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“I’m Not Afraid of the A-Bomb”: An Army Captain Tries to Dispel Fears about Radioactivity

On July 1, 1946, less than a year after dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II, the U.S. embarked on its first postwar atomic weapons test at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. David Bradley, a physician and member of the Radiological Safety Unit at Bikini, voiced concern over dangers from radioactivity in his 1948 best-seller, No Place to Hide. In response to Bradley and other critics, the Atomic Energy Commission, the military, and other government agencies attempted to diffuse growing fears about radioactivity. The following Collier’s article by a military officer—using the same eyewitness-account format as in Bradley’s book—tried to persuade its readers that fears about “lingering radiation” were unfounded by documenting a test in the Nevada desert in which the military deliberately sent soldiers close to “ground zero” soon after an explosion. Some readers remained unconvinced; their published letters can be found following the article. In 1963, the U.S. and Soviet Union signed a treaty to halt atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. By that time, some 300,000 U.S. military personnel and an unknown number of civilians in areas downwind from the test sites had been exposed to radiation. In subsequent years, studies revealed higher rates of leukemia, cancer, respiratory ailments, and other health problems among these groups. Underground atomic weapons tests continued at the Nevada Test Site until a moratorium was declared in 1992, after 928 nuclear tests.

I’m Not Afraid of the A-Bomb

By Captain Richard P. Taffe

In a firsthand report, an Army officer says that troops can attack through the ravaged area immediately after the blast.

I walked through an atom-bombed area. I didn’t get burned, I didn’t become radioactive, and I didn’t become sterile. And neither did the 5,000 guys with me. Furthermore, I wasn’t scared—either while taking my walk through the blasted miles, or while watching the world’s most feared weapon being exploded seven miles in front of me.

But, I’ve been asked a hundred times since the Desert Rock maneuvers at Yucca Flats in the Nevada atomic test site, “What was it like?”

The question was asked by both soldiers and civilians. It was asked by persons with an honest desire to learn, firsthand, some information about the A-bomb, and the frequency with which the question was asked indicated that the American public knows very little about this subject.

Before we go any further, it might be well to explain that I am neither a scientist, an engineer, nor a highly educated military specialist. I’m a onetime newspaperman who has spent just about half of his adult life in the Army. I can’t explain the A-bomb in technical terms. I can’t even spell the terms. And I don’t know much about high-level tactics. But I do know what this new era of warfare looks like to me.

And I’m convinced that even a small amount of basic information about atomic energy—from a soldier’s point of view—will do the public a lot more good than all the fear-producing technical talk I had heard up to the time I was permitted to attend the Nevada tests as an observer. . . .

For many days prior to the test, combat troops and observers poured into the temporary tent camp at Desert Rock by plane, train and bus. The group ranged from privates to generals and represented every branch of the service. After a security clearance, we were assigned to tents in a very well organized camp. After the many observers had been fully oriented on the rudiments of atomic warfare, we were placed on an alert status. This was the night before the blast. . . .

With each mile the apprehension grew. What would it be like? How big was the bomb? We had been warned that the show could be called off by the Atomic Energy Commission right up until the last minute. Rumors flew along the column of trucks.

A desert floor at dawn is a deceiving thing. Distance means nothing. Mountains 25 miles away seemed to be within easy walking distance. A dried lake was realistic enough to provoke wagers that it was actually water—despite a cluster of buildings in the center of it—and another dried lake turned out to be our parking lot.

As we scrambled off the trucks, our names were checked again. While we were forming into lines, the drivers opened all windows and laid the windshields flat against the hoods of their vehicles. This was to keep them from shattering when the bomb burst.

Truckload by truckload, the thousands of troops shuffled through the dust to the observation point.

The test officials had thought of everything. We were first lined up shoulder to shoulder and then spread out so that we were separated by several yards, the MP with the truck number tied to his back at the head of each line. There was plenty of room on the flat desert.

