Interview With Raymond A. Buell

From the interview with Raymond A. Buell of Helena, MT conducted by Tim Caldwell by phone from the Fort Worden History Center on November 4, 2004. Mr. Buell served in the US Army 369th Engineer Amphibious Support Regiment, Boat Battalion at Fort Worden and Fort Flagler during the Korean War era. Here he describes his experiences at Camp Desert Rock, NV during the atomic bomb tests:

“About the latter part of December 1951 or the first part of January 1952, was when we all shipped out and went to Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. It’s pretty hard to describe an atomic explosion. In Camp Desert Rock there were no permanent buildings. It was all just tents and that, so we started building the permanent camp and some were working on that. I was working on a rock crusher, because we had to build roads. Sometimes we would go up into the forward areas into what was known as Frenchman’s Flats and Yucca Flats where the bombs were detonated. We dug the trenches and then we got in the trenches and then they’d blast the bomb. There’s been arguments about how close we were to the bomb. I thought we were around 3000 meters, close to a couple of miles away from the bomb, something like that. Some people say it was 2000 meters and some say more, so I don’t really know. All I know it was, when it went off, you were too close.

I’ve told this to many people, I’m not the only one to say it, everybody that’s been there practically has. When the bomb would go off, you’re down in the trenches with your back to the bomb and your arms up over your head, covering your eyes. It’s usually a pre-dawn blast, so it’s pitch black. And the light is so great that, in for a millisecond you can see the bones in your arm. I know it sounds so weird, but you can. Then after, they told us to keep our eyes, goggles on–the people that had goggles–and not to look at the bomb for a few seconds and then you could turn around and look. Then you could see the shock waves coming across the desert and it would just be a little wall of dust coming at you at hundreds of miles an hour it seemed like. Then when it hit you, it could just about knock you over. The heat, the heat would hit you then. It was just like if you opened up a–you’re standing in front of a great big old furnace and opened up a door, when the heat…

We detonated eight bombs that year. There were some of the tests that we were right in the area, and then there were some where we were much farther back, clear back on Newford’s Knob, which is about seven or eight miles back. I was in three of them right up close. One of the things that we did was to position equipment around where the bomb was going to go off, big trucks and airplanes and tanks and jeeps and dummies and things like that with clothes on. Then after the bomb would go off, we would have to go back in and we would kind of make an evaluation of what happened to the equipment, to the exhibits that we had, things like that.”

When asked about what kind of gear they wore for that:

“They didn’t give us anything. We just wore our regular fatigues, We got no respirators or anything like that. We just wore our regular clothing. To decontaminate yourself, you would just take a broom and you would sweep your friend down and then he would sweep you down.”

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