White Sands National Park is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range, an active military facility that continues weapons testing to this day.

When the sky fell to earth

It’s a story about the forgotten and the betrayed: On July 16, 1945 the world’s first atomic bomb exploded at a test site in New Mexico. To this day, the consequences for the residents of the contaminated area are being covered up.

By Joshua Wheeler (Text) and Reto Sterchi (Photos), 16.10.2021

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Hundreds of twinkling lights, five hundred brown paper sacks with candles in them, luminarias around the mound and spilling out into the base paths and a family of three with singing bowls on the infield grass, the biggest singing bowls I’ve ever seen, like singing buckets between their legs and them dragging mallets along the glass rims to make the air drone, for hours the air drones as one by one the luminarias are extinguished by roving figures in the dark. And when another wisp of smoke from a smothered wick dissipates, then we are done remembering, for this year, one more victim of the Gadget, the Manhattan Project’s crowning achievement at Trinity, the world’s first atomic explosion on July 16, 1945, right here in Southern New Mexico.

Up in the press box a trio of announcers takes turns reading pages of names of all the people in the Tularosa Basin who have died of cancer caused, they say, by radioactive fallout from the first breath of the atomic age. For hours, name after name like the slow grind of a macabre graduation ceremony. So then this is how the Gadget’s blast fades: after a flash of heat ten thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun, after a blast reverberating windows for a hundred miles, after lifting as much as 230 tons of radioactive sand mixed with ash into a mushroom cloud over seven miles high, after seven decades. And still the blast echoes here at the baseball field as another name is called and another flame extinguished in remembrance of someone dead from cancer caused, they say, by the world’s first atomic bomb.

Out beyond center field is a rusty merry-go-round, the kid-powered playground kind with the kids running in circles to get it spinning at unsafe speeds and jumping on and getting immediately flung off, and all through the reading of names and extinguishing of luminarias, that merry-go-round never stops creaking and spinning, the children of Tularosa never stop running and hollering and getting flung into the night.

It’s almost like they don’t even know they’re the children of the bomb.

Or, the Gadget.

Children of the Gadget.

Out of New Mexico came two different versions of the atomic bomb and then there was a superbomb and eventually many tens of thousands of each including warheads on missiles and torpedoes, but they were all born of the same moment of warfare singularity when mass destruction became less of a campaign and more of a decision. The Trinity Site: just 45 miles northwest of those children discovering the nauseous joy of physics on the merry-go-round.

Every bomb is the Bomb, but that first one at Trinity was called the Gadget – a code name for secrecy’s sake, a name diluted by the technicality that it was only a test device, a name meant to hide the significance of what America was about to do. Just a gizmo or a widget. A little doohickey.

Nothing but a goddamn gadget.

Just toying with the nauseous joy of physics.

Henry Herrera sits up in his lawn chair next to the bleachers and says, “the thing went off and the fire went up and the cloud rose and the bottom half went up that way.” He gestures over my head toward first base. “But then the top part, the mushroom top started coming back this way and fell all over everything.” He waves both his arms back toward us and all around us, big swoops of old, thin, and crooked arms over his head like he might be able to accurately pantomime an atomic blast or like he’s invoking its spirit or just inviting the fireball to rain down again so the rest of us can really understand.

Henry’s sort of a celebrity in this crowd, one of a handful of folks around Tularosa still living who actually witnessed the Gadget’s blast, a guy who’s beat cancer three times already and says he’ll lick it again if he gets the chance. I’ve heard him repeat his story, word for word, to anyone who will listen, for years now. He sits next to me, fiddling with the pearl snaps on his Western shirt, petting his white hair down in back behind his big ears, telling the tale in spurts, little stanzas between long gaps of pondering, those rests of silent reflection that never stop growing as we age, like ears, like I guess all our really old storytellers have big ears and the will to ride a lull for as long as it takes until an aphorism or anecdote has marinated on the tongue and is ready to serve. He serves one up: “I’ll bet ten dollars to a donut your momma never blamed you for the atomic bomb.”

And the rest of his story sidles out as the luminarias burn.

Seven decades after the explosion, the Trinity downwinders hold a vigil in Tularosa: The names of the deceased echo across the baseball field, candles symbolize the victims.

