Blasts from the Past
03/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
WHEN DOUG WOOD AND HIS OLD buddies share war stories, they talk of things few others have ever seen. The tales date from the dark of the Cold War, when the men were part of a top-secret government crew that filmed hundreds of atomic bomb tests. "Here's one for you," says Wood, now 75, tugging on his banana-yellow suspenders. "One day my boss comes to me and says, 'Hey, I've got a good job for you. You get in the nose of this airplane, in the bombardier's position, and we'll fly you right behind the plane carrying the bomb. That way you'll be right over it when it goes off.' "
Sounded like a swell assignment to Wood, then 31. So off he flew over the Nevada desert, lugging his movie camera and wearing protective goggles pushed atop his head. "I figured I'd have to keep moving the camera to keep it on target until about T minus one, then I'd put my goggles on," he says. But when the moment came, a frantic Wood grabbed the goggles so roughly that he ripped out the lenses. He started to panic. "I thought I was going to go blind," he says. "That's how bright the bomb can be." He slapped his hands over his eyes for protection. "The next thing I know," recalls Wood, "I could see the outline of my bones in my fingers."
Those were heady times for Wood—who was unscathed by the incident—and the 250 other producers, directors and cameramen of the Air Force's Lookout Mountain Studios. From 1947 until the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the civilian crews—based in a high-security production facility in Hollywood's Laurel Canyon—filmed 331 nuclear explosions in Nevada and the Pacific from as close as two miles away.
Sworn to secrecy, they never saw their work again until last fall, when 24 former Lookout employees gathered at L.A.'s American Film Institute to view the first few films declassified under the Department of Energy's openness policy. The mini-reunion marked the 50th anniversary of the squad's founding and was arranged by filmmaker Peter Kuran, whose Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie about nuclear testing airs in March on the Learning Channel. "Most of us really hadn't gotten together in decades," says ex-cameraman Pat Bradley, 75. "I saw one picture and my mind raced back 40 years."
Now that their tales can finally be told, the Lookout men search for words to convey what they witnessed. "You can see a thousand films and think you've seen it all, but what you can't experience is the heat," says former producer-director Pierre Wilson, 74, who served from '48 to '63 and now lives in Woodland Hills, Calif. "It felt like someone opening an oven door, even when you were in an airplane."
For many the shock wave was the most unnerving effect. "Of the 40-plus 'shots' that I've seen, I was never ready for it," says Jack Cannon, 72, who spent 11 years at Lookout and lives in Newport Beach, Calif., with wife Yvonne. "You'd be adjusting your camera, and suddenly it's like a gun going off in your ear. You'd jump about 10 feet." Bradley, who saw 62 detonations after joining in 1950, opted to watch and wait: "Across the sand, you can see the leading edge of it coming at you," he says. "Then it slams into you like a 250-lb. guy hitting you in the chest." Wood, who now lives in Phelan, Calif., would look upward as the blast scattered clouds to the far edges of the sky. "That always used to amaze me," he says.
The cameramen (many of whom joined the regular Air Force picture division when Lookout, which also filmed NASA rockets and some fighter-jet instructional reels, folded in 1969) insist they were never in fear of radiation exposure and attribute no health problems to it. "People often ask, 'Weren't you afraid of getting cancer?' And the answer is no," says Bradley. Yvonne Cannon says she worried more about the flying her husband had to do. "There were badges that told of the exposure they were getting, and they were always being monitored," she says. When Bradley, who lives in Sun City, Calif., underwent successful treatment for prostate cancer six years ago, his doctor asked him how much radiation he had been exposed to. "I said I thought I had about 5 roentgens of total body radiation," he says. "He looked at me and said, 'I'm going to give you 7,000 roentgens as part of your radiation therapy' "
The Lookout crew also leave philosophizing about the bomb's legacy to others. "We had a bad guy back then, and we had to stay ahead of him," says Cannon of the U.S.-Soviet arms race. Wood, who witnessed more than 200 blasts during 18 years with Lookout, found the experience less troubling than his previous gig as a photographer in the combat zones of Europe. "I figured," he says, "every day since World War II was a bonus day."
JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles