BLOOMINGTON - Fourth of July fireworks were never the same for Clark Taminger and Bill Bartosik after July 5, 1957.
The Twin City men were among about 2,500 Marines tucked into trenches not far from where a nuclear weapon was detonated at a test site in the Nevada desert. They felt the earth move. Light from the explosion worked like an X-ray.
"It felt like you put someone in a pencil case and just shook it," said Bartosik, 71, of Normal, a retired printer.
"The flash was so bright, you could see the bones in your arms," added Taminger, 70, owner of Westside Clothing in Bloomington.
But 50 years later, what the two men remember most about that day are the moments just after they raised their heads and looked toward ground zero. A mushroom cloud rose in the dawn's early light.
"Just seeing the mushroom go up, it was beautiful, but, my God, the damage it could do," Taminger said.
"That was awesome," agreed Bartosik. "Here is every color in the world - orange, purple, green, black, blue. It boiled up thousands of feet in the sky."
Code-named Hood, the test was one of 24 nuclear explosions that were part of the Plumbbob series from April 24 to Oct. 7, 1957, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Hood was the largest atmospheric detonation ever to occur at the Nevada Test Site at Yucca Flats.
Detonated while suspended 1,500 feet off the ground, the blast equaled 74 kilotons of TNT, the department said. By comparison, the nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima that hastened the end of World War II was 12.5 to 15 kilotons. The one dropped on Nagasaki was about 21 kilotons.
'I knew I had to be there'
Taminger, who was a private working in communications, and Barosik, who finished his stint as a sergeant and a rifleman, were stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., when their battalion was told to move to Nevada temporarily to witness a nuclear test.
The idea was that the Marines had to know what to expect if they were deployed in wartime and American decision-makers decided to drop nuclear bombs again.
Neither man worried or felt like they were being used as guinea pigs, and neither has experienced any health problems they attribute to exposure to radiation.
"I wasn't afraid of being there. I knew I had to be there. It was my duty to do what they told us to do," Taminger said. "You cooperate. You get along better in the world if you cooperate with everybody. … I'm the type of guy, what will be will be. If it's my time to go, it's my time to go."
"At the time, we were young and gung ho," added Bartosik. "I thought about it a few times (since). … People in Yucca Flats downwind from the blasts had a lot of cancer. But we didn't think about it at the time. I don't think the Atomic Energy Commission knew a lot about it either."
The location of the test site had its advantages, they said. In their off-time, they traveled to Las Vegas, which was just starting to earn a name as a place to gamble. The younger of the two at 20, Taminger had to sneak into a casino.
"I got tossed out," he said, laughing.
Hoping for big July 4 blast
Bartosik recalled how the Marines were hauled to the test site in trucks.
They were told how to cover themselves with their ponchos and field jackets. They were ordered not to look at the explosion until they were given the all-clear. They waited, and then they were loaded back into trucks and returned to their camp. Weather conditions weren't suitable.
"They wouldn't set it off unless the wind was just right," said Taminger, who had hoped the test would be on the Fourth of July.
Instead, the nuclear fireworks were set off the next day. The time was 4:30 a.m., according Department of Energy records. The bomb exploded. The ground shook. The light flashed. The mushroom cloud rose overhead.
"It was the most awesome thing I ever saw in my life," Bartosik said.
Scientists took readings of the radioactive fallout. When they thought safe levels were reached, the Marines were taken closer to ground zero where vehicles had been parked in a simulated town to gauge the force of the blast. Nothing was left but charred debris.
"It was like you see as the result of Nagasaki. It burned up everything," Bartosik said.
Perspectives on war
The experience didn't change Taminger's attitude about the bomb after he returned to Bloomington and his job at the clothing store, where he had worked after high school and before he enlisted. He understood the need to drop the bombs on Japan to quickly end the war and avoid an invasion that would have cost many American lives.
"That's what won the war. Thank God we had a president who wasn't afraid to do it," he said.
He felt secure at first knowing only the United States had the bomb, he said. He remained confident even after the former Soviet Union developed its own version and the Cold War took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Today, he feels more confident.
"The war technology has gotten so developed. Now they could throw up a missile and we could knock it out," he said.
Bartosik is less sure.
"You kind of think about it. … You read about it, Nagasaki, they're still suffering from it and dying by the thousands," he said.
Perhaps everyone, especially the politicians who shape world events, should see what he and Taminger saw that day in the desert a half century ago, Bartosik said.
"If they took some people out there … maybe they wouldn't start wars if they knew what the results were going to be," he said.
Nuclear History 101
Following are key dates in U.S. nuclear testing and technology:
June 1942: The United States begins nuclear development program, the Manhattan Project. Experiments at the University of Chicago helped advance understanding of atomic theory.
July 16, 1945: The world's first atomic bomb, a U.S. weapon code-named Trinity, explodes 100 feet over a portion of the southern New Mexico desert.
August 1945: The United States drops one nuclear weapon each on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki over a four-day period, hastening the end of World War II.
August 1949: The Soviet Union conducts its first nuclear test.
1950: Test site in Nevada created because of the need for a continental site following testing in Pacific Ocean.
Spring 1957: The Operation Plumbbob test series begins at Nevada Test Site.
July 1957: The largest atmospheric nuclear test in U.S. history, code-named Hood, was conducted at NTS. The test included troop maneuvers by 2,500 Marines and other personnel.
March 1954: The Castle Bravo test is conducted in the Marshall Islands. At an unexpectedly high 15 megatons, it is the most powerful recorded U.S. detonation, producing substantial fallout.
October 1961: Soviets detonate the 50-megaton Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.
1963: President Kennedy signs the Partial Test Ban Treaty, moving all testing underground and prohibiting testing underwater and in outer space.
Sept. 23, 1992: The last U.S. underground test is conducted.
1996: Many nations sign on to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a total prohibition on nuclear explosions. The United States has signed the treaty, but not ratified it.
Compiled by Ryan Denham