A scientist named Oppenheimer, a bomb, Congressman Lujan and memories

A New Mexico Congressman who liked my work awarded an appointment as Special Assistant to the Ranking Member of the House Science & Technology Committee. It led to interesting times.
The Trinity Test of the first atomic bomb at White Sands New Mesixo (U.S. Department of Energy photo)

In the early 1980s, Rep. Manuel Lujan, Jr. Congressman from the first district of New Mexico, asked me to serve as his Special Assistant to the Ranking Member of the House Science and Technology Committee, which provided oversight for America’s space program and the nuclear weapons programs of the Department of Energy.

That oversight included the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Labs, 30 miles from Santa Fe, NM, the Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque and the White Sands Missile Range in the Southern Desert of the state.

Lujan knew a log about Los Alamos. It sat on land once owned his family, which settled in New Mexico from Spain long before America existed, and his father was mayor of Santa Fe. As Lujan’s assistant and investigator, I visited Los Alamos, Sandia and White Sands many times and was with him when the Space Shuttle Columbia landed at White Sands on Mar. 30, 1982. Sadly, the Columbia disintegrated over Texas while returning from space on Feb. 1, 2003 — the second shuttle to explode and kill all astronauts aboard. That disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, has me in Houston with Lujan for the memorial service/

He was still a teenager when Los Alamos was turned into a military weapons lab, not from his his birthplace of San Ildefonso Pueblo. We visited there after one of our trips to Los Alamos and he told stories about meeting J. Robert Oppenheimer as a teenager when the scientist who headed the Los Alamos project and was known as the father of the atomic bomb visited with his father. On July 16, 1945, he stood with his father watched the Southern skies of New Mexico light up skies from the “Trinity” test of the first bomb at White Sands.

Years later, I joined Lujan for visit to Cold War bomb tests at White Sands and in the Pacific.

Because of my work with Lujan, I had a chance to meet and work with a number of people who have made a major impact in this world. Because of Lujan, m wife and I had dinner with former Texas Gov. John Connally, who discussed, sadly, the day survived the hail of bullets that struck him and killed President John F. Kennedy.

On night in Southern New Mexico, I sat on a varanda of a hotel with Lujan and then Senatoe Harrison “Jack” Schmidt, who was an astronaut who walked on the moon. A half-moon shone in the night sky. “Tell me Jack,” Lujan said. “Did you walk on the level or he cubed side of that moon?”

During his Congressional career, Lujan kept in touch with Oppenheimer, even after when the scientist had lost his security clearance because of trumped-up charges of communism and unproven allegations of collaboration with the Russians on their atomic bomb program.

“He was a victim of the lowest form of hearsay and smear,” the Congressman told me after we attended a meeting with Oppenheimer in the late 1980s. Lujan was part of a group of Congressman who fought to have Oppenheimer cleared of the charges. Sadly, the clearance came after death of the scientist and the Congressman.

With all that he faced, Oppenheimer stood tall and didn’t flinch. He continued to work with scientist s around the world to try have some impact on the use of the massive weapons he and his co-workers developed. He died to stop use of hydrogen bombs because they were flagrant examples of overkill in a world where too many nations already had more than enough weapons to destroy the world many times over.

Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) with Gen. Lesley Groves at the site of the Trinity nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945. (Department of Defense Photo)

I watched the new movie biography, Oppenheimer, by acclaimed director Christopher Nolan at a screening last week and the film showed how the forces of misinformation, political lies and smear tactics, marred the career and accomplishments of a man who helped end World II with two nuclear bomb strikes that killed hundreds of thousands of the enemy, but avoided the deaths of many more Americans by forcing Japan to accept surrender.

My father was an Navy Electricians Mate Fist Class on the U.S.S. Missouri when it steamed towards Tokyo in 1945 to be a major part of a planned invasion that would most likely kill him, his shipmates, and hundreds of thousands of other Americans in a way that we would, still, hopefully win. The atomic bombs saved their lives and my dad, instead,, stood in his dress whites on his ship in Tokyo bay when the Japanese surrendered to Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the main deck.

Lujan talked in glowing terms about Oppenheimer. With the Congressman, we met his younger brother, Frank Oppenheimer shortly before he died in 1985. He also worked at Los Alamos as a nuclear physicist. I’m sorry I never had a chance to meet the father of the atomic bomb. It would have been an honor. When I told his brother about my dad being on the U.S.S. Missouri, he said his brother thought the sailors, soldiers, and pilots of the American military were the real heroes of that terrible war.

“Oppie told us that it was our job to provide all the help we could to those brave men and women,” he said. “They won the war. All we did was help.”

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