A former soldier laments his part in an atomic bomb experiment.
By Steve Law
AUGUST 11, 1997: There is a certain deciding moment in life we have all experienced. On the edge of a high cliff or at the threshold of a bedroom, when we know that to take another step is to commit ourselves irreversibly. It's hard to know exactly what might happen should one step into the bedroom. It could be a night of passion. It could be a night of misery. Sometimes dire consequences are staked on whether we step forward or step backward.
And sometimes the choice is made for us. Sometimes against our will.
On May 23, 1953, Lamond Davis found himself in such a position, in a place he was beginning to have doubts about. A place where, had the choice been his to make, he would have turned back. But as a corporal in the U.S. Army, the choice was made by his superiors. Davis found himself on the Nevada Test Site only a few miles from Ground Zero and in less than an hour an atomic bomb, larger than the one dropped on Hiroshima, was scheduled to be detonated.
Davis was stationed out of Fort Cronkite in San Francisco. Though it was only May, temperatures in the Nevada desert were already nearing 100 degrees. The sun leaned on him as if it, too, were weary, like an energy- draining houseguest who has worn out his welcome. Davis eyed it scornfully, not knowing that it would soon be eclipsed by a force that his mind was not yet ready to comprehend.
Davis felt the sweat collect on his forehead and roll to the tip of his nose where it collected, hung and dropped onto scorched, bare earth, cracked and curled like a dry lake bed. The ground, he knew, had gained its appearance from the force of dozens of previous atomic detonations. Closer to Ground Zero, sand had been melted into a glaze, like muddy glass.
For Davis and his unit, it was the last day of maneuvers, orientation, lectures and brainwashing, all of it intended to prepare him for a march into the very burning heart of Ground Zero. Something haunted him about this place. It was a strange, abstract feeling like when taking a trip you feel like you've left something behind or a word on the tip of your tongue. It wouldn't be long before Davis learned what that word was.
Davis felt like he was at the threshold of the bedroom and had been forcefully dragged inside. And the romance had turned to rape.
Davis was one of several thousand U.S. troops chosen to take part in a government test to see what effects nuclear weapons had on troops positioned near the drop site. It was a project that actually started Jan. 27, 1951. That was the day the first atomic bomb was tested at the Nevada Test Site, located less than 100 miles east of Las Vegas and less than 200 miles west of St. George.
Over the next 12 years, an elite group of scientists and government officials, led by Dr. Edward Teler, detonated 126 atomic bombs into the atmosphere at the 1,350-square-mile Nevada Test Site. Each of the radioactive clouds some of which were pink and considered novelty items at the time that drifted across the flat mesas into Eastern Nevada and Southern Utah contained levels of radiation comparable to the amount released after the 1986 explosion of the Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl.
All tests were conducted when the wind blew toward Utah because it was considered a low-use section of the population. "On our way to participate in the nuclear experiment, our drill sergeant informed us that Utah was a 'dang fine place to dump razor blades,'" says Davis.
Davis recalls that he and the rest of the men in his unit were excited and proud to be part of the government's nuclear testing project. A project, they were told, that would make America the dominant world power and save thousands of lives under the theory of World Peace Through Superior Firepower. "Our first attitude upon hearing the news," Davis says, "not knowing we were in harm's way, was we felt the way one does when they're going on vacation."
Davis and his unit arrived at Camp Desert Rock on a Wednesday. Desert Rock is a tent city that held more than 3,000 troops at a time, located a short ways outside the actual test site.
The lectures and instructions about the unit's involvement and its role began the next day.
"We were given a lecture and told right off the bat if we followed orders that we'd be safe," Davis says. "They told us we might be exposed to some radiation, but none of us were concerned. At the time, none of us knew the real dangers. To us, the radiation was a dental X-ray. No one was worried. It was a joyful time."
Davis shakes his head. "If only we had known."
On Thursday, Davis' unit was taken into an area where previous nuclear detonations had taken place. That was the first time he got a look at the burnt sand. "The first thing I remember is that it was just a barren, no-man's land," Davis recalls. "There was nothing left but bare ground. It was like a dry lake bed, all dried and cracked open."
The lectures and drills continued on Friday and Saturday. The lectures consisted mainly of officers explaining what role their unit would play during the test and what tasks had to be carried out.
Their role was very simple: They would be taken about three miles from Ground Zero. They would kneel in trenches and then march into Ground Zero. Today, the mere idea of walking into Ground Zero seems ludicrous, David admits, but in 1953 atomic energy was a relatively new concept, so nobody thought anything about it.
After the lectures on Friday, the troops were loaded onto a bus and taken to the site where the bomb would be detonated. The soldiers were marched through an area where the mock village had been erected for a previous test to see what effects this kind of energy had on man-made structures. The village was now only a pile of matchsticks. Davis was starting to get worried at the site of that destructive power.
