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Welcome to Doom Town: Stories and scars from under the cloud of a nuclear Nevada

The mushroom clouds are gone, but memories and questions remain

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Military personnel watch as a bomb is detonated at a test site.
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“We used to get up in the morning, drive out to the highway and watch the blast. There was a regular caravan of cars going out. We’d park on the side of the road, wait until it was all over, go home, have breakfast, get the kids off to school and then go to work.”

That’s how Gail Andress remembers the nuclear testing 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas in the early 1950s. He and his wife Donna, now both in their 80s, regularly watched the much-celebrated detonations that could be felt as far away as Los Angeles. There were blinding flashes, multi-kiloton fireballs, mushroom clouds and subsequent bursts of air skirting outward. The explosions became a tourist draw, and cars rolled in from far away to witness them.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” Andress says. “It looked like the sun come up again. It lit the whole area. We were assured there wasn’t going to be a problem. It was real interesting. It was an attraction.”

But for Dennis McBride, then a child growing up in Boulder City, it felt like the end times. Governments were building, testing and stockpiling weapons designed to annihilate cities. It was a lot for a fourth grader to digest.

In this June 24,1957 photo from the Las Vegas News Bureau, photographers are seen lined up to shoot the above ground detonation of a bomb at the Nevada test site.

In this June 24,1957 photo from the Las Vegas News Bureau, photographers are seen lined up to shoot the above ground detonation of a bomb at the Nevada test site.

“Not only did I know what was going on at the Test Site, this was the height of the Cold War and Duck and Cover drills,” remembers McBride, now a local historian. “It’s so hard to even articulate, being instilled with the sense that at any moment your life could come to a horribly frightening, bloody end.”

Locals’ reactions to the decimation going on outside of town varied wildly. They were entertained, concerned, terrified, curious and even disinterested, but through it all, they were assured by the government they were in no danger.

•••••

In 1951 the U.S. government began atomic testing in Nevada. Scientists fine-tuned the atomic bomb here and studied its effects, placing live animals, automobiles, mannequins, pine trees and, eventually, two-story homes at varying distances from ground zero to see how each would react to the blasts.

Reporters and dignitaries watched the tests from News Nob, a rocky hill on the Test Site. Excitement ensued, as did almost-romantic descriptions—some in a Biblical-style prose—of what they’d witnessed. An excerpt featured in Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert describes, “An intense white light, pure in color and frightening to behold, rose up from the desert ...”

The testing also intrigued many in Las Vegas. Families gathered to watch the blasts. Some packed picnics. Some went to the ridge at Lee Canyon. And tourists came, as well, many driving from LA to get a glimpse. Viewing parties were held, models donned mushroom cloud accessories and local newspapers celebrated the testing’s importance as a point of pride for Nevada.

Then came growing concerns about fallout, detected not only locally but across the country. Fallout that swept downwind to small Utah ranching communities raised even greater fears. Still, the government worked to spin the issue, always reassuring residents that the testing was safe.

When reporters became curious about locals, they began characterizing residents living in close proximity to the radioactive testing as uncultured, uneducated and immoral. In Bombast, author Michon Mackedon, a native Nevadan who served on the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, dedicates a chapter to those depictions. Mackedon suggests that this perception of the “wasteland” and its “wastelanders” helped justify the testing here.

In reality, of course, many of those living here at the time had families. Along with casino workers, they were mothers, fathers, school children, businessmen and teachers.

Growing up with the bomb

Viewing the blasts was a common pastime as far away as Pioche, 180 miles northwest of Las Vegas, where people would set alarm clocks so they didn’t miss the 3 a.m. detonations. The town seemed far enough away not to worry about fallout, even though some residents were assigned to wear radiation gauge badges.

“It was kind of like a badge of courage,” says Karen Wilkes, a teenager at the time. “It was a patriotic thing to do in the community. We were still in the Red Scare era. There were people who were a little nervous about radiation, but not nervous enough.”

