Back on this day in 1957, five air force officers and an intrepid cameraman participated in an experiment. They marked the spot "Ground Zero. Population 5" on a hand-lettered sign, hammered into the ground right next to them, and waited for the boom.
It was at the height of the cold war fears, and there was concern about the effects of nuclear fallout. The air force wanted to reassure the public that everything was OK with nuclear weapons. They felt an urgency to use them, because Russia, the "enemy", had atomic weapons. So they experimented to let everyone know that all was fine.
The five air force officers, consisting of two colonials, two majors and a fifth officer, volunteered to stand right below the blast of an atom bomb. The only one who didn't volunteer was George Yoshitake, the cameraman who took the footage shown above.
The footage comes from the U.S. government archives. It was one Col. Arthur B. "Barney" Oldfield, who was public information officer for the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado, who requested the U.S. Air Force to do the experiment, to show the relative safety of a low-grade nuclear explosion in the atmosphere.
While the cameraman worked, a tape recorder was set up to record their experience.
In the video footage you can see two F-89 jets zooming across the sky. One of the jets shoots off a nuclear missile. This missile was carrying an atomic warhead.
We hear a countdown, while the guys nervously scan the skies. Suddenly, 18,500 feet above their heads, the missile is detonated and explodes.
The men are standing, quite literally, directly underneath an exploding 2-kiloton nuclear bomb.
One of the men, wearing sunglasses, looks up. What he sees astounds him. He describes in detail what he is seeing in the sky above. The narrator on the recording happily shouts, "It happened! The mounds are vibrating. It is tremendous! Directly above our heads! Aaah!"
The narrator then continues to describe exactly what they are seeing in the sky.
Having seen what they experienced, you might be wondering what happened to the men, after their ecstatic experience with a nuclear explosion.
Robert Krulwich and Alex Wellerstein of Krulwich Wonders did an investigation to try and find out.
Firstly, they found out the names of the five officers and the cameraman:
Col. Sidney Bruce
Lt. Col. Frank P. Ball
Maj. Norman "Bodie" Bodinger
Maj. John Hughes
George Yoshitake (the cameraman, not seen)
Secondly, they found out that Yoshitake is still alive, or at least he was two years ago. Yoshitake, 82-years-old at the time, was interviewed by the New York Times, and spoke of his fellow cameramen, who also took footage of nuclear explosions.
"Quite a few have died from cancer," he told reporter Bill Broad of the New York Times. "No doubt it was related to the testing."
They then tried to find the air force officers who were involved. This proved to be a lot more difficult, but Alex Wellerstein did find the following on the Nationwide Gravesite Locator:
Col. Sidney C. Bruce — died in 2005 (age 86)
Lt. Col. Frank P. Ball — died in 2003 (age 83)
Maj. John Hughes — very common name, but I'm guessing he is Maj. John W. Hughes II (born 1919, same as the above) — died in 1990 (age 71)
Maj. Norman Bodinger — unclear (not listed in the database), he may still be alive?
Don Lutrel — I think this is a misspelling of "Luttrell." There is a Donald D. Luttrell in the DVA database, US Army CPL, born 1924, died 1987 (age 63). Seems like a possibility.
So it is unclear what the results of the experiments were on these officers.
However, in an email, Wellerstein states:
"...lots of people associated with Nevada Test Site operations got cancer over the years, some $150 million has been paid out in compensation to 2,000+ "onsite participants" of nuclear testing, under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
The thing is, in that particular explosion, those guys would have been in a pretty safe position. The bomb itself was a small one (by nuclear standards — 2-kilotons) and it was way, way above their heads. They weren't in a zone to be too affected by the immediate radiation. The bomb was small enough and high enough that it wouldn't have sucked up dust to produce much fallout. The remaining cloud would have been full of (nasty) fission products, but it would have been extremely hot and most of it would have stayed aloft until it cooled down, by which point it probably would have been spread more diffusely."
In the New York Times article, Mark Sugg, who is a film producer at the World Security Institute, said of this and other similar films, “They have this very odd voice. You and I would be appalled that some hydrogen bomb vaporized a corner of what used to be paradise. But they’ve got a guy bragging about it.”
What do you think? Would you volunteer to stand directly underneath an nuclear explosion?