Filed Under:

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

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 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

With 'Formation,' Beyoncé Lights Up The Internet. Here's What People Are Saying

The singer's new music video quickly drew commentary of all kinds — on its references to being black in America, Hurricane Katrina and Black Lives Matter.
NPR

Calif. Restaurant Gives Diners — And Sea Lions — An Ocean View

The Marine Room is a restaurant right on the beach. When the tide is high, waves hit the windows, and bring in unexpected visitors.
NPR

In The Light Of The Morning After, How Bad Was Rubio's Repetition?

"I would pay for them to keep running that clip, because that's what I believe passionately," Rubio said of a much-aired video excerpt if him repeating a line at Saturday's debate.
NPR

Super Bowl 50 Tightens Cybersecurity

This year's Super Bowl will be held in the most technologically advanced stadium in the world. FBI special agent John Lightfoot talks to NPR's Rachel Martin about the threat of cyber attacks.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.