In the winter of 1981, CBS correspondents Dan Rather and Harry Reasoner traveled to West Germany to observe a little bit of U.S. Army training for a television segment titled The Defense of the United States: The Nuclear Battlefield. There, they followed a unit in the field training for the possibility of a fight that would be waged on a nuclear battlefield. 

“Each training exercise that we deal with nuclear weapons, we have an ideal device in the field that we use for this type of training,” said one of the instructors. “We have that nuclear burst simulator. It puts out a brilliant flash. We train our people to count. No guarantee they’re going to do it when the actual situation occurs but we at least try to reinforce the training to condition them to do it.”

That ideal device? The M-142 atomic explosion simulator.

The M-142 is a 55-gallon steel drum packed with explosives and a smoke charge designed to simulate a five-kiloton nuclear detonation. According to the training manual, operators are supposed to “remove any overhead obstructions, loose rocks, or any other objects within 5 feet” and remain at least 150 feet upwind of the blast and behind a barricade. Observers should be no closer than 450 feet away. And when it goes off, it creates a 75-foot diameter, 130-foot-tall mushroom cloud that will last for about a minute and a half.

In a 1973 training video, a soldier can be seen setting up one of the atomic explosion simulators. As the video says, the simulator “may be used to test unit reaction during and following nuclear attack, including NBC [Nuclear Biological Chemical] reporting.”

However, it’s unclear just how effective the M-142 was in preparing soldiers for a nuclear blast.

“Did you recognize anything over that way a few minutes ago?” says one of the instructors to a tank crew in the 1981 CBS segment. 

“Just a puff of smoke, sir,” responds the tank commander.

After debating over the fact that the M-142 didn’t produce a bright flash as a nuclear blast would, the instructor asks, “What’s the signs of a nuclear weapon? Think you’d see a brilliant flash of light?”

“I’m not familiar with that subject, sir,” says the tank commander.

“Oh, you’re not? Well, that was a nuclear weapon. Your tank is dead, for three zero mikes.”

The M-142 was first introduced in 1963. And while it’s fallen out of use, you can still request a quote on ordering one. Just hope that no observers at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California get the same idea. 

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