What do you say to your boss when he tells you he wants to detonate a nuclear warhead right over your head?
It might sound like a silly question, but it actually happened to at least five U.S. service members in the summer of 1957. History remembers them as volunteers, but of course, we all know just how "voluntary" some military assignments can be. In this case, our government literally detonated a nuclear warhead in the air, directly above the heads of these volunteers. It's a story that is simply unbelievable, and difficult to read without thinking, what could they possibly have been thinking?
The detonation of a Soviet atomic bomb, coupled with the development of the Tupolev TU-4 long-range bomber by the Soviets just two years earlier, sent a chill through the halls of U.S. military intelligence. The TU-4 was capable of reaching major cities in the United States, and unfortunately, our air-to-air missiles were simply too inaccurate to be counted on to be able to shoot down a Soviet bomber carrying nuclear bombs. The proposed solution was a missile that made up in explosive power what it lacked in accuracy - the MB-1 nuclear air-to-air missile.
The top-secret MB-1 was also called Bird-Dog, High-Card, Ding-Dong, and Genie. It was later redesignated the AIR-2 Genie in 1962. It carried a nuclear warhead with a 1.5 kiloton yield, and had about a six-mile range. Even though over 3,000 of missiles were eventually produced, a live missile had never been fired from an aircraft in flight. The Air Force also had no idea how the aerial detonation of a 1.5 kiloton nuclear warhead might affect any populated areas below. The question of whether a live test would succeed was posed by the contractor responsible for finding out, the Sandia Corporation, in their report entitled, "Will Ding-Dong Ring the Bell?"
In January 1956, the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy asked the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for a live fire test, although it is not clear if members originated the request or solicited it on behalf of the Air Force. Although the AEC was not enthusiastic about the idea, the plan was approved. The Air Force then decided to test the air defense missile as part of their ongoing nuclear testing program, Operation Plumbbob, and the event was given the code-named JOHN.
Herbert Loper, an aide to Defense Secretary Charles Wilson, felt that widespread deployment of these weapons in close proximity to the civilian population would make public knowledge of, and confidence in, the weapon a critical issue. The volunteers participated in Plumbbob-John at the specific request of Air Force Colonel Arthur B. Oldfield, the Public Information Officer for the Continental Air Defense Command. He had been instructed by his superiors to consider ways to introduce the weapon to the public while, at the same time, protecting its highly classified secrets. The top-secret classification of the program made it very difficult to talk about, but they could at least attempt to demonstrate that it could be used without harming the civilian population below.
According to Col. Oldfield, five Air Defense Command officers heard about the upcoming test, and volunteered to stand beneath the MB-1 blast at Plumbbob-John. They were confident that the rocket would perform as designed, and knew that a 1955 aerial detonation of an similar device had resulted in little radiation on the ground below. They were eager to support the public relations effort. Oldfield accepted their offer, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff subsequently approved it.
On July 19, 1957 an Air Force F89-J piloted by Captain Eric W. Hutchison, accompanied by his radar operator, Captain Alfred C. Barbee, took off for Yucca Flats, NV with a live MB-1 nuclear-tipped missile aboard. On the ground at Yucca Flats were the five military officers, wearing their light summer uniforms without hats, and a photographer named George Yoshitake to record the moment for posterity.
On a distant vantage point called "News Nob," journalists were assembled for the test. They had previously been briefed about the weapon's capabilities, but now they were told about the live volunteers located directly below the detonation site. They were informed that the weapon "would be detonated at relatively high altitudes” and accordingly, “the actual fall-out of radioactive particles from these weapons would be negligible."
At 7:00 a.m. the missile was launched. As the planes banked, the rocket flew two and one half miles in four and one-half seconds and detonated at a designated “air zero” 18,000 feet above the five Air Force officers. The blast yielded 1.73 kilotons, but by that time, the planes were more than a mile away.
As for the volunteers on the ground, “they said all they experienced was ‘a sudden rush of air and a clap like thunder’,” reported the New York Times the next day. The volunteers “remained on the spot an hour after the detonation, with Geiger counters, and said radioactivity was almost undetectable. The officers, all in their mid-thirties at the time of the test, all lived at least another twenty years, based on newspaper accounts written about them decades later. At least one remained alive until 1997.
“AEC Invites Newsmen to A-Rocket Test,” Washington Post and Times Herald, July 13, 1957
“The A-Rocket,” Time Magazine, July 29, 1957
"When Ding Dong Rang the Bell: The U.S. Air Force and the Genie Nuclear Air-to-Air Rocket,"
Christopher John Bright, VMI Adams Center