’t want to be excluded from knowing about it. I was intrigued by the thought of being part of this extraordinary development. And it was still of course in those days entirely focused on the terrible thought that the Germans might get this weapon and win World War II.”

Hawkins, with his wife, moved to northern New Mexico. “The spirit at Los Alamos was one of excitement about this extraordinary new technology. These were academic physicists, but they were on their way to becoming — we invented the word — weaponeers.”

Soon he was Oppenheimer’s unofficial troubleshooter, and his first task was to mediate disputes between the Los Alamos scientists and the Army. “The military created the place as an Army post, and being in their own traditions accustomed to the fact that the military in such a place would be on top and the civilians would be under them, it was a hard struggle to accept the attitude of the scientists, which was that the military were their servants.”

The usual story, not based on much evidence, is that Oppenheimer and Groves were natural-born adversaries. But Hawkins never saw them fight. “They were like this,” he said, holding together two fingers. “They needed no mediation.”

He went on, “It is well known that Groves picked Oppenheimer against the advice of other physicists who considered themselves perhaps senior to Oppenheimer. But Groves had a belief that Oppenheimer was the man who could do this job, and he was right. Oppenheimer had a kind of presence, a kind of style, that enabled quite senior physicist types to accept his leadership happily. It’s a remarkable talent.

“He could be quite obtuse about some things. That’s not too surprising. Many people with tremendous rapid intellectual qualifications can miss the boat,” Hawkins said.

Groves, on the other hand, “wasn’t an ideologue. He had some kind of imagination. It didn’t make him more attractive, but it made him more respectable,” said Hawkins, adding: “Oppenheimer really did, I think, make a deal with Groves.”

The deal was that Oppenheimer would be free to run the lab as he wished and Groves would protect him from the FBI and G-2 military intelligence. “They’d already reported to him about Oppenheimer’s left-wing activities, and of course this was a time when the anti-Communist scare wasn’t what it became later publicly, but it was very powerful then. Communists were demons, especially in the intelligence world,” Hawkins said.

Early in 1945, the Army was looking for a place to test the bomb. Hawkins suggested the Jornada del Muerto, where he used to play. The exact site there was the McDonald, which was confiscated. By July it was a secret military installation with 20 miles of straight blacktop roads, thousands of miles of cables, a base camp with rows of barracks, concrete bunkers and a mysterious 10-story steel tower.

On the day of Trinity, at 5:10 a.m., the amplified voice of physicist Sam Allison began what’s now called a countdown. “Minus 20 minutes” boomed over the loud speakers and short-wave radios in the dark Jornada del Muerto.

By space-age standards, it was a very short countdown, but it was probably the first in history. “Sam seemed to think it was,” said Joe McKibben, interviewed in his subdivision home at White Rock in 1995 at age 82. “He told me, `I think I’m the first person to count backward.’”

Just as Allison is remembered for the Trinity countdown, Joe McKibben is remembered as the guy who pushed the button. “That kind of annoys me,” the scientist said, folding himself down on a couch in his cluttered study in White Rock (a residential addition to Los Alamos). “I consider it a minor part of my work.”

Still, it wasn’t minor at the time. That morning McKibben, a lanky Missouri farm boy, sat at the Trinity control panel. For three months he had been in charge of wiring 360 square miles of desert around the 100-foot steel tower. The fat implosion bomb, 5 feet round, 5 tons heavy, squatted in a harness of cables on a platform on top. And the desert floor was scattered with instruments.

Wisconsin-trained physicist McKibben had spent the night at the tower on guard duty with two Harvard physicists, Trinity director Kenneth Bainbridge and Russian explosives wizard George Kistiakowsky, a former Cossack.

It was another night of uneasy thunder storms in the Jornada. McKibben remembered that the night before lightning struck so close the assembly chief, Navy Commander Norris Bradbury, called him by phone from a bunker. “He said, `Did lightning strike the tower?’ I said, `Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?’”

