Urban Legend or not? Soldiers Irradiated at Trinity Shot

A couple of weeks ago, an employee I work with who is a retired marine and once stationed at White Sands told me about visiting the Trinity site in New Mexico. Always a nuclear buff, I asked him what was the most unusual aspect about the site. He then told me that according to others soldiers were placed in trenches at various distances from the blast in order to determine the effects of the Trinity shot. Now I know that the US Army had done maneuvers in the 50’s with soldiers trudging around ground zero after a blast (My father had an opportunity to volunteer at one blast—he didn’t go because it “was too cold.” !!!) But Trinity? This person claims that the soldiers were ordered to do so. They did. Some were killed, other’s severely wounded by the various effects. This same person (who was stationed @ White Sands Test Range) also claimed that he visited a couple of people who were present at the shot and would claim that they couldn’t talk about it. A brochure of the site only mentions that the trenches are located at Yucca Flats, NV. And scanning Google Earth and other satellite photos didn’t indicate trenches (but then I don’t do photo-recon). I’m trying to get in contact with another friend who visited the same site on the 50th anniversary. This seems to be borderline urban legend. Am I being taken for a sucker? Or is part of a more insidious plot? There is one other aspect to this that does give it more credibility then I would have. My understanding is that had Operation Olympia commenced, we were going to drop atom bombs to help soften the front. The enemy would be vaporized and our boys would happily roll through the blast zone getting irradiated along the way. Perhaps the Army was trying to find out what to expect?

IIRC, this did occur, but not at the Trinity shot. In that test, everyone kept quite a distance away because they didn’t really know what the effects would be.

National Association of Atomic Veterans

Human Radiation Experiments: Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments

Lots more from Google


IIRC Richard Feynman mentions something about this in his book 'Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman". I don’t have a copy available. I thought that they had military up front and that Fenyman and the scientist were back a bit. I could be wrong, as I haven’t read the book in a while. If I am remembering it correctly Feynman might have had the details wrong.

I do know that at that time they did not really know the effects of the radiation from the bomb.


I’ve done quite a bit of reading about the Manhattan Project, and somewhat less about the history of the nuclear program as it developed after the war.

I’m 99.99% sure no one died at Trinity or even suffered serious radiologic effects.

The government was obviously concerned about the effects of blast and radiation on troops, and tests were done to determine the effects of various levels of exposure. By today’s standards, some of those tests were unethical, and with today’s knowledge, some were unnecessarily risky. There is no doubt that troops were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and that many or their lives were shortened as a result. But in the heat of the newly developing cold war, almost anything was permissible in the name of national security.

However, the scientists and military men developing and testing nuclear weapons in the 1940s and '50s weren’t completely in the dark about what they were doing. And I would be shocked to learn that any American troops were killed by the immediate blast or radiation effects of any US nuclear tests, unless it was through a fluke accident.

Feynman claimed that he saw the blast without dark glasses. Wikipedia says that nobody was closer than about 9 km.

I also have done a fair amount of reading about the Manhattan Project and Trinity. I’ve never heard of any soldiers dying or even being injured in that test.

BTW, the third paragraph in my post above, about the unethical and risky tests, referred to post-war nuclear testing in general, not to Trinity.

I have seen old newsreel footage of soldiers (relatively) close to atomic blasts.

There’s no question that in later tests soldiers were brought close to the tests – the military wanted to see how effectively and rapidly the trops could exploit a breach in enemy defenses caused by use of an atomic bomb. You can see lots of this footage in the documentary Atomic Cocktail, for instance.

The question is whether troops were present at Trinity, the first atomic bomb test anywhere. I’ve never heard of it, or seen footage of it. There wouldn’t be any reason to – no one was 100% certain it would work, and they certainly didn’t have a handle on how big a boom it would make or exactly what the physical effects would be. Putting vulnerable troops anywhere near it would have been premature.

Nitpick: The movie was called Atomic Cafe, and it’s brilliant.

The story is certainly untrue - unless the government coverup is particularly elaborate.
In the 1970s, with concern mounting about exposures to service personnel during postwar atmospheric testing, the DoD specifically commissioned Carl Maag and Steve Rohrer to reinvestigate what was known about radiation exposures during and after the Trinity test. The result was their 1982 historical report Project Trinity 1945-1945, which rather painstakingly goes through what’s known about the on-the-ground arrangements at the site.

The report is fairly short and well worth reading in full by anyone with an interest in the subject, but it’s main conclusions can be summarised as follows.
There’s no master list of exactly where everybody was at the moment of detonation, or even exactly how many people were on site. But various records were kept that involved tracking individuals, including the requirement that everybody on site had to have a radiation badge, and it’s possible to reconstruct numbers and locations approximately.

Maag and Rohrer largely ignore them, since they were all significantly further away than those above, but there were also two other main groups of participants: a couple of hundred military policemen securing the perimeter of the area and the group from Los Alamos on what’s normally referred to as Campana Hill, about 20-25 miles away. There were about 3 busloads on the latter, including Feynman, and there never seems to have been a record taken of who was there: if you had sufficient clearance and knew about the test, then you seem to have been pretty much able just to hop on one of the buses as they left. (Quite where this viewing area was exactly is now slightly unclear; the one surviving contemporary photo of it apparently shows another nearby hill entirely and there appear to be no traces left on the ground.)
As to whether anyone received a fatal radiation dose on the site after the test, the evidence is again against it. Who was allowed to approach the crater was closely controlled:

They go to detail who was allowed closer than about 9000 metres in the first few days. The exposures sustained by them were recorded by their film badges:

As site director, Bainbridge had wanted nobody to be exposed to more than 5 roentgens, so these three cases were technically failures of the precautions and procedures. Maag and Rohrer go on to describe numbers on site and resulting exposures for the months that followed. That 15 roentgens exposure was the worst case.
It’s perhaps worth adding as context that state-of-the-art knowledge of radiation in 1945 was that it would take about 1000 roentgens to kill you.

