"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another"
Tularosa Downwinders: The first victims of an atomic bomb are still living, and they are Americans.
Trinity was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. It was conducted by the United States Army at 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945, as part of the Manhattan Project
“The Trinity test site was part of our war effort, used to defend our country and keep the American people safe. The federal government therefore has a solemn duty to compensate those injured as a result,” says Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, one of the bill’s cosponsors. “I believe that the body of evidence shows a clear conclusion: people downwind of the Trinity test site were injured as a result of radioactive fallout, and downwind communities continue to suffer the consequences, both health and economic, of the Trinity testing. They should be compensated for their hardship.”
"Unknowing, unwilling, and uncompensated,” describes the status of American civilians impacted by the blast. “People who worked on the project were knowing, they knew what they were doing, they were willing to do it, and they were compensated at the time plus afterwards if they got sick. Those of us who gave no consent, never knew, were never willing, have never been taken care of.”
Compensation is just one part of the Downwinder’s request. “We want the government to come back and issue an apology to the people, that would go a long way in helping people to heal. There’s this trauma that’s been associated with this, that the government’s never going to come back and acknowledge it or take care of us.”
Darryl Gilmore, 89, then a student at the University of New Mexico, is skeptical that an apology will ever happen. “I understand they made some settlements in Utah and Colorado, and Nevada, but nothing in the way that I know of in New Mexico, they just ignored New Mexico,” said Gilmore, “They’re just waiting for all us old people to die off so they don’t have to pay us any money for what happened to us.”
“I remember just like it happened yesterday,” said Gilmore, His brother had just returned from the war, and they needed to get him down to Fort Bliss in El Paso so he could process out. Gilmore borrowed the family car for the trip; he drove it back from Albuquerque to his parent’s home in Tularosa along Highway 380, which goes through Socorro and San Antonio and on to Carrizozo. It's the same road people take to visit the Trinity site today. On that day in mid-July 1945, he stopped to check his tires, and then encountered a convoy of six army trucks.
"The lead driver, a sergeant, told me ‘put your windows up on your car, and drive out of here as fast as you can, there’s poison gas in the area,’" recalled Gilmore. "I found out much later that they were prepared to evacuate a bunch of ranch families in that neighborhood from miles around. I found out they didn’t evacuate anybody."
“My folks had gotten up early that morning, before 5 o’clock, and they saw the flash from Tularosa, that explosion,” said Gilmore, “and of course in Albuquerque I didn’t notice it at all. The only thing that came out in the paper that afternoon was a statement that an ammunition dump in the remote corner of the range had exploded, and that’s all the information that was released at that time.”
Apart from the convoy, and the statement about the ammunition dump, Gilmore didn’t hear any official word about what had happened in the New Mexico desert that day until shortly after the news that the A-bomb was dropped on Japan, first on Hiroshima on August 6,1945, and then on Nagasaki on August 9.
The effects of the fallout on Gilmore became clear much sooner than that. By the time he and his family reached El Paso, his arms, neck, and face were red—as if he'd gotten a bad sunburn. "I didn’t know at the time what had happened to me,” said Gilmore. “My outer skin gradually fell off the next few days, I used lotions and stuff on it, [but they] didn’t seem to make much difference. A few years later, I began to have skin problems, and I’ve had treatments ever since."
Gilmore is the survivor of multiple cancers. His prostate cancer responded to radiation treatment and hasn’t returned, but his skin cancers remain a persistent problem to this day. And his immediate family—his father, mother, and sister—who were living in Tularosa at the time of the Trinity test, all died from cancer.
Gilmore’s story is one of many collected by the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. The organization was founded in 2005 by residents Tina Cordova and the late Fred Tyler, with the express aim of compiling information about the impacts of the Trinity test on people in the area. Tularosa is a village in Southern New Mexico, about a three-hour drive south of Albuquerque or a 90-minute drive northeast from Las Cruces. The town sits next to the White Sands Missile Range, and, as the crow flies, is about 50 miles from the Trinity Site. The White Sands Range summary of the 2017 visit says the site was selected because of its remote location, though the page also notes that when locals asked about the explosion, the test "was covered up with the story of an explosion at an ammunition dump."
“Trinity Site,” a pamphlet available for visitors to the location, notes that it was selected from one of eight possible locations in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado in part because the land was already under the control of the federal government as part of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, established in 1942. (Later, the Army tested captured V-2 rockets at the range, and today it houses everything from missile testing to a DARPA-designed Air Force observatory.) “The secluded Jornada del Muerto was perfect as it provided isolation for secrecy and safety, but was still close to Los Alamos for easy commuting back and forth,” notes the pamphlet.
Cordova disputes that characterization. “We know from the census data that there were 40,000 people living in the four counties surrounding Trinity at the time of the test," she said. "That’s not remote and uninhabited.”
There is no mention in the pamphlet or the official online history page of any civilians in the area. The history contains an evacuation order report, filed July 18, 1945, detailing “plans to evacuate civilians around the Trinity Site area if high concentrations of radioactive fallout drifted off the Alamogordo Bombing Range.”
READ MORE about Tularosa Downwinders in an in depth article originally published by Popular Science - "Survivors of America’s first atomic bomb test want their place in history"
In 1965, Army officials erected a monument on Ground Zero. In 1975, the National Park Service designated Trinity Site as a National Historic Landmark. The landmark includes base camp, where the scientists and support group lived; the McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium core was assembled; as well as Ground Zero.
Today, visits to the site are sponsored by the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce and WSMR on the first Saturdays of April and October. The rest of the year the site is closed to the public because it lies within the impact zone for missiles fired into the northern part of WSMR.