Monday, April 16, 2007

109 East Palace

My neighbor V insisted that I purchase a copy of the above named book and read it as Sis and I drifted towards Santa Fe. It is the story of the secretive nature of those who were engaged in planning and executing the Atomic Bomb. I've capitalized the words because, although it helped us win against the Japanese in WWII, there is an awesome, penetrating feeling one receives when the story gets to the actual day of the first bomb test.

Sis and I visited 109 E. Palace the other day and to our regret, a linen shop was in the same building that had been set up as a undercover office to serve as a starting point for all physicists, their families, military personnel, and other needed workers. Locals didn't know what lay behind the iron gate; that inside the white lintel entranceway one who entered, "disappeared."

I lived through this war and somehow I'd forgotten about the AB. Years of peace and wars in other foreign soils, growing up and raising my own family, I was caught up in the "now." All the time, work was going on at Los Alamos, NM, a short hour's drive from Santa Fe. Even the Santa Feans didn't know that on a mesa past the San Idelfonso Reservation, history was in the making.

We didn't complete the book before visiting Los Alamos. The road leading to the mesa began a mix of mind pictures playing at rapid speed as we drove up and up and up. We were remembering the descriptions of the difficulty of military vehicles carrying precious cargo on muddy roads, the vistas that were seen by the newly arrivals, and once on the mesa top, we saw nothing that those who had to live in secret saw. A thriving city with all the modern conveniences...just the opposite for the workers and their families.

Los Alamos has two museums: the Bradbury Science Museum which gives a brief history in photographs and then gives hands-on science information. Extensive material on the components of "Fat Boy" and "Little Man" (named after W. Churchill and FDR) that were the forerunners to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima snd Nagasaki. Displays of research being done now to "serve national security, eneregy, health, and environmental research needs", as the pamphlet handed out states. This is a wonderful science lesson for young people. The history is quite complete, a number of lessons in themselves about the progress and timeline and what was being done at Los Alamos at the same time war was being raged in Europe.

Visiting the History Museum on the former campus of a boys' ranch that was appropriated by the U. S. Army for the research, gives tangible remains of life on top of the mesa. Life under secrecy wasn't ideal by any means, and while the physicists worked long hours day and night trying to beat the Germans, whom it was reported were already working on a bomb, their wives were attempting to carve out a semblance of daily life putting up with poor electricity, little heat (the mesa is 7,355 ft. high), improper kitchen equipment, vegetables that rotted in transport, little fruit, and anything you can imagine could be devastating so far from civilization. Yet, the persistence of these women to provide a balance without being able to contact their families, who knew nothing of their husbands' work for years, should be rewarded. As should the military personnel who were stationed there.

The local bookstore displayed all the various books that have been written about this project, led admirably by J. Robert Oppenheimer, a quiet man who deceived those under him as to his ability to keep the large group filled with hope and working to capacity. 109 E. Palace isn't the last of the stories I'm going to read. Written by the Jennet Conant, granddaughter of James Conant, who played a part in this secretive world, has compressed into a readable account the story from its early days to the decisions made afterwards as to the use of Los Alamos. Although there are many others who've done this, hers is the latest to be published. There are books written by WACS who served during that time, a book of some of the workers, giving their photos during the period, as well as an up-to-date one. On one page they've written of their time at Los Alamos.

Some interesting highlights(or low points) of life there: everyone had the same address, Box 1663; workers were given numbers on their security passes; important persons were given fictional names and everyone called the other only by a first name; no outsiders for years knew where their sons or daughters were working--just "somewhere"; no one could get off the mesa without special permission, so local inhabitants were asked to provide R/R for the overworked physicists and their wives; there was no shopping for the women, poor laundry services, so they began to wear overalls that would take the wear and tear of dirt.

When you visit Los Alamos, you can also see the Jemez Mountains that are the result of a volcano that erupted and left these mesas or peninsulas. Bandelier National Park adjoins and is a testament to the early Indian settlements who left petroglyphs on cliff walls, as well as dwellings set back in cave areas formed by the volcano. The area of the volcano eruption is Calles Caldera, a national preserve. One can see the deep depression left after the eruption.

Everyone should be reminded of the path that led to the development of the bomb, the results of that destruction, the terrible feeling the physicists felt knowing their hard work would kill thousands of people.

I hope generations to come will study this time in history.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

i find the subject of the birth of the atomic age a fascinating subject and should not be left aside to be forgotten as time gos by. i can under stand the the disappointment to discover a place of business rather than a persevered historical site. its sad that we can only look back at people , places and things to judge if there were worthy of the respect they deserve.

CabinWriter-- said...

Thanks, Anon, for your comments. I've heard several who are against war say their visit to Los Alamos gave them a a better perspective than anticipated and were glad they visited. When I think of the the restrictions the early families had to endure, the frustration of the scientists working day and night--I feel everyone should be made aware of this historical time through the reading of this period.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what became of the log that was kept at 109 E Palace? According to the National Archives, it would have been destroyed, yet I can't believe that something of such historic significance would have been destroyed without at least making a microfilm of it first.

CabinWriter-- said...

I found a paper written by Roger Meade on website www.fas.org/eprint/meade.html
that discusses the frustration of scholars and hostorians over not being able to search early records of Los Alamos. You are just another frustrated person, I'm afraid, as Meade says there is an overload of documents to be declassified and there is no funding. These records may never be available.

Harvey Eisen said...

I believe that you have conflated the names of the first to atomic weapons. They were Little Man and Fat Boy.

CabinWriter-- said...

Thanks, Harvey, for the correction. I should have caught that at the time, but didn't. My, that was written a long time ago. I'm pleased you took the time to read my blog.

Reggie said...

In Taos, NM our local bookclub met this week to discuss "Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima". Several of us had also read "109 East Palace" and it really added to the discussion. Whereas "Shockwave" was much more technical and logistical, and starts with the Trinity test, "109" starts before Los Alamos existed. It gives much more insight into the establishment of the town, the life there, and the many personalities involved. I would say that the two books were a great complement to each other, and would recommend them both for anyone wishing to know more about the project to develop the atomic bomb. And it was also nice to read about such a big piece of history that happened in our backyard in NM. The bookclub discussion was very lively, interesting and one of the best we've had.

CabinWriter-- said...

Thank you, Reggie, for your input. I've not read "Shockwave" but will do so. I've read other books following the scientists after the bomb testing as well as "American Prometheus" and the delightful Peggy Pond Church's "The House at Otowi Bridge". What fascinates me about the books is the giant secret held by hundreds of people during that time I was in high school.