McKibben fell asleep under some tarps on the clean linoleum floor at the tower base where the final assembly team had done its job carefully, very carefully, inserting the plutonium core.And McKibben had a dream. It was simple, peaceful. “I started dreaming Kistiakowsky had gotten a garden hose and was sprinkling the bomb. Then I woke up and realized there was rain in my face.”

Soon the rain paused, and Bainbridge rescheduled the shot for 5:30 a.m. After closing the last open circuits, the three physicists drove south in a jeep as fast as they could on the straight blacktop road.

They were the last men out of the zone of lethal heat, blast and radiation. The nearest humans were in bunkers called North 10,000, West 10,000 and South 10,000 because each was 10,000 meters (5.6 miles) from Ground Zero.

“We got to South 10,000 (the control bunker) at 5:10, and that was the time I needed to throw the first switch,” McKibben recalled. Allison took up the microphone in the countdown booth. A quick young Harvard physicist named Donald Hornig, who would become President Johnson’s science advisor 18 years later, took his place near McKibben at an abort switch. Hornig’s job was to stop everything if the detonation circuit faltered, in order to save the plutonium.

Kistiakowsky, who would become President Eisenhower’s science advisor, was in and out of the crowded room. An 18-year-old soldier named Val Fitch was attending British scientist Ernest Titterton at a set of vaccuum tubes that would deliver the detonating voltage across 6 miles of cable. Fitch would win the 1980 Nobel Prize in physics. Bradbury would become director of the Los Alamos lab from 1945 to 1970.

McKibben recalled seeing these men, but, “I didn’t see Oppenheimer. I was told that he came in the door and observed me at the controls and went away. Just to see that I was sane.” And he laughed.

At North 10,000 Berlyn Brixner was in the open on top of the bunker at the controls of a fast movie camera with a blackened view finder. “I was one of the few people given permission to look directly at the bomb at zero time,” said Brixner, an amiable man of 84 sitting alertly in his minimalist living room in a ponderosa-shaded Los Alamos neighborhood.

Brixner’s assignment as chief photographer  was this: shoot movies in 16-millimeter black-and-white, from every angle and distance and at every speed, of an unknown event beginning with the brightest flash ever produced on earth.

“The theoretical people had calculated a some 10-sun brightness. So that was easy,” said Brixner. “All I had to do was go out and point my camera at the sun and take some pictures. Ten times that was easy to calculate.”

The theoretical people also knew a little about radiation, which fogs film, and Brixner consequently shielded two of his near-tower cameras behind 12-inch-thick leaded glass. Some of his cameras were so fast they shot 100 feet of film in a second. Some were 20 miles away and ran for 10 minutes.

And now he waited on top of the bunker, gripping the panning-mechanism of his movie camera, which like all the others would be turned on by signals from McKibben’s control panel.

At Base Camp, the old McDonald ranch house 10 miles south of the tower, the box-seat audience included Gen. Groves and some presidential overseers: Carnegie Institute president Vannevar Bush and Harvard president James Bryant Conant. Among the physicists at Base Camp were I. I. Rabi, a New Yorker who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, and Fermi.

Among the 250 lab workers and 125 soldiers was Jack Aeby, a young “4-F’d” civilian technician. Interviewed in 1995 at age 72, the retired Los Alamos health physics worker recalled how his job in the weeks leading to the test was to help the Italian physicist Emilio Segr‚ set radiation detectors near the tower. Some of the instruments were hung on barrage balloons tethered 800 yards from the tower. They’d be vaporized a millisecond after they transmitted their nuclear data.

Aeby carried his own personal 35-millimeter still camera, which Segr‚ got through security, and now as the countdown started he was planning to take an new Anscochrome color transparency picture of the bomb. He had carried a chair out into the darkness and was sitting there with the camera propped on the back and pointed north. He put on his government-issue welding goggles, not noticing in the dark that there was a crack in one lens. And he listened to the countdown on the Base Camp loudspeakers.

