NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
For most of this hour, we're going to talk about cell phones and how advances in technology are reshaping our lives, willingly and otherwise.
But first, what many consider the most significant moment of the 20th century. Sixty years ago this Saturday, July 16th, 1945, scientists of the Manhattan Project detonated the world's first nuclear weapon at the Trinity site near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Just three weeks later, the second atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima in Japan. There was another blast three days after that in Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people died in those explosions, and Japan's surrender followed within a week.
In 1945, Ben Benjamin was a young soldier assigned to the Manhattan Project as part of its photographic team, and he was at Trinity. If you have questions for this eyewitness to history, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben Benjamin joins us now from the studios of member station KANW in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. BEN BENJAMIN (Manhattan Project Participant): Thank you. It's nice to be here.
CONAN: You were 22 years old at the time. Why were you picked for the Manhattan Project in the first place?
Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, my boss, who was a former professor of physics, University of Wisconsin--he was attempting to build some much faster cameras. He wanted to take pictures at a million pictures per second, which is no big deal nowadays, but back then it was. And he thought he needed an optical shop, and I had done some work in an optical shop when I lived in Minneapolis. And they took me out of the Army where I was and sent me indirectly to Los Alamos. And I worked at Los Alamos for a good part of a year before we went down to the Trinity site in southern New Mexico.
CONAN: Now when you were first sent to Los Alamos, did you have any idea what was going on?
Mr. BENJAMIN: No, I did not. No one would say. And they didn't help me much in any way except they sent me to Lamie(ph), New Mexico, which is just a railroad stop for Santa Fe.
CONAN: Now unlike most of the scientists who went down to Trinity in the days ahead, you were down there for quite some time.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Yeah, I was--we had a base camp there, and there were a large number of MPs who were guarding our area. General Groves had gotten an area of 18 by 24 miles from the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, which was huge. And we had a lot of MPs who guarded it. And there were a few of us in the special engineer detachment who were in the tech area at Los Alamos and then went down to Trinity to help set up. We set up about 50 motion picture cameras there of various kinds, and we were down there actually for several months.
CONAN: By that time, did you know what was going on?
Mr. BENJAMIN: Oh, yeah. We knew what was going--by that time, we knew the Fat Man gadget was going to be detonated there in a test. And so we were all pretty excited about that.
CONAN: Excited. Were you at all afraid?
Mr. BENJAMIN: No, I was not afraid. I don't think any of us were really afraid, but someone might have been. But no, we had our job to do and we worked hard at that, and we were--and there was a lot of pessimism about the shot, too. Some of the physicists thought it might very well be a dud and not go very big.
CONAN: Let's get some callers involved in the conversation. We're speaking with Ben Benjamin, an eyewitness at the explosion of the world's first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945. Mike is with us. Mike's calling from Portland, Maine.
MIKE (Caller): Yes, I've studied the Trinity test a little bit, and one of the things that I understand is that many scientists thought that the gadget, the bomb itself might actually set the atmosphere on fire and destroy the world, and that there was a sense of dread. And I'm wondering, if you were there, if you could sense both this sense of wonder of it possibly happening and the sense of dread of actually the world being destroyed by this one test.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Yes, we technicians heard that rumor down there, that the nitrogen may be lit off in a nuclear sense and that if it did, that would destroy the whole world; and felt sort of that this must be wrong. And in fact I talked to Dr. Teller not long before he died a couple of years ago, and he was down here the last couple--well, he came down on a bus and watched the event. But I asked him about it, and he said, `Oh, yeah.' He said, `Dr. Oppenheimer asked us to look into that.' And he said, `My group, we checked, we worked on that and we found that there was absolutely no chance of that happening.' And I said, `Yeah, but us guys at the bottom of the heap there, we had heard that it might happen, but we didn't get the word that you had found that it's very, very unlikely.'
MIKE: Thank you. That really enlightens me as to what was going on. I appreciate it.
CONAN: Mike, thanks for the phone call.
(800) 989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Or send us an e-mail: email@example.com.
Was there--you were talking about whether there was a sense of dread or not. Was there a sense of history?
