By 1963, the United States had detonated more than 200 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Cameramen and photographers working for a secret special unit recorded the acts of destruction. Some of their sensational images have been declassified, and the last remaining eyewitnesses are now sharing their experiences.
The atomic missile with the explosive power of 1.5 kilotons of TNT detonated precisely above the heads of the five United States Air Force scientists. At first the men felt only the heat from the explosion. But then the blast wave forced them to their knees.
George Yoshitake’s camera was clicking the entire time.
At 7 a.m. on July 19, 1957, the cameraman was standing with a small group of nuclear scientists on the Yucca Flat test site in the state of Nevada. A fighter jet had fired the missile at an altitude of five kilometers (3.1 miles), which was considered a safe distance from the ground. “I was busy behind the cameras,” Yoshitake recalls. “Then I could see the flash go off out of the corner of my eye.” He looked up. “There was this huge, doughnut-shaped cloud up in the sky where the blast when off.”
The only thing protecting him from the bomb’s fallout was his baseball cap.
Yoshitake is one of the few people who have stood directly underneath an exploding atom bomb and survived. The American was one of about 40 photographers and cameramen in the 1352nd Photographic Group of the US Air Force. Their mission was top secret. Today Yoshitake, now 82, can finally talk openly about his experiences.
The special unit’s job was as fascinating as it was dangerous. To film and photograph the American nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and in the South Pacific, the foolhardy men had to place themselves within only a few kilometers of the centers of the explosions.
Images the Public Never Saw
Between 1947 and 1969, the material was edited to make more than 6,500 motion pictures in a secret film studio in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, just a few kilometers from the bright lights of Sunset Boulevard. The studio on Wonderland Avenue was called the Lookout Mountain Air Force Station. Using special film and high-speed cameras, cameramen and photographers used the film and photographic footage to artfully produce motion pictures and still photographs.
“Those men are great guys; they documented a period of time that was both unique and hopefully will never be repeated,” says US documentary filmmaker Peter Kuran, 54, who is working on the story of the “atomic filmmakers.” Kuran wants to preserve the historic film material for posterity. “The photos are the icons of an era,” he says.
At the height of the Cold War, the superpowers embarked on a spectacular race to develop nuclear weapons. It was accompanied by an unparalleled propaganda war that involved large numbers of tests. By the time the international Treaty banning Nuclear Weapon Tests In The Atmosphere, In Outer Space And Under Water, or Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTBT), was signed in 1963, the Americans alone had already detonated more than 200 atomic and hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere. The goal, from the very beginning, was to create impressive images to convince politicians to approve ever-growing military budgets.
But the public never saw most of the images. “The work these people did was so secretive that nobody even knew who they were for a long time,” says Kuran. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the first photographs and films were declassified, thanks to the documentary filmmaker’s relentless efforts. Kuran traveled throughout the United States, searched through archives and urged the US Department of Energy to release the films and photographs.
Copies of the material are now stored in gray cardboard boxes in the basement of Kuran’s house in Vancouver, Washington. Nuclear weapons have become a central focus of his life. “When I was 15, I visited Japan with a YMCA (youth) group,” he says. “We happened to be in Hiroshima on the anniversary of the bombing and I saw a film about the destruction of the city. I was the only American in a crowded room full of Japanese. Everyone was looking at me.”
Kuran felt horrified and ashamed. Initially, he embarked on a career as a developer of special effects for productions like director George Lucas’s “Star Wars” movies. But he couldn’t forget his experience in Japan. More than three decades later, he coincidentally came into contact with those chroniclers of the nuclear tests who were still alive. The nuclear filmmakers were grateful for the attention. “We’re finally getting recognized for some of the work we did,” says Yoshitake. “It was liberating to be able to talk about it.”
The cameraman now lives in Lompoc, California, about a three-hour drive north of Los Angeles. He is one of the last surviving members of the photographers’ unit. Most of the others died long ago, many of cancer. Yoshitake says he is “more in contact with the widows.”
From 1955 to 1963, Yoshitake worked for the nuclear weapons test program. “I filmed about 30 explosions,” he reports. “The amazing ones, the most spectacular ones were the hydrogen bombs in the Pacific.” The bombs were usually detonated early in the morning, before dawn, says Yoshitake. “They told us to look away at the initial blast,” he recalls. “For several minutes after the blast, you could see this eerie ultraviolet glow high up in the sky. And I thought that was so spectacular, so meaningful.”
The images from the Pacific seem almost magical, including the photos of the seven-kilometer fireball created by “Shrimp,” the most powerful bomb the United States ever detonated. On March 1, 1954, a 15-megaton bomb, part of an operation called Castle Bravo, exploded over the Bikini atoll. The destructive power unleashed by the explosion was more than twice as high as the experts had predicted and tore a crater two kilometers in diameter into the island. Within a few minutes, a mushroom cloud rose 40 kilometers into the sky. The entire archipelago was contaminated with radiation and remains uninhabited to this day.
