History

When Army soldiers marched toward a nuclear mushroom cloud

The Desert Rock exercises saw soldiers maneuver around nuclear explosions, testing their fortitude.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
Part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, was a 15-kiloton test fired from a 280-mm cannon on May 25, 1953 at the Nevada Proving Grounds. (Wikimedia Commons)

Being near a nuclear explosion is not high on many people’s priorities. Marching toward it is even less ideal. Yet seven decades ago the United States military put thousands of soldiers near the vicinity of several nuclear detonations.

The Desert Rock exercises between 1951-197 saw more than 6,500 service members set up a new military camp and the logistics for nuclear tests. Hundreds of soldiers would then march and maneuver around nuclear detonations in the Nevada Proving Grounds. These tests were done partly in the name of science, partly in the name of tactics. The military was concerned about not only how units would be able to move near a nuclear detonation and how equipment and fortifications would withstand the effects. At the time the armed forces were developing plans for a potential war where nuclear weapons might be used in the battlefield.

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The first three Desert Rock exercises coincided with Operation Buster-Jangle in 1951, a joint test by the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission. The two groups carried out a total of seven nuclear detonations, six of which were airborne. 

Many of the soldiers who actually took part in the maneuvers were drawn from the 11th Airborne Division.

Video from the tests show a surreal visual. Soldiers in trenches watch as an atomic bomb goes off in the distance, the mushroom cloud billowing up into the sky. Shockwaves shake the cameras and knock some of those in the trenches off balance. Once it passes they climb out of their entrenchments and start to march toward the explosion. 

At the time, scientists were aware of the dangers of radiation, but soldiers who participated were given little protection, only flimsy radiation badges. Many of those would later be damaged or lost. Short-term exposure was not seen as particularly lasting. However, these “atomic veterans” would later develop health issues in the years to follow. They weren’t alone, those who lived near the Nevada testing site would also develop problems. When John Wayne and company filmed the Genghis Khan biopic The Conqueror downwind from a nuclear testing site, many of the crew including the star developed cancer later in life.

Five other Desert Rock exercises took place between 1953-1957, before the military stopped. In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was signed into law, offering payments to those impacted by or who participated in nuclear tests, including the atomic veterans. Only recently has the Department of Defense explored honoring those service members. 

If these exercises gave the military second thoughts, it did not show it. Concerns about the Cold War turning hot kept the Army developing scenarios in which ground forces would operate in the middle of nuclear strikes. In 1957, the same year the Desert Rock exercises ended, the Army began developing “pentomic” divisions, new divisional organizational structures. As the name suggests, they would be made up of five different battle groups made of five companies. The idea was to create highly mobile and self-sufficient sub groups that could still operate in the event of otherwise cataclysmic damage to the wider group from a nuclear blast. However, the idea was short-lived and the pentomic divisions ceased in 1963.  

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