The same routine of lectures and drills continued the next day. "It just boiled down to an extensive brain-washing for most of the day," Davis says. "If you get that many troops together, you would imagine there would be someone knowledgeable enough to know we were in danger. But we didn't."
The troops were given Sunday off. The blast was scheduled for Monday.
On Monday morning, the unit loaded a bus and was taken to the test site. Before entering the bus, an officer pinned a radiation detection strip containing a bright blue chemical onto each soldier's shirt. The bus took them 10 miles out into the desert where they unloaded. Several trenches had been dug that the soldiers would kneel in for protection when the bomb was detonated, less than three miles away.
In the early days of atomic testing, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) didn't allow troops within seven miles of Ground Zero. The reason was what they called the "splash factor." The AEC likened an atomic explosion to a drop of water falling on a mirror. Each time the exact same amount of water is dropped but every time it strikes and splashes differently. "It will blow three miles this way one time and six miles out another way the next time," says Davis. "No one can predict what it will do."
And that was part of the reason for the tests, the government told the soldiers: To make nuclear war a little more predictable. By the time Davis and his unit had their turn with the experiments, the AEC had slackened off on its restrictions of no troops within seven miles of the drop site.
The trenches were numbered and after three days of training, Davis and the others filed into their designated trenches like the proverbial lambs to the slaughter. The shepherds were hunkered in concrete bunkers three quarters-mile behind the trenches giving directions through a powerful P.A. system.
Davis entered the five-foot-deep trench, tightened the strap on his steel helmet and looked out across the desert floor, which was now almost eye level. He was about to witness the force that gave the sand its melted, glass-like quality. Detonation time was upon them.
Thirty detonations had taken place before May 25, 1953, the day Davis experienced his. The 30 previous detonations were over the span of several years. The first test conducted on military troops occurred June 30, 1946. The test Davis participated in was different than any prior. The previous experimental warheads had all been detonated at ground level. Today, the warhead would be fired into the air out of a 280mm cannon and detonated at an altitude of 300 feet.
"You will see a bright flash even with your eyes closed," the P.A. squawked. "After the flash, count to 10 and stand up."
Davis knelt down in the trench and bent at the waist as if kissing the ground. He closed his eyes, covered them with his hands and waited.
When the explosion came, it was much more than anything the troops had been prepared to expect. Even though his eyes were closed and he was facing the ground in a five-foot trench, the burst was so bright that he could see the bones in his hands that he held over his eyes. Atomic x-ray.
Davis counted to 10, slowly.
When he stood up and faced Ground Zero, he was hit with a hot wall of air that knocked several men back into the trench.
"During our drills, we were told that after the explosion we would be hit with a shock wave that would feel like a strong wind," Davis said. "That was the understatement of the year. I remember thinking, 'Why did they tell us to stand up?'
"Some guys were knocked right back into the trench. Some guys knelt back down in the trench, probably praying. The best way to describe it is getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer. It didn't knock my helmet off, but it did to several other guys. It felt like it was going to rip your head right off your shoulders."
Government reports show that the wind from this explosion traveled past the trenches at 150 miles-per-hour, more powerful than previous tests. Just part of the splash factor.
Another wave was advancing not far behind the initial shockwall. Davis described it as a flashflood of sand, mud and debris. A solid wall, several stories high and as dense and fluid as water, was powerful enough that it knocked in part of the trench wall, leaving some men partially buried. Davis watched the advancing wall of debris through a retinal afterglow. Every time he blinked, he say his X-rayed skeletal hand again. Davis grabbed a buddy's arm who was buried up to his knees and pulled him out.
For a minute, the wind stopped. Then the winds reversed, blowing back toward Ground Zero as the detonation collapsed in on itself, causing a giant vacuum. It's this implosion that gives the nuclear blast its signature rising column and mushroom cloud. "The vacuum effect made it very hard for us to breathe," says Davis. "We had that panicky feeling of being held underwater. Some of the other units that had participated in prior tests were equipped with breathing devices and eye protection. We weren't. It felt like all the air had been sucked off the world. It was several minutes before we could get a real breath. After the debris settled, we could see the mushroom cloud going up with a huge fireball at the top. The column rose up and mushroomed out and completely hid the sun."
The cloud continued spreading until it was directly over Davis and his friends. Then it lost momentum and began raining rocks, dirt, sticks. And there was no cover to be had. "We huddled in our trenches, trying to fit everything we could under our helmets," says Davis. "They offered little protection from objects that fell from directly above."
"It was one of the few times I've seen grown men cry," Davis says. "They felt like they'd had it, like they'd met doomsday. But the sight I'll never forget, even more impressive than the white flash and mushroom fireball, is the sight of all that debris [from the second shockwall] rushing along the ground toward us like a flash flood. Scary!"
