Joel Healy joined the Army when he was 17 years old, in order to pay for college. He never imagined that he would witness the detonation of more than 20 atomic bombs.
Joel was a Private First Class when he was assigned to Camp Desert Rock, north of Las Vegas, in 1957.
That’s where he took part in Operation Plumbbob, one of the largest nuclear tests series ever conducted on U.S. soil.
At StoryCorps, Joel told his daughter, Kelli Healy Salazar, about his time at the Nevada test site.
It’s hard to determine just how many Veterans became ill because they were present at these tests.
But Healy, and thousands of others, have received compensation from the U.S. Government as part of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990.
Click here for the transcript.
Archival Audio: Nevada, U-S-A. This is the valley where the giant mushrooms grow. More atomic bombs have been exploded on these few hundred square miles of desert than on any other spot on the globe.
Kelli Healy Salazar (KHS): Can you describe what it was like to witness your first nuclear explosion?
JH: Well, I was 17 years old and I thought, If there is a hell on earth, it's gotta be that.
Archival Audio: (Explosion)
JH: You felt the shockwave of the thing going off and then the heat. And, the biggest one that was set off in the desert when I was there was a 74 kiloton--almost twice the amount what was used in Hiroshima/Nagasaki.
Archival Audio: Little bombs…big bombs (Explosion)
JH: In one of the explosions, I could see the bones in my hands.
KHS: When it did go off, where were you physically?
JH: In some cases we were in a trench. Other times we were just standing up out there.
KHS: What were you told about safety?
JH: Don't worry. You will not be in harms way.
Archival Audio: 5 military observers stood directly beneath the burst, indicating the safety to personnel on the ground below.
JH: The army had their own film teams out there to show, these are our boys, whistling' Dixie, going into a nuclear device. You know…
KHS: Oh goodness.
Archival Audio: My only regrets right now are that everybody couldn't have been out here at ground zero with us.
JH: They had a motto then, Atoms for Peace. And uh, you know, I'm 17 years old and I buy into it.
KHS: Of course…
JH: Because I'm thinking, they spent a lot of money training me to be a soldier. They wouldn't intentionally put me in harms way.
Archival Audio: (Explosion)
JH: And this is 1957… We dropped those bombs on Japan in 1945. So they've known for twelve years…
Troops going into battle know that there is a very inherent risk that they may not be coming out.
JH: Unless it's in a black bag. This instance, they never said a word. And they knew it…Just a disgrace. I don't really like to talk about it. A lot of good men died. That's all I have to say...