“When the atomic bomb went off, everything in the trench was light. There were no shadows and there was crackling like electricity, the flash, then loud noise and out of the corner of my eyes, large boulders and dust went flying by, overhead tremendous wind. After a while, they sounded all clear and we were able to look up.”
Darrel Whiting of Hoschton wrote this to me recently about his experience as a 19-year-old Marine witnessing an atomic blast in Nevada. He read my recent column on the nuclear age turning 75. And he thought he’d share what it was like to be 3,500 yards from man’s fiercest weapon. I must say, one of the best things about writing a regular column is that sometimes people will contact me with some story related to a topic I’ve addressed. I absolutely love this sort of thing! How fascinating. What a gift to receive accounts from others, viewpoints I never would have known. I thought I would share this with you.
“This particular bomb was the atomic event Shot Bee of the Teapot series and was at 0505 on March 22, 1955 in area 7 of Yucca flats and an eight-kiloton device fired from a 500-foot tower,” wrote Whiting. “As stated, we were in trenches about 3,500 yards from the tower.”
You can find footage of this on YouTube at https://youtu.be/132ZV87aWUY. You can also locate the footage by searching on YouTube for “Operation Teapot nuclear test with enhanced sound effects.”
It’s intense. And I couldn’t help but go down the rabbit hole of nuclear test videos after seeing this.
When Whiting looked up that day, he saw the mushroom cloud high in the sky and then later an airplane flying through the mushroom cloud. Think about the people on that plane. What a task. Through the cloud, sir? Yes, through it.
Whiting and others were able to walk up close to where the bomb tower had been, which was nothing but dirt.
“There were a lot of people that had witnessed the blast, some from other nations (different uniforms),” he wrote. “We were able to walk up close to viewing the buildings, and tanks, jeeps, etc, viewing what the blast had done. I remember someone saying that some of the officers had cut out their names in stencils with a block of wood and the heat had burned their names into the wood. Not sure if this was true, but they talked about that. Some of us joked about no longer having the ability to have kids...(My wife and I had four, so AOK).”
Whiting said his friend, Ron Sundell, a fellow Marine who he didn’t know at the time, but who was also at the atomic test that day, would be willing to share his account with me. So, I emailed Sundell.
Here’s what he wrote:
“Being only five months out of boot camp and just eight months from graduating from high school, I was pretty ready to believe everything I was told during our ABC (Atomic/Biological/Chemical) warfare classes in preparation for the bomb test. They said our radiation exposure would be minimal and that the scuttlebutt about being rendered sterile was totally false. As we proceeded to the test, I did not have any fears, only excitement. The instructions about how to proceed were clear and I followed them. We hunkered down in the trench facing away from ground zero. Hands over eyes, we waited for the flash of light. My most vivid memory was during the flash of light, I could see my rifle in front of my face. My second most, not vivid but funny, was of the shock wave. We were told not to get up until the shock wave was past, then we could stand up and watch. The shock wave put some dirt and pebbles down our back, nothing scary. Then we stood up. About two-thirds of the troops stood up outside of the trench. I stayed in the trench standing and looking at the mushroom cloud. What we were not told was that the shock wave goes out to the mountains and then does an echo back, about knee high. What I saw was the whole line of troops do a knee collapse like someone had come up behind them and did a knee trick. After a short while, we boarded helicopters for a simulated assault through the blast area. Actually, we were taken back to the foothills and told to ‘dig in.’ All rock, no digging. After eight hours, we were picked up by trucks and taken to the blast area where we could observe how personnel and equipment fared from the blast and fireball. We walked to the edge of a tarmac at the center of which were the remains of the tower that held the bomb. It was only an 8.5 kiloton bomb. We were then taken back to the camp where they scanned our radiation badges and we were told we were just fine.”
Whiting and Sundell are considered “atomic veterans.” Sundell directed me to a website for the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) at naav.com. According to the NAAV, atomic veterans are “members of the United States Armed Forces who participated in atmospheric and underwater nuclear weapons tests from 16 July, 1945 to 30 October 1962.” The NAAV also includes veterans who were exposed from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
NAAV recognizes “more than one million U.S. Armed Forces personnel, civilian scientists and engineering technicians involved in the detonation of nuclear and thermonuclear weapon devices” between 1945 and the last test conducted by the U.S. in Nevada in 1992.
The NAAV site also references the silence and secrecy that surrounded nuclear testing that has only lifted in recent years.
“This was commonly known as the principle of being careful not to learn what you don’t want to know,” wrote F. Lincoln Grahlfs (U.S.N. Ret.) former N.A.A.V. Vice-Commander. “However, this information has slowly come to light, in bits and pieces.”
Thousands of veterans were exposed to atomic radiation by close witnessing of atomic bomb testing and taking part in the cleanup of atomic bomb testing sites, such as Bikini Atoll and other sites in the Pacific. The group of veterans consists of Army, Navy and Marines.
“There is a large number of these veterans who have come down with various cancers,” wrote Sundell. “Due to the efforts of NAAV, the government and VA have determined that any for veteran that was exposed to radiation and has cancer it is considered presumptive that the cancer was caused by the exposure they experienced while in the military.”
Sundell said he and Whiting, who weren’t made sick by the blast, were more fortunate than others.
“While Darrel and I had minimal radiation exposure during our weeks at Camp Desert Rock, I think about the soldiers who were stationed at the camp long term,” he wrote. “So, this is another whole aspect of the atomic age that few people are aware of.”
Sundell and Whiting have lived into old age with the same family joke about the sobering experience of being part of nuclear testing.
“We joked with my sons and then our grandchildren about how Grandpa glowed in the dark,” wrote Sundell.
“In sharing this story with my grandchildren, I always told them that this experience didn't affect me at all except that I glow in the dark,” wrote Whiting.
Both men apologized to me, saying they felt they were writing too much about their experience. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I really enjoyed that contact. They serve us still in sharing what they witnessed.
And I’m also going to remember that line Whiting wrote: “Everything in the trench was light.” That image holds poetic power, which I prefer to the bomb version.