On July 16, 1945, the brightest light that had ever burned on Earth lit up the southwest American desert in New Mexico. It would be followed by two more lights just as bright, months down the road, and those lights would kill nearly 200,000 people. I’m talking about the atomic bombs created in the Manhattan Project, which was the codename for the making of these bombs that were dropped on Japan and effectively ended World War II. Directed by U.S. physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves, this project was not without its critics (once the world knew about it) — and with good reason.
It has been debated time and time again, and probably always will be. In the end, most seem to agree that such a massive loss of life was necessary to prevent an even bigger loss of life. As the Americans raced to beat Germany to create and possess the world’s first atomic bombs, those working for the Manhattan Project managed to keep it a secret — even from the people who were unknowingly a part of it.
Considering that America evacuated and repopulated three cities for the purpose of making this bomb, kept their purpose a secret even from some employees, had several radioactive accidents in the process, conducted a highly risky test on American soil, and reached a conclusion that was, depending whom you ask, successful or horrific, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of examples of haunting and disturbing images from that time in American History.
Here are 16 of those images. The reason for some being thought of as chilling only become apparent when you learn what you are looking at; others are iconic World War II photographs that have gone down in history as some of the most disturbing ever.
16. Secret Atomic Cities
Long before the days of Maury Povich and his colorful cast of baby mamas and baby daddies in search of the truth, lie detector tests were used as standard hiring procedure in the so-called Secret City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge was called the “Town the Atomic Bomb Built” — it was also the town that built the atomic bomb, interestingly. But this city was absent from any map. It was on 60,000 acres of farmland gated by the Appalachian foothills, an easy location to keep secret. Oak Ridge was one of three secret cities in America that were evacuated of their residents and used for the sole purpose of building the atomic bomb. Secrecy was of the utmost importance — even the word “uranium” was not to be spoken. As you will see next, the billboards around the town of Oak Ridge spread the same message…
15. Shut Up Or Else!
These are only two of the many billboards posted around Oak Ridge, Tennessee. With imagery of Nazis, monkeys, and talk of enemies, the message could not be clearer: shut up! The secret atomic city boasted various propaganda on billboards to encourage support of the war and for people to keep quiet about their jobs. The one that reads, “What you see here, what you do here, what you hear here, let it stay here” has been called by some the original “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Vegas partying is all good and well, but much was at risk back then — so much so that the government felt the strong need to create secret cities to build nuclear weapons and then spread propaganda to make sure people kept their traps shut about it. As they were essentially racing Germany for world power, secrecy was of the utmost importance.
14. Tickling the Dragon’s Tail
A man named Haroutune Krikor “Harry” Daghlian, Jr. was a Manhattan Project physicist who died of acute radiation syndrome in 1945. It’s not surprising in the slightest where that radiation came from. Of course, it came from his work. But more specifically, he died as a result of an accident in his lab at Los Alamos. The experiment he was conducting was highly dangerous. Against safety protocol, he came in after hours and worked alone. But during a critical part of the experiment, he dropped a tungsten carbide brick, and his life was essentially over. Even knowing he was a dead man, he had to return the brick and core to a stable state. 25 days later, the 24-year-old succumbed to the burst of neutron radiation and the fatal dose of gamma radiation and beta burns. Most photos of Daghlian are classified even though he agreed to be studied after his death, but this photo of his hand is widely available. The only other man nearby that night was the guard who had allowed him to work alone, and he died from radiation-related leukemia 33 years after the accident. Another physicist, Louis Slotin, died in this way as well. Both men were involved in experiments at Los Alamos called “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail.”
13. The Unholy Trinity
This photo would look creepy even if you didn’t know what you were looking at. In case you do not know what you’re looking at, this is a photo of the “Jumbo” container being positioned for the Trinity Test at Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945. Jumbo was the codename for the 214-ton thermos-shaped steel and concrete container made to hold the core of the Gadget device in the event of a nuclear misfire. The test site was named Trinity by Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer, and it was where scientists detonated a plutonium bomb that completely obliterated the steel tower and sent into the air a mushroom cloud that spanned 40,000 feet across. Some say that this test at Trinity was where and when the nuclear age truly began.
