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Veteran: Risks In 1950s Bomb Test 'A Disgrace'

Oct 12, 2012
Originally published on October 12, 2012 5:36 am

In 1957, Joel Healy witnessed one of the largest nuclear tests ever conducted on U.S. soil.

Healy was in the U.S. Army, stationed in the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas at Camp Desert Rock. He was 17 years old and a private first class at the time.

Healy drove dump trucks, moved materials, and built structures, like houses, that would be destroyed by the explosions so the Army could study the effects of a nuclear blast. He also helped build the towers where many of the bombs were detonated.

At the age of 74, Healy joined his daughter, Kelli Healy Salazar, at StoryCorps in Atlanta to tell her about witnessing the Operation Plumbbob nuclear tests in 1957.

"I thought to myself, if there is a hell on Earth, it's gotta be that," Healy told his daughter. "You felt the shock wave of the thing going off and then the heat. And the biggest one that was set off in the desert when I was there was a 74 kiloton — almost twice the amount what was used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

In one of the explosions, Healy says, he could see the bones in his hands.

"The Army had their own film teams out there to show these are our boys whistlin' Dixie going into a nuclear device," Healy says.

Healy says during some of the tests, he and other on-site observers were in a trench. Other times, he was standing out in the open. He said they were told that they would not be in harm's way.

"They had a motto then, 'Atoms for Peace.' And, you know, I'm 17 years old and I buy into it ... because I'm thinking, they spent a lot of money training me to be a soldier. They wouldn't intentionally put me in harm's way.

"And this is 1957. We dropped those bombs on Japan in 1945, so they've known for 12 years.

"Troops going into battle know that there is a very inherent risk that they may not be coming out, unless it's in a black bag. In this instance, they never said a word. And they knew it. It's just a disgrace. ... A lot of good men died."

It's hard to determine just how many veterans became ill because they were at these tests, but Healy and thousands of other on-site participants have received compensation from the U.S. government as part of the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, administered by the Justice Department.

Audio Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Fridays we hear from StoryCorps, recording conversations between loved ones. Today, a woman speaks with her father, a veteran, who, in the late 1950s, witnessed the detonation of more than 20 atomic bombs. It happened at a test site in the desert north of Las Vegas, known as Operation Plumbbob. It was one of the largest series of nuclear tests ever conducted on U.S. soil.

JOEL HEALY: My name is Joel Healy. I was in the U.S. Army and I witnessed Operation Plumbbob in 1957.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nevada, USA. This is the valley where the giant mushrooms grow. More atomic bombs have been exploded on these 200 square miles of desert than on any other spot on the globe.

KELLI HEALY SALAZAR: Can you describe what it was like to witness your first nuclear explosion?

HEALY: Well, I was 17 years old and I thought to myself, if there is a hell on Earth, it's gotta be that. You felt the shock wave of the thing going off and then the heat. And the biggest one that was set off in the desert when I was there was a 74 kiloton, almost twice the amount what was used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Little bomb, big bomb.

HEALY: In one of the explosions, I could see the bones in my hands.

SALAZAR: When it go off, where were you, physically?

HEALY: In some cases, we were in a trench. Other times we were just standing up out there.

SALAZAR: What were you told about safety?

HEALY: Don't worry. You will not be in harm's way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five military observers stood directly beneath the burst indicating the safety to personnel on the ground below.

HEALY: The Army had their own film teams out there to show these are our boys whistlin' Dixie going into a nuclear device.

SALAZAR: You're kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: My only regrets right now are that everybody couldn't have been out here at ground zero with us.

HEALY: They had a motto then: Atoms for Peace. And, you know, I'm 17 years old and I buy into it because I'm thinking, they spent a lot of money training me to be a soldier. They wouldn't intentionally put me in harm's way. And this is 1957. We dropped those bombs on Japan in 1945, so they've known for 12 years.

Troops going into battle know that there is a very inherent risk that they may not be coming out, unless it's in a black bag. In this instance, they never said a word. And they knew it. It's just a disgrace. I don't really like to talk about it. A lot of good men died. That's all I have to say.

MONTAGNE: Joel Healy, speaking with his daughter Kelli Healy Salazar about taking part in the Operation Plumbbob nuclear tests back in 1957. It's hard to determine just how many veterans became ill from being at those tests, but Healy and thousands of others have received compensation from the U.S. government as part of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. This interview will be archived at the Library of Congress.

The StoryCorps podcast is at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.