An 89-year-old Manhattan Project spouse was granted a “wish of a lifetime” to visit Trinity Site at White Sands Missile Range with her daughters during the semi-annual open house April 2.
“It’s absolutely marvelous, it’s more than I expected,” said wish recipient Allorah “Jo” Byrnes.
Byrnes, a Texas native, was 19 years old when her husband, Sam Levy Jr., was recruited to work on the project as a camp engineer for 27 months. Neither Levy nor Byrnes knew the magnitude of the project and the effect it would have on the war. Levy worked under nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, a lead physicist for the project who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of nuclear reactions.
Levy started as a volunteer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at 17 and was shortly recruited and sent to boot camp. He shared little detail about his 27-month assignment even after his return home.
“Everything was secretive,” Byrnes said. “Jokingly he said he cleaned latrines.”
She said her husband returned a different person after the testing of the atomic bomb and the use of the bomb during the war. Byrnes said he felt a lot of guilt for being a part of the development of the bomb. She said he found comfort in the fact that he helped develop something that brought an end to war and killing.
“I thought my husband had contributed so much,” Byrnes said. “He was an integral part of what happened.”
Shortly after returning home from the project, Levy took home a puppy he found with radiation burns that no vet could cure. The puppy lived out most of his years with Levy and Byrnes, until their firstborn, Susan, arrived. Byrnes said the dog could not get along with their daughter so he had to be rehomed shortly after.
Levy died at the age of 59. Before his passing, Byrnes said she decided to interview him to pass his story on to his family. In the interview, Byrnes said he divulged a lot of information he had kept secret for so many years. He even shared with her the atomic bomb patch that was specifically developed and handed out to personnel who had been a part of the project.
“He did have quite a story,” Byrnes said.
She recorded the interview on tape and has it saved at home.
Byrnes said she was able to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombing three times during a group cruise she took. She and her husband had visited sites surrounding Trinity Site but never returned to visit the site itself.
Sally Webster, Wish of a Lifetime director of communication, said they chose to grant Byrne’s wish because of her unique story and how much the site greatly impacted their family for the rest of their lives. She said Byrnes wrote about how Levy’s experience in the project changed him completely and how she and her daughters would benefit from visiting the site. After Levy died, Webster said Byrnes took up volunteerism in her husband’s name and always went out of her way to help others.
“We look at personal sacrifice, what type of obstacles they overcame and how the wish will impact their life,” Webster said. “She’s just got a really incredible story.”
Brittany Polson, wish manager, worked closely with Byrnes and her family to ensure the trip would fulfill the family’s expectations.
“This was a trip about healing, about them going back together and feeling connected to the one location that impacted their family so much,” Polson said.
The wish program was founded in 2008 by Jeremy Bloom, a former Olympic skier, who traveled around the world and was blown away by the respect for elders he continued to see throughout. He developed the program in hopes to instill the same culture of respect in the U.S. In 2015, 218 wishes were granted and 1,200 wishes have been granted since the program’s inception.
“Anyone over the age of 65 is welcome to apply,” Webster said.
Trinity Site Open House allows for visitors to take a quarter-mile walk to ground zero where a small obelisk marks the exact spot where the bomb was exploded. Once at the site visitors can also take a shuttle bus from the parking lot to visit the Schmidt/McDonald Ranch House where the plutonium core was assembled.
“I think my husband would have been in awe,” Byrnes said of site.