George Yoshitake, Don Luttrell, and four other officers stood directly underneath an exploding nuclear warhead 55 years ago -- and lived to tell their tale.
The blast was just a test, a bit of Cold War marketing designed to make the concept of nuclear war less scary for the public, but the 2-kiloton atomic explosion set off over the Nevada nuclear test site (and over the heads of those six men) was very real.
But then again, nuclear testing was nothing new for Yoshitake in the early 1950s.
The former Department of Defense cameraman was responsible for filming nuclear tests for the military, and was therefore involved in several nuclear tests in Nevada and the Pacific -- always at a safe distance, anywhere from 5 to 20 miles from the blast.
On July 19, 1957, he was told to do something different and more dangerous than any of his other assignments.
“I had a call saying they needed me out for a special test,” the now 83-year old cameraman told FoxNews.com. “I found out when I got to Nevada that I was going to be standing at ground zero. It was going to explode 10,000 feet above my head!” The government planned to detonate a nuclear weapon above a handful of men as a publicity stunt to prove that these weapons were safe if they were ever used for a counter attack against Russia.
“The general public was afraid of nuclear weapons, with good reason,” 88-year old Major Don Luttrell, the only other member of the operation still alive, told FoxNews.com. “They were concerned about the danger of people on the ground if we fired nuclear weapons at enemy airplanes.”
Luttrell, who has a master's degree in nuclear engineering, believed that it was safe, so he and four Air Force colleagues volunteered for the demonstration.
“We stood at ground zero so they wouldn’t be afraid,” Luttrell said.
“I asked what kind of protective gear I was going to have, and they said ‘nothing,’” Yoshitake said laughing. “I had a baseball cap with me, and I said ‘I better wear that just in case.’” So with a baseball hat to protect him, Yoshitake joined Luttrell and the other volunteers in the middle of the Nevada desert
There they waited for what they called the “genie shot.”
“I never really gave it too much thought,” Yoshitake said when asked if he was fearful of the explosion. “When you’re young, you think you’re invincible and nothing is going to happen to you.”
Luttrell agreed. “I knew it would be all right. We all felt the same way.”
The five men huddled together on that clear July day looking up at the open Nevada sky, with Yoshitake filming as two F-89 Scorpion fighter jets fired an air rocket. “You could see the rocket streaking across the sky with a big white streak behind it,” Luttrell recalled. “The first thing you saw was a brilliant flash and then there was a wave of heat followed by the sonic boom which was quite loud.”
After the explosion and after all six survived, they celebrated.
“Everybody was running around and patting each other on the back. We lit cigars,” Luttrell said.
It had been 12 years since the United States dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, and even though Yoshitake is Japanese, he had no hard feelings about the bomb or the experiment he was a part of.
“I thought dropping the bomb was necessary for ending the war as soon as possible,” he noted. “It’s too bad it was the Japanese who had to suffer.” But in the explosion that occurred just 10,000 feet above his head, nobody suffered … at the time.
Today, 55 years later, the seemingly safe operation may have had some serious side effects: all six members of the group have had cancer, with four dying of it, according to Yoshitake and Luttrell.
“In those days, nobody thought there could be any fear of developing cancer from these nuclear tests,” said Yoshitake who survived stomach cancer. “But … there must be some direct correlation between these tests and cancer.” Yoshitake noted that many of his “camera friends” who filmed similar operations developed and died of cancer; most in their 40s and 50s.
“In hindsight … it appears that it was not safe,” colon-cancer survivor Lutrell said.
Luttrell explained that the men never discussed if they felt the cancer was related to "genie shot," but he's confident no one involved would have made a different decision.
“I feel quite sure they never had any regrets,” Luttrell said.
“To me, it’s quite amazing that all that took place and I was a part of history,” Yoshitake said. “I’m glad I was able to be a part of it.” Yoshitake commented that he probably wouldn’t do it again if asked but Luttrell felt differently. “If things were the same, yeah I’d do it again,” he said.