Under the Mushroom Cloud – I served seven years in the United States Marine Corps, leaving boot camp in San Diego in 1950 just a month or so after the Korean War started. After a tour of garrison duty in Japan, and almost a year in Korea, I was assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Duty there, to say the least, was routine and dull. There was one short period, however, that was not boring.
My company was chosen to be part of a provisional battalion of Marines that would take part in Operation Tumbler-Snapper, a series of eight atomic bomb detonations at the Nevada Test Site in Nevada. The first of the then current series of tests had taken place on April 1, 1952, and the last was scheduled for June 5, 1952. My group would observe the fourth detonation in the series, and the twenty-sixth detonation by the United States; the first one being the “Fat Man,” which was exploded July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. A second Fat Man had been detonated over Japan the following month.
In the early morning hours of April 30, 1952, I was one of about two thousand Marines who climbed aboard chartered Flying Tiger C47s at Jacksonville, North Carolina. We flew to McCarran International Airport at Las Vegas, Nevada, where buses then took us to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Camp Desert Rock staging area, located in the Nevada desert about sixty-five miles north of Las Vegas. Two thousand troops from Camp Pendleton in California were already there.
The next day, May 1, 1952, buses transported us to Area 7, a point about two miles from the test area in Yucca Flat. We then marched to a point just 2500 yards from ground zero. We filed into shoulder-high trenches that had been prepared for us. The nineteen-kiloton atomic device was to be air dropped from a B-50 bomber. Trucks, Jeeps, armored vehicles, as well as buildings complete with dummy residents, had been placed at ground zero. Some of the tests, I was to find out later, used live animals to test the effects of the blast, but none were used in this experiment. When the time of detonation was imminent, we were told to face away from the blast area and place an arm over our closed eyes.
At exactly 10:00 AM it seemed as if a hundred suns had suddenly awakened. Even with my back to the blast and my eyes closed I could see, for an instant, through my eyelids and clearly make out the outline of the bones in my forearm. Immediately after the initial blast a milky white flash washed across the desert. Later I would learn that – at the instant of ignition – the temperature in the core of the device would reach one million degrees, hotter than the surface of the sun. Within a few seconds we were given the command to turn and face the blast area. It was the most spectacular sight I have ever seen. Everyone was awestruck. The fireball was huge – blue, orange and red – and it churned and boiled like nothing I had ever seen before. It quickly rose to several thousand feet, and the top formed into a giant mushroom-shaped cloud. In about ten seconds the shock wave reached us in the trenches, and almost immediately a wall of heat and dust enveloped us. After about twenty minutes the upper portion of the mushroom started to break up and slowly drift towards the east.
We watched the mushroom cloud for over half an hour, and then we were ordered out of our trenches. In combat formation, but without our normal combat gear (undoubtedly so as not to permanently contaminate it), we marched right into the ground zero area. We were told that this atomic device was a relatively small one, but in my eyes the devastation and destruction of the equipment and frame buildings was awesome. The buildings had been virtually vaporized. Except for some smoldering clumps of wood they no longer existed. The cars and trucks were an unrecognizable mass of twisted metal. Only the tanks could be recognized for what they were, but even so they had been tossed about as if they were toys, and most had had their tracks blown off. Everything that remained had a light gray caste to it, somewhat like the color that is left when a bullet ricochets off a rock.
We simulated being sure that the “enemy” was dead, and then the various company commanders reported that the area had been secured. With that done we formed up and marched back to our staging area. Portable showers had been set up, and we disrobed at one end of the shower area, took a shower, and then were given new underwear, socks and dungarees at the other end. The only piece of clothing that we kept was our shoes, and they were thoroughly decontaminated. Each of us had been wearing a radiation dosemeter throughout the operation, and these had been turned in before we showered. We were not told how much radiation, if any, that we had absorbed. There was no way, though, of measuring how much contaminated dust that we had breathed into our lungs and ingested into our stomachs.
