Man at His Best

59 Years Ago Today, Five Men Volunteered To Stand Under A Nuclear Explosion

This bizarre and tragic bit of nuclear history happened 59 years ago today.


In the 1950s, fear of nuclear-armed Soviet bombers led to the creation of the Genie rocket. Fired from an American or Canadian fighter jet, the Genie had no guidance system. It merely had to be aimed at a Soviet bomber and the 1.7 kiloton nuclear warhead—packing the equivalent of 1,700 tons of TNT—took care of the rest.

The 221-pound warhead was only used once, in a test code-named "John." On July 19, 1957—59 years ago today—a single Northrop F-89 Scorpion jet flew over Area 10 at the Nevada Test Site. At an altitude of 18,500 feet, a single Genie was launched. It traveled 2.6 miles before detonating in midair.

Amazingly, five men had volunteered to stand directly under the detonation point. The men, Colonel Sidney Bruce, Lt. Colonel Frank P. Ball, Major Norman "Bodie" Bodinger, Major John Hughes, and Don Lutrell, stood their ground as a nuclear explosion went off 3.5 miles above their heads.

Science of the time had pretty well established that the men would not come to any immediate harm, being too far away from the explosion. But while researchers of the 1950s may not know what we know now about the dangers of radiation, there appears to have been no obvious reason for the men to do such a thing.

One man who didn't volunteer to be at ground zero: the man operating the camera, George Yoshitake. According to Yoshitake, all six men present, including him, would develop cancer while in their 40s and 50s. Bruce, Ball, Bodinger, and Hughes all died of cancer, while Yoshitake developed stomach cancer and Luttrell developed colon cancer.

Such a high incidence of cancer is obviously abnormal. Many of these individuals, including Yoshitake, were present at several nuclear tests and their cancer could have been the result of another test, or the cumulative effect of several tests. Whether or not the John shot was directly responsible for their cancer, we'll never know, but it certainly didn't help.

Above-ground nuclear tests were banned in 1963 by the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, greatly limiting radiation radiation exposure to test personnel.

From: Popular Mechanics