Nukes and Monuments: all in a typical day touring New Mexico

November 4th, 2011


On this day I left the desert plains behind and headed for the mountains, valleys and forest that are around Santa Fe the state capital of New Mexico.  I paid an early morning visit to the historic downtown of Santa Fe to see the adobe style buildings, the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis (built 1869-1893) and the Palace Of The Governors which is the oldest continuously occupied public building in America.

Palace of the Governors Santa Fe New Mexico
Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe

Built in 1610 as the colonial capital for Spanish governors, the “palace” (it’s a big building but not palatial or overly ornate) was then used by a Pueblo Indian community, then the respective territorial governments of Mexico and America. It has had quite a history that building and forms the centre piece of a very nice historic downtown area (today local native vendors were setting up their wares for sale under the eaves of the building, which has become a tradition for the building). Then I hit the road for Los Alamos.


Los Alamos “the town that did not exist” was originally a ranch school and some farms that the government acquired in WW2 to complete the Manhattan Project and build nuclear bombs to end the war once and for all. The whole project started after Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt advising him of the urgent need to focus scientific attention on the science of splitting an atom in the fear that the Germans may well be on their way to developing weapons (as it eventually turned out they were trying but did not succeed).

 The Manhattan Project was led by General Leslie R. Groves and Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (the project name was derived from the office location of the US Army Engineers in Manhattan, New York City). They literally built a town and laboratories to bring the majority of separate work that was being done around the country into one top secret location (Los Alamos) to focus all energies on creating functional nuclear weapons (Plutonium was enriched in Hanford, Washington and the Uranium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee).Los Alamos New Mexico

 The Manhattan Project lead to the 1945 test nuclear explosion at the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico (they really didn’t know if it would work or what the after effects would be like) and the ultimate dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima (August 6th, 1945) and “Fat Man” on Nagasaki (August 9th, 1945) by modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress  bombers “Enola Gay” (now in the Smithsonian in Chantilly, Virginia) and “Bockscar” (now in the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio). I have seen both of these aircraft and they have been immaculately restored and maintained.

B-29 Enola Gay
Enola Gay (2010)
B-29 Bockscar
Bockscar (2009)

Little Boy” was a relatively “simple” Uranium bomb and “Fat Man” was a very complicated Plutonium bomb (they had a lot of difficulties in harnessing this material to detonate it, they had to devise an implosion bomb which was encased in a “gadget” and this is what was tested at the Trinity Site nuclear explosion). These bombs and their horrific aftermath forced Japan to surrender and cease all hostilities in WW2.

The Gadget Los Alamos New Mexico
"The Gadget"

The USSR exploded their first nuclear weapon in 1949 and then the Cold War and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was upon the world. Ultimately though, the weapons have acted as the one deterrent that has so far prevented another world war (even though they did create a massive arms race).

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, but even before then the Soviets and Americans had already started to reduce their vast stockpiles of nuclear warheads (apparently there were 70,000 warheads at the peak of the Cold War) through various agreements and Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT), with the first negotiations begining in 1969, which have continued with the Russian government after 1991 (stockpiles in both countries have been massively reduced since then). But it is interesting that this relatively small town changed the world as we know it in those grim years of WW2.

Today the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories continue to conduct scientific nuclear study and maintain the existing stocks of nuclear weaponry that was started all those years ago. Luckily they stopped testing nuclear explosions in 1992 and no longer develop new weapons.

The history of nuclear science is displayed in Los Alamos at the Bradbury Science Museum (free admission) through three key sections  – History, Research and Defence. They show movies on the start of the Manhattan Project and the present activities of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories. The key focus of the museum is the Manhattan Project and they have on display replicas of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man which are side by side to give a comparison of their size and structure (although they were relatively big bombs, they are tiny when you consider the vast destruction and devastation they unleashed on Japan). There are also modern nuclear weapons displayed including missiles and warheads. The museum is relatively new and is a very interesting place to visit (even if it does smell like the nearby Subway store! Cooking bread smells waft in through the vents, so you immediately feel hungry! Good business for them as they are just outside the front door of the museum).

Little Boy Fat Man Los Alamos
Little Boy & Fat Man

In the historic downtown of Los Alamos is Fuller Lodge (built in 1926), a two-story log building that was originally part of the ranch school  and then was used by the Manhattan Project. Today it is an art centre and gallery. It is a nice building and probably one of the few town structures remaining from the 1940s. The city has erected statues of General Leslie R. Groves and Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer in front of this building in respect of what they achieved for their country.

Fuller Lodge


Nearby to Los Alamos is Bandelier National Monument which protects the historic site of two Pueblo Native American villages Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee)  and Tsankawi (SAN-kuh-wee) and  adjoining cliff base cave dwellings. The Pueblo  have lived in the Southwest for centuries, but this particular site is believed  to have been abandoned in the mid 1500’s when they moved to villages on the Rio Grande River.  Soon after this the Spanish colonized New Mexico and the life of the native  people would unfortunately change forever.

Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier Cliff Dwellings

The remains of the villages are no longer complete buildings  (they were made of mud brick, adobe style), but excavations and restoration work conducted in the 1930’s (and ongoing) has maintained the footprints of the  villages and the cave dwellings are highly visible (there are so many of them,  some of which were over a number of levels). In one cliff location a house was  rebuilt to represent the way they would likely have looked. A few of the cave  dwellings have ladders which you can climb and enter to see the blackened  ceilings from cooking/heating fires (most were pretty small but in some of the bigger ones I could stand up straight without any issues (I am  6 foot tall), and some of the cliff faces have  petroglyphs carved into them with designs depicting animals and various symbols.