At the v.i.p. viewing area called Compania Hill, 20 miles northwest of the tower and about 10 miles southeast of the village of San Antonio, two refugee physicists put on sunburn lotion in the dark. They were Edward Teller of Hungary and Hans Bethe of Germany. Teller would become famous, and Bethe would win the 1967 Nobel Prize in physics.

Teller put on gloves to protect his hands and sunglasses under his welder’s goggles, for extra protection. “I expected it to work,” Teller said in a 1995 Journal interview.

At minus 45 seconds, McKibben cut in an automatic timing drum he had made to generate the final 20 relay signals, including the big one. The drum turned once a second, and McKibben said he had attached a chime that struck once each revolution. So there were 44 chimes before Allison bellowed: “Zero!”

McKibben waited at his brightly lighted console after throwing the last switch. The bunker had a small open door on the south, facing away from the shot. “Suddenly I realized there was a hell of a lot more light coming in the back door,” McKibben said. “A very brilliant light. It outdid the light I had on the control panel many times over. I looked out the back door and I could see everything brighter than daylight.”

Aeby had put his Perfex 44 camera on “bulb” and in the dark before “Zero” opened up the shutter, figuring that way he’d get a good image of the flash. Suddenly the light cut a sharp white line across his vision. “I could see that crack for some time afterward,” he said. Aeby flung off the goggles to reset his camera. “I released the shutter, cranked the diaphragm down, changed the shutter speed and fired three times in succession,” he says. “I quit at three because I was out of film.”

Brixner, at North 10,000, was stunned. “The whole filter seemed to light up as bright as the sun. I was temporarily blinded. I looked to the side. The Oscura mountains were as bright as day. I saw this tremendous ball of fire, and it was rising. I was just spellbound! I followed it as it rose. Then it dawned on me. I’m the photographer! I’ve gotta get that ball of fire.” He jogged the camera up. One thing more. He said: “There was no sound! It all took place in absolute silence.”

By the time the loud blast hit, 30 seconds after the flash, most of Brixner’s 55 cameras in the desert were finished. There would be 100,000 frames to develop in black and white and a few in the new temperamental Kodachrome.

In the silence, McKibben stepped out the back door of South 10,000 and looked north over the bunker. “It was quite a pretty sight. Colored. Purplish. No doubt from the iron in the tower and a lot of soil off the ground that had been vaporized. I was surprised at the enormity of it and immediately felt it had gone big.”

McKibben ducked behind the bunker just as the shock wave hit. “Then an amazing thing: it was followed by echoes from the mountains. There was one echo after another. A real symphony of echoes. Too bad nobody had a recorder on that. It would have been played many times since then.”

As the shock wave hit Base Camp, Aeby saw Enrico Fermi with a handful of torn paper. “He was dribbling it in the air. When the shock wave came it moved the confetti. He thought for a moment.”Fermi had just estimated the yield of the first nuclear explosion. It was in the ball park.”

Robert Van Gemert of Albuquerque was at Base Camp in the hours after the shot. “I’m just amazed how those scientists whipped out so many bottles of gin or whatever they could find. And it was rapidly consumed, I can tell you that,” he said in a 1995 interview. GI’s said things like: “Buddy, you just saw the end of the war!” “Now we’ve got the world by the tail!”

At South 10,000, Frank Oppenheimer recalled, his brother probably said, “It worked!” Kistiakowsky is supposed to have turned to the director and said, “You owe me ten dollars,” because of a bet they had. Bainbridge is supposed to have told Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

At Compania Hill, Teller remembered, “I was impressed.” Bethe remembered his first thought was, “We’ve done it!” and his second was, “What a terrible weapon have we fashioned.”

At North 10,000, Brixner and the others were thinking suddenly only of a kind of hazard the world had never known. “I was looking up, and I noticed there was a red haze up there, and it seemed to be coming down on us,” he said.

