Sunday, November 05, 2006

November 5

Atomic_Bomb1On this date in 1951, the first phase of Operation Buster-Jangle concluded with the Easy Shot explosion, a 31-kiloton blast that exposed thousands of troops from the 231st Engineer Combat Battalion to large doses of radiation. Easy Shot was the fifth and final test in the "Buster" series; two low-yield "Jangle" detonations followed later in the month on November 19 and November 29.

Exploding 1314 feet above the ground, Easy Shot was heaved from a B-45 bomber while soldiers circled the area at 15,000 feet in a C-54 aircraft. Their sole purpose was to absorb radiation so that its effects -- including changes to the subjects' "visual acuity" -- might be measured. On the ground, Company A of the 231st Engineering Battalion was six miles from the blast, having already been brought into a forward position in preparation for Able Shot on October 22. After each detonation, Company A was transported to ground zero to repair the desert and retrieve debris; they were not provided with respiratory equipment. Private Bill Bires was present throughout the Buster series and recorded his experiences throughout the Buster-Jangle series. On 5 November 1951, he wrote,
we marched around to our grandstand viewing area to watch Shot Easy which would turn out to be the largest of all the shots yet. It was at Shot Easy, I believe, that one of our squad tents (16-man tent) was blown down in our bivouc area, about 6 miles away, which was an indication of the power of this device. The brilliant flash and thunderous noise that accompanied the explosion struck me with awe and fear. The heat from Easy warmed our backsides on a cold, winter morning in the desert. When I came away from the test site this time, I came away with the realization that we could destroy ourselves. These people weren't stopping. The explosions kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

Easy was more than twice the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The mushroom cloud that accompanied this was just awesome in relationship to the expanse of Yucca Flat. The ever changing colors boiling up in this ever changing cloud - purples and reds and oranges and reds and blues and yellows - just the turbulence that you could see - this boiling cloud gave one a sense of the power unleased by the Atom Bomb.
Although at least 400,000 US soldiers participated in atomic and nuclear tests from 1945 to 1963, long-term studies of the health effects of those exercises were never conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission or the Department of Defense. While individual levels of exposure were monitored at each test by radiation badges, the badges were removed and sent to what soldiers referred to as a "black hole." For decades afterward, test participants were prevented from discovering exactly how much radiation their bodies had absorbed.

In 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act provided $75,000 for each soldier exposed to radiation during those early years of the Cold War. That same year, as the United States mobilized for the first Persian Gulf War, Portland resident Bill Bires -- the Korean War vet who documented the Buster-Jangle explosions from a few miles away -- founded Northwest Veterans for Peace.