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Atomic soldier

Atomic soldier

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As a private in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, Augusta's Ray Buell took radiation exposure in stride as part of the nuclear test process in Nevada.

To weather a blast from an atomic bomb, hunker down in a foxhole. Sit with your back to the blast. Make sure your helmet is fastened with a tight chinstrap. Cover your eyes with your arms and spread your legs out in front of you for stability. Be ready. The blast will throw you across the trench against the opposite side.

When that happens, you'll needto roll over onto your back as quickly as possible and unfasten your helmet's chinstrap. When the shockwave comes like a wall of dust, if you don't get that helmet off, it can choke you.

But then, the chances of anyone reliving what Helena's Ray Buell and other atomic soldiers saw during the U.S government's testing of nuclear weapons is absolutely zero.

The flash produces an overwhelming white light — even with your eyes clamped shut — and for a millisecond, Buell said he saw the bones in his arms like a reversed x-ray as they covered his face.

The Army described the flash as 150 times as bright as the noonday sun, but, Buell said, even that doesn't come close to describing the intensity of the light. Buell will never forget the bones, and those long seconds of pure white light; even 50 years later, he still struggles to describe it to those who have no point of reference.

At just 21 years old, Army Pvt. Ray Buell rode out the shockwaves from the detonation of eight atomic bombs, or "shots," in the trenches he helped to dig in the rocky Nevada desert. Buell, along with other draftees and enlisted men in the 369th Engineer Amphibious Support Regiment, were the primary labor force at Camp Desert Rock, where the U.S. government staged the majority of its above- ground nuclear tests in the 1950s.

Buell guesses the closest he's ever been to a blast from an atomic bomb was about a mile and a half. He says it's possible he may be one of only a few people to have been that close and survived.

The blinding white light only lasts for a few seconds, and once it wears off, Buell said, the sky fills with amazing colors he's never seen since. Then, there's the familiar doughnut-shaped cloud of dust and smoke that, almost in slow-motion, grows until it blocks out the sun.

The shockwave hits like a wall of dirt moving at 100 miles an hour. It can shove a stationary tank quite a distance, and even if he's in the cover of a foxhole it effortlessly bowls a man over.

Atop the cloud grows a thick glacier of ice, Buell said. As the explosion bursts upwards it chemically and physically alters the atmosphere and the fiery explosion creates its own mini ice age. As the dust settles it's so fine and thick and so charged it hangs in the air like fog. The heat that followed the shockwave felt like sticking your face into a oven turned on full blast — hot, but not hot enough to catch you on fire.

Buell was there, in the desolate Nevada Test Site, in 1952 for the Tumbler-Snapper Series, which included eight atomic bomb tests that ranged in size from Baker, that measured only one kiloton, to Charlie, which weighed in at 31 kilotons.

Memories can fade over 50 years, but what Buell saw, he said he'll never forget.

The men of the 369th Engineer Amphibious Support Regimen were laborers charged with constructing elaborate military displays designed to measure the effects of nuclear explosions on structures, equipment, vehicles, and even livestock.

Hours after each blast they'd march in to survey the damage.

"You can't imagine what it does to some of these things," Buell said.

Paint was completely stripped from most of the equipment and vehicles that were still recognizable. The wiring was completely burnt out, and the glass was melted.

"I know it's a childish thing to remember, but up close like that … the headlights, the glass in the headlights would melt and run down, and it looked like all the vehicles were crying," Buell said. "It's a haunting memory for me. It looks just like they were crying."

An eight-minute race against time

The first mission of the 369th at Camp Desert Rock was to recover instruments from concrete pilings near the detonation site of the Uncle Shot — the first nuclear bomb to be detonated underground.

Uncle, a 1.2 kiloton blast, was buried 17 feet underground and was the last shot in the Buster-Jangle series of atomic tests conducted in the Nevada desert in 1951. By then, the United States government had been testing nuclear weapons since 1945, and was in its second series of tests at the Nevada Test Site, a 1,350-square mile span of desert located 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. All branches of the service participated in and assisted with the testing.

The way Buell describes it, the Navy was conducting a "Survey of Yards and Docks," constructing concrete steel and wooden structures near the blast site. And even though the area was still highly radioactive, the Navy's need for the recordings from the instruments exceeded any risk Army soldiers may encounter in the recovery mission.

Scientists crunched some numbers and determined that if the dozen men in the 369th could get into the site and out again in eight minutes or less, radioactivity wouldn't pose a risk. So the men set up a training schedule to practice the drill for several days before attempting the mission.

