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June 11, 2006

How I Helped Build an "Atomic Bomb"

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards:

Nowadays, nuclear weapons proliferate and our Opinion Elite shrugs. Between 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device, and 1991 when the Soviet Union expired, the Opinion Elite was worried sick about nuclear war.

During that period, American armed forces included nuclear warfare as part of training activities and I got a whiff of it in Basic Training.

I joined the Army a couple months after the Berlin Wall was started. During training, the Soviets set off one of the largest hydrogen bombs ever detonated. The world situation was tense and there was a more-than-academic possibility that we trainees would have to fight on a battlefield with atomic bombs or even hydrogen bombs exploding.

Whether we would have to fight in a nuclear environment depended upon (1) the chance that the USA and USSR would be at war, and (2) the chance that nuclear weapons would be used in that war. This was grist for Herman Kahn, too abstract and unknowable for me to bother with. So, in spite of the Berlin crisis and Khrushchev's H-bomb rattling, I wasn't really worried about an outbreak of World War III -- that fear became stronger less than a year later when the Cuban missile crisis hit, me being stationed not far outside prime-target Washington, DC at that time.

Crises aside, I never worried about nuclear war back in the 50s and early 60s . Yet if you read some of the articles I sometimes come across, the country was supposedly living in terror of death and destruction. Moreover, I don't remember any of my friends being terror-stricken either even though we lived in a town where B-52 bombers were being built. But some people felt that way; I guess I never traveled in those circles.

(By "worry" I mean obsessively stew over the matter. By the age of 10 or 11, I was quite aware of the destructive potential of nuclear war, and I assume most of my friends were too. But we didn't become permanently terrified, figuring there was nothing much we could do about the problem. So we went on with life, doing the mature thing for once.)

And as for the nuclear battlefield, I (and for all I know, the rest of the trainees) weren't very concerned. No doubt if a war was underway we would have worried a lot. But we would have known that, in combat, there are many ways to get killed and that atomic weapons were only one means out of many that could accomplish that.

One way nukes were looked at militarily was that they were simply very large explosives that killed or wounded you -- or didn't. Aside from "wounding radiation," a result of close exposure to a blast, radiation was not a combat factor. It might kill you years or decades later, but the main thing was to get the war won first. Sometimes one has to examine things in cold blood.

Let me modify that. I missed nuclear training (see below) so I don't know what precautions the Army had in those days for radiation. Normally they try to offer some sort of hazard protection (gas masks then, protective suits now -- for chemical warfare) to, if nothing else, keep confidence/morale up.

To continue, towards the end of Basic, we were doing field training and an atomic detonation was called for. A few of us were ordered aside to help set up the explosion.

I don't remember exactly what I did during the final set-up; most of the work had been completed when we reached the scene. So let me describe how it worked.

At the center of the blast site was a square pit perhaps six feet wide and deep. In that pit were placed two or three metal drums filled with gasoline. Explosives were set under the drums. Around the pit was a shallow, circular trench -- six inches to a foot deep and maybe 40 feet in diameter. (I forget the dimensional details -- my excuse is that this took place in December 1961 or January 1962.) In the trench was strung several lengths of rope explosive.

As the time for detonation neared, we moved several hundred feet away from the bomb site, led by the demolition experts who did the key explosive-laying. (The rest of the company was nearby doing something or other and had to react to the nuclear blast in a prescribed way -- by being in the set-up crew, I missed the training part.)

Then the "A-bomb" went off. There was the loud noise, of course, but the interesting bit was the classical mushroom-cloud with churning flames mixing with the smoke. It was at least 100 feet high.

My reaction? No sense of horror. I thought: "Wow! That's a really cool simulation."