When it all finally passed, the crying, the stammering and the stares were interrupted by the hollow screaming of the P.A. system ordering the troops to stand up and march out of the trenches. Voices like fingernails raking a blackboard.
"Everyone was in a daze," Davis sighed. "They had to yell a couple of times to get us to respond. We marched in columns of two out to where the bomb had gone off."
They marched into Ground Zero and through it.
"When we got back to the bus, we looked like people who have been fighting on a fireline. There was a fellow collecting our radiation tags. This time, instead of blue, they were bright pink, showing excessive radiation exposure." The red-lined tags foreshadowed what would happen next.
Back in Fort Cronkite, about five or six weeks after the experiment, several men began losing their hair in great quantities, but they refused to believe it had been caused by the radiation. "We were simply too trusting in the government to believe it could have anything to do with the amount of radiation they had all received. We seriously thought it was something in the food. We blamed the cooks for our condition."
Four years later, some of the men began losing their teeth, sometimes as many as three a day. Dentists at Army hospitals were baffled. They treated hundreds of servicemen who were losing seemingly perfect teeth.
A few years after that, more serious health problems began surfacing among Davis' army buddies. Ailments included arthritis, nerve and muscle damage, destroyed thyroids and every type of cancer.
While at Fort Cronkite, Davis became very close with two other soldiers stationed there: Walter Patura and Vernon McCracken. The three kept in touch even after their service was over and they went back home.
"We had been home a little more than a year when I got a letter from Patura telling me that he had cancer," Davis remembers. "Two years after that, McCracken was also diagnosed with cancer. A short while later, they were both dead. I always thought it was strange that these two healthy guys had died. But I never put two and two together that these men had likely died from their extreme exposure to radiation on the day of the blast."
Davis, in fact, never put it together until the Downwinders, a group of people who had been exposed to radioactive fallout because they lived downwind from the test site, began coming forward complaining of high cancer rates and other abnormalities. They pointed out conditions among themselves and their children that Davis was beginning to notice among his old army buddies, and now his grandchildren.
He began to worry that the slightest pain or flu-like symptom might be the first signs of cancer or some other disease. After several years of sweating it out, Davis was beginning to think that maybe he'd escaped it. But then his children began developing strange problems that couldn't be traced to anything specific, conditions he recognized in some of the Downwinder's children.
His youngest daughter, Tammy, who is now 27, is autistic. Her speech is very limited and slow and she shows affection in abstract, inconsistent ways, Davis says. "Her appearance is normal but just about everything else about her is abnormal."
Davis also believes that his oldest daughter and second son were affected. They both have nerve problems. Nine years ago, Davis' fear that his chromosomes had been damaged became even more concrete when his granddaughter was born without lungs. An autopsy showed she was missing the 12th chromosome, the one responsible for proper lung development. "There's definitely something going on here," Davis says. "These kids have had problems that they never could have had otherwise."
Like all grandfathers, Davis' joy grows with the addition of any new family member. But sometimes, like with his granddaughter, there is only sorrow. Davis believes the nuclear explosion has cast a permanent shadow upon his family's genetic structure, leaving them with a legacy of health problems and pain.
Sometimes Davis lets himself travel down the road of What Might Have Been. Would his autistic daughter have been normal? And, if so, would she now be married? Would she have her own kids? And what would those kids have grown up to accomplish?
Davis isn't alone on his trip down the road of What Might Have Been. Practically every Downwinder has been down that road and they've all wondered what and how much was lost.
A lot more than immediate lives was lost. What might these innocent men and women, had they been allowed to live out their lives, have accomplished? What might their offspring, who were never conceived, have accomplished? Who among them would have discovered a cure for cancer or AIDS or unlocked the secrets of cold fusion? What awesome potential has America lost?
A great bow was drawn, the potential energy harnessed. But the bow was broken, its energy lost, by a few men whose vision didn't include those who lived downwind. The kinetic moment shall never arrive.
No more atmospheric nuclear tests were made after 1963, following the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Nuclear tests still continued after that but were all done underground. On Sept. 23, 1992, nuclear experiments at the Nevada Test Site ended altogether. The facility is now used to do "sub-critical" experiments and to test the safety of stockpiled nuclear weapons, says Derek Scammel, public affairs officer for the Department of Energy.
The Downwinders have had limited success in lawsuits brought against the government. Although winning a few minor victories, for the most part, the government has been slow in making compensations, says Downwinder spokeswoman Janet Gordan.
"The government's strategy seems to be one of denial, cover-up and foot-dragging," says Gordon. "They know that if they drag their feet long enough, we'll all be dead and they won't have to pay us any settlements."
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