US atomic veterans describe witnessed ‘haunting’ A-bomb being dropped

Operation Ranger Nuclear test conducted in Nevada in 1951

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In the mid-Forties, during World War 2, the US began testing a series of nuclear weapons in the hope that they would bring to an end the second great global war. It worked, but with devastating consequences, as the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed. While the catastrophic effects of nuclear warfare were well documented in Japan in the period afterwards, the Cold War had descended, and the US carried on with its testing of nuclear weapons in America’s isolated interior.

On January 27, 1951, the Nevada Test Site was officially opened, and scientists began Operation Ranger there, the fourth American nuclear test series.

The site’s main purpose was to absorb bombs from B-50D bombers, which exploded mid-air over the Frenchman Flat (Area 5). The exercises were part of a wider series of drills aiming to help shape the second generation of nuclear weapons.

Planned as part of Operation Faust, among its objectives was to understand how fewer amounts of nuclear materials, known to be incredibly valuable, could be created.

The events that transpired on that winter’s day were similar to those in many of the subsequent nuclear tests, many of which were observed just miles away by US military personnel, all unprotected from the potential adverse effects of radiation.

In the decades since, testimonies from those present have been included in books, films, investigations and reports. Morgan Knibbe’s 2018 documentary, The Atomic Soldiers, heard one unnamed interviewee sum-up the essence of the tests: “It haunts me to think of what I had witnessed and not realised at the time the importance of what we were doing… serving as guinea pigs.”

Apart from the stories that emerged from Japan after 1945, few people had seen the immediate aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion.

For those who witnessed it in the US — apparently, as benign tests — the colours, smells and sounds, became etched into their memory.

Another unnamed observer told Mr Knibbe’s short documentary that the colours were “beautiful,” something which they said they “hate[d] to say”. A third added: “It was complete daylight at midnight—brighter than the brightest day you ever saw.”

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Between 1946 and 1992, the US government conducted at least 1,000 nuclear tests. Troops who were present were sworn to an oath of secrecy about the events.

Breaking such a vow was considered treasonable, with a punishment of a $10,000 (£8,000) fine and a decade behind bars.

In 1994, then-US President Bill Clinton relieved veterans of that oath.

Speaking in his documentary, Mr Knibbe described how witnesses were failed by the government, and that most “didn’t even know the oath to secrecy was lifted”.

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The original atomic bomb’s usage saw Japan surrender to the Allies six days after the bombing of Nagasaki.

In a piece for the Imperial War Museum, Lieutenant General Leslie R Groves, former director of the Manhattan Project, told how those two explosions “ended World War Two”.

He continued: “There can be no doubt of that. While they brought death and destruction on a horrifying scale, they averted even greater losses – American, English, and Japanese.”

The Manhattan Project ran between 1942 and 1946, helping produce the world’s first nuclear weapons. Led by the US, it gained support from Canada and Britain and eventually grew to employ 130,000 globally, costing at the time around $2billion — which in 2021 would equate to $24billion, or £21.4bn.

Its director was Robert Oppenheimer, who remembered the destruction caused by the 1945 bombings a decade after the event, telling The Open Mind: “Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realisation of atomic weapons.

“Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatised so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

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