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To bear witness

(Published in Ground Zero, a quarterly publication of The Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, October 2021, Volume 26, Issue 4.)

“Act Four: Rocket Boy.” Ira Glass is speaking on the radio.

“So we close our program today with somebody who was just a teenager when the Army ordered him to report to Camp Desert Rock, which was next to the Atomic Energy Commission's bomb testing range in Nevada in 1955, to do something that he was totally unprepared for. Though, I think maybe nobody could be prepared for this.”

And my ear snagged on the words, “…bomb testing range in Nevada in 1955…”

“He was 19. His name was Paul Zimmer.” If you’ve ever listened to This American Life, you’d recognize Ira Glass’s confiding voice. “He grew up to be a writer and a poet, and he wrote about what happened there.” At the time, the soldier had been sworn to secrecy.

Paul Zimmer’s account was read by an actor. “I had paid attention, I had seen the newsreels of Hiroshima. But just watching atomic bombs go off, I thought it was going to be kind of cool. I thought the story would be a way to interest girls.” This sounded like something my dad would have said. “They didn't tell us anything about what was going to happen, no initiation, no training. And the first time, I had no idea what to expect.” The actor’s low-toned voice is reflective.

“We traveled by convoy and buses in the middle of the night to assemble at the site. We shuffled around in the cold, chain smoking, until we were ordered into the trenches. The trenches were long, thin slits in the desert earth only wide enough for us to line up single file. We wore our steel helmets, but we're not issued earplugs, eye covers, or any protective clothing. Then they told us to get downI only became terrified when I saw the flash, bright enough where, even with my eyes closed, I could see the bones of my hands over my eyes.

“A shock wave crashed over the trench top, and we were ordered to stand up and look. We did and saw the mushroom cloud, glowing purple and changing colors, rising and rising up. I saw eight atomic blasts in total, all on different days. Some devices dropped from airplanes, and some detonated from towers.”

Stop right there. Like those towers my father once worked on?

“There was an aerial burst and an underground blast as well,” Zimmer wrote. “Sometimes, during the shock wave, the trench sides caved in and buried us alive, so we had to claw our way out from our own graves… When clearance was radioed back, we were ordered to walk forward into the blast area to bear witness. As far as I could tell, bearing witness was the entire reason we were there.”

The Atomic Energy Commission’s professed goals during these tests were to improve weapon design for thermonuclear systems, safety testing and conducting “bio-medical experiments.”

“The largest bomb I witnessed was called Turk, and it was almost three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. It was dropped from a 500-foot tower”yes, my question is answered, exactly like those towers my dad worked on“and our trenches were approximately two and a half miles from ground zero. The blast yield was bigger than expected, so the brass ordered us to retreat to the buses, where we swept each other off with kitchen brooms.”

And now I hear my father’s voice—this was just a few years ago—divulging a secret of his own. “I worked on top of 500-foot towers installing ‘light pipes,’ consisting of an array of tubes inserted into different parts of the ‘device.’” In 1955, my father had been sent to the Nevada Test Site in the Mojave Desert to help build the equipment for above-ground bomb tests there. As he told me this, an oblique look crossed his face. He said, “We never called it a bomb.”

The test code-named “Turk” was part of Operation Teapot, a 1955 series of fourteen proof-tests of various plutonium fission devices with low to moderate yields—by this time, a bomb three times the size of Hiroshima was considered low-yield. In ‘55, my father had been sent to the test site to help build the equipment for above-ground bomb tests there. As he told me this, an oblique look crossed his face. “We never called it a bomb,” he said.

Paul Zimmer’s account continued, “The next morning, some of us were bussed back into the area in our fatigues and ordered to walk forward to bear witness. There was still a heavy smell of ozone in the air. The vegetation was shredded, scorched, torn out by the roots, and small animals and birds were scattered, dead, crippled, and blind, lurching about, some still trying to find a place to hide.”

Zimmer was one of the soldiers who participated in the Desert Rock VI exercises, which were ostensibly to familiarize troops with the capabilities of nuclear weapons and the conditions of atomic combat. Keep in mind that the big brass at the first nuclear test observed from more than twice that two-and-a-half-mile distance—and they were sheltered in a bunker. No wonder some called what Zimmer did guinea pig duty.

Turk was conducted by the University of California Radiation Laboratory (UCRL was later called the Lawrence Radiation Lab, or LRL; now it’s called the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) to test a “primary,” the initial fission explosion that detonates the larger fusion chain reaction, for a thermonuclear weapon.