“Pretty soon the a radiation monitor said, `The radiation is rising! We’ve got to evacuate!’ I said, `That’s fine, but not until I get all the film from my cameras.’” In the midst of the world’s first nuclear fallout, somebody helped Brixner throw his last three cameras in an Army car, and they all got out of there fast. Film badges later showed they received low doses, by the standards of the time.

About 160 men were waiting secretly north of the Jornada with enough vehicles to evacuate the small communities in the probable fallout path, and Gen. Groves had phoned Gov. John Dempsey before the test to warn him he might be asked to declare martial law. But the radiation readings from people secretly stationed all over New Mexico stayed at what was then considered safe.

Not far from Teller on Compania Hill was German Communist refugee Klaus Fuchs, who would be uncovered as a Russian spy five years later.

And outside the Jornada, all of New Mexico had eyes and ears. Teller said many Los Alamos employees, including his secretary Mary Argo, slipped away to Sandia Crest above Albuquerque for a direct 100-mile view of the shot that morning.

In Potsdam, just outside the rubble of bombed-out Berlin, President Harry Truman waited for the coded message that the bomb worked, and he would tell Joseph Stalin that America had a secret weapon. Stalin already knew.

But the rest of the world didn’t have a clue. Not the B-29 pilots who that Friday hit Tokyo, again, with 3,000 conventional bombs. Not the 750,000 American troops who were being made ready for the planned Nov. 1 invasion of Japan.

Teller said when he returned to his Los Alamos office his secretary, Mary Argo, ran to him. Breaking all the secrecy rules, she said, “`Mr. Teller! Mr. Teller! Did you ever see such a thing in your life?’ I laughed. And she laughed.” He added,: “Does that tell you something?”

At community radio station KRS in Los Alamos, Bob Porton, a GI, was about to rebroadcast the noon news, courtesy of an Albuquerque. “Suddenly about 30 or 40 scientists all came in and stood around,” he said. “We knew something was up.”

The lead story, Porton said, was this: “The commanding officer of Alamogordo Air Base announced this morning a huge ammunition dump had blown up, but there were no injuries.”

“All these scientists jumped up and down and slapped each other on the back,” Porton said. “I was familiar with secrecy. I never asked any questions. But I knew it was something big.”

Brixner was already on his way to Hollywood to get his film developed by a secured studio lab. One reel would show his “wakeup” jog of the camera. Aeby developed his color transparency film that night in Los Alamos, using the complex system of a half dozen Ansco chemicals. The first shot of the bomb was overexposed off the scale, but one of the next three became the only good color picture known of the first atomic explosion, Aeby said. The lab said the transparency is lost.

Ten days after the Trinity shot, at 4 a.m. on July 26, Raemer Schreiber, accompanied by a detachment of MP’s, picked up a box the size of a car battery, only lighter, at a vault in Los Alamos. The 10-inch cube was made of magnesium to dissipate heat from a gentle source. It was protected by four rubber bumpers on each side.

“We had three GI sedans, and we drove in the middle one. With the core in the trunk of the sedan, we drove down to Albuquerque,” he recalled. They all flew out of Kirtland Field in two C-54 cargo planes carrying nothing but “a box of documents and some guards and my little box and me.”

Nobody talked about the box. Those were the rules. Next day over the Pacific, Schreiber said, “I was sitting up in the co-pilot’s seat. The co-pilot was sacked out. And the pilot was reading his dime novel, and we ran into this storm. I says, `Should I get out of here and let the co-pilot come in?’ He says, `No, I need the instrument time.’

“About that time one of guards came up and tapped me on the shoulder and says, `Sir, your box is bouncing around back there and we’re scared to touch it.’ So I went back and corralled it and got a piece of rope and tied it to one of the legs of the cots.”

At Tinian island Schreiber was met by some of the Los Alamos group that had already received the rest of Fat Man. At the other side of the island base another group had a crude uranium bomb called Little Boy with a core too heavy for one man to carry.

