A new book by Elva K. Österreich features the stories of ordinary people in Southern New Mexico during the Trinity Test in August 1945. Courtesy photo
The only color photo taken of the Trinity Test itself was taken by photographer Jack Aeby. This photo is usually seen in reverse, but that is incorrect. This is the actual view the camera would have taken as the Atomic Age began in the early morning of July 16, 1945. Public domain photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
The first place the Los Alamos Reporter lived in the United States was Beatty, Nevada, on the edge of the Nevada Test Site in 1983. At that time, residents still spoke of taking picnics to watch nuclear tests from higher points of the surrounding area. So a new book, “The Manhattan Project Trinity Test: Witnessing the Bomb in New Mexico” by Elva K. Österreich, immediately caught the Reporter’s eye.
Österreich said she can’t really remember when she first heard about the Trinity Test but that she probably heard about it during her high school years in Albuquerque.
“I do remember from that time, the scuttlebutt about ‘all the people involved dying of cancer’,” she said.
Her interest was fueled when she was working for the Alamogordo Daily News in July 2005 as a news editor and re-created a section of the newspaper with the original story for the 60th anniversary of the Trinity Test.
“The stories about that day and the possible repercussions for those in southern New Mexico made for some fascinating reading and some wonderful interviews completed by the staff at the paper at the time,” Österreich said.
Her first visit to the Trinity Site was in April 2011 when she went with her youngest son who was 10 at the time.
“I really had no special expectations but I found it some somewhat interesting, but not mind blowing or powerful in any way. A black obelisk, a few big metal things and a little bit of trinitite left around for folks to see,” Österreich said, adding that the most exciting part of the trip for her son was being able to try a Geiger counter.
Österreich noted that between July 16, 1945 when the bomb went off at the Trinity Site and Aug. 6, 1945 when the bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the people of the areas surrounding the Trinity Test were told that a munitions dump on at the Holloman Army Airfield had exploded by mistake.
“People who saw the event had a variety of thoughts when it happened, from a shoulder shrug, to an enemy attack, to the end of the world,” she said.
Österreich’s book takes a different approach as she doesn’t just write about scientists and other personnel who were at the site but rather, but also focuses on the people of southern New Mexico. She started gathering stories following coverage she worked on with the Alamagordo Daily News in 2005 of the 60th anniversary of Trinity and branched out from there.
“I asked friends about their experiences, talked with older community members, visited senior centers and traveled again to the Trinity Site itself. I went to Socorro, Los Alamos, Silver City and other New Mexico locations keeping my ears open and my mouth closed,” she said.
Asked about the “Downwinders” whose lives were affected by the Trinity Test explosion, Österreich said many believe their families have been plagued by cancers and child mortality due to lasting effects of radiation from the event. She said the Downwinders have collected anecdotal evidence and published their findings.
“However, the results of a seven-year study conducted by the National Cancer Institute were just published on Sept. 1 this year and found that only a small geographic area immediately downwind of the Trinity Test received exposures of radiation significant enough to have affected the people in those counties. That study also did not find evidence to suggest transgenerational effects from Trinity,” she said.
One of the most outrageous stories Österreich has heard came from former White Sands Missile Range public affairs officer Jim Eckles in his book, “Trinity, the History of an Atomic Bomb National Historic Landmark”. Eckles heard it from a man named Mark Harp, who sent him a packet of information “a while back,” involving a hollow earth theory.
“Mr. Harp apparently believed there is a humanoid civilization living inside the earth. He believed that the Trinity Site explosion shook the whole earth, and the humanoids were disturbed and concerned by the event. They thought there might be some kind of danger approaching, so they sent a team out of a hole at the North Pole in a flying ship to New Mexico to see what was going on,” Österreich said. “Unfortunately, their vehicle malfunctioned, and in July 1947, they crashed into the New Mexico desert northeast of Trinity Site, creating the alien confusion known as the Roswell incident.”
Another story she heard was from the town of Carrizozo where when the house finished shaking, four-year-old Joy and her six year old brother, Vestal, were mad because they were not given guns to protect themselves like the rest of the family. Instead they were told to get under a bed. There they found a box of oranges, apples and nuts and formulated a plan to throw fruits and nuts at any approaching attackers.
“The account of downwinder Edna Kay Hinkle, who writes what amounts to a litany of death in her family of White Sands Missile Range ranchers beginning with the children of Richard and Genevra Gilliland. The family lived west of Salinas Peak 27, miles from the test site. While Richard and Genevra were not touched by cancer, their six children, and the descendants of those six children were constantly afflicted by the disease with much of the family dying of, and still contracting, an assortment of cancers,” Österreich said. “Ms Hinkle, herself beating breast cancer at the age of 59, lists the individuals, their ages and cancers.This is a small example of her account: ‘Sam’s daughter Cleo had stomach cancer when she was 12. Alice had breast cancer when she was in her early 80s, her husband Clay died of colon cancer at the age of 66. Her daughter Lucy died from breast cancer at the age of 66. Her son Richard got prostate cancer when he was 56 and died from it when he was 73 …’”
Österreich believes her book fills a gap between historic record of the Trinity Test and the people on the ground experiencing history.
“There are many, many books written around the Trinity Test. I feel like this book makes an important piece of history accessible and relatable to people today at home and living in communities which could at any time be affected by the unknown and touched by something they never imagined. I would hope it creates a kind of bridge of understanding between generations as well as individuals,” she said.
The book is available online at https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467144421