Mushroom Clouds and Everpresent Danger: Surviving Cameramen Recall Nuclear Test Shots

By Philip Bethge

By 1963, the United States had detonated more than 200 nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Cameramen and photographers working for a secret special unit recorded the acts of destruction. Some of their sensational images have been declassified, and the last remaining eyewitnesses are now sharing their experiences.

Photo Gallery: The Eyewitnesses of Nuclear Hell Photos
US-Department of Energy/atomcentral.com

The atomic missile with the explosive power of 1.5 kilotons of TNT detonated precisely above the heads of the five United States Air Force scientists. At first the men felt only the heat from the explosion. But then the blast wave forced them to their knees.

George Yoshitake's camera was clicking the entire time.

At 7 a.m. on July 19, 1957, the cameraman was standing with a small group of nuclear scientists on the Yucca Flat test site in the state of Nevada. A fighter jet had fired the missile at an altitude of five kilometers (3.1 miles), which was considered a safe distance from the ground. "I was busy behind the cameras," Yoshitake recalls. "Then I could see the flash go off out of the corner of my eye." He looked up. "There was this huge, doughnut-shaped cloud up in the sky where the blast when off."

The only thing protecting him from the bomb's fallout was his baseball cap.

Yoshitake is one of the few people who have stood directly underneath an exploding atom bomb and survived. The American was one of about 40 photographers and cameramen in the 1352nd Photographic Group of the US Air Force. Their mission was top secret. Today Yoshitake, now 82, can finally talk openly about his experiences.

The special unit's job was as fascinating as it was dangerous. To film and photograph the American nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and in the South Pacific, the foolhardy men had to place themselves within only a few kilometers of the centers of the explosions.

Images the Public Never Saw

Between 1947 and 1969, the material was edited to make more than 6,500 motion pictures in a secret film studio in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, just a few kilometers from the bright lights of Sunset Boulevard. The studio on Wonderland Avenue was called the Lookout Mountain Air Force Station. Using special film and high-speed cameras, cameramen and photographers used the film and photographic footage to artfully produce motion pictures and still photographs.

"Those men are great guys; they documented a period of time that was both unique and hopefully will never be repeated," says US documentary filmmaker Peter Kuran, 54, who is working on the story of the "atomic filmmakers." Kuran wants to preserve the historic film material for posterity. "The photos are the icons of an era," he says.

At the height of the Cold War, the superpowers embarked on a spectacular race to develop nuclear weapons. It was accompanied by an unparalleled propaganda war that involved large numbers of tests. By the time the international Treaty banning Nuclear Weapon Tests In The Atmosphere, In Outer Space And Under Water, or Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (NTBT), was signed in 1963, the Americans alone had already detonated more than 200 atomic and hydrogen bombs in the atmosphere. The goal, from the very beginning, was to create impressive images to convince politicians to approve ever-growing military budgets.

But the public never saw most of the images. "The work these people did was so secretive that nobody even knew who they were for a long time," says Kuran. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that the first photographs and films were declassified, thanks to the documentary filmmaker's relentless efforts. Kuran traveled throughout the United States, searched through archives and urged the US Department of Energy to release the films and photographs.

Copies of the material are now stored in gray cardboard boxes in the basement of Kuran's house in Vancouver, Washington. Nuclear weapons have become a central focus of his life. "When I was 15, I visited Japan with a YMCA (youth) group," he says. "We happened to be in Hiroshima on the anniversary of the bombing and I saw a film about the destruction of the city. I was the only American in a crowded room full of Japanese. Everyone was looking at me."

'It Was Liberating to Talk about It'

Kuran felt horrified and ashamed. Initially, he embarked on a career as a developer of special effects for productions like director George Lucas's "Star Wars" movies. But he couldn't forget his experience in Japan. More than three decades later, he coincidentally came into contact with those chroniclers of the nuclear tests who were still alive. The nuclear filmmakers were grateful for the attention. "We're finally getting recognized for some of the work we did," says Yoshitake. "It was liberating to be able to talk about it."

The cameraman now lives in Lompoc, California, about a three-hour drive north of Los Angeles. He is one of the last surviving members of the photographers' unit. Most of the others died long ago, many of cancer. Yoshitake says he is "more in contact with the widows."

From 1955 to 1963, Yoshitake worked for the nuclear weapons test program. "I filmed about 30 explosions," he reports. "The amazing ones, the most spectacular ones were the hydrogen bombs in the Pacific." The bombs were usually detonated early in the morning, before dawn, says Yoshitake. "They told us to look away at the initial blast," he recalls. "For several minutes after the blast, you could see this eerie ultraviolet glow high up in the sky. And I thought that was so spectacular, so meaningful."

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