On the day of the exercise, Buell and 11 other draftees were issued fabric coveralls, booties, gloves and a shower-cap-type hats along with respirators. With masking tape, the men taped their booties and gloves to their coveralls, donned their gas masks and raced into the contaminated crater in the Nevada desert.

The mission went off without a hitch, and the dozen men made it out with more than 30 seconds to spare. But as it turned out, not everything went exactly as planned.

After the operation, the young men were ushered to a decontamination area, asked to strip off their clothes, and to take showers in a large glassed-in shower room under the close observation of a squad of scientists.

After what seemed to Buell like an excessive bout of scrubbing, the men were told to step out of the shower room one by one. Each soldier was swept with a Geiger counter to check them for radioactivity. Four of the men were still hot, including Buell, who was measuring high radioactivity levels on the left side of his chest and on the back of his neck.

Back to the shower they went for another round of scrubbing. Buell scrubbed till his skin burned from the soap. After another long shower, the four men exited again, this time, three of the four passed the Geiger counter sweep, but Buell still measured dangerously high. He returned to the shower alone and scoured his skin for a third time. After a while, they told him he was finished, and as Buell left the shower room that last time, he wasn't greeted with the sweep of a Geiger counter.

He figures that some dirt must have worked its way into his coveralls through an opening between the buttons as he scrambled around on the ground unbolting the Navy instruments. And he may have inadvertently rubbed the back of his neck with his hand in the stress of the eight-minute race against time.

"Radiation … disregard it"

Like most of the grunts at Camp Desert Rock, radiation exposure was a secondary concern to following orders and completing tasks.

For one blast in the Tumbler Snapper Series, Buell and his fellow soldiers spent countless days hauling in 50-foot tall pine trees and planting them in cement out in the scorching moonscape of the Nevada desert.

After each blast, the men went in with little, if any, protective equipment and evaluated the damage, moving the wreckage and driving and tromping around in the dust and particulate from the blast. They used Geiger counters to measure the radiation levels as they moved in and were instructed to avoid high radiation pockets.

Whenever possible, vehicles and equipment were recycled from one blast to the next, but that's not all that was recycled.

In Camp Desert Rock water was in short supply. The Army purchased water from Nellis Air Force Base north of the camp and trucked it in. Because water was rationed, Buell and the other soldiers were allowed only one shower per week, and even less opportunity to launder their uniforms.

Buell said the harsh desert conditions where hell on clothes, but the young men quickly figured out a way to keep their fatigues looking sharp for inspection by their officers. When they were out in the field making observations after a blast, they would take the uniforms off of the dummies that were placed in the vehicles and structures in the installations. If it happened that Buell and his buddies thought the garments were too clean to pass inspection without suspicion, they would take a quick roll in the dust.

In their naiveté, they regularly donned radioactive clothing and thought nothing of it.

Why should they worry? After all, Buell said, company commanders told them that lingering radiation was not hazardous.

All of the boys in the 369th were issued ‘blast cards' outlining the risks and effects of radiation from an atomic bomb. Buell carried his in his wallet for decades after his service, and still has the yellowed, official U.S.-issued card. Its edges are tattered, but in standard military type it reads:

"Effects of air burst of atom bomb

Flash radiation: 50 percent of radiation occurs in the first second, 80 percent occurs in the first 10 seconds, and all in the first 90 seconds … In most cases if you are not wounded or burned, you need not worry about radiation.

Lingering radiation: so small it is not a hazard, disregard it."

Just guinea pigs

Buell, a native of Augusta, Mont., was drafted when he was 21, just three months after marrying Wilma Carl, a Twin Bridges girl. The two met in Helena. He worked as a stocker at Woolworth's and she ran the cosmetics counter. That was 1948. The Korean War was in full swing, and Buell said most of the young draftees he knew were headed overseas.

After boot camp Buell was diagnosed with Osgood-Schlatter Disease, a fairly common knee ailment that causes swelling and tenderness below the kneecap. Nothing was wrong with his legs, that Buell could figure, but he was relieved to find out the disorder barred him from overseas assignments. Instead of Korea, the Army sent him to the Nevada desert.

Through newspaper and magazine accounts, most of the nation — including Buell — had a vague idea of what was going on at Camp Desert Rock. But it wasn't until he witnessed his first blast that Buell realized the breadth of the United States' nuclear weapons testing.

"We were seeing things and doing things that the rest of the world was just beginning to read about," he said.

And many of the things Buell saw and did, he couldn't share. The Army told him what he could and couldn't say about the operations.

Over time, Buell said, he can't always remember the details, so that's why he has four thick, three-ring binders full of declassified documents pertaining to the testing he was a part of.