Spectators stand on a diving board to get a better view of a bomb detonation, circa 1953.

Spectators stand on a diving board to get a better view of a bomb detonation, circa 1953.

Wilkes’ cousin Mary Duffin—who lived 25 miles from Pioche in Caliente—had a more direct relationship with radioactive fallout. Duffin grew up hearing the story of her family being stopped at a roadblock while driving home from Las Vegas. “They told us, when we got home, to burn our clothes, wash the car, take a shower and wash our hair,” she says. “It was the first time, I think, [my parents] were really alarmed by this.”

Still, life went on for her family and the town. Her parents filled the basement with water, food and supplies in case of a disaster, and Duffin says she’d play down there, imagining it was a grocery store. She’d watch mushroom clouds from the backyard, images preceded by the ground rumbling “like an earthquake.

“We would feel it. Then we’d all run outside to see the cloud,” she says. “I remember thinking that I should be afraid, but I was calmed by the fact that my parents didn’t seem to be.”

Duffin even did her part when government officials came to her school. Her class was marched into the gymnasium, where badges that measured radioactivity were hooked to their collars, to be worn morning till night. “We’d wear them every day, then they’d come back, take them and give us another one,” she says. “We wore them for about a year.”

Children in Las Vegas were also doing their part during the Cold War. Renee Knoblauch was a sixth grader during the Duck and Cover drills, and she was assigned to call parents from the school office in the event of a nuclear attack. As editor of the school paper, she was also involved in reporting the events. “I had a staff of four writers. After a drill they’d interview kids, ‘What did they think of it?’ ‘How did they feel?’ Some were oblivious. Some saw it as a break under the desk.”

But at home, the Cold War felt a little more personal. Knoblauch’s father worked at the Test Site, and she remembers tension in the air when he left for work on a blast day. “My dad didn’t talk about it. He’d get up early. My mom made him breakfast. He had his gear on. He would come home and be covered in dust.”

What was happening out there wasn’t a secret, she adds. “We all saw the mushroom clouds. We were very aware. I watched the news, read the paper. I stayed on top of it. It was a scary, overwhelming feeling, but we felt safe. We felt protected. My father stocked up on survival packages. We had a plan of where we were to go. I had faith in my father. If there was a way we could survive this, he could figure it out.”

Still, she says there were times when she wondered if there would be a tomorrow.

Copa Room showgirl Lee Merlin poses in a cotton mushroom cloud swimsuit as she is crowned Miss Atomic Bomb in this 1957 photograph. Above-ground nuclear testing was a major public attraction during the late 1950s, and hotels capitalized on the craze by hosting nuclear bomb watch parties, which usually included the dubbing of a chorus girl as Miss Atomic Bomb. Merlin was the last and most famous of the Miss Atomic Bomb girls.

Federal Town

Like Knoblauch, many Las Vegans had relatives working at the Test Site in the 1950s and ’60s. Dennis McBride’s mother Alveta worked there, as did his father, uncle and grandfather. Stories and documents from former Test Site employees aren’t hard to come by, and many workers have been involved with the Atomic Testing Museum on East Flamingo Road since its early days as a small, one-room museum on Losee Road.

UNLV is home to the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, a collection of interviews with more than 150 people who worked at the Test Site and lived nearby. That project estimates that 125,000 people held jobs at the Test Site during the Cold War. History professor Andy Kirk, who co-directed the project with sociology professor Robert Futrell, says that had this happened anywhere else, that town would have been considered a federal town.

“You figure at the height of testing you have a quarter million people involved who were coming and going, surpassing the population,” says Kirk, whose article, “Rereading the Nature of Atomic Doom Towns” was recently published in the Oxford Journal of Environmental History.

“It was definitely a defining fact of life,” he says. “It brought billions of dollars to the local economy and generated incredible employment on the heels of World War II.”