Bandelier National Monument

The  cliff dwellings are built along a distance of 1.25 miles / 2 kilometres, so it  must have been an impressive looking village in it’s day! With some imagination you can get a good image in your mind  of how these cave dwellings would have once looked. The rangers also provide  informative guides which include depictions of how the village buildings were  constructed. They were circular and essentially one large building with up to  400 rooms over multiple levels (the walls would have provided protection and  shelter to many villagers), along with underground circular structures called a  Kiva (KEE-vah) which were built within the villages for use in ceremonies and cultural activities (religious, education and decision-making).

Bandelier National Monument
Tyuonyi today
Tyuonyi in the past

Unfortunately due to recent flooding and forest fires not  all areas of the monument were accessible (a ceremonial cave about 0.5 mile/0.8 kilometres further along the trail was not accessible. A shame really as you  have to climb up four ladders 140 feet up to get to it, that would have been fun!),  but the majority of the main loop trail was open so I got to see the key areas  of the villages.  The setting and scale  of the place was impressive and a very interesting study of an ancient culture.

Bandelier National Monument


My next stop before heading for Albuquerque was the Jemez  State Monument, a series of stone ruins of a 500 year old Jemez Native American village and the massive  stone walls (8 feet thick in some places) of a fortress like Spanish church with a commanding bell  tower and village built in 1621. The Spaniards  started to make contact with the local population in the 1500’s, then conquered  the area in the 1600’s which lead to the Pueblo  Revolt of 1680 which basically pushed the Spaniards out of New Mexico.  They would return though in 1690 and further fighting occurred. Hence the  fortress like nature of the church. The large walls and the valley setting with  stone cliffs and forest in the distance made this place an impressive one to  visit, with a very interesting history to go with it.

Jemez State Monument
Jemez State Monument

November 5th,  2011


A cold, windy and raining morning in Albuquerque didn’t bode well for viewing the outdoor Heritage Park exhibits at The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, but I headed out there with hope. It did stop raining, so I headed straight outside of the museum to the Heritage Park to view the various military aircraft. Quite an impressive display out there including a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Boeing B-52B Stratofortress, Republic F-105 Thunder Chief and a Vought TA-7 Corsair II.

F-105 AT-7
Thunderchief & Corsair II
B-29 B-52
Heritage Park
Boeing B-52B Stratofortress
B-29 Superfortress

The Heritage  Park also included vehicles, an atomic cannon (“Atomic Annie” used 1952 to 1963 – could fire a 550 pound/250kg shell to a distance of 20 miles/32 kilometres!), nuclear bombs, nuclear missiles (including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles i.e. ICBM‘s) and even the conning tower of a nuclear submarine they had on display. I have to say the wind was bitterly cold, and then light snow even started to fall (I haven’t been in a snowfall for at least 10 years)! I braved the cold to view everything, resulting in a very red nose and almost blue hands by the end of it, but it was worth it as there was some interesting stuff out there! Later in the morning it was actually sunny which was much better for photos (talk about four seasons in one day)!

Atomic Annie
1950's M65 Atomic Cannon "Atomic Annie"
Atomic Cannon test fire 1953
ICBM's - Heritage Park
Broken Arrow

Inside (blissfully warm) had very interesting displays on nuclear history covering WW2, The Manhattan Project, The Cold War, nuclear medicine, atomic pop culture (especially toys, books, comics etc from the 1950’s and 1960’s), through to modern-day weapons and nuclear power. One alarming section was the “Broken Arrow” display. This is the military code word for a “loss/accidental detonation” of a nuclear weapon which my have been accidentally dropped from an aircraft or involved in an aircraft crash or sunken ship/submarine etc. They had two nuclear bomb casings on display from a B-52 crash, but also displayed information that there have been 32 various “Broken Arrow” incidents reported involving US nuclear weapons since 1950 (the most recent was in 1980)! Luckily only two of these incidents resulted in wide-spread dispersal of nuclear materials – one involved a B-52 crash in Polamares, Spain in 1966 which included the weapons on display in the museum and the other a B-52 crash in Thule, Greenland in 1968. A scary thought.

A highlight of the visit was meeting a 90 year old docent (he didn’t look a day over 70) who worked on the Manhattan Project and later at the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. There was not a question he couldn’t answer about the museum or the history of the US nuclear program. You could tell he really loved volunteering there and it was a pleasure speaking with him and learning some interesting facts particularly about “Tall Boy” and “Fat Man” and how the bombs were built and how they worked. I was also curious to learn more about some of the crazy short-range tactical nuclear weapons that soldiers could use in the 1950’s such as the “Davy Crockett” the lowest yield nuclear weapon available to US troops back then, it was fired from a bazooka type weapon; the one shortcoming of these weapons is that they would have nuked the Soviets but would have been just as likely to get the US soldiers that fired them too (it had a range of upto 13,000 feet / 3.96 kilometres only….ah thats pretty close for a nuclear blast)!

Little Boy  Fat Man
Little Boy & Fat Man
The "Davy Crockett"...a crazy concept!

Trident Missile