Henry was 11 and up early, just before dawn, to fill the radiator in his daddy’s Ford, always his first morning chore. The radiator on an old Model A had to be drained every night and filled every morning if you couldn’t afford fancy additives like water lube or that newfangled antifreeze. And the Herreras couldn’t afford anything fancy. This was 1945 and they were just like all their neighbors in Tularosa, most everyone Hispanic and working ranches, growing and raising as much of their own food as they could and collecting most of their summer drinking water from the monsoon rains. So there’s little Henry with his skinny arms holding a bucket over the fill hole in the grille of the Ford, and what he remembers most is that his momma had laundry hanging on the line to dry. He remembers the laundry blowing in the wind.

“Kinda strange to have wind like that right before dawn. All her white stuff,” he says. “Linens and shirts and underwear flapping around.”

And then the flash: on the polished steel of the Ford’s grille and the dull steel of the bucket and the flapping white linens and the retinas of little Henry’s eyes. “Light. Night turned to day,” he says. “Like heaven came down.” And then the blast and the shaking and then dark again. Silence.

Nobody ever thought much of a bomb going off because bombs were always going off over at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range since our Second World War began, but this explosion was different.

“It was huge and after a few minutes comes this little filmy dust,” Henry says. “Fine dark ash just came down and landed all over everything. Momma’s clothes hanging out there turned nearly black, so she had to wash them over again. You talk about a mad Mexican.” He laughs at the thought of his momma’s face, seeing all her whites turned to grays, screaming, “what the hell did you explode out here, Henry?”

So that’s the story of how Henry’s momma tried to blame him for the atomic bomb.

“It’s funny until you know we was drinking it and eating and everything else.”

“But we didn’t know that for years.”

“Not really until we started dying.”

Henry intertwines his tale of the Gadget with tales about being in the military 10 years after Trinity, touring Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war because he’d become obsessed with what he’d seen as a kid – “night turned to day, like heaven came down” – and he needed to see also what the Bomb had done to our enemies, and he surely saw it all: the complete devastation, the rubble and ash and shadows stuck to walls and “just imagine all those families,” he says.

His eyes get watery, crying the way all these old tough guys from the desert do, a quivering lip and the eyes barely dripping but gritting his teeth to offset it all, gritting so hard it appears he’s trying to stop not just his own tears but trying to will away all the sorrow in the world all by himself, the presence of any tears really secondary to the wrought of his face in relating not just sadness about Japanese civilians killed in the bombings or sadness about American civilians killed by the test but also rage about the inevitability of it all. “We did it,” he says. “We Americans did that. We had to, I know.”

“But nobody remembers we did it here first.”

The last witnesses of the explosion at the Trinity downwinders annual vigil: Henry Herrera (right) is pushing 90 and has beaten cancer three times already.
For many years, the people who live in the Tularosa Basin area didn’t know how much damage the explosion had caused. Until people started dying.

So here they are having a vigil, three generations of families from the Tularosa Basin, a stretch of desert southeast of Trinity, between the San Andres Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains, from Carrizozo down past Alamogordo with the village of Tularosa smack-dab in the middle. And the luminarias on the village ballpark are their way of saying after all this time, “we were there. The desert you blew up was not so lonesome. We are here still but we are dying. If you cannot save us, then let us tell our story.”

Stories of the world’s first atomic bomb explosion on July 16, 1945 have long been clouded by myths about the place where it happened.

Some of these myths reach far back in time, as if the Bomb were a historical inevitability. One suggests that the Gadget was exploded on the Jornada del Muerto, a 100-mile stretch of particularly deadly trail named in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors who trekked northward from Mexico in search of riches at the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. This site was always devoid of life, suggests this particular myth, and so it was a place fated to give birth to the world’s first weapon of mass destruction.

Or the myths come from Hollywood, as with the 1954 film “Them!”. The plot of “Them!” revolves around the Gadget’s explosion at Trinity, how the test inadvertently created giant mutant ants that kill lots of locals before escaping from New Mexico to terrorize the rest of America.

Or the myths populate parallel universes, like those of Marvel and DC comics, where Doctor Manhattan emerges from another physics experiment gone wrong in the New Mexico desert, or others, like Captain Atom or Starlight or Spider Man, who are born of mishaps with radiation from atomic power that traces its roots to Trinity.

The fantasy in some of these myths is plain: there are no superhumans or giant mutant killer ants. Other myths are simply historical inaccuracies: the expedition of Spaniard Francisco Vasquez de Coronado did not quite go through the area of present-day Trinity back in 1540, but trekked some 200 miles west. The cities of gold he sought ended up being a mirage too, mostly a figment of his own greedy imagination.

