Sixty years ago, a B-50 Superfortress flew through the pre-dawn darkness 3½ miles above desolate Frenchman Flat and opened its bomb bay doors.
A 1,000-pound atomic bomb, dubbed Able, fell through the chilly winter air and exploded before it hit the dry lake bed. It sent out a blinding white flash, followed by a red-orange glow and a shock wave. A mushroom cloud rose 14,000 feet, and a thunderous burst reverberated across the Mojave Desert.
That explosion on Jan. 27, 1951, marked the beginning of the atomic age in Nevada.
Nobody was killed by Able, about one-twentieth the size of Fat Man, the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945, which killed 39,000 people outright and brought the end of World War II.
Before daybreak that January morning, two cowboys rounding up strays on the bombing range "heard a rumbling sound like a big thunderclap that echoed through the hills," according to that afternoon's edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
A second, more powerful atomic blast, Baker, lit up the sky the next day. The newspaper reported that a man at one of the Golden Nugget's craps tables "felt the shock. He paused and looked around. 'Must be an A-bomb,' he said. He turned back to the table and went on with the game." And a truck driver saw a white glare and a rising red glow from atop a highway grade in California, 100 miles south of Frenchman Flat. He said, "The bright flash blinded me for a few seconds and gave me quite a scare."
It was clear that Las Vegas, at least the test site 65 miles northwest of it, had become ground zero for the nation's nuclear efforts. It changed the culture of Las Vegas and ushered the country through the Cold War.
From 1951 until 1992, there were 928 nuclear tests involving 1,021 detonations at the test site. Today the test site still plays a vital role in countering terrorism, training first responders and providing scientists with the tools they need to ensure the nation's nuclear weapons remain safe and reliable.
Vegas goes atomic
Al O'Donnell, 88, is the last person alive who saw that first test, or "shot," from the control point. He watched Able through goggles thick as a windshield and dark enough to blot out the midday sun.
"It was the christening of the Nevada Test Site," said O'Donnell, a Navy veteran who came to the proving ground at age 28. "All of a sudden you see this burst of light and (you) have a tendency to lift up the goggles just a bit. I see this light coming up under the goggles quick. You drop (them) back over your eyes again because you'd burn your eyeballs out if you looked at it with bare eyes."
The atomic culture quickly exploded in Las Vegas.
For years, the bright flashes and the orange fireballs that lit up the northwestern sky were clearly visible to the city's 25,000 residents. The shock waves were unforgettable.
"The sky room of the Desert Inn -- the lounge up there had glass, and so people would be up there and drink all night long, raise hell and see this goddamned nuclear thing go off in the morning," former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Richard Bryan said.
Bryan attended Las Vegas High School during the heyday of atmospheric tests; a mushroom cloud graced the cover of his sophomore yearbook.
"Nevadans were very enthusiastic about it," he said. "We were going to be a part of the nuclear age."
Atomic tests became a tourist attraction. There were atomic hairdos, atomic drinks and showgirls in mushroom-cloud swimsuits. Elvis Presley was billed as "The Atomic Powered Singer" when he debuted at the New Frontier in 1956.
"Atomic this, atomic that was kind of cutting edge. You were kind of 'with it,' " said Bryan, who later worked as a billeting clerk at the test site. "This was advertising. You can see the nuclear age before your very eyes. No other place in the country could you do this."
His teachers saw it as a learning opportunity. He remembered reading assignments about atomic energy and a future with nuclear cars, planes and home reactors.
"I could not grasp math then or now, but we were told the nuclear flash traveled at the speed of light, and I understood that was faster than the speed of sound," he said. "We were asked to get up early in morning, and from the time we saw that flash on the horizon -- you could see it, it was brilliant -- until we felt the seismic impact, buildings shook; you could roughly calculate the distance you were from ground zero."
VIEW FROM GROUND ZERO
Ernie Williams could do the math. A former Air Force special weapons sergeant, he arrived at the test site in 1955. In all, he observed 80 atmospheric detonations during tests on Pacific atolls and at the Nevada Test Site.
"You'll never see a mushroom cloud alike," he said. "When I saw my first shot here, it brought sweat pebbles to my forehead because they were awesome, but I didn't realize how awesome they were. The bright, white light will be seen as far away as roughly 300 miles."
