It was like the sun rose twice.
That’s only one of the reactions to the testing of the first nuclear bomb, the Trinity Test, on July 16, 1945, chronicled in a new book published by The History Press, The Manhattan Project Trinity Test – Witnessing the Bomb in New Mexico.
Author Elva Österreich, as former editor of El Defensor Chieftain, was already well acquainted with Socorro’s proximity to the Trinity Site on White Sands Missile Range but felt that a more human-oriented history deserved to be told. That she does with The Manhattan Project Trinity Test – Witnessing the Bomb in New Mexico, in both words and photographs.
Manhattan Project Trinity Test book cover
Over the last two years, Österreich documented remembrances and compiled statements from those who experienced the blast from both physicists at the site on White Sands Proving Grounds and residents living in Socorro, Lincoln and Dona Ana counties.
“This book is about experience – human remembered experience,” the author writes in the book’s introduction. “What that means is that it isn’t always going to fit into known facts. People remember and experience things differently. And to make matters worse, those memories get transmitted in second- and third-hand ways, sometimes to the point that they don’t even make sense.”
Hundreds of locals experienced it and knew something had happened.
“I wanted to get the words from people in the area,” she said in an interview with the Chieftain last week. “Something had happened and nobody was told what it was until after the bombs fell on Japan, ” she said. “In Socorro, I was talking to someone whose mom thought the world was ending, for instance.”
Österreich’s book includes personal accounts from diverse sources, from project physicists watching from a bunker 10 miles away to handwritten statements of witnesses in Tularosa, Carrizozo, Bingham, and Luis Lopez.
Flora Millfelt, watching from the banks of the Rio Grande near San Antonio remembered that “it looked like a ball of cotton. It was red.” Her father, who got wind of the test because the Army told him to move his cattle from a particular area of his Los Torriones ranch, had taken his family of 10 children down to the banks of the Rio Grande to watch.
“On my most recent out there to the Trinity Site, I was on a bus tour that the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo put together,” she said. “I ended up sitting next to a lady who remembered the blast and aftermath. She was in Bingham.”
Also in Bingham, postmaster Harold Dean was woken up by “the loudest bang I’ve ever heard.” He tried to go back to sleep, but eventually went outside and saw the mushroom cloud.
In Alamogordo, Flow “Belle” Di Risio recounted in 2000 that a few heads of Hereford cattle were put on display in the city park that “had gray blotches on them where the fallout had hit them, but they seemed no worse for the wear.”
In Luis Lopez, Joe Saavedra’s mother Rachel Montoya said “everything shook, and they thought it was the end of the world,” and “all of a sudden the animals start to drop, cows and sheep. They were stunned, I guess. That’s what my mom said.”
In Carrizozo, Joy Means remembered the beds bouncing and dishes and canned goods were breaking all over the kitchen, and her brother, who was home recuperating from battle wounds he received in The Philippines, was telling everyone to take cover, believing it was an enemy attack.
Another Carrizozo eyewitness talked about returning to the Trinity Site 10 years after the blast. It was still unfenced at the time and picking up pieces of trinitite, the glassy residue from the bomb at ground zero. “It amazes me that they didn’t know enough about to keep people away … They didn’t have any idea how dangerous it was … ” She believed that her cancer diagnosis in 1999 was linked to that trinitite.
That contention concurs with Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium co-founder Tina Cordova who maintains that people in Socorro, Lincoln, Sierra, and Otero counties suffer far higher rates of cancer “…in some case six to eight times higher than the national average.” Osterreich devotes an entire chapter the Cordova’s research into the blast’s aftereffects.
Österreich said she was inspired to tackle the job of collecting these and other accounts while working at the Alamogordo Daily News.
“I love talking about it and listening to the stories from those who remembered it,” she said. “They were intriguing, and I kind of instigated the whole project at the newspaper.”
She started looking up all the old stories and talking to people who had memories of it. The book then began to take shape.
“I think it’s really important that it doesn’t disappear in people’s minds,” she said. “Like the first time down here in Las Cruces. I went to the public library to look for books on the event, to see what they had. They actually had very little.”
She said she asked the reference librarian to look it up and see what they had on it.
“She had no clue that this event took place here. At all,” Österreich said. ” I felt like, that’s ridiculous. You live in southern New Mexico for years and you don’t know that this is the place where the first atomic bomb went off. There’s something wrong. Something’s not getting to be maintained anymore.”
“I guess it’s important to understand,” Österreich said. “To have an understanding of where things come from. How things happen to be the way they are. And this is a big one.”
That’s why she became committed to writing the book and visiting numerous libraries, history museum archives, and oral history collectors.
“So much has been written about and there are so many directions you can go with it,” she said. “This is what I want to get across, what’s in the book, and stick with that. Otherwise, there are endless branches to the Manhattan Project story.”
The Manhattan Project Trinity Test – Witnessing the Bomb in New Mexico, is available in trade paperback and Kindle form at amazon.com.