They served at ground zero — and it has haunted them ever since.
By Morgan Knibbe
Mr. Knibbe is a filmmaker.
Feb. 12, 2019
I’ve always been fascinated by nuclear weapons and the self-destructive tendencies of mankind. So when I found declassified United States Civil Defense footage of soldiers maneuvering in the glare of a mushroom cloud, I wanted to learn more about their stories.
I discovered that as many as 400,000 American soldiers and sailors observed nuclear explosions just a few miles from ground zero in more than 200 atmospheric tests conducted between 1946 and 1962. It was difficult to get a precise count of how many men were involved, because most information was classified — including reports on the illnesses the veterans suffered and the radioactive pollution that was released into the environment around the test sites. I was baffled by the lack of recorded testimonies available, but I found a few firsthand accounts of the soldiers’ experiences. Many of them said they’d been positioned much closer to the point of detonation than in the footage I’d seen.
With so little information available and the number of remaining veterans dwindling rapidly, I wanted to prevent these stories from disappearing. I decided to interview some of them as research for a fiction film on the topic and wound up making this documentary in the process. I traveled across the United States to record the veterans’ accounts on camera.
Connecting with them wasn’t easy. Most of the veterans had either passed away or didn’t use email or mobile phones. Because of secrecy agreements they had signed, some of them were hesitant to talk about their experiences. My nationality also raised suspicion: Why was a 25-year-old Dutchman prying into their nation’s secret military past? After the soldiers realized my intention was to give them a voice, they finally opened up to me.
Getting to know these men was an experience I will never forget. I realized that my own generation seems to have become numb to what nuclear war could do to humanity. The accounts of the atomic soldiers can help us understand that horror.
Morgan Knibbe is a Dutch documentary filmmaker. His work includes the European Film Award-nominated short film “Shipwreck” and the feature documentary “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning.”
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