The major who had briefed us back in Camp Desert Rock was speaking from a platform to our rear. It was six thirty—about an hour to the scheduled time of the explosion. He reviewed everything we had been told before, while we searched the sky for the several planes cruising high above.

About half an hour before “H hour” a preliminary TNT explosion was touched off to test the many scientific instruments. We were told it was 300 pounds of explosive. It gave us our first real conception of distance on the desert.

The test blast raised only a tiny spiral of dust two miles down the desert floor and the noise was barely audible.

The voice on the public address system described Ground Zero (the point directly under which the bomb was to explode) as being near a road junction and asked us to locate it. It was difficult to spot from our location seven miles away; the best most of us could do was to pick out the road junction.

With nothing between us and it but sandy desert, Ground Zero looked uncomfortably close.

Some of the observers asked if they could look directly at the blast with special sunglasses. The officer in charge explained which glasses could be used and which could not. We were particularly warned not to view the spectacle with field glasses.

With 10 minutes to go, the tension increased. We were told that the plane that was to drop the bomb had made its last wind run. We could see the sun reflected from its side as it flew high over the mountains to our right.

Then came the command, “By order of the commanding general, all personnel will face away from the blast area and be seated on the ground, with the exception of those equipped with AEC-issued 4.2 density glasses.”

Why face away from the blast? Because we might get hurt? Because we might suffer permanent eye damage? No! The initial flash of light from an atomic bomb has been described as being 1,000 times as bright as the surface of the sun. At seven miles, looking directly at it would not have caused any permanent eye damage—but it would have blinded us long enough to cause us to miss the rest of the amazing show. We turned our backs and sat down.

Some Risked a Quick Peek

Those last few minutes were interminably long. All talk ceased. Some of us tried to sneak a peek over our shoulder, but we were afraid the bomb would go off at that particular instant and we didn’t peek long.

The seconds were being counted over the public address system. Then came a clear, steady voice from the plane over the public address system, “Bomb away.”

Involuntarily we hunched our shoulders and tensed.

Suddenly it came. A gigantic flash of white light, bright as a photoflash bulb exploding in our eyes—even with our backs turned. The order “Turn” screamed over the public address system and 5,000 soldiers spun and stared. As we turned, it was as though someone had opened the door of a blast furnace as the terrific heat reached us. There, suspended over the desert floor, was the fireball which follows the initial flash of an atomic bomb.

Hung there in the sky, the tremendous ball of flame was too blinding to stare at, and suddenly there was much more to see.

Sucked into that fireball were the tons of debris from the desert floor. Almost at once dust clouds climbed hundreds of yards off the ground for miles in each direction. Then the familiar column of dirty gray smoke formed and started to rise.

Up to this point we had seen, but we had not heard and we had not felt, the explosion.

But then came the shock wave. The ground beneath us started to heave and sway. Not back and forth as you might expect, but sideways. The earthquakelike movement of the ground rocked us on our haunches and, had we been standing, it could have knocked us down.

About that time, our heads were snapped back with the force of the terrible blast as the sound finally crossed those seven miles and reached us. The tremendous crack was a louder one than most of us had ever heard before. And right behind it came another crack—there seemed to be some debate as to whether this was an echo or another chain reaction in the fireball.

From the throats of everyone there came noises. Noises, not words. I listened particularly for the first coherent statement, but, like myself, few people could voice normal exclamations. It was not something normal and words just wouldn’t come out—only unintelligible sounds.

The first words I did hear came from a caustic corporal behind me, who said, almost calmly, “Well, I finally located that damned Ground Zero.”

Our roar of laughter broke the tension, but the spectacle was far from over.

The horror turned to beauty. It isn’t difficult to associate the word beautiful with such a lethal exhibition, because from this point on, the atomic blast became just that—beautiful. A column rose from where the fireball had dimmed, crawled through the brown doughnut above the fireball, and boiled skyward. The dirty gray of the stem was rapidly offset by the purple hues and blues of the column. Then came the mushroom—the trade-mark of an atomic bomb.