Maag and Rohrer also describe in some detail the precautions taken to avoid exposing anyone to fallout by making sure in advance that the wind conditions were right and then monitoring for it afterwards. What they don’t mention is there were plenty of stories - credible or otherwise - afterwards from ranchers that their cattle suffered skin damage.

It’s true that there was some speculation about using them during Olympia, but how advanced this planning got can be easily exaggerated.
First you have to remember that the overlap between those who were privy to the secret about the bomb project and those who were actually planning an invasion was minimal. Then there’s the chronology to remember, with only a few weeks between the confirmation at Trinity that the Allies were likely to have a supply of plutonium weapons on hand in the autumn and the end of the war. Barely does it become possible to realistically plan such a component to Olympia than the whole operation becomes unnecessary. (The pre-Trinity confidence about the uranium design working is incidental, since it was realised that the production rate for such through 1945 would be much less than for plutonium ones - if the latter worked.)
Most of the talk about using them at Olympia was thus from Manhattan project staff - notably Groves and Oppenheimer - in the weeks between Trinity and the surrender. It’s more brainstorming than an official part of the planning process. That said, one does suspect that had an invasion become necessary, then there was the momentum for these ideas to be more formally developed and incorporated in the final plan.

Oh. Whew. This thread title was a real “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim” moment for me; I thought the OP was asking whether soldiers who were irradiated at Trinity had then been shot. :eek:

According to Stephen Walker in his book Shockwave : Countdown to Hiroshima a report had already been created detailing how many atom bombs would be needed to take out the 50 biggest cities in the Soviet Union. This document was “archived”(for lack of a better term) on the 15th of September of 1945. The author speculates that is may have been written around the time the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I would assume people already understood it’s use as strategic weapon (I’ve only learned about this two weeks ago). So I guess that bombing Nippon en masse with nuclear weapons was far less speculative then you might think.

Thanks for your reference document. I’ll see if I can get my co-worker to give me something more credible or put me in contact with someone else to provide more information. I’m also still waiting to hear from a friend who visited the site to see if he remembered seeing any trenches. I’ve heard my share of military conspiracy theories that I thought were just plain goofy. (In the first Gulf War, four teams of assassins had Saddam Hussain constantly in there sights round the clock, but were given the orders not to shoot; or during the war, a convoy of BMW’s in which one were sure to contain the president was ready to be shredded by F-16s–but president Bush senior ordered them to stop; just to name a few…). Most likely it’s a bunch of rumors overtime that became a story or urban legend…

Years ago, an epidemiologist claimed that there were an abnormally high number of cases of cancer in St. george. this down was downwind of the nevada atomic test blasts…anyone know if this is true?

I’ve read a couple of books on the subject. I’m not sure if there’s a good objective, level-headed evaluation of it. Certainly there were warnings to the town of St. George (and, I hope, elsewhere – St. George is by no means the only Utah town in that direction. And Cedar City is about as large and not much farther away) that people should stay indoors with windows closed. IIRC, you can see some period films included in the aforementioned Atomic Cafe.

I’m inclined not to trust John Fuller’s The Day we Bombed Utah too much, because of some of the other things he’s written, but that doesn’t mean the stories he’s collected don’t have truth in them. The Downwinders seems more trustworthy, but I can’t recall details.

Not at Trinity…probably. I talked to Robert Oppenheimer’s grand-daughter about something like this once. Even she had limited information, because there were some things that couldn’t be talked about even in the family. There were, of course, plenty of people on-scene, but none were deliberately placed as experimental subjects for that first test, as far as I have ever been able to find out. Other, later, tests at White Sands may well have included experimental human subjects – there were plenty of other kinds of experiments going on at about the same time. (Hazel O’Leary is kind of my hero for going so public with the information on unethical testing carried out by the DoD.) And the observers certainly got more than they had bargained for, radiationwise. Some people claim that John Wayne’s death was a result of the effects or radiation from being a guest observer at nuclear tests, but I have never looked into the truth of those claims. At Trinity, I think Oppenheimer was glad everybody was so far back and wished they were even further. There was some surprise among the scientists that the steel tower holding the reaction was vaporised in the explosion.

No, the claim is that he and other cast members from the film The Conqueror (in which Wayne plays Genghis Khan) came down with cancer – Wayne himself. Pedro Armendariz, and others. I’ve heard that not only was the filming in St. George, but they actually trucked in additional soil and had simulated dust storms.

I don’t know how true this all is, as I’m repeating what I’ve read in various places (like Michael Medved’s 50 Worst Films), and haven’t looked seriously into it myself. For that matter, I’m not sure if anyone has looked into it seriously.

The Master Speaks:


I’m with Kimstu. I’ve been avoiding this thread for days because I didn’t want to read about the government shooting soldiers who had been irradiated.