Excerpt for A Pilgrimage to Trinity by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Pilgrimage to Trinity


Roger Williams


Originally published on

©November 28, 2004

Cover Design ©2004 Peachfront Press


The author and publisher retain all rights. You are welcome to share this story with other readers, but do not claim it for your own or charge money for it. Our visit to the Trinity site took place in November 2004. While all historical facts are accurate to the best of our knowledge, this essay is first and foremost a record of a pilgrimage― one man's journey to a site made sacred in modern times through the discovery of a power to destroy previously beyond human ability.


Here and there upon the Earth are places so unique and important that many of us come to regard them as holy. Some of these places are shaped by natural forces, like the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, the Valleys of the Vapors, or the frozen desert of Antarctica. Some attain their status because of the great or important humans who were born there, and some by the great or important humans whose lives ended nearby.

Some places become sacred because of a great or momentous event. One of the shortest but most important of those events occurred at 5:29:45 AM on the morning of July 16, 1945, when the work of a few millionths of a second brought forth a new thing in the experience of humans, of the Earth, and very possibly of the entire Universe.

Sacred places inspire pilgrimage, and on November 20, 2004, I realized an old dream of mine. I made the pilgrimage to the Trinity site, at the north end of the White Sands Test Range in central New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded.


"And then..." (choking up)" ...the whole sky lit up. It was just like daylight. It was awesome. And down by the gas pumps the Army guys were jumping up and down and slapping each other on the back, and I heard one of them say 'We've got the world by the tail now!'"

-- Bucky Gilmore, who saw the Trinity test at age 12, to our tour group


As sacred places go, Trinity is unusually uninspiring. It is hard to get a feel for what happened there in 1945. But that is largely because of the ambivalence, and to a certain extent the profanity, of its keepers.

At Trinity there are big signs warning you that the place is a national treasure and that, in particular, removing Trinitite is a crime. Yet the site's biggest vandal in the last 59 years has been the Army itself.

In 1947 the embarrassingly expensive and unused Jumbo was "tested" to semi-destruction; an off-center detonation blew the ends off but left the 180 ton central cylinder intact. In the early 1950's the Army scraped up and buried much of the Trinitite crust and filled in the central depression. Through the years they also allowed the historic George McDonald ranch house which survived the blast to deteriorate as it lay abandoned.

Only in 1965 did the White Sands Test Range officials decide to mark Ground Zero with the lava rock obelisk that still stands there, and only in 1975 did the Park Service designate the place a National Historic Landmark. Only in 1982 were efforts started to preserve and restore the McDonald ranch house.

Without the marker and fencing or a radiation detector, you could pass the site a hundred times without realizing its significance. The desert ecosystem has claimed the new soil that was added in the early 1950's, so that you must step over desert scrub and jackrabbit droppings to hunt for the remaining small bits of Trinitite, which in turn are unnoticeable unless you know to look for them by their signature green color. A low, anonymous, windowless building covers a few hundred square feet of the crater to preserve the original surface for future archaeologists.

Near the marker, the largest surviving tower footing is protected by a little guard made of welded rebar. A second footing survives only as a bare patch of bald concrete almost level with the desert sand. The presence of a third footing is revealed by a single piece of half-inch rebar, perhaps two inches long, sticking out of the sand. Of the fourth footing there is no evidence at all. Scattered around the site are hundreds of fist-sized chunky bits of metal which are probably bits of Jumbo's blown-off ends.

Away from the fenced-in central crater rows of cedar posts survive to mark the cable runs to some of the remote instrumentation bunkers. Only one of those bunkers, West 800, still exists; and it was only recently restored and marked. All of the rest of the infrastructure -- the instruments and cameras, the bunkers with their concrete slab roofs supported by massive oak beams, the controls and cables spanning twenty kilometers of desert -- is gone, removed and discarded soon after the test.


Events of mythic proportion inspire mythic tales. The popular understanding of atomic history is riddled with falsehoods that range from understandable simplifications to poor justifications to outright lies spread to maintain the secrecy of design elements.

Probably the biggest myth to emerge in the years since 1945 is that Fat Man and Little Boy ended the war. It's even printed right there in black and white in the brochure that White Sands passes out to visitors. It's the kind of simple story that makes perfect sense, is easy to believe, and makes us feel better about the awful way the world's second and third atomic explosions were used.

The only problem is, it isn't true.

By July of 1945, the Japanese Empire was on the ropes. Secretary of War Henry Stimson summed it up for President Truman on July 2 thusly: Japan has no allies. Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface and underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food and supplies for her population. She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her crowded cities, industrial and food resources. She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia. We have inexhausible and untouched industrial resources to bring to bear against her diminishing potential. We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her first sneak attack. On the other hand Stimson went on to warn that an invasion would be horribly costly to us, and that he thought the Japanese would be amenable to an appropriately worded demand for surrender. He even recommended that, "[I]f we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance."

Was Stimson right? By July of 1945 we had cracked Japan's military codes, and on July 10 and 11 we intercepted top-secret cables indicating that the High Command was seriously considering surrender. There was just one caveat: "It is his Majesty's heart's desire to see the swift termination of the war... however, as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland."

Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-3 show above.)