Capped in pure white, the seething mushroom emitted browns, blood orange, pastel pinks, each fighting its way to the surface only to be sucked to the bottom and then back into the middle of the mass of white. Within minutes, the top was at 30,000 feet and then the huge cloud broke loose from the stem and drifted in the wind toward Las Vegas. . . .

This explosion had three lethal qualities. They were: blast, heat and radiation. The greatest fear the public has today in connection with the atom bomb probably is radiation. People forget that it caused only 15 per cent of the 140,000 deaths at Hiroshima.

One second after an air burst of an atom bomb, 50 per cent of the radiation is gone. All danger of lingering radiation has disappeared after 90 seconds.

As to the other two qualities, blast caused 60 per cent of the deaths at Hiroshima. Heat and the accompanying fires accounted for the other 25 per cent. . . .

As we moved up the road in the trucks, the effects of the blast became more apparent. About two miles from Ground Zero—and incidentally the bomber dropped his lethal egg in the proverbial bucket, right on the target—it became obvious that a terrible force had been at work.

At one of the closest positions we again left the trucks and walked through the charred area. Despite the devastation, there was no doubt that a successful attack could have been made by friendly troops directly through the blasted area—immediately after the explosion.

Here we couldn’t help but notice that every blade of grass was burned, every cluster of sagebrush bent away from the center of the blast. Had there been any buildings in the area, they would have been demolished.

In the nearest positions, both the blast and burn effects of the bomb were pointed out to us. The burns were peculiar ones—almost a photographic effect. A rock in front of a board resulted in the board being charred completely with the exception of a perfect outline of rock. “Just like a quick sunburn,” the briefing officer had said. “Either a first-, second- or third-degree burn, depending on how close you are.”

However, nothing below the surface of the ground appeared to be damaged to any great extent. And most of the equipment aboveground could still be used.

But nothing could have lived aboveground in those first few seconds after the explosion.

Close enough to Ground Zero it would have been a case of “how dead can you be?”—as all of the bomb’s lethal qualities would have been working at once.

Concrete Proves Invulnerable

Below ground, a different story. The sheep were scared, and burned in spots where they were exposed, but they were living. I heard many soldiers express pleasure at the protection offered by a simple foxhole—and the absolute safety afforded by concrete or heavily reveted emplacements.

The next day, we read a newspaper headline which said, “Troops Survive First Atom Bomb Test.” We laughed. Most of us were quite positive we would have “survived” even had the distances and safety factors been considerably lessened. Providing, of course, we had been underground at the time of the blast. Another newspaper quoted a soldier-witness to the explosion as saying, “I would trust the atom bomb as a tactical weapon.” So would I!

As for two of the bomb’s properties—blast and heat—I learned at Desert Rock that with proper shelter, and it need not be elaborate, a soldier can be perfectly safe at an incredibly short distance from Ground Zero.

As to the third property—radiation—I have been told that it consists of alpha rays, beta rays, gamma rays and neutrons. The briefing officer put that into understandable language by saying, “a hunk of helium, a hunk of electron, a hunk of X ray, and, as for the neutron, a hunk of something that does something to something else.”

To be sure, the Geiger counter clicked madly in the area. It will also click madly when placed near the luminous dial of my watch. To be sure, there is lingering radiation in the area after an atomic bomb blast. But not enough to cause injury.

The safety limits at Desert Rock were such that if we multiplied by 1,000 the amount of radiation we picked up during our walk through the area, a doctor could barely detect it in our bodies. Only if we multiplied it by 10,000 would we require medical treatment. . . .

Having had all this explained to me by persons who know, having walked through a blasted area within a short time after an atomic explosion, and having realized that the safety precautions taken at Desert Rock were far in excess of those necessary under combat conditions, I no longer worry about becoming radioactive because of the blast I watched.

As the man said, if you are close enough to be hurt by radiation, it won’t make too much difference—you’ll also be dead from about six other causes. . . .

