As a small boy, scientists, jet pilots, and Captain Midnight were my heros; airplanes, rocket sleds, atoms and astronomy were some of my amazements. I had a nice collection of model planes and rockets. I loved the rockets aerodynamic shapes and the pictures of their fiery takeoffs. Of course I had no idea of the weapon their full-sized counterpart had been designed to carry nor anything of its power.
That is, until 4:30 a.m. on a dark summer morning in 1957. We were returning from a visit with my grandparents in California, riding in my uncle's 1956 Oldsmobile. He had decided to drive at night to avoid the hot desert sun of Death Valley. Unknown to us the Nevada Test Site was just behind us on our left.
Suddenly, a startling, unknown, gigantic brilliance lit up the darkness, growing much brighter than the friendly noon-day sun, and now, instead of darkness, as far as you could see into the distance, everything was lit up with a stark whiteness. The desert was now completely visible, cactus, bushes, sand. I could see mountains off in the distance and they were lit up. We tried quickly to understand what was happening. My uncle Harlan thought it might be a UFO. They had been in the news and this light was far beyond anything in our experience. I looked up thinking it must be right above of the car. As the light began to fade away, we saw that the dawn was beginning.
We turned on the radio hoping for some information. Sure enough, in a few minutes an announcement was made that the U.S. Army had tested an atomic weapon, one in a series of tests at the Nevada Test Site.
That long ago atomic test has helped keep my interest in the nuclear subjects. My youth is long past, and the study of this part of our history has been heavy and burdensome. I've since read many accounts of the soldiers who took part in these tests and of the good people of Utah and Arizona who lived directly downwind, what a strange and terrifying world it must have been. Your story and sacrifice will not be forgotten. Forty-six of these weapons had already been detonated there. When my family saw the night go suddenly into day on that cold, desert morning, we had no idea you were out there.
Ten years had past since negotiations for international control of atomic fuel had failed. The result: the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. locked together as adversaries. Both nations had developed the capability to evoke the thermonuclear fire of the Sun against their enemies, and were well on their way to assemble unprecedented combinations of political, industrial and military might.
Here, 1957 represents one year of the development and industrialization of these weapons. Now, the unimaginable power and destructiveness of the weapons which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki had become small by comparison. The atomic weapons weight and size were made smaller, and much more efficient, they now became the starters and "sparkplugs" of the Hydrogen bombs. They were being designed as "tactical" weapons and were fitted to cannons, torpedoes, depth charges, anti-aircraft rockets, demolition packages and many other types of weapons. The Operation Plumbbob test series of 24 explosions was a part of this development.
Each of these nuclear detonations injected vaporized, intensely radioactive bomb debris into the atmosphere. These tests caused much concern among scientists who cared for the health of those in the path of the fallout. The tests, however, were considered by the U.S. and Soviet governments, to be vital to their nation's security.
These nuclear explosions represent the troublesome ironies of human social frailties and terrible circumstance of the times. Here we were, each nation inflicting, on its own people, its land, and resources a terrible punishment in order to protect itself from the weapons of the other; weapons so powerful, if ever unleashed, promised complete destruction of both nations within hours or days. This was the vicious struggle of the Cold War.
The frightful toll from these explosions, and from the industrial out fall, created during their construction, will be counted far into the future. The two great adversaries have reached some mutual understanding and are now beginning to disassemble some of the many tens of thousands of these weapons. Many questions and obstacles remain, but citizens must continue to keep up on the issues and speak for peace and do what they can to ensure the fragile peace which exists today.
Editor's Note: On March 30, 1997 we updated this site with several color photographs recently released from the national weapons laboratories. Anno Atomi contains government issue press releases, comments from soldiers and citizens and images of the scientific and military activities during the Plumbbob Series of atomic weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site in 1957.
There are many important books available on every facet of this great dilemma. Thanks to all the authors who found this subject important enough to share their time and information. Many thanks to the Defense Special Weapons Agency for their help with photos; Department of Energy's Open-Net database and the Openness Initiative; DoE's Nevada office for photographs; and, the staff of Bechtel Nevada and Reynolds Electrical & Engineering for their prompt response to my numerous requests. Also, thanks to the staff of the Historical Gazette who gave much time and energy to our atomic history web sites.
In October 1996 we constructed another web site which describes the Buster-Jangle series of tests in 1951 with the personal recollections of one of the soldiers who participated and is titled: The Atomic Duty of Pvt. Bill Bires. This site was awarded Cool Site of the Day (March 1997) by capturing the attention of Wired.Com's Steve Silberman who wrote a very nice article about the web site. Compelling email stories from participants at these tests led us to start-up The Atomic Veterans History Project web site in June 1997. The project was closed and the web site removed in January 2009.
Web site content researched, written amd arranged by Keith R. Whittle