Operation Upshot-Knothole, the nuclear test broadcast on television

On May 26, the anniversary of John Wayne’s birth (1907) was much commented on, but also the unfortunate circumstances of his death.

Although this occurred in 1979, due to stomach cancer, it is believed that the cause was the filming in 1956 of the film The Mongolian Conquerorwhich took place in the Utah desert, too close to the place where three years earlier several nuclear tests.

In fact, the rest of the cast and a good part of the team died of the same disease and Wayne himself had already overcome lung cancer in 1964 at the cost of losing a lung and two ribs, although the relationship has not been conclusively proven. between those deaths and the site. That radioactive geographical point has the sinister name Nevada Test Site.

The Trinity explosion/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear tests are usually carried out underground or in secluded places, case of the ocean and deserts. In the US, the first site where an atomic bomb was exploded -baptized as Trinity– was Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Afterwards, the Pacific was chosen for five years, until in 1951 a new land location was established in the nevada deserta federal reservation that belongs to Nye County and is located a hundred kilometers from Las Vegas (for a time, one of the pastimes that were organized in the city were excursions to the desert to see the nuclear mushrooms).

There, in an uninhabited area of ​​3,500 square kilometers, forty-one missions have been carried out, involving the detonation of hundreds of atomic bombs since its inauguration on January 27 of that year with the Ranger Operationin which five atomic bombs were tested in eleven days.

Nevada Test Site location/Image: Finlay McWalter on Wikimedia Commons

The one that opened the series was able and it barely had half a kiloton. Others would come later nine hundred twenty fiveof which eight hundred and twenty-five would be underground (as of 1962 they were all).

In 1953 it was the scene of the Operation Upshot–Knotholea series of tests that fell chronologically between the call operation ivycarried out the previous year and in which a hydrogen bomb known as the hydrogen bomb was tested for the first time. Mike (apart from Kingthe largest fission made to date, with five hundred kilotons), and the Operation Castlein 1954, located in the Pacific and famous because one of the six bombs detonated, Bravowas more powerful than expected and its radioactive fallout killed some Japanese fishermen who were fishing nearby.

The novelty of the Operation Upshot–Knothole It was not so much the number of tests – eleven, a record so far – as the fact that a cannon was used for one of them. It was the bomb grableof fifteen kilotons, which was fired from a M65 atomic cannon 280 mm which the soldiers popularly called atomic annie.

The M65 gun and the Grable bomb explosion/Photo: Federal Government of the United States on Wikimedia Commons

The name is curious because, although it derived from the nickname anzio annie that the American troops gave to the Krupp K5 railway guns with which the Germans bombarded them during the landing on the Italian beach of Anzio in 1944, the truth is that the first bomb tested in the operation was also known as Annie and it was the real star of that episode because its detonation was broadcast on television to the whole country.

Annie It broke out on March 17 and the process was recorded using a kinescope, that is, a movie camera that records only the images, without sound, to immediately broadcast them live on television.

Quite a spectacle for the spectator because it was not limited solely to the explosion; in the immediate vicinity a stage had been prepared ad hocfollowing a study project of the Federal Civil Defense Administration called Operation Doorstep (Operation Threshold).

Landscape of the Nevada Test Site with craters from underground explosions/Photo: Federal Government of the United States on Wikimedia Commons

The idea was analyze the effects of a nuclear explosion On a town, so a set was built: houses, cars, mannequins… Two houses were built, one 1,100 meters from the epicenter of the explosion and another further away, 2,300.

Likewise, fifty cars were placed and eight fallout shelters basic, designed for domestic use not military but -the Cold War was already raging-.

When Annie exploded, some curiosities could be verified, such as that the vehicles were sites relatively safe to take cover from the shock wave as long as the windows were kept down to prevent them from collapsing, they were located at least ten blocks away, and the bomb was small.

Likewise, the houses had been made thinking of minimizing the effect of the thermal wave of the bomb and it was verified that, apart from the fire, the basement of the house located closest to the epicenter could protect its inhabitants for only a few seconds, while the one of the most distant house gave more options of survival.

The Operation Upshot–Knothole was completed over two more months with another ten bombs: Nancy, Ruth, Dixie, Ray, Badger, Simon, Encore, Harrythe mentioned grable Y Climaxwhich closed the series on June 4, 1953. Testing was officially ended on September 23, 1992 with the explosion of Divider.

One last fact. Harrythe eighth bomb of the Operation Upshot–Knotholewas also known as dirty harry (Dirty Harry) because his radioactive cloud was highly contaminating and extended more than expected, two hundred and twenty kilometers, reaching the town of St Georgein the neighboring state of Utah… which was where they filmed The Mongolian Conqueror.


Nuclear Weapon Archive/A History of US Nuclear Testing and Its Influence on Nuclear Thought, 1945-1963 (David M. Blades and Joseph M. Syracuse)/Downwind. A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Sarah Alisabeth Fox)/Making a Real Killing. Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West (Len Ackland)/Whole World on Fire. Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation Lynn Eden)/Wikipedia