In the Footsteps (Part 7)

It wouldn’t hold up to any scientific scrutiny, but the Sun seems different in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, over a mile high (but 2000 feet lower in elevation than Los Alamos) and with an airport dubbed sunport, it’s one of those rare places where you could be chilly, cold even, all day, but still earn yourself a grade-A sunburn.

Part of the collection of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH; we’re not linking because the website may have been compromised) is located outside, behind the museum building. After leaving the moral ambiguity of the Cold War exhibit, with all of its manifestly inventive forms of atomic bombs and thermonuclear weapons, we stepped out into the sunlight falling through a cloudless New Mexico sky into a shocking, disorienting experience.

In many ways, this part of the NMNSH, entitled Heritage Park, is relatively standard aviation museum fare. In the museum’s enormous fenced in area, we found aircraft and missiles and oddities that covered a span of history from a WWII-era B-29 to the contemporary MX missile, removed from service in 2005.

The dry desert air is the perfect milieu for a retired aircraft. The American Southwest is littered with aircraft boneyards (Mojave Air and Space Port, Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, to name a few). Boneyard has become the apparent term of art as so many of the aircraft residing in these areas are picked apart until their bones—stringers and ribs of aluminum and steel—are showing. Boneyards are part storage facility, part scrap metal resource, and part aircraft parts warehouse.

But that fate of being picked to the bones doesn’t await the artifacts sitting in the Heritage Park. Here, the aircraft are meant to be studied, remembered, revered. This fenced-in expanse is a not a mausoleum or a sepulcher, and yet the sun’s harsh, white light reveals that the aircraft and other Cold War weapons are no longer alive either.

The smaller pieces, the fighter jets, seem to get the worst of it. Their sun-faded paint is a stark reminder just how far they have fallen from supersonic glory. On the ground, they look lost, without purpose. The bombers and the missiles benefit from their imposing size, as if, perhaps actually being able to fly was always of a secondary purpose, their primary mission objective simply fulfilled by the implied threat of their size. A B-52 personifies destruction, a deep, reverberation echoes from its enormous slab sides: I can carry a lot of bombs.

One of the oddities of NMNSH’s Heritage Park is an 83-ton, 84-foot-long cannon. There’s no mistaking the malevolent intent of such a machine. At least with a supersonic fighter jet, its sleek look and rakish attitude convey a machinistic grace. A cannon possesses few such aesthetic attributes, the model sitting behind the NMNSH doubly so. Like all of the artifacts at NMNSH, the cannon has a connection to our nuclear heritage, and this one was designed to fire tactical atomic bombs.

Its field designation was the M65 atomic canon. Unofficially, it was nicknamed “Atomic Annie,” echoing the name of a large German field canon (“Anzio Annie”) used in WWII. The M65 was designed to heave a 280-mm artillery shell—in this case, a shell containing a W9 atomic warhead—twenty miles. Expressly designed to be towed by articulated semis, the cannon was deployed to Europe and Korea.

In May of 1953, this type of cannon fired a W9 atomic shell during a nuclear weapons test named Grable. The ensuing atomic blast was measured at 15 kilotons, equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT (it would take about 150 railroad cars to haul that much TNT). This test sequence is shown in great detail in the film Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie.

At the film’s 45-minute mark, the giant cannon is fired (see video below). Seconds pass, but inevitably the iconic mushroom cloud blooms from the desert floor. As the explosion progresses, trees are bent, vehicles blown over, and an Army tent bursts into flame. Near the end of the sequence is a shot taken from a very distant camera, showing the shockwave’s symmetric disc spreading over the desert floor, with the rising sun-like atomic fireball at the center.

In part because of the ubiquity of aviation museums, it’s easy to get the impression that, during the Cold War, the Air Force and atomic weapons were, if not synonymous, then symbiotic. Just as the 280-mm atomic cannon and the SADM that we mentioned in last week’s post bear witness to the Army’s role in the Cold War, the other oddity in the Heritage Park works to tell the Navy’s story.

Sitting just outside the museum doorway that leads from the indoor exhibits out to the Heritage Park is the sail (in WWII-era terms, the conning tower) of the SSBN-645 James K. Polk, a Benjamin Franklin class nuclear ballistic missile submarine. Nicknamed the Jimmy K, the submarine spent 33 years in the fleet.

If the missiles and jet fighters seem lifeless, the animating spirits in their engines long since safed and removed, at least they appear, in their current state of affairs, to be largely intact. Not so with this submarine. The sail of the Jimmy K was cut away from the rest of the submarine’s hull. Angry, jagged metal edges remain as evidence of the cutter’s torches. Blistered black paint and rusting scars mar what was once the submarine’s smooth hydrodynamic surface. The overall impression of the effort that was required to dissect the Jimmy K into pieces is that the submarine was defiant till the end: I was built well. I won’t go easy.

By the time we made our rounds outside, our foreheads were tense from squinting, and we felt pretty sticky. We wandered back inside, leaving the NMNSH’s largest artifacts behind us. Inside were more exhibits to peruse.

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