After the WW2 atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans learned – mainly from the graphic stories and photographs in Life Magazine – that the detonations printed the shadows of many of the victims on pavements and on the concrete walls of buildings. It is said that these shadows can still be seen. Many of the bodies that made them were never found. It was if they never really existed. Seven years later, as I witnessed the after effects of a controlled experiment, I could readily imagine what the residents of the two targeted cities had experienced. It was horrendous, but on the other hand, I knew that the blasts had stopped the war, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives – on both sides.
We stayed at Camp Desert Rock a second night, and the following morning we again boarded Flying Tiger C47’s for the return flight to Camp Lejeune. For the most part we were proud that we had been chosen to be a part of such a high profile operation. It was also a welcome diversion from the boredom of our regular duties. The main gripe was that although we could see Las Vegas in the distance as we traveled to and from the test site, we weren’t allowed any liberty. At the time few of us had foresight enough to suspect that what we had been subjected to might shape, or even end, our lives.
The Aftermath – The problem, of course, was radiation. In essence, radiation is energy in motion. When it occurs in the form of high-speed “ionizing” particles, as it does during a nuclear detonation, the possibility exists for human tissue and genetic material to be harmed. Scientists understood the hazards of radiation, but in the early days of atomic warfare training, most of the military people who were participating – at least the lower echelon personnel – were only vaguely aware of its potential danger. Starting about four years later, while I was still in the service, and continuing for another ten years or so, I regularly received a questionnaire regarding my health. As a result of the questions that were asked, and the increasing negative publicity about nuclear exposure, I gradually became aware of just what I, and over 220,000 other servicemen, had been subjected to.
Fallout was another product of the nuclear tests in Nevada. Radiation from fallout is measured in rads. One rad is equivalent to the amount of radiation absorbed by the thyroid of a person who has had ten X-rays of the neck area. Our government scientists may not have known the risks in the beginning, but as the after-effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs became known they surely knew that fallout could also be deadly. As far away as Idaho people thought what they saw occasionally dusting their fruit orchards and cow pastures was frost, except that the temperature was not cold enough to freeze. Others described it as a gray-white powder that seemed to appear out of nowhere. There is no doubt that the people in these areas were being exposed to high levels of radiation from the open-air atomic bomb blasts.
By the early 1980s, an alarming number of people – downwind of the Nevada test sites – were becoming ill with thyroid disorders, including cancer. The government ordered a study of the problem in 1982, and work actually started in 1983. In 1990 the National Cancer Institute said that preliminary results were just a year away. But it was not until 1997 that the public finally got a glimpse of the study – conducted in 3071 counties – that revealed where the radioactive fallout from the nuclear bomb tests really went. The study concluded that more than 231,000 people had been exposed to at least fifteen rads of radioactive Iodine-131, an isotope released when a nuclear device is detonated. This chemical, released from the nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, was enough to notably boost the chances of those downwind of contracting thyroid cancer. It was estimated that some people received as much as thirteen to eighteen rads, and that the dose that some children received – as a result of their drinking large amounts of milk – may have been as high as 100 rads. These people lived in twenty-three counties east of the test sites, fifteen of them as far away as Montana and Idaho.
For years – every time I had a physical examination – I waited for the “other shoe to drop.” I have also wondered if a nuclear-contaminated gene might be – in some way – linked to the death of my son Ron who died of cancer. At this point, however, over fifty years have passed since Camp Desert Rock, and I’ve decided to stop thinking about it.
Nevada Test Site Revisited – On September 24, 2003, a little over fifty years after I had witnessed an atomic detonation, I took a Department of Energy tour of the Nevada Test Site. I rarely thought about my experience on May 1, 1952 in the intervening years, except perhaps when I wondered if there was anything to the rumor that many of the military test observers had developed cancer and other ailments.
I was prepared to be bored, but the tour turned out to be very interesting indeed, especially when we passed the very site where my buddies and I had tramped through ground-zero some fifty years previously. The area was surreal though, for each of the test sites had not been disturbed after the detonations, and the dry desert air had preserved everything. One could almost imagine that the tests had occurred just last week instead of several decades ago. The dangers of a nuclear world were still vividly evident, however, for parts of a number of the test sites were surrounded by yellow warning tape and signs indicating that they were still “hot.”