Observers drew several conclusions at Desert Rock. First, factual and simple orientation can eliminate most of the fear and apprehension concerned with atomic weapons. Secondly, properly covered, a soldier need have no fear of the effects of an atomic bomb air burst, from either blast, fire or radiation. Thirdly, properly warned and protected, troops could attack through an area ravaged by the weapon immediately after the blast.

I heard a general emphasize a well-known military fact the other day. He said: “You can’t research the infantry out of business.”

The atom bomb will not put the foot soldier on the shelf. Rather, it adds another weapon to his stockpile.

Much more about atomic warfare will be learned at future tests. And when all the information is evaluated, new doctrines will be written to help the infantryman survive an atom blast and still do his job.

As the briefing officer had told us before we witnessed the awesome spectacle, “Of course you can’t minimize the tremendous power of a bomb which killed 140,000 at Hiroshima—but you can put it in its place.”

Then I scoffed. Now I believe it.

Week’s Mail: Lingering Radiation?

EDITOR: I have read with interest the article I’m Not Afraid of the A-Bomb, by Captain Richard P. Taffe (Jan. 26th).

Captain Taffe tells how the troops he was with advanced quickly into the region where the blast had occurred (at Desert Rock, Nevada) without any danger of radioactive damage.

My mind goes back to the tests held several years ago at Bikini Atoll, where the atom bombs were exploded both below and above the surface of the lagoon. The account of those tests described the damage done by radioactive water, which was of such an extent that many of those ships which had been sprayed by the water could not be entered for many days, and then only after being decontaminated. In fact, some of the test vessels near the center of the blast had to be destroyed, because of the soaking they had received from the highly charged water.

Anyone familiar with Nevada knows that the climate for much of the year is very dry. It is assumed that during the recent tests the usual climatic conditions prevailed and that there was little or no moisture to retain the radioactivity. One wonders what would have happened if the recent tests had been held in one of the Eastern states during or after a rainstorm or over snow-covered ground.

CHARLES ELCOCK, Philadelphia, Pa.

. . . I’m Not Afraid of the A-Bomb should end long-fostered fears about the A-bomb that could prove disastrous to civil defense and the war effort should an enemy attack on the United States become imminent.

H. M. MARLOWE, JR., Baxter, Tenn.

. . . Attention, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The big brave captain isn’t afraid of the A-bomb. Why should he be? He was seven miles from ground zero, he had his back to the blast, he knew the exact second of the explosion, and he knew also the exact spot. Unfortunately millions in New York, Chicago, Montreal and Winnipeg will not be so fortunately situated if the A-bomb strikes.

Another misleading statement: “One second after an air burst of an atom bomb, 50 per cent of the radiation is gone. All danger of lingering radiation has disappeared after 90 seconds.” Captain Taffe fails to mention induced radioactivity by neutrons and fission products released by the explosion.

Be not deceived—the A-bomb is probably the most destructive instrument of warfare devised by man, and as a person fully trained in civil defense I urge full preparedness by every able-bodied citizen in your country and mine.

E. TENNANT, Winnipeg, Canada

. . . I too was privileged to witness the test Captain Taffe described. However, I fail to recall either the terrific heat, as if from a blast furnace, or the earthquakelike shock that followed the blast.

I am wondering if the captain was with the rest of the observers or much closer to ground zero than the rest of us.

CPL. HARRISON N. MATTI, Fort Eustis, Va.

Source: Richard P. Taffe, “I’m Not Afraid of the A-Bomb,” Collier’s, January 26, 1952, 14; “Week’s Mail: Lingering Radiation?,” Collier’s, March 15, 1952, 6.

See Also:"The A-Bomb Won't Do What You Think!": An Argument Against Reliance on Nuclear Weapons
"The Gravest Question of Our Time": A Senator Lays Out Military Alternatives in the Post-Korean War Atomic Age
"The Utopian Promise of the Peacetime Atom": Predictions and Hopes for Atomic Energy