Mr. BENJAMIN: Oh, yes. Very much so. In fact, when the bomb went off and--I was up on top of one of our photographic stations with my boss, Dr. Mack. And he was running the turret. I helped him, I turned on the four cameras on this turret and was assisting him up on the top. And we had a lot of cameras on top and some down in the shelter as well a spectrograph and several other instruments.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this'll be Michael. Michael calling from Boise, Idaho.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hi there.
CONAN: Hi there.
MICHAEL: I have a question...
Mr. BENJAMIN: Hi, Michael.
MICHAEL: Oh--I'm sorry. Are you there?
CONAN: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Go ahead.
MICHAEL: Quick question. I'm an admirer of Richard Feynman, and I know that he was on the Manhattan Project and afterwards, after seeing what had been created, he had serious moral objections to it. Did you have similar feelings or notice similar feelings among the scientists there?
Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, that's--yes. There were some who felt--in fact, when the device went off--and as I say, a lot of people thought it might be a dud--but the instant it went off, we all knew, my God, this is a very successful device because it was so incredibly bright, lit up the whole--mountains all around there. And in 30 seconds, a shock wave came along with the sound, and it was staggering. And of course the instantaneous heat that came along with the light, at the speed of light. So we felt that heat instantly. And it wasn't something that was going to burn us, but it warmed up our entire body. And I took down the glass I had in front of my eyes, a filter that they had said we should all use--they didn't want anyone looking at it in case it went very big, it would be quite bright. And it certainly was. It was--we had some instrumentation there, and it seemed to be about 20 times the brightness of a noonday sun. So that was incredible.
And I said to my boss without really thinking, I said, `My God, that's beautiful.' And he came right back and said, `No, it's terrible.' And he was still tracking the rising ball of fire and got me down off of my high there somehow. And I was thinking, `What's he mean?' And talking to him later, he said, `Well, I was elated as anybody that it went so well. But,' he said, `I was just thinking of the moral implications of what we were doing there.' So, yeah, a lot of people, I think, felt that way.
MICHAEL: Did you...
CONAN: No, go...
MICHAEL: ...ever have the pleasure of working with Dr. Feynman?
Mr. BENJAMIN: No. I did not. I didn't--I was in the Photo-Optical group, and we did a lot of things around Los Alamos for various groups in the laboratory, mainly high-speed photographic stuff, high-speed motion picture stuff. And we did some, oh, videotaping for people, but primarily high-speed motion picture photography and other specialized photography, some of it--yeah, I wouldn't have time to talk about that. But...
MICHAEL: Right. Interesting.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Michael.
MICHAEL: All right. Thank you for your time.
Let's see if we can get Brian on the line. He's with us from Columbia, South Carolina.
BRIAN (Caller): Hi. I was wondering, what kind of positive things came out of the nuclear bomb in your opinion, and do those positive things overall outweigh the negative?
Mr. BENJAMIN: Well, by all means they outweigh the negative. The war was over in a--I've forgotten. Well, it was over August...
Mr. BENJAMIN: ...14th.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Fifteenth, yeah. OK. And we shot on, of course, July 16th. So we put an end to the war, I think. That's pretty obvious. And of course President Truman had to make the decision, are we going to use these or not? And he felt the same way, that we're going to save lots of lives, both Japanese and American, if we use these things because we know they will never give up, we'll have to invade and be there to the last man 'cause they just don't give in. And they refused to be captured--they commit suicide rather than that. So we were very right in using that at that time, I believe.
BRIAN: Thank you.
CONAN: ...thanks for the call.
And, Ben Benjamin, we thank you for your time today and your willingness to share your experience of that historic moment.
Mr. BENJAMIN: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
CONAN: Ben Benjamin, an eyewitness at the world's first nuclear bomb test that was conducted at the Trinity site, Alamogordo, New Mexico. Saturday marks 60 years from that day.
We're going to take a short break now. When we come back, we'll update you on the latest on upcoming cell phone technology and talk about what that means for daily life. If you'd like to join that conversation, (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK; and our e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.