New Mexico community marks opening of Manhattan Project park

People gather for the grand opening of the visitor center for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos, N.M., on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. The event follows a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., that established the park at sites in New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
People gather for the grand opening of the visitor center for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos, N.M., on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. The event follows a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., that established the park at sites in New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) – Residents of a once secret government city in northern New Mexico marked the beginnings of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park on Wednesday with the opening of a new visitor center.

A crowd of Los Alamos County elected leaders, military veterans, history buffs and officials with the National Park Service and Los Alamos National Laboratory gathered outside the center for the unveiling.

The event followed a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C., that established the park at sites in New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee. The goal: To preserve the places where the atomic bomb was developed more than 70 years ago.

Harris Walker, acting director of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, said the park will recognize the accomplishments of the scientists and engineers who worked on the top secret project.

“For so many years, those stories weren’t told,” he said. “This gives an opportunity for those stories to be told in a new light and for a new generation to be able to appreciate them.”

Events also are being held this week at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.

In Los Alamos, the crowd acknowledged the world-changing significance of the bomb’s development with a mix of scientific awe and reverence for what followed. A handful of anti-nuclear activists attended the grand opening ceremony, standing silent with posters detailing the effects of the bomb on Japan.

More than 6,000 scientists, engineers and other workers based at a remote mesa in New Mexico designed and built the atomic bomb. It was tested in the New Mexico desert in July 1945.

Roger Rasmussen, who will turn 95 later this week, remembers being on a security detail the morning of the test. Following years of training in electronics, he was sent by the U.S. Army to work with the Special Engineer Detachment at Los Alamos when he was 24 years old.

“We had our mission to do and it was not fun and games,” he said. “Back then, that was a very serious time. It was a matter of survival really.”

Rasmussen, who ended up staying in Los Alamos and raising a family, said he never thought he’d see the day when a national park would be established to mark the project.

He recalled a world that was on edge at the height of World War II. Millions of people were in danger, he said, but one of the big concerns for the U.S. were the soldiers who were waiting offshore to invade Japan.

“The obvious situation meant that we had to do something about what was going on,” he said.

There was no glory in dropping the bombs, he said, but rather that it was something that had to be done to stop the war. He remembered the criticism that followed.

The National Park Service is still working on interpretations that will one day be a part of the three-state park. In Los Alamos, historical sites include bunkered buildings where the “Little Boy” bomb was designed and labs where personnel assembled components of the device that was tested at the Trinity Site in July 1945.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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