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Veteran recalls nuclear test via the Jackson County Floridian

Local Army veteran Jim Roberts, 87, didn’t know enough to be particularly afraid when he was plucked from his base in Fort Jackson to join an experimental mission in Nevada 64 years ago. He was just 23 years old back then.

[…]

Yucca Flat is one of four major nuclear test areas at the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site and as the Nevada Proving Grounds), roughly 65 miles from Las Vegas. He didn’t know it when he got on that train, but Roberts was on his way to take part in one of the nation’s first attempts to fire an artillery shell outfitted with a nuclear warhead.

 […]

Roberts and his buddies were walking across base to their 40-man tent, fresh from their Vegas excursion, when it happened.

“The world just lit up,” Roberts said. “I was scared to death. I had never seen anything like it. The world was suddenly as bright as anything you could see. It was a mental shock. I thought, ‘What am I into?’”

[…]

One thing he remembers vividly from those training sessions was a trainer’s answer to a question posed by one of the soldiers. He’d wanted to know about the risk of sterilization in the event of exposure to a certain amount of radiation. “I don’t remember the exact numbers but basically he said that five (certain measures of radiation) would make you sterile, but not to worry about that, because it only takes two to kill you.”

The experiment commenced around 8:30 a.m. the morning Roberts and many other soldiers were trucked to the site they were bound for in their experiment at Yucca Flat. They knew by then that an explosion was due.

“They put us in trenches and we all had gas masks on. Before it went off, we had our heads between our legs in foxholes. Once it exploded, we had to get up and look for the shockwave. You could see it coming toward you. All we could see was a lot of sand and dust from the dessert coming toward us. Once it got beyond us, we took off our gas masks and they marched us down to ground zero (the detonation point) a mile away.”

It was an artillery shell (with a nuclear warhead) that had been fired from 50 miles behind the troops and which had exploded mid-air a mile from them. The wind had blown the nuclear material away from them, as they were upwind of it, but that didn’t mean the explosion was harmless. As they walked down those 5,280 feet, they saw some things that Roberts never forgot.

“They had sheep staked out, broadside to the explosion. Those animals were fried, not a piece of wool left on them,” Roberts said. “They had monkeys with their heads encased in boxes so they couldn’t turn them. To keep the monkeys from going to sleep, they put alarm clocks in the box so they’d be awake so the effects of the explosion could be tested. We were like the monkeys and sheep; we were just a different monkey. That didn’t add up to me until later, that we were just another part of the tests. It wasn’t just a few of us, it was thousands.”

Roberts said tires on military trucks were melted, trees were decimated and that lumber and other debris was scattered everywhere. Mock neighborhoods had been built for the sole purpose of gauging what the explosions would do to the buildings. Those were collapsed.

[…]

Even though he apparently escaped any serious health problems because of the tests, the Nevada experiment is on his mind a lot these days, as world powers trade combative words regarding nuclear capabilities.

The sight of those sheep and monkeys, the suddenly treeless landscape, the melted tires and the destroyed buildings come back to him when he hears of those things.

“It’s got me petrified,” Roberts said, “the possibility of something like that. What I’m hearing today, I’m scared to death. We can’t let it get started. If I could communicate today what I saw way back then…there are no pictures to communicate what that was like. I saw enough to know you don’t want to be anywhere around it. If you’ve got a nut, from any side, with his hand on the trigger, he can hurt a lot of people in a second. What we saw was a new weapon, a small one. I realize now what can happen with just one of those, and the world has come a long way since then in terms of nuclear weapons. I’m 87 now. We cannot take the nuclear challenge lightly. You can’t just say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’ If somebody pulls the trigger it’s going to be a bad, bad, bad thing.”

 

 

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