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Some still remember the day Mississippi was nuked

Anniversary of the first atomic bomb testing brings back memories to residents

By James W. Crawley



Billy Ray Anderson remembers the day the earth kicked up waves, the ground cracked, chimneys tumbled and the creeks turned black in this corner of the Deep South.

"The ground swelled up," said Anderson. "It was just like the ocean - there was a wave every 200 feet or so."

It was the day the government nuked Mississippi.

At precisely 10 a.m. on Oct. 22, 1964, a nuclear bomb exploded 2,700 feet beneath the loblolly pines of Lamar County. Within a microsecond, the clash of plutonium atoms heated an underground salt dome to the temperature of the sun.

On Saturday, the world will mark the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, N.M. The anniversary is significant to Anderson and his neighbors because no Americans live closer to a nuclear-test site. The 1,052 other U.S. nuclear blasts occurred in sparsely populated sections of Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Alaska or in the Pacific Ocean.

Time has erased much of the evidence and memory of two underground nuclear explosions here - the only times the United States detonated atomic bombs east of the Mississippi River. . . .

Before dawn Oct. 22, 1964, scientists and engineers towed the 1,113-pound nuclear bomb, called Salmon, behind a Dodge sedan from the heavily guarded assembly building hidden deep in the pine forest to ground zero. A crane lowered the bomb underground.

Anderson, 69, lives less than a mile from the salt dome - the residents' phrase for ground zero. No one lives closer.

Most days he is at his fishing camp, an eclectic wood-and-sheet-metal building next to a pond and topped by Santa's sleigh and reindeer stenciled in Christmas lights. It's a place he can fish, take a swim, drink beer and tend his tomatoes without interruption.

He remembers the day the bomb exploded as if it were yesterday.

State troopers started knocking on doors at 5 a.m. to evacuate everyone near ground zero. Each adult received $10 and children $5 for their inconvenience.

Anderson drove a water tanker at the test site and waited at the command post as the countdown ticked to zero.

Local and state officials were inside an air-conditioned trailer, watching it on closed-circuit TV, he said.

When the clock hit 10, the bomb exploded with the force of 5.3 kilotons of TNT - one-third the size of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

"It was like you hit a big drum on top," he recalled. "It made such a big bang, it shook things for miles."

The ground rose. Forty-one years later, Anderson demonstrated the groundswell's height by holding his hands about 18 inches off the ground.

"It really did jar things," he added.

The trailer rocked and rolled. "Those politicians came running out of the trailer, grabbing their handkerchiefs and wiping the sweat off their foreheads," he said. The TV inside was knocked over and the command post's radios were damaged.

Seismographs throughout the United States, plus some in Europe, recorded the shock waves.

After the explosion, Anderson drove to the forward control shack, less than a mile from ground zero.

"The creek was black ... it was running black as it could be," he recalled. Anderson would stay busy for days delivering water to neighbors because the blast soured wells, also turning them black with silt.

Cracks - "big enough to put your hand in" - fractured roads, he said. . . .

Cancer has taken many of their friends, neighbors and family members.

One and a half miles from the salt dome, Grace Burge, 62, spent a recent morning sorting peas for sale at the store she and her husband own.

Asked if the bomb had killed people in Lamar County, she stopped sorting for a second, gazed toward the road and said, "I would say so, but the government says no. . . ."

Two years later, the government officials lowered another steel cylinder into the ground.

Called Sterling, the second nuclear device had a much smaller yield - 380 tons of force.

When Sterling exploded Dec. 3, 1966, the ground barely shook. . . .

Follow-up drilling and testing contaminated soil, groundwater and equipment with radiation. Tons of radioactive debris was dumped into the salt dome and a deep aquifer.

The Atomic Energy Commission razed the buildings in 1972, packed up their instruments and left Mississippi.

(Whole thing.)

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Shannon Hubbell April 18, 2006, 2:29 am

    Facinating story, but this part bugs me:

    “Cancer has taken many of their friends, neighbors and family members.”

    Cancer has taken many of my family members (not from the area). Are there actual stats about Cancer rates in the area, I wonder.

  • Corie Knight December 19, 2007, 10:43 am

    we live less than a mile from it, my granddaddy lived in this spot for many many years until he died of cancer. there are so many people in this small commmunity that have lost thier lives to cancer and i believe it has something to do with what they did here. that many people don’t just get cancer and die. goverment said they tested and of course found nothing.

  • Jennifer Page October 24, 2015, 11:02 pm

    I lived in Sumerall, Lamar co. Ms. the day the nuclear testing was done. I was in the 6th grade. I don’t remember that it happened but my mother does. My mother said there was a fence put around the site and no one was allowed passed it. We moved away in 1965. I saw a history show on TV about it a few days ago. It shocked me. I am now wonder if all the cancer in my family is related to it. Five of us have had cancer and / or so called radiation diseases. My father also died of colon cancer. Sumerall is directly north upwind from the site and the government was waiting for a day to test with the winds going from south to north. We drank milk everyday that was given to us by a church member that owned a dairy. I am also wondering if there could be fallout that went to the cows because 2 months later the government went back to the site to drill and it caused damage to things.

  • Jennifer Page October 24, 2015, 11:11 pm

    I need to add to my previous statement that my family moved away from Sumerall Ms. sometime in the Summer of 1965.

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