John Adams moved to Las Vegas with his family in 1962 and conducted background tests on potential Test Site workers after serving in Vietnam. He recalls the Test Site as a great source of employment. Adams worked for the government during the final two decades of nuclear tests, which were conducted below ground. Prior to that, while working construction, he remembers the swaying and trembling of buildings during detonations. At times, Atomic Energy Commission reps were on-site with seismology devices measuring the effects.

The float for the first atomic bomb test, circa 1951.

The float for the first atomic bomb test, circa 1951.

“I didn’t give it much thought,” Adams says. “I just looked at it as though they’re trying to improve this weapon. It was something that was going on from both sides, so I didn’t concern [myself with] the right and wrong.”

Alveta McBride, who worked as a switchboard operator at the Site in the early ’50s, says she was grateful to get a job there because it paid so well. She remembers being bused a mile away from a blast with other co-workers to watch the explosion, the dust that rolled out hitting them with such force that it knocked off hats and blew some viewers down.

“I remember how awesome it looked. I couldn’t believe that something so beautiful could be so destructive,” she says. “It wouldn’t hurt you. That’s what they said, and we believed them. After the late ’50s, early ’60s, they knew the damage it had done. It made you doubt the government. All those downwinders in Utah, that was sad. It’s scary to think about it now.”

Lingering effects

Nuclear Testing at the Nevada Test Site was suspended in 1992, leaving a pockmarked desert and memories after more than 900 tests. How locals regard them today varies as much as how they felt at the time.

Some say it was necessary to protect the United States against outside threats and believe supporting it was a patriotic duty. Others are angry their government lied to them. Some were scarred by the Cold War, and are still traumatized by the sound of ambulances, which resemble air raid sirens.

The Andresses remain convinced the testing was safe for Las Vegas residents. At the time, they had little concern, even when wind from the blasts came through their open windows. “We’d time it from time of the blast to see how long before the wind would come and rattle the blinds,” says Gail Andress, who served in the Navy as an aerial gunner in World War II before taking a job at his grandfather’s Chrysler-Plymouth dealership.

A cousin of Donna Andress’, terribly afraid of a nuclear attack, built a bomb shelter in his backyard. But Andress says knowing the government was doing the testing made her feel safe.

Mary Duffin says the government tracked her and other classmates until she was in her 40s, testing their thyroids. “I hate to say this, but I almost expect to get cancer,” she says. “I was there that whole time. From the time I was a baby, I got fallout. I think we were guinea pigs. Either they lied or they didn’t know.”

Long-term exposure in local communities had become a concern that divided scientists and politicians. The Atomic Energy Commission downplayed that testing could harm. Eventually came the class-action lawsuits. The subsequent Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, passed by Congress in 1990, states that individuals in Nevada, Utah and Arizona were unwillingly exposed to radiation, which caused an “excess of cancers.” It served as an apology and provided compensation for downwinders, Test- Site workers and miners.

Knoblauch said all seven members of her father’s Test Site team died from cancer, but that she remains a patriot—even though she avoids radiation from CAT Scans, X-rays and MRIs.

“A lot of people, especially now, have no comprehension of what happened in our area,” says Patty Dominguez, a downwinder and activist. “They knew we were here and that we were very patriotic. They invited schools to bring the kids outside to watch. They gave us nothing to protect ourselves.”

A sense of preservation

Dennis McBride’s scars aren’t visible, but they’ve defined him. “It’s been a constant, fundamental framework in my life,” he says, adding that he’s never told anyone—even his mother—about his response to the Cold War, until now. He didn’t bother making friends as a child and found himself unable to plan for the future.

“The same sense of impending destruction that was instilled in me so early in my life has also been the most deeply compelling reason I wound up in the business I did,” says McBride, today the director of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas.

“I grew up to build libraries and archives, saving and preserving knowledge and history for the time when all that will be gone. That’s the emotional response, which makes no sense. Because if you look at it critically, nothing I’ve ever built is going to survive having a nuclear bomb dropped on or near it. But I go on doing it.”

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