Sixty-five years ago, the exercises at Camp Desert Rock called for soldiers to charge into ground zero seconds after an atomic bomb was detonated.
In all, some 6,500 troops were sent running toward fire and haze as the ground melted to glass at the Nevada Proving Ground, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. From Oct. 22-Nov 22, 1951, bombs went off three times during the round of testing, known as Operation Buster-Jangle. Among other things, the tests were to determine the psychological effects on military personnel. Would troops still be able to function after seeing the bomb?
And then, after they went into the middle of the devastation, the radiation? They were swept off with a broom. “Looked like it came right off the rack at Sears Roebuck,” one soldier described it.
For your nuclear decontamination needs: Sears! Somehow, the slogan didn’t catch on.
That kind of story is part and parcel of Doom Towns: The People and Landscapes of Atomic Testing, an ambitious graphic history from history professor Andrew Kirk published by Oxford Press.
Kirk served as a principal investigator for the Nevada Test Site Oral History project from 2003 to 2008. It zeroed in on the lived experience of test site workers, those living in the area outside the gates, and others affected by atomic testing — not necessarily high-ranking personnel normally found in academic works.
Kirk’s primary research field is environmental history, so the chance to write about desert dwellers who offered a rebuttal to the idea of the Mojave as an empty wasteland made Doom Towns a natural fit.
Originally, though, Kirk hadn’t intended to write a book after helping bring the oral history into being. An editor at Oxford talked him into it with an unusual pitch: marry his past research with a graphic novel approach. The idea resonated. Just as the oral history project had given voice to those seldom asked, this book could honor the art that had come from the era. With a graphic approach, that homespun art that came out of the people directly affected by testing could be presented in a way that wasn’t always readily apparent in oral history.
“During the oral history project, I realized that art and visual representation of work and life in atomic regions was very much a part of the historical experience and part of the culture that emerged from living in secrecy and doing this kind of extraordinary work, and living around that kind of extraordinary, experimental landscape. It was part of the historic record people didn’t really look at.”
Kirk identified U.K. artist Kristian Purcell, who had specialized in paintings of the intersection of people and technology in militarized landscapes but had never done anything in a graphic novel format.
“I had to restrain my lecturing and instead really rely on Kristian to convey themes and tone through the art. I think he did an amazing job doing that,” Kirk said. “One of the things that was challenging was he was in England, I'm in the United States. I think it all really came together when we decided we would Skype. He would literally sometimes draw while I was looking. I really got a sense of his process as an artist and I think he got a good sense of my process as a scholar. It was a collaboration to make the art and scholarship cohesive.”
The result is a collection of rare primary source documents and a traditional history of the era anchored by a 100-plus page graphic representation of the age of atmospheric atomic testing, starting with the Manhattan Project Trinity test in 1945 through the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. The treaty forced nuclear testing underground until 1992, when the United States fired Operation Julin’s Divider, the final nuclear test on U.S. soil. By 1996, the door was closed on the testing era , with 1996’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
“Doom Towns” tells the story through the lens of the people who were on the ground, like Dorothy Grier Whitcomb, one of the clerical workers for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory during Operation Ranger in 1951; or Donald English, the Las Vegas News Bureau photographer who captured some of the most iconic images of the testing era, including the mysterious Miss Atomic Bomb photo.
It’s New York Times reporter Gladwin Hill that Kirk poses as kind of Virgil of this nuclear era. Hill was the Los Angeles bureau chief for the Times and began covering the tests in 1951. He documented much of the era until becoming one of the first environmental reporters in the country, for the Times, in 1969.
“One of the things as an environmental historian I noticed was [Hill’s] perceptions of the people around Las Vegas and the nuclear testing region was pretty simple in the beginning but became more sophisticated and thoughtful as he got to know them,” Kirk said. “The UCLA archive has this astounding collection of this guy's field notebooks. I went to UCLA to access these collections and learn more about this influential character. They brought out this dusty box and cracked it open and this big whiff of cigarette smoke came pouring out. It actually smelled like a 1950s reporter.
“At the time there were a lot of people who were passionate and who thought it was right, and there were protestors who were passionate and thought it was wrong. But the bulk of the people were doing jobs and they worked incredibly hard. They worked long hours in arduous conditions, so they weren't waxing poetic about history. They were living it.
Hill, he said, managed to be both in the action around him while standing a bit apart to observe. “It enabled him to articulate some of the same things I was interested in as a historian.”
More than 40 graduate students worked on the project, both on the oral history and afterward. One offshoot even included middle- and high-school students from Clark County School District who were selected in 2013 to travel to the National Atomic Testing Museum’s Kazakhstani counterpart, the EcoMuseum, on a U.S. State Department grant.
It wasn’t just students who worked on the oral history project and the book that helped out. Kirk used some of his undergrad students as a test site of his own. “I did do some beta testing of some of the draft chapters with several sections of History 102, and they gave me excellent feedback that was as useful to me as the extensive academic peer review I got,” he said.
“This was a fantastic project for student participation. Throughout the research there were at least eight different classes participating in some way in the research that led to the creation of the book, or on an aspect of the book itself. It was a fabulous opportunity to teach about method and about working with sponsored projects on grants toward an end that was clearly going to have an impact academically but also in the community.”