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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Padre Island Considered
Atomic Test Site

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
With this week marking the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima -- the devastating nuclear attack on a Japanese city that led to the end of World War Two -- this revised “Texas Tales” explaining how Texas was considered as the site for the first test explosion of an atomic bomb is being redistributed in commemoration of that pivotal event.

July 16, 1945 saw three dawns.

At 5:29.45 a.m. Mountain War Time, scientists detonated the world’s first atomic bomb 171 miles north of El Paso at a site on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. That was the first dawn, followed by the natural rising of the sun. The third dawn marked the beginning of the Atomic Age.

The nuclear explosion sent a blinding flash of light into the sky, turning the pre-dawn into high noon. A ball of energy 10,000 times hotter than the sun rose more than 38,000 feet into the atmosphere. Scientists later calculated the blast to be equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.

In El Paso, school teacher A.O. Wynn was up early. When he saw the burst of light, he dismissed it as a distant forest fire, albeit a big one. A trainman at the El Paso rail yard correctly assumed the light to have been caused by an explosion of some sort. But neither of these Texans, nor the many others who either saw the brilliant flash or heard what sounded like thunder on a perfectly clear morning, would know the real story for nearly another two months.

The military issued a news release dismissing the incident as the explosion of a munitions warehouse and, it being wartime, no one challenged that explanation.

Though the military deemed disinformation in the name of national security an acceptable reason to lie to the public about what had happened, for posterity’s sake, Brig. Gen. T.F. Farrell described what really happened:

“The effects could well be called…magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined…”

The story of the Manhattan Project and its result, the use on August 6 and 9, 1945 of atomic bombs against Japan, has been well told. But buried in all the official documents is another story, far less known.

As work proceeded on the development of the bomb, the military considered eight possible locations for the first test. Four sites were in New Mexico, in the same state as the project headquarters at Los Alamos. California had two of the sites and one was in Colorado. Finally, one site lay in Texas: Padre Island.

On some levels, using Padre Island as a secret test site made sense. Nearby Corpus Christi offered rail service and had a deep water port. Too, it had a busy Naval Air Station. And Padre Island, extending for some 120 miles nearly all the way to Mexico and already being used as a bombing range, amounted to one of the most remote locations in the nation.

Earlier in the war, in fact, the island was off-limits to civilians. U.S. Coast Guard patrolled the island’s lonely beaches by horseback and in jeeps. Their two-fold mission was to look for any survivors washed ashore from oil tankers torpedoed by German U-boats and to guard against any landing by Nazi saboteurs.

As the war progressed, the military cleared the Gulf of Mexico of enemy submarines. The Allies eventually gained the momentum, but both the U.S. and Germany were working to develop terrible new weapons, including a bomb like no other.

Fortunately for the sake of democracy, the U.S. made the best progress, building three bombs. The first would be a test devise.

The Army finally decided to test the bomb on an existing military range north of Blythe, CA. Coming in as second choice was the Alamogordo site in the aptly named Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) Valley north of El Paso.

Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, heading the military aspect of the operation, opted not to use the California range because he didn’t want to have to deal with the base’s cantankerous commander, Gen. George S. Patton.

Following the test in New Mexico, the government kept what came to be called the Trinity site closed to the public for decades. Even now, it can only be visited twice a year.

The successful testing of the world’s first atomic bomb changed history. Much farther down the significance scale, the explosion eventually gave New Mexico another tourist attraction, albeit one of the state’s less-visited venues.

Had the explosion occurred on Padre Island, turning some of its white sand into glass, Texas would have had the future tourist destination. But given the highly controlled access that would have followed the explosion, it might have prevented the island’s eventual transformation into a 130,454-acre Padre Island National Seashore – the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world.

Clearly, not making the cut is not always a bad thing.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - August 6, 2015 Column

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