The cameramen came within about 30 kilometers of the artificial suns in the South Pacific. In the Nevada desert, Yoshitake and his colleagues even came within about eight kilometers of the fireballs. “We could see how the shockwave came rolling across the valley floor,” says Yoshitake. “We hung onto our cameras so we wouldn’t fall over.”
A few seconds after the explosions, the men also felt the heat from the bombs. The cameraman took it all in stride. “We were young. For me it was a just a job at the time. Only now do I realize how dangerous the work was,” he says.
For Yoshitake, the work only became unpleasant when it was time to document the effects of the bombs. He shudders when he remembers a test performed in June 1957 under the code name “Priscilla.” Only 30 minutes after the detonation, he had to photograph monkeys, sheep and pigs that had been placed in close proximity to the blast site. “A few of the animals were still alive,” says Yoshitake. The skin on the pigs was charred black, he says, while the eyes of the monkeys had been taped open so that scientists could study the effect of the flash of light on the retina. “The animals were squealing, crying. It smelled of burned flesh. It was just terrible.”
At least the cameramen wore protective suits on those missions into the center of destruction. But when they confronted the nuclear blasts from afar, they were wearing nothing but shorts and T-shirts. “We had dosimeters that measured our radiation load. That was it,” says Yoshitake’s former colleague, Ken Hackman, 72, who spent months in the Pacific to photograph the tests. He remembers how reckless the military’s behavior was at the time: “After the detonation, B-57 bombers would always fly directly through the mushroom cloud to collect samples. After the planes had landed again, they were decontaminated by men who were only wearing rubber boots as protection.”
To this day, Hackman sees the bomb tests through the eyes of a photographer. The flash from a nuclear weapon is 10 times as bright as the sun, he says. The photographers had to wear heavily tinted special glasses to prevent burning of the retina. “Everything turns a bright white, and there’s no color at all anymore,” says Hackman. “Once the initial brightness is away, it really is very beautiful to look at.” He has vivid memories of a working trip to Hawaii, where he stood on a volcano and photographed the colorful aurora of an exploding hydrogen bomb. The play of lights in the sky was caused by the strong magnetic field generated by the detonation.
Capturing the Blast
The photographers tried out almost every camera model available at the time and tested completely new photographic techniques. Automatic cameras were placed a few hundred meters from the point of explosion, with thick lead shields protecting the film material from gamma radiation. The most advanced film cameras of the day were capable of recording 15 million images per second. The filmmakers even experimented with 3-D photography.
The US company EG&G was the main source of the inventions. One of the founders of EG&G was Harold Edgerton, who later became world-famous for his photographs of bursting drops of milk. For the nuclear weapons test program, the engineers at EG&G developed a special film with three coatings, each with a different level of sensitivity. The so-called XR film made it possible to photograph the detonations with a single high-speed camera, despite tremendous fluctuations in light intensity.
The XR film enabled the photographers to capture the power of the weapons in brilliant orange, yellow and red tones, creating highly alienating images of “psychedelic quality,” says Kuran. The US space agency, NASA, later used the technology to photograph its moon missions.
Eventually the EG&G engineers even managed to capture the first microseconds of atomic explosions on film, using the “Rapatronic,” a camera developed specifically for this purpose. Because a mechanical shutter would have been much too slow, the device had an electronic “light valve” made of polarized special glass, which could be rendered translucent by means of an electric pulse.
The engineers placed up to 16 of these high-tech cameras near the point of explosion, which allowed them to capture the birth of the atomic hellfire, so to speak. The bubble-like nuclear blast images almost look like living creatures in the photos. The billowing formations of heat and radiation, at temperatures of up to 10 million degrees Celsius, resemble oddly shaped amoeba.
The Dichotemy Between Destruction and Beauty
Most of these images are still under lock and key today. Only military physicists are permitted to analyze the images for the purpose of improving the designs of bombs. The US government is still hesitant to release the photos and films completely. But it is critical, says Kuran, that the material be processed and digitized, “before it turns to dust.”
He has already assembled five documentaries from the film and photographic footage, which he distributes through his website. A sixth film, about the neutron bomb, is in the works. “My goal is to present as realistic an impression as possible of the power of these weapons, but I’m also fascinated by this bizarre dichotemy, how destructive they were and how beautiful they were,” says Kuran.
The filmmaker hopes that his work will serve as a warning against nuclear testing. But the work has also taught him a surprising lesson. “Personally, I have less fear of nuclear weapons than I used to have,” says the documentary filmmaker. “Now I know that if somebody exploded a big hydrogen bomb 30 kilometers away from me, chances are I will probably survive.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan