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From the Archives: Journalists witness Nevada A-bomb tests

From the Archives: Journalists witness Nevada A-bomb tests
March 17, 1953: Journalists on News Nob, seven miles from the epicenter of an atom bomb test, are lighted by the flare of the explosion. (Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)

Established in 1951, the Nevada Test Site is located in southeastern Nye County about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. From 1951 until 1962, 100 above-ground nuclear tests were held at the facility. Over 900 underground tests were conducted until 1992.

In the 1950s, journalists were invited by the Atomic Energy Commission to witness some of the test explosions. On March 17, 1953, Los Angeles Times staff writer Gene Sherman joined soldiers in trenches two miles from ground zero for one test. Here are some excerpts from his page one story the next morning:

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BY GENE SHERMAN, Times Staff Representative

YUCCA FLAT FORWARD AREA, March 17 – White hell in the heavens burst over us at 5:20 a.m. today but seconds later we peered unharmed from our trenches to prove men are safe less than two miles from an atomic explosion.

The 1000 troops and 20 newsmen who cowered with them in the forward trenches were closer to atomic detonation than any other human being in history, except the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was one of the newsmen selected by lot to accompany the soldiers from Camp Desert Rock to the prepared entrenchments in this broad, flat valley where the giant atomic mushrooms grow.

The soldiers with whom I shared a trench were interested but not overwhelming impressed by man's deadliest miracle. They took the test and their historic proximity to nuclear fury pretty much as standard operating procedure.

The men I was with displayed no extraordinary anxiety beforehand. They laughed and kidded with one another until the very last minute. Then they grew serious enough to take the precautions prescribed by the Atomic Energy Commission.

This was an explosion equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT, fired from a 300-foot steel tower to simulate an atomic artillery burst.

To those among the observers who never had seen an atomic explosion before, it left them grasping for adjectives. But the detonation left those who had seen others of the 1951 and 1952 test series – albeit at a far greater distance – somewhat disappointed.

Reveille at Camp Desert Rock, jumping-off place for atomic indoctrination, was at midnight.

We managed to snatch about three hours' sleep following a special briefing. After breakfast we climbed into busses to which we walked on trails marked with flares.

The press bus, discouragingly enough, was No. 30 – "the end" in journalese.

May 5, 1955: Atomic bomb test at Yucca Flat, Nevada. The photo was taken with 40-inch lens from eight miles away. The fireball is about four miles high.
May 5, 1955: Atomic bomb test at Yucca Flat, Nevada. The photo was taken with 40-inch lens from eight miles away. The fireball is about four miles high. (Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times)
March 15, 1953: Writer Gene Sherman, rear, in advanced position two miles from ground zero. Soldiers with Sherman from the Los Angeles area are from left: D. W. Gonzales, Lt. Willis England and Sgt. Gene Gurr.
March 15, 1953: Writer Gene Sherman, rear, in advanced position two miles from ground zero. Soldiers with Sherman from the Los Angeles area are from left: D. W. Gonzales, Lt. Willis England and Sgt. Gene Gurr. (Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)

At 2:28 a.m. the long line of vehicles threaded slowly out of the rocky camp into a chill, clear, star-strewn desert night. We wound at an agonizing 20 miles per hour through the barren hills, past News Nob where less lucky observers would witness the blast.

Finally we turned east off the main Nevada Proving Ground road to a parking area. From there we were guided to the entrancement area by white tape and flares laid along the ground. …

At H-hour minus 60 minutes 2500 points of T.N.T. was exploded to verify the delicate calibrations utilized in evaluating atomic experiments. All unnecessary electrical equipment was ordered off at H minus 30.

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Three instrumentation B-29s droned purposefully over the target. Then the word came down over the loud-speakers:

"This is H minus 5. The mushroom cloud will be at an altitude of approximately 40,000 feet eight minutes after the detonation." …

From the loud-speakers came Capt. Harold Kinne's level voice in comments:

"You gentlemen are privileged to be closer than any of our troops have ever been – closer than any American troops in history. This is the first time you may get hurt if you don't obey orders.

"Two miles is mighty close. Gentlemen, this is the greatest show on earth. Relax and enjoy it."

