They weren't crazy. They weren't being punished. All but one volunteered to do this (which makes it all the more astonishing.)
Double Blasted Listen to our short about a man who survived two atomic bomb blasts in 1945
On July 19, 1957, five Air Force officers and one photographer stood together on a patch of ground about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They'd marked the spot "Ground Zero. Population 5" on a hand-lettered sign hammered into the soft ground right next to them.
As we watch, directly overhead, two F-89 jets roar into view and one of them shoots off a nuclear missile carrying an atomic warhead.
They wait. There is a countdown; 18,500 feet above them, the missile is intercepted and blows up. Which means, these men intentionally stood directly underneath an exploding 2 kiloton nuclear bomb. One of them, at the key moment (he's wearing sunglasses), looks up. You have to see this to believe it.
Who are these guys? And why is the narrator joyously shouting, "It happened! The mounds are vibrating. It is tremendous! Directly above our heads! Aaah!"
This footage comes from our government's archives. It was shot by the U.S. Air Force (at the behest of Colonel Arthur B. "Barney" Oldfield, public information officer for the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs) to demonstrate the relative safety of a low-grade nuclear exchange in the atmosphere. Two colonels, two majors and a fifth officer agreed stand right below the blast. Only the cameraman, George Yoshitake, didn't volunteer.
The country was just beginning to worry about nuclear fallout, and the Air Force wanted to reassure people that it was OK to use atomic weapons to counter similar weapons being developed in Russia. (They didn't win this argument.)
Watching this film, there are many things to wonder (and worry) about, but one of the stranger moments is how the bomb bursts in complete silence. We see a sudden white flash. It makes the soldiers flinch. Then there's a pause, a pregnant quiet that lasts for a beat, then another, and then — there's a roar. ("There it is! The ground wave!"), after which the sky above seems to go black and the air turns to fire.
Basic physics explains the pause. Because light travels quicker than sound, you see light first, you hear sound later. In most movies (even in government-released atomic bomb blast films), the sound is artificially time shifted to make the flash and the sound appear simultaneous.
'A Long, Thundering Growl'
But that's not what it's like if you are actually there. Science historian Alex Wellerstein has found an undoctored and deeply frightening recording – which he just posted on Restricted Data; the Nuclear Secrecy Blog.
He got it, he says, from "a Russian correspondent" who was searching the U.S. National Archives (why not? Our past is open to all). The Russian found a recording of an American 1953 atomic test, which shows an enormous flash of white, so white it blanks out the entire sky, then thick clouds of ash (or maybe dirt?) tumble up, a fireball appears — all of this in total quiet. Thirty seconds pass. And then, says Wellerstein,
Put on some headphones and listen to it all the way through — it's much more intimate than any other test film I've seen. You get a much better sense of what these things must have been like, on the ground, as an observer, than from your standard montage of blasts. Murmurs in anticipation; the slow countdown over a megaphone; the reaction at the flash of the bomb; and finally — a sharp bang, followed by a long, thundering growl. That's the sound of the bomb.
It's a sound you would never want to hear in real life, but this a safe way to eavesdrop. Just one warning: For the first two minutes of this video, nothing happens, nothing I could hear, anyway. Then there's a countdown, and at 2:24 from the top ... the bomb bursts; at 2:54 the blast hits.
Some of you may have noticed the nuclear missile video says the explosion took place 10,000 feet above our group of soldiers. Apparently, the video is wrong. The Natural Resources Defense Council checked the numbers and says the explosion, part of Operation PLUMBBOB, was actually at 18,500 feet. The second explosion can be found in its original form in the National Archives here.
Robert Krulwich is co-host of Radiolab, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning program about ‘big ideas’ now one of public radio’s most popular shows. It is carried on more than 500 radio stations and its podcasts are downloaded over 5 million times each month. He is also the author of the “Curiously Krulwich” blog, featured on National Geographic, where he illustrates hard-to-fathom concepts in science using drawings, cartoons, videos, and more.