By Billy Cox | Associated Press
A bomb. That's all Avery Warner was told upon his arrival at a place that did not officially exist. He would be working on a bomb like none other. And he couldn't talk to anybody about it. Not even his wife.
It was called Los Alamos, but it may as well have been the Twilight Zone. "P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico," says Warner, reciting the uniform mailbox assigned to him and 6,000 colleagues laboring under the information lockdown. His offers a wry smile. "The world's most famous address."
At age 91, the Sarasota resident is among the last of the crew. As one of the original workers recruited for the top-secret, super-weapon initiative called the Manhattan Project, Warner's job was to design the tail fins that guided the plutonium bomb to its appointment with Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
Exactly how many Los Alamos survivors remain today is hard to figure. In Washington, D.C., Tim Malacarne says anywhere from 90,000 to 100,000 Americans worked for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s.
"Unfortunately," he says, "there's no independent database. We'd love to have it. There's no easy way to verify the personnel, because so much of that work was classified."
Malacarne is the project manager for the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a 5-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the Manhattan Project's three main sites at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Hanford, Wash.
Oak Ridge and Hanford employed tens of thousands of workers who refined the weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that B-29 bombers would unload on Japan to end World War II.
Los Alamos was more exclusive. That is where Project co-directors Gen. Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer huddled with the theoretical physicists who learned how to channel fission into sustained explosive chain reactions.
Warner retains a few relics from those days. The most striking is a chunk of greenish glass created when radioactive heat from the first experimental atomic bomb (Trinity, N.M., July 16, 1945) fused desert sand into a jade-like basin nearly half a mile in diameter. He has that souvenir, called Trinitite, preserved inside a tube of Plexiglas.
Warner also saved brittle newspaper accounts of that blast. They unanimously trumpeted the military's cover story, which attributed the explosion to an ammo dump accident at Alamogordo Army Air Field, some 80 miles away from the Trinity site.
Warner never banked on a career in lethal pyrotechnics. He was on an assembly line in Flint, Mich., in 1944 when one of his co-workers mentioned the FBI was headhunting in Detroit for engineers to work a secret military project in New Mexico. Warner, a tinkerer who liked hovering with pencils over drawing boards, applied because of prospects for an outdoor lifestyle in vast open spaces.
Having cleared his background checks, Warner received instructions in Santa Fe, then drove to the clandestine base with his first wife and 2-year-old son. That was where he learned he would be working with bomb makers.
Prison-tight security - censored mail, chain-link fences, military police, snarling guard dogs, no personal bank accounts within 100 miles of Los Alamos - was mitigated by rural environs that allowed him to buy two horses.
"Back home, I used to pass 32 stoplights on my way to work," Warner says. "In New Mexico, I didn't see a stoplight for a whole year."
The nondescript wooden houses were like military barracks sharing adjoining furnaces. Accommodations were adequate but Spartan. His son once stumbled into the cast-iron kitchen range and emerged with a serious arm burn.
Warner worked on the second floor of the Engineering Building. To reach the bathroom, he passed Oppenheimer's office, just down the hall. Details about the big picture were vague and compartmentalized. Engineers worked in ignorance of each other's jobs.
Warner's assignment was called "Fat Man," a radiation bomb whose identity was so closely guarded, photos would not be declassified until 1960. Five feet in diameter and weighing in at 10,000 pounds, Fat Man was twice as wide as the Little Boy uranium weapon that would obliterate Hiroshima three days before the larger bomb hit Nagasaki.
Given the precision sensing devices installed in its nose - which were programmed to detonate via atmospheric pressure, radar, timers or, if all else failed, impact - Fat Man's descent was critical. If it broke into a tumble and failed to explode, the technological windfall available to Japanese recovery teams would be incalculable.
Warner knew the stakes. He produced tail fins designed to ensure a stable descent. Prototype tests went smoothly. Fat Man and Little Boy were assembled on the Pacific island bomber base of Tinian. Warner stayed behind and waited. After the test at Trinity, he knew the world would be stunned.
"We knew it was going to happen, we just didn't know when," Warner says. "You can't imagine what the tension was like, the fingernail biting, just waiting and waiting and waiting."
Warner was in the men's room at work when the announcement crackled over the public address. It went something like this, he says: "A successful drop of one of our units has just been made on the city of Hiroshima."
"Well, we all went crazy," he said. "We didn't know which one it was at that point, but it didn't matter. We also knew that it was a terrible thing, that a lot of people were killed, but that wasn't what we talked about. We were just glad it worked."
Almost immediately after Nagasaki was destroyed three days later, employees began clearing out, Warner said. He reviewed photos of the carnage in Japan, but he did not dwell on them.
He left for California in search of a job before settling on Colorado. In 1952, Warner moved to the ground floor of yet another controversial enterprise - the Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver. For the next 23 years, the Indiana native would serve as engineering manager for a facility that produced hydrogen bomb triggers. Between the anti-nuke protesters and the headline-grabbing radiation spills, Rocky Flats provided unending fodder for public debate.
"Oh, the protesters blocked the roads, they threw roofing nails on the road. Once I even got a flat tire," Warner says. "Sure, what we were doing was horrible. But we had to keep abreast of what the Russians were doing. We couldn't fall behind."
So America's nuclear weapons program was good to Warner, even though, in retrospect, the future did not quite turn out the way he had envisioned.
Warner says he expected the Los Alamos facility to become a ghost town when the war ended. "I thought it would just start falling down after we left," Warner says. "Instead, it just got larger."
The fruits of Warner's labors made an immediate and profound impact on his third wife, Peggy. Sixty-two years ago, she was a college kid, interning at a hospital with plans to join the Women's Army Corps, when train whistles at the Elmhurst station west of Chicago started screaming the news from half a world away.
The war ended, and her boyfriend, who was studying medicine in Michigan, asked her to marry him. They exchanged vows on Sept. 2, 1945, as Japan's warlords signed surrender documents aboard a U.S. battleship in Tokyo Bay.
"It was all like a miracle to me," she recalls.
Little could Peggy have known, more than half a century later, she would meet a man whose singular skills with a super bomb helped transform her into such a joyous young bride.
She was introduced to Avery Warner through her daughter, a nurse at Home Health Care. They were married in 2004. It was the third wedding for each.
Retirement in Sarasota is good. Avery naps in the morning and in the afternoon. "She likes to dance, but I've got arthritis," he says. "So we go to the pool and she sings and we dance there."
A Meals On Wheels delivery signals another break in the day.
"Avery's amazing," says Peggy, 85. "He's one of those kind, gentle, sweet people. He gets really hurt when somebody speaks against the bomb. They weren't there, they don't know. It was a horrible, horrible period."