"So many years of day-after-day trying to get it behind me," Buell said. "Things are blurred now, but with these books, I have a chance to remember."

He remembers the Army occasionally issuing Film Badges to the young men in the 369th. The Film Badges measured the amount of radiation exposure the men were receiving. Commanding officers told them not to worry about the readings from the badges — that anything under 500 milliroentgens an hour wouldn't pose a risk. But when Buell and the other soldiers took a closer look at the units they realized that 500 was the maximum reading possible, that the Film Badges couldn't have measured anything outside of what the Army called safe.

"I started to have reservations," Buell said. "But still you try to believe someone, you've got to believe someone."

Thirty decades later, after pouring over the once-classified documents from the Buster Jangle Series, Buell noticed that each and every one of the scientists and officers who never once worked out on the range wore Film Badges, even when they were staged miles from the detonation site. The most badges that were ever issued to the men in Buell's unit was three.

In the course of all the regular, day-to-day operations the young soldiers slogging in the field at Camp Desert Rock never went through decontamination procedures, but before and after every operation, a team of Army scientists ran the boys through a detailed line of questioning. Buell remembers those episodes, because at the time the questions seemed to be senseless. They still bother him.

"Questions like did your palms sweat before?" he said describing the questions. "Do your palms sweat now?"

"Well, who the hell knows — and that was a standard question they asked all the time."

Mistrust and fear became commonplace among draftees. It didn't take long before the soldiers realized they were a part of a much bigger experiment that they at first thought.

"When you're 21, 22 and 23 years old, you're fearless, and everything you do is to make sure no one knows how scared you are," Buell said.

Buell and his buddies decided it best to just keep their heads down and put their backs into their work till their 21-month tour was over.

"It's a sad part of our history," he added with the wisdom of an old man. "We were just guinea pigs."

The ground floor

Private Ray Buell was discharged after just 19 months in the Army— two months shy of his 21-month commitment. His wife was sick, and barely getting by in Helena on just the small sum that he could send home. See, Buell, a married man, shouldn't have been drafted in the first place, at least that was the Army's policy at the time. Buell's supervisors recognized the mistake only after Buell received word from Helena that his wife was ill.

He was on the next bus home on a hardship discharge. His wife met him at the bus depot; and at 6:30 the following morning, he started work at Goodall Brothers Chemist and Assay Office on Last Chance Gulch.

He worked there for 10 years before taking a job with the Montana Highway Department, where he's worked as a chemist ever since.

The atomic soldiers, all now in their 70s get together once a year. They're not a formal group, no rules, by-laws or stuffy organizational meetings, just two questions toward the end of the weekend: where and when shall we meet again.

Most were draftees like Buell, so their military service is colored by their mistrust. They're a proud bunch — of their work, their families, their children and grandchildren — of their life after Camp Desert Rock.

Buell says they don't usually talk about the testing. In fact, it hardly comes up in between conversations about retirement, family and the wild nights they spent on leave in Las Vegas.

Many of the men who served in the armed forces at Camp Desert Rock from 1949 to 1954 have died from cancer, a result of radiation exposure. They fought for years to get the Veterans Administration to recognize that their ailments were a direct result of the Army's above ground atomic bomb testing program.

Unlike many of his comrades, Buell has been in tip-top shape his entire life but takes no chances with his health. More detailed research has shown that everyone's body reacts differently to radiation exposure. For some, even a small dose can cause problems, for others — like Buell — their bodies can withstand higher levels of radiation without any long-term effects. Any radiation exposure is a gamble.

Atomic veterans run a higher risk of skin cancer and leukemia, so once a year Buell has a meticulous examination by his dermatologist and has a complete physical and blood workup at the Ft. Harrison VA Center.

He said he's considered retirement, but still enjoys working. He's a recreational pilot and a member of a local flying club. Wilma passed away, but the two of them enjoyed RVing, and Buell still takes the motor home out on the weekends.

Buell is a rock hound, and has quite an extensive collection. Among his specimens is a small silver-dollar-sized piece of trinitite. The strange, blue-green stone is manmade. It's what was left of the ground at the first above-ground test of an atom bomb in New Mexico, after the heat turned the sand to glass.

Holding history in his hand, Buell lacks the animosity and disappointment of many atomic veterans. For him, his experiences were matter-of-fact — just a part of life.

"I did know that I was at the threshold of great things going on in history," Buell said. "I kept thinking, here I am on the ground floor of all that."

Reporter Laura Tode can be reached at 447-4081 or by e-mail at laura.tode@helenair.com.

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