Narrative: "I Could See Through My Hands"

Jul 9, 2018

This edition of Narrative features an interview from StoryCorps, an oral history project that collects the voice of our time. At the StoryCorps mobile booth in Columbia in 2016, Dean Byrd talked with his father Willard Byrd, a veteran of the Korean War. Willard had a unique role with the army. He was stationed in the Marshall Islands, where he worked as a machinist. He was also witness to something few people have seen. Here, Dean Byrd asks his dad to tell the story of seeing the first test of a Hydrogen Bomb, known as Ivy Mike, on November 1, 1952.

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On November 1st 1952, Willard Byrd witnessed the detonation of the first ever hydrogen bomb on the USS Estes, 25 miles from ground zero on Enewetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. At the time, the bomb was the largest explosion in human history, 700 times more powerful than the devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.

While Willard Byrd shared that he and his brother never suffered illnesses from the tests, other soldiers at similar tests weren’t always as fortunate. Between 1946 and 1962, the U.S. conducted more than 200 nuclear tests. Veteran Wayne Brooks attributes various health problems, including cancer, to his experience witnessing 27 of these test, starting in 1958. Brooks’ story offers a view of the physical effects that can be sustained from nuclear testing. Writer Paul Zimmer offers a different perspective, detailing the  psychological effects caused by the atomic tests. In an interview for This American Life, Zimmer recalls how he was sent to Camp Desert Rock in Nevada as part of Operation Teapot when he was 19. He recalls after one blast, codenamed “Turk,” that he and his fellow soldiers were asked to march through the blast without protective clothing. In the feature, he describes in the vivid details of what he saw that day, which he still remembers, saying “I can still hear the ringing in my ears from the blast, I can still see the flash.”