Remembering Ground Zero
“We were told we couldn’t mention or talk about the stuff that we participated in; we were sworn to secrecy.”
That’s what 84-year-old Wyeville resident Gile McWain said about his time at Camp Desert Rock, a site in Nevada used to test nuclear weapons starting in 1951.
McWain graduated from Holmen High School in 1951 and he joined the marines shortly after. He became a helicopter crew chief and spent time overseas in Korea.
In 1953, while he was stationed in California, he volunteered to participate in the nuclear tests that were taking place at Camp Desert Rock. He said it was an experience he will never forget.
McWain was a part of three separate nuclear tests at the camp. He described in vivid detail the first test, where he was kneeling in a six-foot trench approximately 3,500 yards from where the nuclear bomb would detonate.
“They counted down to zero and all of a sudden it was like someone snapping a bow whip, the sound we heard, like a crack,” he described. “Then we heard a rumble and a roar and the ground started shaking like there was an earthquake.”
After the blast, McWain claimed that he could actually see the bones in his hands “like an x-ray” after the bomb went off. After a short period after the blast, he and the other troops were told it was safe to stand and look at the blast. McWain described what he saw as almost beautiful.
He said that the large cloud forming changed colors from orange to “fiery red” and then it started to funnel into what many refer to as a “mushroom cloud.”
“That’s something you won’t forget once you’ve seen it,” he said. “That’s vivid in my mind.”
Afterwards, he and the other troops were ordered to make their way towards “ground zero”– the area where the bomb went off. He noted that the plants directly in front of the trench he was in were aflame.
McWain saw increasing amounts of dead animals and mangled military equipment as they made their way closer to ground zero. He said that he wasn’t actually aware of any purpose of their journey there.
As they neared ground zero, McWain said that the sand had started to turn into a grayish black glass-like substance. The group determined they should turn back after the Geiger counters they had started to read concerning levels of radiation.
When they got back to camp, McWain claimed that the only decontamination they went through was being swept off with a broom.
“I often wonder why they weren’t more cautious with what they did after the blasts,” he said. “All the guys there will tell you the same stories, there were no real precautions taken.”
McWain participated in two more nuclear tests, one of which put him in a helicopter flying when the explosion happened and the other which involved an atomic cannon that could launch a nuclear projectile 18 miles.
After his departure from Camp Desert Rock, McWain got sick. He was sent back overseas and he would have spells of weakness and his hair started to fall out. He spent two months in Osaka Army Hospital in Japan with what he believes was radiation sickness, but he said he was never given a diagnosis.
“I’m ok now; I’ve had no problems for a number of years,” he said. “A lot of guys ended up with cancer though.”
McWain said that the federal government refused for many years to acknowledge and take responsibility for what happened to many of the “atomic veterans” after these nuclear tests.
It wasn’t until 1996, with the repeal of the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Laws, that these veterans were even able to speak about their experiences.
McWain belongs to an organization called the National Association for Atomic Veterans (NAAV), which was formed in 1979 to help the atomic veterans get compensated for the health issues resulting from these tests.
NAAV has been relatively successful in getting better care for the atomic veterans. Those who developed cancer, except lymphocytic leukemia, from the radiation they were exposed to now qualify for compensation from the government.
McWain said there is still something that many of the remaining atomic veterans would like though– a campaign ribbon. This ribbon, he says, will acknowledge and recognize the service of those who participated in the nuclear tests.
“I just feel that everyone has earned that,” he said.
McWain hopes that speaking about his experience will help educate those about the severity of using a nuclear weapon in a time where he considers us to be closer than ever to using them again.
I don’t think the public is totally aware of some of this stuff,” he concluded. “Its deadly serious and I hope that maybe what I saw will give people time to think about this stuff.”