When, decades later in 1598, Spaniards did use the Jornada del Muerto, the trail was still 50 miles west of Trinity and their expeditions were not glorious travails but messy battles to enslave Indigenous peoples, and then quick retreats when the Indigenous peoples rebelled.

Still, there is often some truth at the root of persistent myths. Attaching the stories of conquistadors to the birth of the atomic bomb, for instance, might suggest an axiom about the indelible folly of conquerors through the ages, great warriors sacrificing morality in pursuit of some mirage of riches or fame or power.

But the reality of the conquistadors makes a basic and important truth about Southern New Mexico plain: though the region surrounding Trinity is largely a desert with little water, it has never been totally devoid of life. It has long been populated, first by Pueblo and Apache, and later by Mexican and American peoples. Jornado del Muerto, then, means not devoid of life, but something more akin to “here is life we have ignored.” And as the myths of killer ants and superhumans suggest, meddling with an atomic weapon has consequences for all life in its wake.

For so long the story of the Gadget’s explosion at Trinity has included some version of this myth: atomic history was made in an uninhabited stretch of the high lonesome desert in New Mexico. A 2015 PBS documentary about Trinity begins, “Here, miles and miles from anywhere …” Even the most acclaimed history, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, by Richard Rhodes, an otherwise stellar eight-hundred-page tome that covers everything from the most minute details of late-nineteenth-century theoretical physics to the rate of venereal disease at the Trinity outpost (proudly the lowest in the nation), ignores the fact that as many as 13’000 New Mexicans lived within 50 miles of the blast, with some only 12 miles away.

“A bomb exploded in a desert damages not much besides sand and cactus and the purity of the air,” writes Rhodes. More recent articles about Trinity occasionally use the phrase “sparsely populated region.” And it is true that the thousands of mostly Hispanic, Native, and poor ranchers and villagers that lived within 50 miles of Trinity pale in comparison to the half million Japanese who were casualties of the Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

But that kind of math is little solace for folks like Henry Herrera who feel they’ve been poisoned in the shadows, long forgotten or swept under the rug by their own victorious nation.

“The world is coming to an end”

The story of Henry Herrera.

Activist on behalf of the Downwinders

The story of Tina Cordova, who founded the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium with Fred Tyler in 2005.

“We’ve been totally ignored. Overlooked”

The story of Bernice Gutierrez.

When I first wrote about the Tularosa Basin Downwinders back in 2015, they were over a decade into their battle for recognition and compensation as the world’s first downwinders. Since 1990, the United States government has made payments to people affected by proximity to the nation’s nuclear weapons industry – up to 50’000 dollars for downwinders and 100’000 dollars for uranium miners, mill workers, transporters, and any other workers or soldiers exposed to radiation at nuclear test sites. Over 24’000 claims have been paid out to downwinders, largely to those living downwind of the nuclear test site in the state of Nevada. But no claims have been paid out to any of the families that lived near the Trinity test because, to this day, the government claims that there were no adverse health outcomes from radioactive fallout in New Mexico at the birth of the atomic age on July 16, 1945.

Back in 2015 there seemed a kind of inevitability about the Trinity downwinder’s movement. Each year they were getting more news coverage and reaching out to more families ravaged by cancer who’d lived near the test in 1945. It seemed that the government’s failure to acknowledge the fallout of Trinity was an oversight that would be easily remedied. The downwinders of Trinity could be compensated in the same way other downwinders were. But now, after years of failed amendments and heartfelt testimonies before the Senate, the situation for the Trinity downwinders of southern New Mexico is dire. Each year there are fewer and fewer living witnesses to that 1945 test. And on July 9, 2022, the Radiation Exposure and Compensation Act (RECA) will sunset, meaning that, after that date, unless there is new legislation ratified, the people of New Mexico will never again have a chance to be recognized, and compensated, as victims of the first atomic bomb.

And so after all this time, one wonders if the government’s omission of New Mexico downwinders in RECA is not merely an oversight but part of a longstanding cover-up. Why, after 76 years, is a cover-up still necessary?

One reason New Mexico may be singled out for such a cover-up is because the state is, by any measure, the single most important region in all of America’s nuclear weapons industry.

