National Geographic : 1953 Jun
Nevada Learns to Live with the Atom 839 While Blasts Teach Civilians and Soldiers Survival in Atomic War, the Sagebrush State Takes the Spectacular Tests in Stride BY SAMUEL W. MATTHEWS National Geographic Magazine Staf GAINST night's last darkness on the Nevada desert, a faint green band of dawn framed jagged mountains to the east. Suddenly a siren sounded, rising in urgency, higher and higher. "It is now H minus two minutes," loud speakers blared. "Kneel down in your trench. Look down. Brace yourself against the for ward wall." Two miles out across the flat, a bright white light shone from the top of a 300-foot tower. At that point, the 22d atomic explosion within the United States was a hundred-odd seconds away. "I don't mind admitting it," the dark shape next to me said abruptly into the gloom. "I'm scared." Sgt. Tom Radtke of Chicago, six years in the Regular Army, spoke for about 1,500 of us on hands and knees in our narrow burrows. "Trembling Twenty," Closest Reporters A few minutes before, the loud-speaker voice had said, "Good morning, gentlemen. Wel come to Yucca Flat, valley where the tall mushrooms grow .... "The detonation you will witness today is about what the survivors of Hiroshima saw in 1945. It will be closer to you than any such detonation has ever been to Americans." We had received many other briefings. I was one of 20 newspaper, radio, and magazine representatives accompanying 850 soldiers and approximately 600 officer-observers into en trenchments twice as close to the forthcoming blast as men ever had deliberately gone before. My name had been drawn from a hat for the chance to be there, two miles from an atomic explosion. The "Trembling Twenty," we had been dubbed-"Men of Extinction." By flickering light of flare pots, after only three hours' sleep, we had boarded a bus at 2 a.m. at the Sixth Army's Camp Desert Rock, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Ahead lay a 25-mile ride into the heart of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission's Nevada Proving Ground. The convoy winked and twisted among moonlit hills, past the white expanse of Frenchman Flat, through Yucca Pass, to be stopped finally by military policemen with glowing electric batons. We stumbled out into darkness speckled by bonfires among the brush, where waiting sol diers warmed themselves in the bitter cold night. Loose powdery dust puffed beneath our feet. Canteens and helmets jingled as we walked. Platoons and companies comprising the simulated atomic attack force spread along a double line of trenches half a mile in either direction from command and observer posts. Many of the men in the trenches had come to Camp Desert Rock directly from Korean fighting. Cpl. Frederick Jin, a Chinese American, had been in Korea for nearly a year. He laughed when I asked him which he preferred. "I don't think any of us are sorry we're here," he said. "The Thing out there ... I'd like to see it." "Any one for Las Vegas?" some one joked. "Seems pretty close here, doesn't it?" a soldier muttered. "You should be in those houses, bub!" came an answer. Test Houses Await Moment of Doom Out to the right, lights marked two isolated frame houses built by Civil Defense planners within the predicted blast range of the "nu clear device" on the tower. One stood two thirds of a mile from the explosion point (page 846), the other 1.4 miles away. With "Milton Able I" Company, 3d Pla toon, I took my place in a 5-foot-deep, 2-foot wide slit cut into the desert floor. The sides were braced by tar paper, chicken wire, and timber. Sandbags lined the lips (page 842). The siren howled just behind us. We knelt in the dust, heads down, muscles tense. "H minus 30 seconds." The signals came through miles of wire from the Control Point, nerve center of a network of communication systems, automatic switches, and recording instruments all across Yucca Flat.* "H minus 20 seconds." I took a deep breath. The "count down" of seconds began. "Zero minus ten ... nine .. . eight.. . seven ... six ... five ... four ... three ... two ... one-" Half-night in the trench turned suddenly into blinding, pure-white noon. It was im * See Historical Map of the United States, a supple ment to this issue.