The site became the place where some of the largest man-made craters were formed and some of the world's deepest shafts cut; where 9,000 troops trained; where some of the largest and most spirited nuclear protests were held; where some of the nation's most futuristic technologies were tried out; where astronauts learned to drive lunar buggies for missions on the moon; and where some of the most deadly poisons were released. Part of Yucca Flat also was transformed into mock towns, built only to be blasted into dust.
One blast stands out in Williams' mind: Apple-2 on May 5, 1955. The 29-kiloton bomb exploded and vaporized most of its 500-foot steel support tower. The test was designed to gauge effects on a makeshift city with mannequins placed at various distances.
Williams, now 80, recalled checking a mannequin almost three-quarters of a mile from ground zero. The heat had transferred the dye from its flower-print dress onto the white slip below.
The blast shattered windows and cracked the brick chimney in a wooden house but only nudged the mannequins inside.
Earlier this month, he walked through the frozen dry lake at Frenchman Flat and spied the rusted steel of an elevated railway bridge twisted by the June 24, 1957, Priscilla shot -- a 37-kiloton yield, more than twice that of the atomic bomb that leveled a wide area of Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II.
Not far from the pine benches where goggle-wearing workers had watched the explosion, he recalled, veterinarians examined the animals -- including 719 pigs -- that had been subjected to the blast.
That afternoon Williams suited up to enter the bank vault. Concrete had been peeled away and steel rebar rods looked like twisted spaghetti. Inside the vault, he found a gold bar intact but silver coins blackened by intense heat and accounting papers so brittle they crumbled on touch.
COLD WAR CHILL
At the Main Street offices of the Atomic Energy Commission in downtown Las Vegas, a set of signal lights above the building let people know a test was about to occur. Blue meant the shot would take place; red signaled the test had been called off, usually because of weather. The force of the bombs, coupled with certain atmospheric conditions, would sometimes surprise scientists, shattering windows on Fremont Street.
By the '60s, fear was building in the minds of students at West Charleston Elementary School as they rehearsed "duck and cover" drills.
"They had a big siren, a big horn not far from the school," said Wayne Christensen, who was 10 years old in 1960. "Every so often that big ol' horn would start wailing. As soon as that happened we were supposed to climb under our desks and put our heads under our arms and try and hide because those nasty Soviet Union persons were going to drop big nuclear bombs on our heads so we had to protect ourselves."
There was a feeling of impending doom spurred by the Cuban missile crisis, Christensen recalled. His dad thought President John F. Kennedy "was going to blow us off the face of the Earth. My uncle started digging a big hole in his backyard. He was going to put in a bomb shelter."
Now Christensen teaches history students at Palo Verde High about the test site being "the front lines of the Cold War" and its cultural, political and economic impacts.
"It built the town," he said. "You have Nellis Air Force Base. You have the test site and you have gambling. The No. 1 employer after the hotels was the test site."
TOWARD THE THAW
Troy Wade, a mechanical engineer, came to the test site in 1958, about the time President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were edging toward a moratorium on nuclear tests.
The last atmospheric tests were being set off in plain sight of Las Vegas.
"It's unbelievable how bright it got," he said. "You could read. And then later as the sun was coming up you could actually see the cloud. That was atomic Las Vegas. That was something as a city we accepted and the mushroom cloud was an iconic symbol."
As testing went underground, Wade assembled the Sedan bomb, which erupted on July 6, 1962.
"I remember some rumbling and then you actually see this bubble coming out of the ground," said Wade, president of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation. "It rose a hundred feet or so in the air, this bubble of earth. Then all of a sudden, flames shot out of it, and then the mushroom cloud began to form."
Sedan was an attempt by physicist Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, to find a peaceful use for nuclear bombs, Wade said. "We were trying to walk across this bridge from using them as weapons to destroy people to using this as a means of doing something good."
Peaceful uses brought Kennedy to the Nevada Test Site on Dec. 8, 1962. The only sitting president to visit the test site came to observe a nuclear-powered rocket. Its engineering problems were solved after Kennedy's assassination but the Rover rocket program died.
"What couldn't be resolved were the political problems," Wade said. "How do you assure people this thing isn't going to blow up on the launch pad and kill or contaminate everybody around for miles?"
During the Kennedy administration, the test site became a significant Cold War battleground because of the government's policy of Mutually Assured Destruction.