Paul Pino, originally of Carrizozo, New Mexico, is on the board of the Trinity Downwinders.
Because the atomic bomb and many other military weapons were tested on the White Sands Missile Range nearby, Alamogordo has been nicknamed both «atomic city» and «rocket city».
A red sky still reminds some people of the morning when the bomb exploded.
Tina Cordova fights for the victims of the nuclear weapons industry in New Mexico to be recognised and compensated.

New Mexico is the only state with a so-called “cradle to grave” nuclear economy, meaning that uranium is mined here, and weapons designed and tested and maintained here, as well as nuclear waste stored here. It’s been said that if New Mexico were to secede from America, it would be the world’s third mightiest nuclear power.

The concern, then, is that recognizing the downwinders of Trinity might also require recognition of downwinders at the Los Alamos and Sandia Laboratories in the north of the state (200 and 150 miles from Trinity), where decades of dumping of radioactive waste is still being cleaned up. And then also it may be prudent to recognize downwinders near WIPP (200 miles from Trinity), a nuclear waste storage site near Carlsbad where human error has caused at least one serious spill in recent years when the usual kitty litter (yes, absurdly, they store some radioactive waste in the high-tech substance of kitty litter) was switched out for an organic brand that caused a chemical reaction resulting in busted storage barrels.

New Mexico is, in other words, a very sensitive and expensive nuclear weapons industrial powerhouse. Perhaps, from the government’s point of view, any small glitch, like admitting to a cover-up at Trinity and recognizing the downwinders there, might start an unwanted chain reaction that could, well, blow the whole thing up (metaphorically).

(Like the infamous kitty litter incident, there are many other catastrophes in New Mexico's nuclear history that get overshadowed by the scientific accomplishments that come out of the fancy labs at Los Alamos and Sandia. For instance: the world’s largest open pit uranium mine was at Laguna Pueblo; currently there are as many as 525 abandoned uranium mines in the state, largely on Navajo land, with as many 300 of the mines having no plan for remediation of nuclear waste; the largest ever radioactive waste spill in 1979 at Church Rock near Gallup, New Mexico, which released over 1000 tons of radioactive solid waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive liquid onto Navajo Land and into the Puerco River. In short, the Trinity test was only the first of many nuclear weapons related disasters in New Mexico.)

Another reason the government might be invested in perpetuating the cover-up at Trinity so long after the test is, simply, habit. Trinity was a cover-up from the start. The Manhattan Project that built the Gadget (as well as Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was the single largest scientific endeavor undertaken to that point, and it was all done under the auspices of immense secrecy. Following the Trinity test, the press was told only that an ammunitions magazine exploded and that “there was no loss of life or injury.” Even after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when Trinity was revealed to be an atomic bomb test, the government’s refrain of “no loss of life or injury” did not change.

In my past writing about Trinity, I’ve pointed out some of the more remarkable facts about the test and its aftermath. 80 percent of the bomb’s plutonium core failed to fission, meaning most of that highly radioactive material was dispersed across the desert, minute particles of that radioactive stuff with a half-life of 25’000 years carried through the air and dropped, well, everywhere. Army personnel tracking the fallout ended up chasing it so far that their short-range radios failed. They had not prepared to track it so far from the test site. At least one of these soldiers forgot his respirator and took the officially sanctioned precaution of breathing through a slice of bread. Others were sent out with Filter Queen vacuum cleaners, a popular domestic vacuum in those days, to literally suck up the fallout as if it were nothing more than household dust. In the days after the test, doctors were stunned to find ranches, farms, and homes, like those of the Gallegos and Ratliff families, within 20 miles of the test site and completely dusted over with fallout.

All of these facts suggested to me that there was a great amount of incompetence surrounding the “greatest scientific achievement known to man,” as the Manhattan Project was often hailed. My thinking, then, was that with so many unknowns, with so much ignorance, it was probably even more important for the military to take safety precautions, and the fact that they did not protect themselves (and others) against their own ignorance is exactly why the downwinders of Trinity exist and deserve compensation. But a recent book has helped me to understand that while there was plenty of ignorance around Trinity, there was as much, if not more, outright and knowing endangerment of civilians.

Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age” (Harvard, 2020) is sociologist James L. Nolan Jr.’s account of his grandfather’s career as a medical doctor for the Manhattan Project. The book, as the subtitle suggests, examines how doctors who were part of the birth of the nuclear weapons industry in America attempted to walk a fine line between patriotically aiding their nation while adhering to their profession’s ultimate maxim of “do no harm.”

The book is a wealth of information that is mostly not swayed by the traditional hagiography of scientists that much writing about the Manhattan Project tends toward. And, though Nolan sometimes gives his grandfather and other doctors a pass for simply voicing their concerns about radiation, even as they went along with some truly horrendous nuclear weapons testing and use, his mere highlighting of their concerns helps to establish, at least in the case of Trinity, that civilians affected by radioactive fallout were not an accident; downwinders were a knowing sacrifice the military was happy to make in service of developing and deploying atomic weapons.

Nolan reports that as early as April 25, 1945, three months before Trinity, doctors in the Manhattan Project wrote to its director J. Robert Oppenheimer that “the radiation effects might cause considerable damage in addition to the blast damage” and that “radiation from the active material and fission products would be sufficient to render an area from one to one-hundred square kilometers uninhabitable.”

Fireworks stands outside of Tularosa, New Mexico: After a «pretest» on May 7, 1945 where TNT laced with plutonium was used, doctors warned that further explosions would have a devastating effect on towns nearby – in vain.

Two months prior to the Trinity test, on May 7, one hundred tons of TNT was exploded at the site as a kind of “pretest.” At the behest of doctors who were worried about radioactive fallout, the TNT was “spiked” with plutonium. Rats were then tied up at different distances from the blast. This handful of leashed rats was the only real experiment about downwind fallout that was done before Trinity. The experiment was, predictably, largely a bust because the rats were either totally evaporated by the blast or blown loose from their leashes and lost. However, the large blast cloud that resulted from the TNT “pretest” worried the doctors so much that they wrote a report on June 16: “There is a definite danger of dust containing active material and fission products falling on towns near Trinity and necessitating their evacuation.”

This warning, as with many similar ones from the doctors in the weeks before Trinity, was largely ignored. As Nolan writes, the sentiment coming from General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, was entirely a product of Groves’s “single minded preoccupation with security and secrecy.”

Groves was “uninterested in the doctors’ concerns and his response [was] indicative not only of the general’s ‘rifle-barrel’ focus on security but also of his lack of regard for medical doctors more generally.” By Groves’s logic, any large-scale safety precautions might tip off locals, and then perhaps the Japanese or, worse, America’s Soviet allies, to the existence of a secret weapon. Therefore, though the doctors were allowed to continue some limited research about the consequences of fallout and residual radiation, no measures were taken to ensure the safety of surrounding ranchers and townspeople.

This endangerment of civilians predicated on a strategy secrecy becomes all the more absurd when one understands that, for many months before Trinity, two physicists and a machinist had already been sending classified material from the Manhattan Project to the Soviets. Any attempt to keep the project “secret” was already futile as a result of these Sovjet spies.

The willful negligence about impact on civilians is further evidenced by the timing of the test. Both a meteorologist and the doctors were concerned that testing the Gadget during a rainstorm would exponentially increase the risks from fallout.

“In fact,” Nolan writes, “Hubbard [the meteorologist] had specifically recommended against July 16, ‘because of anticipated thunderstorms.’ When Hubbard learned that the date for the Trinity test had been fixed for July 16, he recorded in his diary, ‘Right in the middle of a period of thunderstorm … What son-of-a-bitch could have done this?’”

General Groves had ignored any warnings about storms and set the date for July 16 because the following day, July 17, US President Harry S. Truman was scheduled to meet with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill to work out issues of postwar order following Germany’s surrender weeks earlier. Groves, and perhaps Truman, wanted America to have a working atomic bomb available as a kind of bargaining chip throughout this conference, primarily as a reason for keeping the Soviets from joining the war against Japan and therefore out of any decision making about the fate of postwar Japan.

And so, on the morning of July 16, the bomb was exploded.

As one Manhattan Project medical doctor recalled, “the idea was to explode the damn thing; people were not terribly concerned with the radiation.”

Radiation monitors were sent out to surrounding areas more out of fear of legal action than of safety. Many of their radiation samples were ultimately lost. Therefore, even the official track of the fallout, like much of the government information about Trinity, cannot entirely be trusted. There was a very rudimentary evacuation plan in place that included areas north, east, and south of Trinity, but it was never meant to be used. General Groves had alerted the New Mexico governor to the possibility of declaring martial law but, again, this was not to keep anyone safe but only to ensure secrecy in the event townspeople started dying.

«It just makes me sick to think that we were guinea pigs», says Rosemary Cordova.
«Everyone around here dies of cancer.»
The radiation exposure rates in public areas from the world’s first nuclear explosion were measured at levels 10’000 times higher than allowed.

Doctors had agreed on a “safe” level of radiation exposure at Trinity that was, according to Nolan, “more than eight hundred times higher than what would be viewed as acceptable only two decades later.” But even that absurdly high “safe” radiation was exceeded many times over. The government’s own 2009 report about Trinity found that “exposure rates in public areas from the world’s first nuclear explosion were measured at levels 10’000 times higher than currently allowed.”

The Manhattan Project chief of radiological safety, Stafford Warren, wrote to Groves five days after the test that: “The dust outfall from the various portions of the cloud was potentially a very serious hazard over a band almost 30 miles wide extending almost 90 miles northeast of the site … [there is still] a tremendous amount of radioactive dust floating in the air.”

Warren also wrote to another doctor not present at the test: “Boy what a narrow escape. If we had laid it down in a steady wind as planned when you left we would have had a high mortality!! … You missed a show but you will live longer!”

After witnessing Trinity, Stafford Warren recommended to the military that any nuclear tests be conducted with at least a 150 miles radius from civilian populations. This recommendation was, in a way, a tacit admission that there were far too many civilians near Trinity. (The military never did quite adhere to that recommendation, as the Nevada test site which would host much of America’s nuclear blasts, was only about 100 miles from Las Vegas.) In fact, the 1940 census shows that there were 121 people living within 20 miles of Trinity. At 50 miles, there were over 13’000 people, including all of Tularosa and some of Alamogordo. And these numbers are from a census taken five years prior to the test, suggesting that at the time of Trinity in 1945, the population in these growing areas was likely even larger than these numbers show.

Of course, the cover-up was not just happening at Trinity. Immediately following use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with General Groves leading the way, America began to fight against the narrative that the bomb’s residual radiation was killing people far beyond the initial blast.

Though to this day the US does not recognize the effects of residual radiation in the weeks after the bombs in Japan, scores of accounts point to both Japanese and Americans who got radiation sickness after entering the cities days, weeks, or months after the attacks. As early as 1946, even though publicly any accounts of residual radiation were denied, the military’s own medical bulletin was reporting that a “greater number of injuries was probably caused by ionizing radiation-blast effects, gamma rays, and neutrons than by any other type of injury resulting from the explosion of the bombs [in Hiroshima and Nagasaki].”

The issue of residual radiation, radiation exposure occurring in the aftermath of an atomic explosion, is an important one to understand in the case of Trinity. As far as radioactive elements go, plutonium of the kind used in the Gadget is relatively safe. A simple covering like an apron or glove can help shield from external exposure. Plutonium is only at its most dangerous for humans when it is ingested. In the lead up to Trinity, the Manhattan Project had, by accident and experimentation, thorough experience with ingested plutonium.

On August 1, 1944, a year before Trinity, a chemist at Los Alamos ingested plutonium when he slipped while performing an experiment called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” This accident caused great concern about the effects of radioactive materials inside a body (as opposed to something like x-rays, administered externally, which doctors were already fairly familiar with). As a result of this dragon-induced injury, Oppenheimer authorized human experimentation to learn more.

In March of 1945, a plan was devised to inject unwitting “volunteers” with plutonium. “The first patient selected for this test,” Nolan writes in “Atomic Doctors,” “was a fifty-three-year-old ‘colored male’ named Ebb Cade.” While in the hospital for broken bones from an auto accident, Cade “was assigned the code name HP-12 (Human Product 12) and was injected on April 10 with 4,7 micrograms of plutonium, nearly five times what was accepted at the time to be the maximum body burden for ingested plutonium. It was not enough plutonium to cause acute symptoms, though it was understood, even at the time, to be sufficient to eventually cause cancer.”

As many as eighteen patients were injected with plutonium by Manhattan Project doctors. Many of the patients did not have a terminal illness and none were told what they were being injected with. Many soon died, though Cade survived longer than most. He died of a heart attack eight years after his injection.

The study of ingested plutonium in the months before Trinity is, in several ways, a kind of smoking gun. On the one hand, these doctors were quite literally harming, if not outright killing, the “patients” they injected. On the other hand, the fact of the experiments suggests the military, or at least its doctors, had some understanding that the real danger of a secret atomic test in New Mexico (and later wartime use of bombs in Japan) was not just immediate external exposure to radiation, but the continued ingestion of that radiation over a period of weeks following the blast.

