In the 1950s, fear of nuclear-armed Soviet bombers led to the creation by the US military 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 1700 tonnes of TNT – took care of the rest.
The 100kg warhead was used only once, in a test code-named ‘John.’ On July 19, 1957, a single Northrop F-89 Scorpion jet flew over Area 10 at the Nevada test site.
At an altitude of 5.6km, a single Genie was launched (pictured above). It traveled 4.2km before detonating in midair.
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 5000m 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 have known 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 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, greatly limiting radiation exposure to test personnel.