Sixty-three years ago, Roger Stenerson watched the brilliant light of a nuclear explosion bloom above Nevada … felt its heat on his face, multiple times hotter than the desert sun … heard the thunderous clap of the A-bomb and, later, the deeper roar of the first hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific.
Today the long-retired teacher, who wound up his career with 20-some years teaching physics and geometry at Glyndon-Felton High School, may be the only man in the Upper Midwest who has witnessed the world’s most fearsome weapon detonated before his eyes. Now 92, he is one of only a handful of men still standing who took part in top-secret testing at the Nevada Proving Ground at northwest of Las Vegas and the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.
As the specter of nuclear conflict has leaked back into the headlines, he has a firm position: “We never want to do it.”
Roger was a young teacher just a few years out of Concordia College when he heard from Uncle Sam. It was 1953, just before the armistice that ended the Korean War. After basic training in Kentucky, he was assigned to the ArmyChemical Center in Baltimore.
“In a few weeks, I was sitting behind a row of instruments in the radiation lab,” he remembers. “They didn’t tell us much. We inserted trays of 5-inch plastic sheets, then looked at meters and recorded them. We knew the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission had begun doing tests at Yucca Flats the year before, and learned the plastic pieces had been put out in the desert to collect fallout.”
His commander already knew that Private Stenerson had majored in physics and math. That’s when he approached the young North Dakota soldier, who’d grown up in Van Hook on the banks of the Missouri River. “He asked me, ‘Can you drive a truck?’” Roger says. “I told him, ‘Well, I’m a North Dakota farm boy.’”
That did the trick. He was chosen for the small group from the ACC who headed west at the beginning of 1953 for the above-ground tests of Operation Upshot-Knothole. The eight men built and loaded cabinets that opened at intervals to measure fallout. A total of 10 devices were tested, ranging from the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to three times larger.
Ultimately, he was on hand at Yucca Flat for four detonations – three devices exploded atop 300-foot steel towers, and an airdrop by a B-50 Superfortress triggered at 4,000 feet. “Almost every Friday, we’d get up at dawn and leave Camp Mercury to assemble on Nob Hill, about 5 miles away. We’d hear the announcement – ‘detonation in 30 seconds, have your goggles ready’ – and then a countdown for the last 10 seconds.”
The men wore no special protective gear beyond denim coveralls and work gloves. Their only special protection was welding-style goggles that most casually held up to their faces just before the bomb went off.
“We were given the choice of facing away from the blast or toward it. Most of us looked toward it,” he says. “First you’d feel the heat on your face for a couple seconds – maybe two or three times as hot as the sun. Then it would get very, very quiet until the sound arrived 30 seconds later — a sharp clap, nothing like thunder. It rocked you back a step or two.”
Then, he adds, they’d head back to camp to eat breakfast and play cards. That afternoon, he’d drive a pickup around to the instrument cabinets to gather the exposed samples. Where the massive tower had stood, he’d see nothing at all except the concrete pad below. The metal was vaporized.
Some 200 men from various federal agencies and research groups gathered to watch each test. “Were we human guinea pigs? Well, I suppose, yes and no,” he notes. “At 5 miles from the blast site, like we were, there was zero initial radiation. Within half a mile, it would be very harmful. But the blast and heat would kill you first.”
A few months later, Roger’s commander invited him to join another mission – one that involved no truck-driving. Operation Castle Bravo took place on the Bikini Atoll, a remote ring of 23 tiny islands around a lagoon midway between Hawaii and Australia. While Upshot-Knothole was testing A-bombs whose power was measured in kilotons, the Bravo test was of a far mightier weapon – a bomb that encircled its uranium 235 and plutonium 239 core with heavy hydrogen. Its destructive potential, rated in megatons, carried 1,000 times A-bombs’ destructive potential.
Roger’s routine was a little different. He and his colleagues set up sample cabinets on rafts, then watched the blast from shipboard fully 20 miles away – “about the same warmth on our faces, but much, much louder.” He was one of two men who volunteered to collect the samples in the hot zone. Outfitted with a dosimeter, Geiger counter and a backpack to hold the samples, they arrived at the sites via helicopter. While the aircraft hovered above, they jogged in 40 steps, picked up the trays and ran back to the copter. They were told they had two safe minutes. “We made it in 40 seconds,” he remembers.
“Then we flew back to the aircraft carrier, had breakfast … and here we are.” The ship hung around three days before permitting them to return to quarters on the atoll to pick up their belongings – quickly.
He returned to Baltimore. A month later his discharge came through. Although his colonel asked Roger to consider reenlisting and making it a career, he demurred: “I was too used to North Dakota life.”
Back home, he’d gotten married and taught for one year at Gardner, N.D., when he was invited to test for teaching overseas for the Air Force. He taught three years at Torrejón Air Base near Madrid, Spain – his tenure interrupted by an injury and flying home on crutches, then a year on faculty at Oak Grove High School before returning to complete his stint in Spain.
Afterwards, Roger headed back to the Red River Valley. He was part of the group who built the Ponderosa Golf Course near Buffalo River State Park. Then he accepted his final and longest job, teaching physics and geometry at Glyndon-Felton. “After I got bored with grades and tests, I went back to school for my masters,” he says. He ended his school days teaching math and science in the morning and working as the school counselor after lunch.
Since he retired 24 years ago, travel and good conversation have occupied the nuclear veteran’s days. He shares his stories frequently with school and community groups, including three colleges and 20 high schools.
When he hears news stories about threats by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, the only area man who’s seen an atomic blast shakes his head.
“We don’t want to go to war,” he says slowly. “If it got to be a full-scale atomic war, for sure the Northern Hemisphere would be unlivable for years and years to come – not just from radiation, but from loss of communications, electrical power, travel … impossible.”
Roger Stenerson will share the podium with historian Markus Krueger at a Parlor Talk at the Hjemkomst Center Tuesday, Aug. 29. The 6 p.m. session, sponsored by the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, will feature his stories of the early Atomic Age with the HCSCC program director’s report on the era’s effects on life here in Clay County.