Schreiber put his little box in a fenced, Marine-guarded quonset hut and went to eat.

At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, Little Boy destroyed the center of Hiroshima. It was a relatively crude uranium bomb with a “gun barrel” design that had never been tested, but the theory had been verified at Trinity. On Aug. 9, the plutonium bomb, the twin of the Trinity device, was exploded over Nagasaki. It’s spherical “implosion” design would become the basis of the American nuclear arsenal, and implosion cores would become the triggers for advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Historian Richard Rhodes accepted the estimate that the two bombs in Japan together killed 140,000 men, women and children by the end of 1945 and that the total grew to 200,000 from radiation effects by 1950.

The firebombing of Tokyo by conventional weapons took an estimated 100,000 lives one night in March 1945. Schreiber, mindful of this, said, “Just the fact you could do the same thing with one airplane and one bomb proved the efficiency, but it didn’t change the effect very much. But the firebombing, the saturation bombing of the B-29’s was not bringing Japan to its knees, and the shock effect of one airplane being able to wipe out a city, I think, is what finally convinced the Japanese military they had to give up.”

And as Nobel laureate Bethe put it in my interview, if the bomb wasn’t used, “the Japanese would have had far greater casualties than they did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki because the conventional fire bombing would have continued until the Japanese gave up.”

That was the standard rationale, widely accepted in the Cold War, even by Japanese political leaders. President Harry Truman stated it first, estimating the atomic bomb saved a million American lives. World War II veterans often told me, if I asked, that the bomb probably is the reason they were alive.

But radical historians, beginning in the 1960’s, disputed the numbers, and the theory advanced by Stanford University Historian Barton Bernstein gained favor. It was that Japan would have surrendered any way and that Truman approved the use of the bombs in order to intimidate the Soviet Union. In this interpretation, Hiroshima was the first shot fired in the Cold War.

Ellen Wilder Bradbury recalled that weeks after the Japanese surrender, the Wilder family tuned in the only radio they had, in their car, to hear a wire recording broadcast over KRS. Ellen was about five and hadn’t understood about Hiroshima. And now she was hearing a recording made in the cockpit of “Bocks Car,” the B-29 that dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki.

She recalled the now-lost recording clearly: “They said, `We’ve got an opening in the clouds. OK. We’re going ahead.’ And then they counted down to drop it. And they did say, `Bombs Away!’ But I had just learned to count, and I was most impressed by the fact that they could count backwards.”

Hawkins was among the unpublicized few who declined to go to the Trinity test. “I didn’t want to see it,” he told me, leaving it at that. He finished his secret history and left Los Alamos, dating the preface Aug. 6, 1946, the first anniversary of Hiroshima.

He devoted his life to philosophy and teaching. In the fall of 1995, Hawkins was invited back to Los Alamos, where he had been banned for decades, to deliver the 25th annual J. Robert Oppenheimer Lecture. He chose to speak of his experience and his theory of how to teach scientific thinking to children.

But he opened by reminding the audience in the Los Alamos civic auditorium that they had spent their lives working on something “that can never be used.”

In Boulder he had told me Oppenheimer knew the bomb was inevitable, that, “If it wasn’t developed in World War II, it would appear secretly in the arsenals of nations after World War II during peace time. And the greatest hope for coping with this new development was to recognize and to persuade the world to recognize that this was not a military weapon. This destructive power was beyond anything that warfare itself as an institution could tolerate,” he said, adding: “If we’re going to continue to have wars, they can’t be this bad.”

He said, “Oppenheimer knew it already in some way. We all knew it in some way, and we had therefore this idealistic side to the contract with the Devil, if that’s what it was, that it would be necessary to develop the weapon to have it known to the whole world, in order that the world could protect itself.”

( Unless otherwise attributed, the interviews in this story were conducted by me in person.)