Atomic History

With information at our fingertips via the world wide web, it’s amazing how many people don’t seem to know much about the history of atomic weapons. Recently, I asked several people what they knew about one of the most famous parts of history, the Manhattan Project. Needless to say, in this age of technological research availability, the answers were all over the place. 

“That’s that thing they do when they fix a subway, isn’t it?” said Amber. She’s 15.

“A really great movie,” said Bryan (25). “It’s with Christian Slater. The one where he was working on that cold fusion energy project.”

Only one person seemed to really understand the purpose of the Manhattan Project. 

“The Manhattan Project was the American government plan to achieve atomic fusion and build a bomb,” said Gladys, a woman who not only remembers the project, but many of the larger names involved. 

Living here in El Paso is Master Sergeant Roy E. Aldridge. He was part of the Nuclear Weapons Program and worked on the ICBM project. That technology became the framework for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. 

He spent time as a prisoner of war when he was shot down in April of 1953 while on a mission over North Korea. He also served in Vietnam and was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

There is so much to share from this amazing man’s life, but I wanted to focus on how he became involved in the Nuclear Weapons project. 

“Everyone used to ask me, ‘how did you get into nuclear weapons,’” he recalls. “I have no idea. All I know is, I got orders to go to report to the Commandant of the ROTC unit, University of California of Berkley.”

Msg Aldridge thought the time had come for him to get his education and commission. 

“I checked in, and they put me on a bus and took me to a different place on campus, behind a chain-link fence that had a dormitory in it, and that’s where I was,” he said. 

As Aldridge was standing around, talking with others and filling out paperwork he was waiting for what came next. Names were called, and the men began to board a bus. Some remained behind as they were not able to pass the security and background checks. 

“So, they put us on this bus and took us to Livermore, California,” recalls Aldridge. “We’re sitting in this big, pit-type classroom, typical college thing, and this General walks out.”

General Leslie Groves began to speak to address them. 

“He said, ‘you are getting ready to start on a great adventure,’” said Aldridge. “He says ‘you’re going to be working with, or being associated with, such gentleman as Dr Robert Oppenheimer, Edwin Teller, Hans Bethe.’”

As the General mentioned the name of each scientist, they walked out and stood before the men within the classroom. Each of these scientists were physicists who were leaders in the atomic sciences and were the men that Roy Aldridge would be learning from. 

“Now, this is the hagiarchy of theoretical physics,” said Aldridge. 

I remember learning about these scientists from my physics teacher, Mr. Capps, at H. E. Charles Junior High. 

Teller is often referred to as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” as he worked hard to convince President Truman to develop such a bomb after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949.

Hans Bethe was the one to discover the violent reactions behind sunlight and helped with the creation of the atom bomb. 

Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” was the lead physicists of the Manhattan Project.

From their work, we gained an understanding of nuclear fusion and were able to build upon their discoveries. It is because of their work, the legacy of the Manhattan Project, we have nuclear medicine. 

Angela Creager highlights breakthroughs linked to atomic research in “Life Atomic”:

  • treatments for cancer, especially using cobalt-60
  • diagnostic tests still used widely in medicine
  • an understanding of metabolic pathways, such as that for photosynthesis;
  • a clearer picture of how the human body absorbs and uses substances such as iron
  • the modern understanding of ecosystems as environments in which matter and energy flow through living and nonliving components

Roy Aldridge was there, with these men, gaining a first had understanding and knowledge of cutting-edge technology. 

“We would go to class, and they would hand us ten sheets of paper, classified Top Secret by the Atomic Act of 1954,” recalls Aldridge. “And that was for our notebook.”

Roy Aldridge would take his notes, and when class was over, they had to turn their ten sheets of paper in to be stored in a safe. They were not allowed to take them with them when they left the facility. So how would they study?

“Well, we all developed this memory,” said Aldridge. “I still got about a 95-96 recall. We learned all this stuff.” They’d essentially become walking encyclopedias of what it took to build a bomb from beginning to end. 

So how much does Roy Aldridge remember? How much did any of them remember after twenty-thirty years?

“We go to the first reunion,” said Aldridge, “and my wife says, ‘my God, these guys picked up the conversation right where they left it 30 years ago.’” He had not seen any of the people he worked with since 1965. The reunion was in 1995.

I asked him if he was worried that some group, like ISIS, might kidnap him or any of the others and force them to build a bomb. He assured me that the technology is too old. He did say, however, that they could learn enough from “Sum of All Fears” to build a dirty bomb. Sure, a few things have been left out, but he did say what was written in that book gave him cause to worry. 

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Roy Aldridge is an amazing man who has done some amazing things in his life. I’ve spent the past two weeks reading about him and some of the situations in which he’s found himself. He has a story to share, and it’s one we need to listen to and learn from. If we do, I can promise, we will be better people for it. 

“In PET Scanning, the camera I had, and some of the isotopes I had, everybody says it can’t be done. And I’d say, ‘don’t let Gertrude hear you because she thinks she can.’ Nothing can’t be done, because somebody will think they can and do it. That’s my motto,” said Aldridge. 

Master Sargeant Roy Aldridge is living proof that anything and everything can be done. Period. 

I invite you to watch the video – there is so much to learn from Msg Aldridge. Trust me, it will be time well spent. 

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