He told us what to do and as the public-address system marked H-minus-3 we did it. We knelt down in the fine dust in the bottom of the trench. We put our helmeted heads low. We leaned hard against the forward wall to brace ourselves for the shock. …

Map indicates approximate locations of key installations for March 17, 1953, nuclear test in Nevada. Forward foxholes are within 3,500 yards of the blast site. Mercury is the camp of the Atomic Energy Commision scientists. Desert Rock is an Army camp.
Map indicates approximate locations of key installations for March 17, 1953, nuclear test in Nevada. Forward foxholes are within 3,500 yards of the blast site. Mercury is the camp of the Atomic Energy Commision scientists. Desert Rock is an Army camp. (Associated Press)

Then instantaneously it came as the countdown reached zero. The murky dawn light was suddenly gone from our trench, washed out by the indefinable, unbelievable grievance of the atomic flash.

Under my nose the dull powered sand of the trench turned an unworldly white that seemed to typify the total absence of all life.

Simultaneously the earth we embraced so dependently convulsed in violent paroxysm. We were shaken like dice in a cup for brief, fleeting moments of terror.

Still hugging the protective earth we heard what seemed like the crack of a gargantuan whip above us, then the angry, protesting echoes of dying fission.

With it we expected heat, but little if any touched us in the trenches.

In a fantastic fraction of a minute it was over, and the earth had ceased shuddering. …

After the explosion, Sherman reported that the soldiers and journalists "approached within 300 yards of the spot over which the burst occurred before our escort's measuring instrument indicated questionable radiation. At that point we turned back."

Los Angeles Times photographers and writers covered other nuclear tests. On May 5, 1955, Los Angeles Times aviation writer Marvin Miles reported from inside a U.S. Army tank 3,100 yards from a blast.

Other coverage was very simple. For two of the photos below, photographers set up tripods on the Los Angeles Times roof and made images of City Hall backlit by the nuclear blasts 300 miles away in Nevada.

Some of these photographs were used in similar From the Archives posts on March 8, 2012, and Oct. 3, 2013.

May 15, 1953: A typical American home sits a mile and a half from 300-foot tower (arrow) with atomic device at the Nevada proving grounds.
May 15, 1953: A typical American home sits a mile and a half from 300-foot tower (arrow) with atomic device at the Nevada proving grounds. (Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)
March 15, 1953: Mannequins representing an American family in the living room of a demonstration house to be used in atomic tests in Nevada. the blast center.
March 15, 1953: Mannequins representing an American family in the living room of a demonstration house to be used in atomic tests in Nevada. the blast center. (Art Rogers / Los Angeles Times)
May 6, 1955: Inspectors examine what's left of an industrial shed of self-framing steel channels that was ripped apart 6,800 feet from the site of an atomic bomb test on May 5, 1955.
May 6, 1955: Inspectors examine what's left of an industrial shed of self-framing steel channels that was ripped apart 6,800 feet from the site of an atomic bomb test on May 5, 1955. (Larry Sharkey / Los Angeles Times)
May 7, 1952: View of Los Angeles City Hall lit up at 5:15 a.m. as an atomic bomb is tested in Yucca Flat, Nev., some 300 miles away. The Lindbergh Beacon projects the ray of light from atop City Hall.
May 7, 1952: View of Los Angeles City Hall lit up at 5:15 a.m. as an atomic bomb is tested in Yucca Flat, Nev., some 300 miles away. The Lindbergh Beacon projects the ray of light from atop City Hall. (Los Angeles Times)
May 1953: Spencer Honig of the Downtown Figueroa Street New Car Dealers Assn. examines shattered glass in one of ten Figueroa Street cars used in atomic bomb tests in Yucca Flats, Nevada. All the cars were brought back and put on public display.
May 1953: Spencer Honig of the Downtown Figueroa Street New Car Dealers Assn. examines shattered glass in one of ten Figueroa Street cars used in atomic bomb tests in Yucca Flats, Nevada. All the cars were brought back and put on public display. (Los Angeles Times)
March 7, 1955: Los Angeles City Hall at 5:20 a.m. with the sky lightened by an A-bomb test in Nevada. The real dawn was 20 minutes later.
March 7, 1955: Los Angeles City Hall at 5:20 a.m. with the sky lightened by an A-bomb test in Nevada. The real dawn was 20 minutes later. (Bruce Cox / Los Angeles Times)
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