Melvin Shuck leaned back in his armchair as he tells the story, his eyes distant with memories.
“We were in Nevada in 1951,” he said. “In Camp Desert Rock, which we built. I was a heavy equipment mechanic, and my main job was to operate a rock crusher to break rocks for roads.”
And then his superiors handed down these unusual orders for Operation Tumblesnapper: to build foxholes four feet deep. Crawl in and put your head down as close to your knees as you can, they said, and hold your interlocked hands over your eyes.
Shuck did, and he recalls this one startling fact: “When the light flashed, it was so bright I could see the lines between my fingers with my eyes closed.”
Shuck, now nearly 85, picks up a long tube of paper.
“People don't believe me, but when I put my head up, this is what I saw,” he said.
He unrolled the paper. A photo. Of a giant mushroom cloud over distant sand.
As impossible as it seems, Shuck said Operation Tumblesnapper involved exploding atomic bombs over the desert in an effort to study and better understand the effects of nuclear radiation.
“Our clothes and shoes were found to be contaminated with radiation, and we were ‘decontaminated’ with an air blower after Shot Charlie,” said Shuck, who drives the Disabled American Veterans bus throughout the Black Hills area.
“We were issued no special or protective clothing. We did wear film badges, which were to measure our exposure to skin radiation. Some personnel were required to shower until skin contamination was lowered to zero, and then put on clean clothing. I was never decontaminated beyond an air blower blowing the sand off my clothing.”
Some of the live animals used in the tests didn’t fare as well, said Shuck. Like the sheep and rabbits that were burned to a crisp on one side, and virtually untouched on the other.
A stripped B-52 nearby broke right in the middle.
Shuck says he took part in four blasts altogether: Shot Charlie, the 31-kiloton bomb dropped from a C-50 aircraft flying over Yucca Flat; and Shots Easy, Fox, and George, three tower drops. During Shot Charlie, Shuck and his group were stationed about three miles away from “Ground Zero,” and watched the dust storm and fire ball approach and pass over the trenches.
After the blast passed, Shuck’s group marched in formation toward “Ground Zero” within half an hour after the detonation.
“On the tower shot, I noticed the sand looked like burnt glass, as if the sand had been melted,” says Shuck.
After the tests, they had to bury the equipment, and not much more was said, Shuck said. “They just wanted to test the bombs and find out more about the effects of radiation. We were guinea pigs.”
Since then, as the dangers of radiation have become more publicized, Shuck pointed to a book called "American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear war" which details alleged health, crop, livestock, and private property damage as a result of these and other atomic tests. He and his Army group weren’t the only ones affected, he says.
Shuck, who is currently retired, said that out of that group, only half are left alive.
“Many of them have died of cancer or leukemia,” he said, “which are probably effects of the blasts.”
Then again, with most of them either in their 80s or passed away relatively recently, these health issues may just be a cause of old age.
Shuck said he isn’t sure. And the records at Fort Knox have long since been destroyed, apparently in a fire, he says.
But Shuck said he doesn’t hold anything against the U.S. government, and he’s not sure what he thinks about the testing until this day.
“I don’t know,” he said, rolling up his photo of the giant mushroom cloud. “I don’t really know what to think.”