12. Ground Zero
This photo shows the aftermath of the test at Trinity. As I said in the above point, the bomb decimated everything around it, including the steel tower it hung from. But it’s one thing to say it in words, and quite another to see what I’m talking about for yourself. When it was safe, a group of men approached the pile at their feet that had once been a 100-foot steel tower. This photo is of General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer. This photo shares a similarity to the Ground Zero from our generation, although much smaller and with no lives lost. After 9/11, countless photos could be seen of the Twin Towers’ remains, which looked like this on a much bigger scale. Both, in different ways, are quite frightening.
11. Crater From the World’s First Atomic Bomb
This photo shows an aerial view of the crater created by the blast from the Trinity test taken 28 hours after the fact. Since the bomb was detonated in the desert, the sand melted to become a mildly radioactive green glass called trinitite. The crater the bomb left was five feet deep and 30 feet wide. Although the test was carried out at night, in the dark, the bomb lit up the surrounding mountains so that it looked “brighter than daytime” for a few seconds. In the nearby base camp, people reported the temperatures being “hotter than an oven.” The shockwave reached observers within 40 seconds and was felt up to 100 miles away. The mushroom cloud grew to seven and a half miles high. Now, visitors are only able to visit the site two days a year, and under strict supervision, and photography is prohibited on the way to and from the location of the world’s first nuclear explosion.
10. Enola Gay Drops the Little Boy
This plane, the Enola Gay, is seen here flying away from the bomb it just dropped over the city of Hiroshima. Looking at the photo, it’s hard to truly wrap our heads around what was going on in that exact second, although we’ve all been taught the details time and again. When this photo was snapped, 80,000 people (30% of the city’s population) were about to be killed within seconds, and thousands more would follow in death. The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy”, took 43 seconds to fall 31,060 feet from the aircraft to the detonation height of nearly 2,000 feet above the city. The Enola Gay flew 11.5 miles before it felt shockwaves from the blast. This photo is at once both a triumphant moment in history (because the war would ultimately end because of it) and a tragic one (because sadly, that’s what it took).
9. Propaganda Suicide Bomber?
To tell you the truth, I don’t have the details for this silly propaganda, only that it was made to promote the war and the bombing. It even sort of makes light of them. Seeing a suicide bomber is something we are more accustomed to nowadays than back in the 1940s, and anytime you see a beautiful, smiling woman strapped to a bomb ready to die and wipe out a city along with her, you kind of naturally scrunch up your nose and think, “WTF?” I sure did. The bomb this model is tied to is not the real thing of course, but it has been made to resemble the Fat Man, which was the nickname given to the bomb detonated over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing as many as 80,000 people. But hey, the blonde doesn’t look too worried about it.
8. Happy Hour
This photo is “disturbing” only in that these workers were partying while building war technology designed to wipe out large populations of people and that, one day, would do just that. This office party at Los Alamos was probably much needed by the employees; everyone needs to let loose and have a good time once in awhile. Perhaps decades later, in hindsight, it just seems sinister somehow to see a photo like this, knowing what these people were helping to create all day, every day, which amounted to an exorbitant loss of life, no matter how necessary. In the midst of the world’s greatest war, it’s understandable that they needed a party (even an office party, the lamest kind of party there is), but there’s no getting around the fact that (understandable or not) the scene just feels wrong on some level.
7. The Gadget
Seen here is the Gadget (what a funny name for something so dangerous!), the nuclear device that was created by scientists to test the world’s first atomic bomb. This happened at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, where physicist Norris Bradbury is sitting next to his creation in this photo. It’s a proud moment for him for sure, but bittersweet, as are many of these photos. This one is disturbing for another reason, however: he’s literally just chilling next to this massive atomic bomb — the first-ever in the world! That’s kind of a big deal, and I’ll be honest — if that were me, I would be a little freaked out. I suppose Bradbury trusted his own work, though, and, in the end, things worked out well (for most of us, that is).