During a detonation, those six-inch stainless tubes under vacuum that my father installed allowed escaping energy to be captured by astronomically high-speed cameras (ten thousand frames per second) located at the far end of long pipes, capturing data about the bomb in the fraction of an instant before the thing vaporized itself.

For his Nevada experience, Dad had just one alarming adjective: “Awesome!”

Paul Zimmer again: “We walked past crumpled vehicles and artillery pieces that had been placed in the open, mannequins staked out, khakis torn apart and melted grotesquely. Caged Cheshire pigs that had been dressed in specially-fitting Army uniforms were dead or mangled, the latter still shrieking their last. Herds of blasted sheep and cows were mangled together, dead or moaning.

“We never had to write reports, nor did anyone ask us what we saw. Because it turned out, they were looking at us. They wanted to see how young men reacted to an atomic blast. Apparently, that's all they wanted to do, and I was not selected because I was special. I had no need for qualifications, aside from being a 19-year-old boy.” Zimmer was an unwitting cog in a wheel, helping to test nuclear weapons.

The Atomic Energy Commission originally intended the Nevada Test Site for quick experiments with small scale nukes, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. The results would then lead to the development of bigger atomic bombs and advanced thermonuclear weapons. In reality, large-scale atmospheric tests were common at the site for about 12 years.

“Over the years of America's open-air atomic bomb testing in Nevada, a few thousand Army men participated,” Zimmer wrote. “It does not matter anymore that only feeble attempts were made by the government to find out how these experiences affected us. Lately, I've begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs.” My father is among this elite brotherhood too, hanging on at ninety-three.

“We're all dying now, and most of us are already dead. I'm not aware of anyone's health being affected by the blasts, but some years ago, I did check with the Veterans Administration about the possible radiation dosage I received during my participation. I was informed that the radiation film badge that I wore throughout my four months at Desert Rock had been burned up in a government warehouse records fire in St. Louis some decades ago.”

I picture my dad wearing his pocket protector and clipping a small red square to his belt before going off to work—he was only a few years older than Paul Zimmer. I knew he worked at LRL, or sometimes he called it the radlab, when we lived in Livermore while I was young. But it’s disconcerting to think that I didn’t connect Dad’s job with “the bomb” for most of my adult life, until I sank my teeth into his revelation—when he was almost ninety—that he was a cog in the wheel, helping to test nuclear weapons.

Zimmer again: “Now, in my late years, when I can conjure that brief, surreal period of my youth, I try in vain to make some sense of it. And in some ways, it has become my responsibility to, at least, recollect and tell how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my very young mind and heart. How those enormous sounds deadened my ears and still ring in them to this day. How the crush of shock waves sometimes buried us alive in our trenches. I feel it my duty to tell the reckless absurdity of it all.

“We keep threatening to unleash these bombs, so I suspect that, one day, we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of. I have not.”

Ira Glass came back on the radio, saying that was “John Conlee, reading an essay by Paul Zimmer. A version of this essay was first published in The Georgia Review. Paul Zimmer died in 2019. He was 85. Over his life, he had health problems that he and his family believe were related to his radiation exposure.”

Music rose to close the program in classic This American Life manner, Mikky Ekko singing, “Oh, into the fire, we go again. We go again. We shake it off before we get too old.”

The total yield of all nuclear tests conducted between 1945 and 1980 was estimated at 510 megatons. Above-ground tests alone accounted for 428 megatons, equivalent to over 29,000 Hiroshima-size bombs.

One can barely imagine the environmental ruin at what’s now called the Nevada National Security Site, but you’ll find an upbeat reading of its usefulness today on the website of the outfit running counterterrorism training, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, that conducts “the most realistic performance-based radiological/nuclear WMD counterterrorism training possible… using radioactive materials and contaminated environments. The rich nuclear testing history of the NNSS offers dynamic training opportunities today.”

I heard my father were saying, “We never called it a bomb; we called it ‘the device,’” but his face said something too: I’m self-conscious telling you this because I know what I’m saying. I didn’t fully understand then, but I do now. Hearing his words was something that I was totally unprepared for. Though, I think maybe nobody could be prepared for this.

© 2021 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: Source: DOE, NNSA-Nevada Site Office. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Here’s where you can listen to the “Rocket Boy” episode of This American Life


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