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Krulwich Wonders: Five Men Agree To Stand Directly Under An Exploding Nuclear Bomb

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 - 10:45 AM

Five Air Force officers stand at ground zero of an atomic bomb test at a Nevada test site on July 19, 1957. (Atom Central/YouTube)

They weren't crazy. They weren't being punished. All but one volunteered to do this (which makes it all the more astonishing.)

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.)

The Silence

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.


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Comments [11]

Andy from Spearfish

A correction in the article says "the nuclear missile video says the explosion took place 10,000 feet above our group of soldiers. Apparently, the video is wrong. . . the explosion, part of Operation PLUMBBOB, was actually at 18,500 feet."

Coastal dwellers may need reminding that the plains of the Nevada test site are at an elevation of 4,000 feet. And from the video, it looks as if the soldiers may have been on top of a hill. The hills around the test site go up to 6,000 feet, and Big Butte, which has a nice big flat top, is at 6,700 feet. So the soldiers could have been about 12,000 feet from the explosion and definitely were less than 14,500 feet from it.

That was a time of madness if you ask me.

Nov. 16 2015 11:52 AM
Diane from Cleveland, OH

I agree with Dan. Those six people couldn't have been standing at ground zero. They would have gotten vaporized.

Sep. 23 2012 10:01 PM
Julia from MN

Just listened to the short, haven't watched the video. My father worked for a year or two on the atomic bomb testing in the 50s in Nevada. He says he was one of the few of his group who would get up early to go up on a hill and watch it go off, though he now regrets that. He's 92, in very good physical health but starting to get forgetful. When I was younger, he would hear from the wives of some of the other men in his group as they'd die of various cancers, which he thought were related to the bomb. He's not reluctant to talk about it, nor does he highlight it, but it seems to me that others might be interested in talking to him either as part of the narrative, to flesh out what we know about experiences of it, or even to continue studying health effects (he and my mother had pregnancy/neonatal health problems, though both were older parents as well). If anyone has ideas of groups I might contact about this, I would appreciate it.


Aug. 25 2012 10:43 PM
Monthly World Views from Willoughby, CT

Apparently there's more to this story than originally published:

Aug. 08 2012 02:09 PM
Dan from Midtown

We are all aware that this is obviously staged right?

Jul. 31 2012 08:47 AM

Why do the commas around the correspondent bother you?

Jul. 27 2012 03:21 AM
Craig Wilson

A pet peeve of mine: Drop the commas around Robert's name, unless he is the only NPR science correspondent. Should read: NPR Science Correspondent Robert Krulwich joins Jad Abumrad....

Jul. 24 2012 11:33 AM
AO from PDX

More than any other video I've seen, this one brings to mind Isaac Asimov's short story Hell-Fire. You can almost see the face.

Jul. 21 2012 10:50 PM
Tony Brown

I think the tobacco that fellow's smoking in celebration is statistically much more likely to kill him...

Jul. 20 2012 03:39 PM
Adam again

Oh, good. According to Wikipedia ( ) the guys on the ground received negligible doses of radiation. Though apparently there was a flight crew ordered to fly right through the fallout cloud ten minutes after the bomb went off and they got much higher doses.

Jul. 18 2012 09:25 AM
Adam from Boston, MA

Did they all go on to live full and happy lives, or did they all die of horrible cancers within the next few years?

Jul. 18 2012 09:15 AM

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