6. The “Mississippi of the North”
Lula Mae Little was a black woman from East St. Louis who was recruited to work for one of America’s “secret” atomic cities in Washington state. In the desert town of Hanford, Little and others like her were offered free room and board, high wages, and overtime pay. But after only a few months of working in the mess hall there, she quit due to racism, segregation, and discrimination so bad that she likened the place to Mississippi, which was infamous for that sort of thing. The town of Hanford had gone from having only 27 black residents to having 4000-6000 blacks, and most of these people had been recruited from the South. Even skilled and experienced black men and women were given menial work (see above photo), which was thought of even back then as a complete waste of resources, especially at such a critical time. An astonishing amount of effort that could have been used elsewhere went into the discrimination of blacks in several ways, including poor housing and customer service being refused.
5. Depression and Drunkenness
But the African Americans were not the only ones suffering at Hanford, albeit they did get the worst of it, having to deal with the discrimination on top of everything I am about to discuss. First of all, there was the fact that many employees didn’t even know what they were working on. (They only found out where their efforts had gone when President Harry Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima on the day it happened.) Can you imagine spending eight or so hours per day working toward some unknown goal and then learning what you had helped to create? Then there were the isolation, boredom, and dust storms, to name a few more hardships. So it doesn’t come as a shock that drunkenness and depression were commonplace. Even though the workers at Hanford had decent jobs and places to live, many of them were hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their loved ones and thus took to the drink. Pictured above is a tavern in the early days of the Manhattan Project at Hanford.
4. Two Cities Wiped Off The Face of the Earth
There are many photos readily available to anyone who wishes to the see the before and after images of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The above is only one of them, but I think it does a good job of showing how completely decimated the city of Nagasaki, the second to be bombed, was. It literally went from looking like a normal city to looking like the face of an unexplored planet. The “Fat Man” that was dropped on Nagasaki did lead to Japan’s unconditional surrender, but it killed 35,000-40,000 people outright, and up to double that number later on from radiation poisoning, firestorms, etc.. Due to cloud cover, the target was off by two miles, and thus, the damage was less than that of Hiroshima days earlier.
3. Fake Mushroom Cloud But Real Smoke Cloud
For many years, this iconic “mushroom cloud” photo was labeled as the original mushroom cloud over Hiroshima. But in reality, while this is indeed a photo of Hiroshima on that fateful day, this is actually a smoke plume from the fires burning in the city. The cloud and its dark shadow that was seen as a sundial thus put the time of the photo taken at just before noon, which was more than three hours after the bomb’s detonation. This photo was taken from an American plane long after the original (and true) mushroom cloud had dissipated. However, the fact that this smoke plume could even be confused with a mushroom cloud in the first place speaks to the fact that the firestorm in the city must have been horrific.
2. Too Soon?
I get it; education is important. Without world history lessons, history is doomed to repeat itself. And if we’ve learned anything from this list, we do not want that happening. I applaud the efforts to educate people about the atom and how it works and that they try to attract people using comics. However, given the sensitive nature of atomic bombs at that time, I’m not sure this was the right platform to do it on. Plus, there’s a totally sinister feel to it that’s simply not needed knowing what’s going to happen/has already happened (date of the comics’s publication is unknown). In any case, there are tons of comics and cartoons about the bombings, and this is only one of them.
1. Scary-High Numbers
In total, about 600,000 people were employed by the Manhattan Project (130,000 at its peak employment). This is both good (because so many people were working in the years after the Great Depression) and sad, considering that so many were working with the end goal of obliterating Japanese cities, whether they were aware that that was what they were doing or not. When you consider that that also meant the end of the war, though, it’s back to being good. The fact that there were multiple “secret cities” dedicated to this effort alone is enough for one to realize that this was a massive undertaking by well over half a million people. In the end, as sad as it was, they worked together to end World War II. In the photo above, a group of Oak Wood service personnel listen to General Groves speak in 1945. Another interesting number is the total cost of the Manhattan Project. It cost $2.2 billion by the end of WWII, which is equivalent to $26 billion in 2015.