Why These Five Volunteers Stood Beneath a Nuclear Explosion (and How They Survived)

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Call us chickens if you must, but if somebody asked us to volunteer for standing-next-to-a-nuclear-explosion duty, we'd politely suggest they do it themselves. That's not how these five Air Force volunteers felt, though — which isn't to say it was a smart thing to do.

Ground Zero: Population 5

The year was 1957, and the American public was feeling uneasy about the threat of atomic war. You know, the same old stuff: nuclear winter, one thousand years of darkness, a slow and inevitable death by radiation poisoning. Just your average day in the 1950s. So the Air Force decided that it needed to find out if atomic bombs in the air might be bad for the people on the ground. They did so by asking for a handful of volunteers to stand directly under a nuclear explosion. Watch what happened when the sky went kaboom above them.

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Meet Colonel Sidney Bruce, Lieutenant Colonel Frank P. Ball, Major Norman "Bodie" Bodinger, Major John Hughes, and Corporal Don Lutrel. And then there's cameraman George Yoshitake, who wasn't a volunteer — just a guy who was hired to document the proceedings. Despite the excitement of the narrator, the bomb exploding 18,000 feet above their heads was relatively small. At just two kilotons, it was about nine times smaller than "Little Boy," the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. As such, the guys on the ground weren't ever in much danger of contracting radiation sickness from the blast.

Here's the thing, though. Remember the cameraman? George Yoshitake is the only one of the six men who is still alive, and he doesn't think that's a coincidence. "Quite a few have died of cancer," he told the New York Times about his stint working with the nuclear research facility. But that doesn't necessarily mean that this particular bomb was dangerous. The five Air Force officers in the video would have been working with radioactive material on a regular basis at Lookout Mountain Laboratory, where the tests were conducted. And at least two of the volunteers lived into their 80s.

Security through Low Atmosphere Mushroom Clouds

Speaking for ourselves, the thought of no nuclear bombs overhead is a lot more reassuring than the thought that those nuclear bombs might not be so dangerous. But back in the '50s, nuclear bombs overhead were a real enough threat that something had to be done to address them.

If Russia had launched a nuclear attack against the United States in those years, the bombs would have been dropped from planes instead of being launched from thousands of miles away. The leading idea to counter such an attack was to equip our own defensive fighters with nuclear arms, which would have knocked enemy bombers out of the sky en masse. Even though this footage went unseen by the public until it was declassified in 2010, it proved that the small-scale bombs being tested wouldn't pose an immediate danger to civilians on the ground.

Think surviving a nuclear blast is impressive? Smithsonian Channel's "Make It Out Alive" series revisits some of the past century's most unthinkable catastrophes to share the firsthand accounts of people who were actually there. In every episode, you'll discover amazing stories of survival from some of the most harrowing circumstances.

Stream the Mount St. Helens episode of "Make It Out Alive" here now, and tune in to Smithsonian Channel Sundays at 9 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) for brand-new episodes through November 19.

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Written By
Reuben Westmaas
November 10, 2017
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