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When America dropped the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world watched as the atomic age began. The effects of the bomb were devastating and linger to this day. No government or military has ever detonated a nuclear bomb during a war since. But they have detonated them for various other reasons—including a series of tests designed to give soldiers a taste of what nuclear war might feel like.
After World War II, the UK, USSR, and US detonated more than 2,000 atomic bombs. In Britain, 20,000 soldiers witnessed atomic blasts conducted by their own government. Only a few of them are still alive today and the nuclear glow of the mushroom cloud they witnessed still haunts them. “Nuclear detonations, that was the defining point in my life,” Douglas Hern, a British soldier who experienced five nuclear bomb tests, told Motherboard.
“When the flash hit you, you could see the x-rays of your hands through your closed eyes,” he said. “Then the heat hit you, and that was as if someone my size had caught fire and walked through me. It was an experience that was unearthing. It was so strange. There were guys with bruises and broken legs. We couldn’t believe it. To say it was frightening is an understatement. I think it all shocked us into silence.”
The stories these nuclear veterans told Motherboard were harrowing.
"It was utter devastation. If I was looking at you now, I would see all your bones. You would see all the blood vessels. All I saw was this rising, colossal fireball going up and thunder, lightning, you name it," David Hemsley, who experienced atomic bomb blasts at the age of 18, told Motherboard. "I think it was too much for some people—some of them were crying, asking for their mum. It was awful."
"Didn’t know anything about it when we went, we didn’t know what we were going to do when we went, only to be told we were going to be testing bombs. It was just sheer brilliant light," Robert Fleming said.
The most notorious of these experiments was the Castle Bravo detonation on March 1, 1954. At 15 megatons, it was the highest yield weapon ever tested by the United States, but that high yield was an accident. Weapon scientists anticipated a yield of 6 megatons, but new weapon designs led to the inadvertent discovery of thermonuclear fusion chain reactions. The accident more than doubled the power of the blast.
US Navy sailors on several ships watched the explosion from what they were told was a distance. It was not. “We soon found ourselves under a large, black and orange cloud that seemed to be dropping bright red balls of fire all over the ocean around us,” one witness told journalist Douglas Keeney in 15 Minutes: General Curtis LeMay and the Countdown to Nuclear Annihilation. “I think many of us expected we were witnessing the end of the world.”
The nearby Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands have never been the same. The tiny island republic experienced fallout from multiple nuclear tests over the years, but the Castle Bravo explosion permanently altered the islands and its people. To this day, its citizens experience birth defects and cancer rates many times higher than those of the general population.
“We were basically used as guinea pigs,” Hern said. “There’s no other word for it.”
These men stood closer to the power of the atom and lived to tell the tale, but the blasts took their toll. Many have chronic health issues and cancers. The blasts sterilized certain soldiers, and higher instances of disease and early death were reported among the kids of those soldiers who did go on to bear children.
“The onus is now on the young people to get rid of these weapons,” George Booker said. “With the right sort of education, they will do that.”