Donald Hornig, Last to See First A-Bomb, passes

Donald Hornig, Last to See First A-Bomb, Dies at 92

In a small shed at the top of a 100-foot-tall steel tower deep in the New Mexico desert, Donald Hornig sat next to the world’s first atomic bomb in the late evening of July 15, 1945, reading a book of humorous essays.

A storm raged, and he shuddered at each lightning flash. It was his second trip to the tower that day as part of the Manhattan Project, the secret American effort to build an atomic bomb.

He had earlier armed the device, code-named Trinity, connecting switches he had designed to the detonators. But J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, had grown nervous about leaving the bomb alone. He told Dr. Hornig to return to the tower and baby-sit the bomb.

A little after midnight, the weather had improved, and Dr. Hornig was ordered down from the tower. He was the last man to leave and the last to see the weapon before it changed human history. A little more than five miles away, Dr. Oppenheimer and others waited in a bunker to see if the device they called “the gadget” would actually go off.

After Dr. Hornig joined them, he took his position for his next task: placing his finger on a console switch that when pressed would abort the blast, should anything appear awry. The countdown began, his finger at the ready.

The bomb was detonated at 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16 as Dr. Hornig and the others watched from the bunker. He later remembered the swirling orange fireball filling the sky as “one of the most aesthetically beautiful things I have ever seen.”
Comment: How he became involved in Manhattan Project:

Well, immediately after I finished my Ph.D. I went down to Woods Hole where we had set up a laboratory. All my biographies say it was the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but in fact that was just the home for a small laboratory on one of the small islands, Nonamesset, for testing or studying explosives--the detonation of explosives in air. I worked there through a rather dismal winter (Woods Hole is not a good place in the winter, it's a gorgeous spot in the summer). In the spring I had to make the next real decision in my life on the basis of absolutely no evidence. It was a rather interesting affair because the director of the laboratory grabbed me by the arm one day and said, "Come up to the attic." And I went up there and he said, "How would you like to leave this job?" And I said, "What the matter? Have I done something wrong?" And he said, "No, you've been requested for another job." And I said, "Oh, that's interesting. Who requested me?"' He said, "Well, I can't tell you that." And I said, "What kind of a job is it?" And he said, "Well, I can't tell you anything about it. It's a very secret matter." I said, "Well, what part of the country is it in?" He said, "I can't tell you that." "Well, can you at least tell me north, east, south, west, what have you?" He said, "I can't tell you that either." And I said, "Is it connected in some way with what I am doing now?" And he said, "I can't tell you that." And after a little bit more of this sort of thing, I said, "Well, I don't know how I can say anything on this basis." And he said, "Well, I'll tell you what, Don, you take your time and think it over very, very carefully and let me know what you want to do tomorrow morning."

So I thought about it and said, "On the basis of this information, no, I'm not interested. Unless you tell me that the war requires that I do it, that it's a matter of sufficient urgency." And he said, "Well, I can't take that responsibility." Well, that is typical of the security in the war. Later in the day the lab intercom said very loudly that I had a call from Santa Fe, New Mexico from Kistiakowsky, and Kistiakowsky said, "What the hell is going on down there? Everyone's mad that you said no. You are the first person that has said no." So I explained to him that his call had helped me a great deal already. A little while later Conant called me from Washington and wanted to know what the devil was going on. Was I unpatriotic? "Remember, Hornig, Uncle Sam is pointing his finger at you." I never forgave him for that remark, but it's a point. So, anyway, we went out to Los Alamos in the spring of '44. When I got there I found that despite all the urgency, I didn't have much to do because my main job was to plan for testing the device. The only trouble was that the device had not only not been built yet, but there was no material to build it with. In fact, it was still quite a ways off.

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