Here's how it was done. (Nanny-state, nanny lawyer alert: Do not attempt this without proper supervision.) The explosives beneath the gasoline drums were set off first. Being in a pit, the force of this explosion was upwards. A fraction of a second later the rope explosive was detonated. This helped channel the emerging blast from the pit into a column that momentarily later expanded to form the top of the "mushroom." The mixture of smoke and flame as the mushroom cloud formed was due to gasoline transforming from liquid to vapor -- its flammable state.



posted by Donald at June 11, 2006


Now that sounds like a lot of fun!
It's interesting how people by and large avoided being paralyzed by fear during the worst years of the Cold War in the 1950's and 1960's. Especially in contrast to today, when fear of terrorism runs rampant and many people seem convinced that Islam is poised to Conquer the World (see, et al., Little Green Footballs, Gates of Vienna, and Michelle Malkin). Are people generally less courageous today? Or was the fear of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War simply too abstract to feel real?

Posted by: Peter on June 11, 2006 9:18 PM

Donald, I was one of the terrified then and I remain one of the terrified. Probably has mostly to do with the way I'm "wired," but also with my family's practice of attending the newsreels, the equivalent of TV news before there was TV. I saw footage from Japan of people bursting up out of the ruins of their smashed houses. I saw footage of white emaciated bodies in Germany being moved in windrows by bulldozers. I was about six and never forgot. No one ever discussed it with me until we read "Hiroshima" in high school.

I vividly remember sitting in my bedroom window as a child, convinced that if I could just sit there and focus willpower on every plane, I could keep them all from bombing Portland. My uncle was a bomber pilot. I'd been in his cockpit.

In 1961 the White Sox won somethingorother and the City of Chicago ran their air raid sirens in celebration. I got my pillow and radio and was headed for the dorm basement when someone clued me in. That fall my first job was in Browning, MT, and when the curfew siren ran (I was asleep that first night after 36 hours on the train), I got my pillow and radio again and was trying to figure out how to get to the basement of my little shack built on railroad ties. It took me a while to realize what the noise was.

One of the things I learned as an emergency responder (just a dog catcher really) was that huge catastrophies happen suddenly and with no warning and not at all in the way one expects. I should probably work at being more of a fatalist. Strangely, I didn't react much to 9/11. I didn't consider it unexpected. After all, the building had already been attacked once. I don't think I'd be much surprised by a fireball over Manhattan. I'd be VERY surprised by one over Valier!

I would not be surprised by an armed insurrection here. We've already had the Posse Comitatus, etc. In fact, the Blackfeet were being massacred a little over a hundred years ago, right here. Low tech trouble, but also deadly.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 11, 2006 10:10 PM

Especially in contrast to today...

Yeah, right. I distinctly remember "9/11", and remember my thoughts about the likely reaction, which would consist of two things:

1) A multi-year all-media one-note torrent.
2) Nothing else.

Sure enough, nobody who lived outside of the newspaper/magazine/television industries seemed all that frightened or concerned about the events. I mean, I haven't met a single real person who is afraid in the smallest degree of "terrorists". Yet, the television has no trouble finding such people.

Posted by: onetwothree on June 11, 2006 10:41 PM

I guess I'm one of the Strange Rangers. I really was frightened, on a true visceral level, after 9/11. I just kept thinking that America had kept its head pretty well after the towers fell, but if Al Quaeda could pull off another Big One right away, the country would disintegrate in panic. I was very wary of the next one. It's still very odd to me that Al Quaeda didn't just finish us off then---blow up the Hoover Dam or something, and just make everybody totally freak out. They gave us too much time to calm down, really. But I was frightened. The world did feel different to me---and I was not living in New York at the time.

Posted by: annette on June 12, 2006 10:57 AM

I suspect Mary's suspicion that "wiring" has something to do with reactions to abstract dangers is largely correct. To some degree it might even be a male-female wiring thing: to some degree, but not entirely, of course. Tangible dangers are another matter.

As for 9/11, I don't think secondary or tertiary attacks would have provokes massive panic -- though I'm pretty sure TV news would have done its best to locate hysterical folks to feature. My reading of military history suggests populations tend to become stoical when faced with war and destruction: panic is an isolated event when the bombs are actually falling.

And yes, Peter, the fall of Constantinople (and Baghdad, Alexandria, Seville, etc.) is a fantasy cooked up by publicists trying to hype history book sales.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 12, 2006 4:52 PM

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