One thing that many stories of Trinity downwinders don’t take into account is the kind of lifestyle these people lived in 1940’s desert America. There was no electricity in these areas at the time. There was no running water. Researchers have long maintained that exposure to fallout dispersed in the atmosphere immediately following Trinity was unlikely to be dangerous. But, as even the earliest horrific studies of plutonium showed, ingestion of that same fallout is exponentially more dangerous than external exposure. And though ingestion might not be expected to occur following a test with appropriate evacuation and safety measures, Trinity’s secrecy both before and after the test made ingestion of plutonium inevitable.

The well water in the Tularosa Basin, and throughout the area now known as White Sands Missile Range, is famously terrible. Even the military temporarily stationed at Trinity trucked in drinking water from the nearby town of Socorro because the wells in the area provided water too alkaline to drink. Ranchers and farmers living there collected rainwater for drinking and cooking. They often collected this water in large rock or metal cisterns as it poured off their roofs during storms.

Sometimes well water was used for cleaning and washing, but even the well water was often kept above ground in holding ponds. Because there was no electricity, they relied on windmills to pump the water. And so whenever there was wind, the pumps would fill these cisterns so that water would be available for later use.

In 1945, any ranch or farm in the vicinity of Trinity would have had two to three cisterns of drinking water and well water, cisterns that were open to the air and, therefore, the fallout of an atomic bomb. This might have been months worth of water, water contaminated with plutonium that they would have ingested and washed in for months because they were never warned not to, because the government was actively engaged in hiding and fighting any stories about residual radiation.

The village of Tularosa has the largest open ditch water system in all of New Mexico. To this day these ditches still supply the village with water and remain open to the air, just as they were on the morning of Trinity when Henry Herrera, like so many others, was using the water to do his morning chores just before the first fiery breath of the atomic age.

Because there were no grocery stores in this rural area, everything people ate was grown by themselves or their neighbors. Crops would have been dusted with the fallout in the days after Trinity and would have been watered using the fallout tainted cisterns and holding ponds. The same goes for livestock. In “Acid West,” I trace the story of a number of cattle who were visibly mutated by the fallout from the bomb. Their coats were, in patches or wholly, bleached white by the radiation. Because the government kept quiet about any dangers, these cattle were quickly sold to slaughter by ranchers who wanted to avoid any drop in price from rumors about “mutated cows.” These, and other livestock exposed to fallout, went into the food supply and were consumed as usual.

Studies from the National Cancer Institute about nuclear tests conducted in Nevada concluded that thousands of adults in that state are at risk for thyroid cancers because of the “milk pathway” that exposed children to “15 to 70 times as much radiation as had been previously reported … As cows and goats grazed in fallout-contaminated pastures, iodine-131 contaminated their milk,” according to a report about the study from the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” “Children received higher thyroid doses because they drank much more milk than adults and because their thyroids were smaller and still developing.”

In rural New Mexico in 1945, butter, cream, and milk were obtained from one’s own livestock, bartering with neighbors, or from small regional dairies. As detailed in Bill Lockhart’s book “The Dairies and Milk Bottles of Otero County”, it was not unusual for larger dairies near more populous areas, like City Dairy in the town of Alamogordo, to buy their milk from individual producers in rural places like Tularosa or Carrizozo. One dairy farmer, Charles Trammel, who was just 30 miles from Trinity, shipped as much as 30 pounds of pure cream as far north as Colorado each week, as well as hundreds of pounds of butter to Alamogordo every Friday. This “milk pathway” would have helped to spread fallout from the rural areas that were most affected to the children of more populated villages and towns. Indeed, according to a 2010 study from the Centers for Disease Control, more plutonium, and its fission product iodine-131, is present in New Mexicans than anywhere else in America.

The Gililland family lived 27 miles from Trinity. Edna Hinkle, a granddaughter of Dick and Genevra Gililland who owned the ranch in 1945, counts 25 cancer victims in their family. She says of the family ranch: “They had a rainwater cistern that caught rainwater when it ran off the house, and then the excess rainwater went into a dirt tank. They used this rainwater for drinking and to cook with. The well water across the canyon was too rank to drink. They had no electricity, so that means no pressure pumps or pressure tanks. The well water was pumped out of the ground by windmill when the wind blew, into an open storage tank. The water sat in the tanks exposed to radiation.”

