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A Pennsylvania man saw the true power of Atomic Annie

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Ever since Tim Lambert was a kid, his dad would tell him how he had watched two atomic bombs explode when he was in the military. Lambert, a journalist at member station WITF in Harrisburg, Penn., had heard the story countless times. But the most recent time the story came up, he decided to do a little more digging. And he realized the blast that his dad had talked about were part of a key moment in the Cold War and in the history of nuclear weapons.

Lambert started working to find out more, and he realized that his dad is likely one of the last living witnesses to a 1953 test called Shot Grable, when the U.S. military fired an atomic weapon out of a cannon. Tim is with me now. Hey, Tim.

TIM LAMBERT, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So tell me about this most recent talk with your dad and why it clicked for you this time.

TIM LAMBERT: Yeah. My dad and I were having a late breakfast at Denny's, and we were having this conversation. And for some reason, I asked him what year it was, and he told me it was 1953. And I thought, well, that was 70 years ago. So I went back and came across some stories about the cannon itself. It's called Atomic Annie, and everybody loves this cannon. It's got like a subculture to it. But the more I looked into it, the more I found out that this was a pretty significant test in the history of the Cold War. So I think the best place maybe to start with this is hearing from my dad.

TOM LAMBERT: My name is Tom Lambert. And I was born in Shanksville, Penn., went into the Army in February of 1953. I was assigned to the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Camp Pickett, Virginia. I think it was around April that we heard that we were going to Las Vegas to be in an atomic test. We didn't know too much about it. We just knew there was an atomic bomb and there was a mushroom and...

TIM LAMBERT: Now, my dad would be part of one of a series of atomic tests that spring dubbed Operation Upshot-Knothole, some 65 miles away from the small but growing city of Las Vegas. Shot Grable was unique, however.

MARTHA DEMARRE: They were going to test the first tactical nuclear weapon shot from a 280-millimeter gun, and it could be deployed to Korea.

TIM LAMBERT: For more than 40 years, Martha DeMarre worked for what is now known as the Nevada National Security Site. That's the place where nuclear tests were held for decades. She retired in 2021. DeMarre says the use of this new, much smaller device was meant to send a message to both the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War and to North Korea, with the Korean War at a stalemate.

DEMARRE: It could be deployed to Europe. The end of the Korean War, which is not really the end, but this cessation of hostilities was July 27, 1953. So think of the timing there.

LAMBERT: When we got to Camp Desert Rock, Nev., they were preparing for another test.

TIM LAMBERT: It was May 19, and my dad was about to witness true apocalyptic power.

LAMBERT: It was very, very dark. And an officer came out, the first lieutenant, who we didn't know. She said, now if you look over a certain way, there's going to be an atomic test. When that went off, it was pitch black. It got so light, you couldn't hold your eye - open your eyes. We all ran away from the light. And you could feel the heat on your face 25 miles away. When the light is that bright and you feel the heat on your face that far away, it scares the s*** out of you.

TIM LAMBERT: My dad knew in just six days he was going to be closer, a lot closer to a test, this one from a cannon. And there would be no running away.

LAMBERT: We woke up early in the morning, and they drove us out into the desert and put us in trenches.

TIM LAMBERT: By the way, those trenches were less than 3 miles away from ground zero.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Everyone kneel down in your foxholes until the command raise has been given. If you stand up too soon, the intense light will temporarily blind you. And the heat will give you the equivalent of a severe sunburn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The projectile is prepared and brought to the gun. The final correct setting for time of bursts is made, the breech closed and the primer inserted.

LAMBERT: I think they fired it from like 7 miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: With everything set now, the gun crew moves back to take positions in slip trenches during firing. The time is 0830.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Four, three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

LAMBERT: Then they hollered to us, get up, get up. Look at the mushroom. All at once, we see this wave coming across the desert. We'd come saying, what's that? What's that? About 2 seconds before it landed, they said get ready for the shock wave. When the shock wave hit, everything shook. It was just the whole - I was never in anything like that. Just everything just shook and shook. There were a few trenches that collapsed, and there were some fellas that we had to dig out, nothing serious. I mean, just to get them out of it, you know.

TIM LAMBERT: The orange and red mushroom cloud climbed to the heavens, reaching an altitude of 35,000 feet. Within minutes, my dad was told to move out. He was no longer a sightseer. He clambered out of the dirt shelter and walked toward no man's land.

