Atomic Vets Remember and Tell

Science & Math | | July 3, 2007 at 11:04

atomictesting.jpgOpen since Feb 2005, Las Vegas’ Atomic Testing Museum combines fascinating photos and exhibits of the history of nuclear weapons research and testing, especially the crucial role played by Nevada, with occasional lectures and panel discussions. The Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, has received over 80,000 visitors, including 10,000 schoolchildren, who visit the multi-media exhibitions expressing multiple viewpoints. 702-794-5161. Museum Hours: Mon-Sat 9a-5p, Sun 1p-5p. 755 E Flamingo Rd Las Vegas NV

priscilla.JPGCommemorating the June 24 50th anniversary of the “Priscilla” test photograph (at right), a panel discussion with five “atomic” vets recounted their amazing tales of early atomic weaponry development followed by Q&A from the capacity audience. We were plunged into an intriguing underworld filled with new names like Priscilla, Operation Buster Jangle, Castle Bravo, Camp Desert Rock, Defense Threat Agency, Yucca Flats. Here were stories, never before told, with Bill Johnson, Director of the Museum, on hand as moderator.

Morris (Dick) Jeppson was a weapons test officer on the Enolda Gay, the B-29 that delivered the bomb to Hiroshima in Aug 1945. His job was to test bomb fusing and aiming mechanisms. He had been assigned to work on the highly secret “super bombs” of Los Alamos, the 1st historic test in Arizona on July 1945. Speaking to the decision to use the bomb to end the war, Jeppson emphasized that the invasion of Japan had been scheduled for Nov 1945 with predicted casualties in the hundreds of thousands of men. He also disclosed that a man named Bernard O’Keefe “did something” to the bomb used on Nagasaki that saved millions of lives.

area51.jpgT.D. Barnes became involved in nuclear missiles after Korea in the early 50’s, working in jamming and anti-jamming technology. Most fascinating was his recounting of the work of the CIA and the fabled Area 51, with enthralling stories of the “black world” loaned out to the “white world” at the Nevada test site.

Marcel Verdoomer became involved in 1952 when his skills as an army photographer were put to use as a visual chronicler of the various atmospheric atomic tests of the day. He described from an artist’s perspective the dramatic and terrible beauty of an atomic explosion flash, the fireball of brilliant color followed by desert dust being sucked up into the mushroom cloud.

Phil Allen worked as a weatherman for atmospheric testing, specializing in cloud formation and transport, studying the KT size of the weapon to the height of the cloud. He explained that the detection of foreign nuclear explosions in 1949 led to the decision to set up a testing site in Nevada. He revealed an astonishing plan from the “early days” to build a canal from the Mediterranean deep into the desert of Egypt utilizing nuclear explosives.castlebravo.jpg

Bob McKenzie, a Marine assigned as “sea plane guardian” (code for security for the top secret mission of the USS Curtis), was only 23 miles from Bikini, ground zero for the March 1952 Bravo explosion of a 15 megaton bomb – more powerful than all the bombs of WWII combined. An event, I might add, that was quickly dwarfed by ever more powerful explosions by both nuclear powers.

The Q&A brought questions about the use of the weapons to end WWII, U-2’s, Area 51, and UFO’s. It was disclosed that, following the entry of UFO sightings into the logs of the USS Curtis after 1952 Bravo, orders were issued to be on the lookout for UFO’s after nuclear tests. Bob McKenzie, who did not see any UFO’s after Bravo, maintains the sightings are manifestations of atmospheric conditions following a nuclear blast.

For more information on the history of nuclear testing and Area 51, visit the following websites:, The role of the USS Curtis in nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, with photos. or, The history of Area 51 with declassified photos and stories, which carry the motto “In God We Trust – All Others We Monitor.”, official website for the Las Vegas museum