In addition to being downwinders, the Gililland family are one of many ranching families in the area whose land was eventually taken by the military to create White Sands Missile Range, creating what some ranchers in the area call the “double whammy,” meaning they were both blown up and kicked out.

Another ranch, owned by the Gallegos family, was just 12 miles from Trinity in 1945. The Gallegos family tells similar stories of drinking out of open-air cisterns that were, on July 16, contaminated by fallout. In the four years after Trinity, ranchers Frank and Adela Gallegos suffered the deaths of three newborns. Frank died of stomach cancer in 1953 and Adela died in 1975 after suffering from both thyroid and pancreatic cancer. Of their eight children, six were eventually diagnosed with cancers.

The explosion, the quake, then darkness again: «Night became day», says Henry Herrera 76 years after the nuclear bomb was tested.

My writing about Trinity over the years has been both an attempt to expose the ignorance and willful negligence of the American military in their testing and use of the atomic bomb. But also, and just as importantly, an attempt to “re-populate” the “barren” landscape that has so often been the mythologized setting for the birth of the atomic bomb. It is the stories and faces of the Trinity downwinders that should, as much or more than any grainy image of a mushroom cloud, define the way we think about the United States’ development of weapons of mass destruction.

The Trinity downwinders are now in their last months of the decades-long battle to receive compensation for being exposed to the world’s first atomic bomb fallout. On September 22, new legislation was introduced to Congress to expand compensation from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to the Trinity downwinders and others affected by fallout from America’s nuclear weapons industry. Senator Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Senator Mike Crappo of Idaho introduced Senate Bill 2798 while Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez, herself a downwinder, introduced a companion bill in the House. This is “last chance” legislation. If it does not pass, RECA will expire and victims of the world’s first atomic bomb test may never get compensation or apology.

Whatever the reason for the government’s continued cover-up of their story, whether it be to preserve New Mexico’s powerful nuclear weapons industry or out of some stubborn habit of secrecy, the reason for excluding people of New Mexico from RECA is certainly not money.

Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, has estimated that as much as 200 million dollars could be awarded to Trinity downwinders in southern New Mexico, in addition to healthcare coverage for qualifying families.

In the village of Tularosa, where nearly 40 percent of the population is Hispanic and the median household income hovers around 25’000 dollars less than the national average, a figure anywhere close to 200 million dollars could be absolutely transformative, not just for the downwinders who receive it, but for the entire region where that money will be spent. But that same figure is basically a rounding error when viewed in the context of America’s nuclear weapons industry.

According to the Brookings Institute, “from 1940 through 1996, [America] spent nearly 5,5 trillion dollars on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs, in constant 1996 dollars.” Since 1996 America has spent somewhere between 35 and 50 billion a year maintaining the nuclear weapons arsenal.

Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office project that through 2028 another 494 billion dollars will be required to fund the US nuclear forces though other estimates put the figure closer to 634 billion dollars.

Among all these billions and trillions, the 200 million dollars for Trinity downwinders is relatively little. Even if you add up all the money spent by the US to compensate people sickened by the nuclear weapons industry since 1945, it is only about 2,5 billion dollars.

Conservatively, the US has spent in the neighborhood of 6 trillion dollars on nuclear weapons, meaning that compensation paid to people affected by weapons testing is less than 0,0005 percent of the amount spent to build and maintain these weapons. As Tina Cordova says, quoting Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia, one of the few legislators that has supported the Trinity downwinders, “that’s a pittance.”

In July of 2021 the Trinity downwinders held their 12th annual vigil in Tularosa. There were nearly 200 more luminarias representing cancer victims than there had been when I first attended a vigil in 2015. Many of the people I’ve met over the years are now gone. But Tina Cordova was still there, leading the fight. And Henry Herrera was there. He’s pushing 90 now and though he recently lost his wife and his health has declined enough that he’s living with his daughter, he still has no problem standing up to tell his story, to look down the long lens of history at an atomic bomb, at the cloud of fallout settling on his home, and remind its creators that this desert is not so lonesome.

About the author and this article

Joshua Wheeler is a journalist and writer from Alamogordo, New Mexico. He’s the author of “Acid West,” a collection of essays about southern New Mexico that was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award in nonfiction. He teaches in the creative writing program at Louisiana State University and has published in “The New York Times,” “Buzzfeed” and “Harper’s Bazaar”.

Portions of this story are adapted from the author’s book “Acid West” (FSG, 2018). Additional reporting was done in July, 2021.


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