LAMBERT: When we got in there like that, there were cement buildings and all and like a brand-new school bus that was turned over. We saw several sheep that had burned wool on them. And they told us before that they had rabbits fixed - keep their eyes open when the light came to see how they react. They came with us - to us with Geiger counters. And they said, all right, this is as far as you can go.

TIM LAMBERT: Because this test was deemed vital to the country's national interest, more than 700 observers were on hand, including dozens of lawmakers and top U.S. military leaders. Archivist Martha DeMarre says they witnessed the detonation from a bit less than 7 miles to the north of ground zero, then moved to where the maneuvers would take place.

DEMARRE: After the test, the radiological safety team went in to check the levels so that the congressmen could come in, and they actually witnessed the military coming out of their trenches and heading off to do their maneuvers.

LAMBERT: And at that time, there were several Army bird colonels, and they were all around us. They didn't talk to us or look at us or anything.

DEMARRE: This was critical to show the Soviet Union that we could do this device and get right out there and fight.

TIM LAMBERT: At this point, strong winds moved in and the maneuvers came to an end. The soldiers returned to their tents.

LAMBERT: When we got back to the 14-men tents, several of them were blown over. We were only at Camp Desert Rock a couple of days after that. We flew back to Camp Pickett, Virginia.

TIM LAMBERT: For my dad, he had carried out his orders. It's hard to think back to what the world was like in 1953. The United States and the Soviet Union were the two dominant superpowers. DeMarre says Shot Grable was an unapologetic show of strength by the U.S.

DEMARRE: We're here to stay. Don't step over the line. If you look at how the world viewed us, we were the only ones to ever use nuclear weapons, and so, you know, that itself should be telling.

TIM LAMBERT: She says the reverberations of that test are still being felt today.

DEMARRE: North Korea - they will never, in my opinion, never give up those weapons. They want to be on equal basis as the other superpowers. And so if you have a nuclear weapon, nobody's going to attack you because there is the risk of nuclear war. That shadow is also over the Ukraine war. Russia is trying to change the dynamics by talking nuclear war and tactical nuclear weapons, et cetera. So it all goes back to basically the first tactical nuclear weapon, which was the cannon.

DETROW: We've been listening to the story of Tom Lambert and the testing of an atomic cannon 70 years ago. And we've still got his son, Tim Lambert, here with us. I mean, Tim, this is just such a remarkable story. How has your dad felt about being part of it?

TIM LAMBERT: Well, he was 20 at the time. And he talks about just following orders. And he didn't really realize what a historic moment this was. But he is proud of being a part of this piece of history. And then he told me that when he watched the video of the cannon firing, when he looks at it, it's just a wonder anyone survived going through all this.

LAMBERT: Just a wonder anyone survived going through all this. Who would have ever thought that someone from a little town like Shanksville would wind up in Desert Rock, Nev., in a atomic test? Well, I'm proud of it. I always was proud of it.

DETROW: And, Tim, as you've been reporting this story, and since the story is aired locally, you haven't been able to find any other living survivors of this test. Is that right?

TIM LAMBERT: That is correct. The story made the rounds on social media after airing on WITF. And I heard from a few people whose relatives were part of the test. They were in the desert with my dad. Each one said they had passed away from cancer. My dad has often wondered if his bouts of skin cancer and prostate cancer were related to his time in the desert. Disclosure - he worked in a steel mill for 30 years.

DETROW: Yeah.

TIM LAMBERT: But neither of the diseases are on the Department of Veterans Affairs list of 21 - what they call presumptive cancers, which helps determine any benefits you would receive.

DETROW: Did he ever get any special recognition for doing this? I mean, it's a remarkable thing to be asked to do - to stand there in the middle of a nuclear test.

TIM LAMBERT: Yeah. He was less than 3 miles away from this test. In July of 2022, the Defense Department approved an Atomic Veterans Commemorative Medal. But within the notification documents were a bit of a hedge. And I found this interesting. And I'll just say what it says. It states, awarded the Atomic Veterans Commemorative Medal and the Atomic Veterans Service Certificate is not intended to and does not confer any right or benefit, substantive or procedure, enforcement at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, entities or officers. So he gets this medal. He gets the certificate. But it also comes with this disclaimer.

DETROW: Even 70 years later.

TIM LAMBERT: Yeah.

DETROW: That's WITF's Tim Lambert. Tim, thanks so much.

TIM LAMBERT: You're welcome, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tim Lambert