"We would have enough nuclear weapons to wipe the Soviet Union off the map. Similarly, they had enough to do the same to us. Therefore, there would not be any use of nuclear weapons," Wade said. "I am absolutely amazed that it worked, but it did. Clearly all the things that happened in the '60s made the test site one of the major battlefields of the Cold War."
Kennedy signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, on Oct. 7, 1963, prohibiting above-ground nuclear tests.
As scientists wanted to test more powerful bombs, they had to drill deep holes for them in the farthest reaches of the test site to avoid severely shaking high-rise buildings on the Las Vegas Strip.
The largest detonation at the site was Boxcar, on April 26, 1968, in Pahute Mesa. It measured 1.3 megatons or the equivalent to detonating 1.3 million tons of TNT. A 5-megaton bomb was detonated in Alaska before the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a 150-kiloton cap on all nuclear tests in 1974.
Though subsidence craters from below-ground tests -- hundreds of which still pockmark the test site -- were not as thrilling as fireballs and mushroom clouds, the data generated about the behavior of radioactive materials and force of the explosions gave scientists much to ponder. They learned how to fine-tune weapons, making them more adaptable for accurate delivery to targets.
During the height of the underground testing, Wade watched as scientists tailored such warheads as the neutron bomb and tried to develop the nuclear bomb-pumped X-ray laser. Although the "Star Wars" X-ray laser weapon never became a reality, it challenged the Soviet Union financially to keep up with development of advanced U.S. weapons and hastened the end of the Cold War.
From 1986 through 1994, the test site became a magnet for demonstrators protesting nuclear proliferation and the health impacts from developing atomic bombs. Tens of thousands congregated at Peace Camp on the road to Mercury, and more than 15,740 were arrested.
Bryan noted the shift in atomic opinions: "There was not this rhapsodic view, of 'Wow. It's great that they're detonating atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site.' "
Documents declassified in 1994 showed atmospheric tests continued years after the government knew fallout would likely cause premature deaths. The federal government eventually compensated "downwinders" living in Nevada, Utah and northern Arizona and set up a relief program for test site workers who suffered illnesses because of exposure to radiation and toxic materials.
American Indians continue to object to the test site as government trespassing on their native land.
"For 60 years, the Western Shoshone have endured health effects," tribe member Ian Zabarte said, emphasizing the tribe's position against the government entombing the nation's deadliest nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain, on the site's southwestern edge.
Wade, now 76, went on to become the assistant secretary of energy for defense programs under President Ronald Reagan. During his tenure, something happened that he never dreamed: Soviet scientists came to the test site to participate in an experiment, Kearsarge, for verifying treaties.
"It was tough to grasp," he said. "I spent my entire life working to kill these kinds of people, armed to be able to defeat them all. And here they are sitting at our test site and we're about to take them out and show them some of our secrets."
Despite the gap in political ideology, the Soviets were predictable, Wade said, while would-be nuclear powers, such as North Korea, Iran and Syria, are not.
"That proliferation has made the world a much more dangerous place than it was back in the Cold War."
The last full-scale nuclear test at the site, Divider, was conducted on Sept. 23, 1992. After that President George H.W. Bush launched a temporary moratorium that was extended indefinitely by President Bill Clinton.
In 1997, scientists conducted the first subcritical nuclear experiment at the test site, using high-explosives to slam tiny amounts of nuclear materials to see how they respond. The high-tech detonations fall short of the chain-reactions that define nuclear weapons. Scientists use modern tools to simulate nuclear tests to see how warheads age.
"It turns out with today's supercomputers that is a much, much better way to test," test site veteran Jack Doyle said.
On Aug. 23 last year, the test site's name was changed to the Nevada National Security Site to reflect the site's expanded missions on counterterrorism, homeland security and treaty verification. For example, more than 24,000 first responders have trained at the site's counterterrorism facility.
"Right now we're doing everything from devising ways to protect soldiers from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to determining ways to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons," said Stephen Younger, president of NSTec, the government's test site contractor.
Employment at the test site peaked at 11,000 workers and the budget reached $1.4 billion in 1989. With 3,000 people working at the site and agency offices in North Las Vegas, the site has a budget of $550 million. Of that, $10 million was spent last year and $45 million is slated for this year at the site's National Center for Nuclear Security.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.