I recently finished listening to Eric Schlosser's excellent Command and Control. A particularly mind-bending passage:
While serving in the Army, [William] Stevens had been trained to assemble the warheads of tactical weapon systems. In May 1953 members of his battalion participated in the test of an atomic cannon. Its shells could travel twenty miles and produce a yield equivalent to that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. For the test in the Nevada desert, all sorts of things were placed near ground zero to study the weapon’s effects: trucks, tanks, railroad cars, aircraft panels, oil drums and cans of gasoline, household goods and materials—denim, flannel, rayon curtains, mops and brooms—a one-story brick structure, steel bridges, buildings that resembled motels, one hundred tall pine trees, field crops, flowers, insects, cages full of rats and mice, fifty-six dogs tethered inside aluminum tubes, forty-two pigs dressed in U.S. Army uniforms whose skin would respond to thermal radiation in a manner similar to that of human skin, and more than three thousand soldiers, including Bill Stevens, who huddled in a trench about three miles from ground zero.
The troops were part of an ongoing study of the psychological effects of nuclear warfare. They’d been ordered to climb out of their trenches and march toward the mushroom cloud after the blast. The Army Field Forces Human Research Unit hoped to discover how well they would follow the order, whether they’d obey it or come unglued at the sight of a large nuclear explosion. The atomic shell would fly directly over the heads of Stevens and the other soldiers. They were told to crouch in their trenches until the weapon detonated, then rise in time to brace against the blast wave and watch the explosion. At eight thirty in the morning, a great fireball lit up the desert, about ninety miles from Las Vegas.
As the troops stood, a powerful shock wave blew past, catching them by surprise. It was a “precursor wave,” a weapon effect that hadn’t been predicted. Highly compressed air had come down from the fireball, hit the ground, and spread outward, traveling faster than the blast wave. When Stevens and his unit climbed from the trenches to march toward ground zero, they were engulfed by a cloud of dirt and dust. Their lead officer couldn’t read the radiation dosage markers and led them closer to ground zero than planned. After returning to their base in Albuquerque, Stevens shook the dirt out of his uniform and saved some of it in a can. Twenty years later, he had the dirt tested at Sandia — and it was still radioactive.
[rereads: 1, edits: 0]