“They put us out in the middle of nowhere.” Sheriff Toby Madrid had his hands wrapped around a cup of black coffee, and his feet up on the desk. The casual laid back attitude belied the tension in his jaw. He also wasn’t looking at JR or me as he spoke, but at the wall. It was almost as if he looked at us, he’d never finish talking about what he had to say.

“They told us we were there to be part of an atomic bomb test.”

welcometodesertrockThe test the Sheriff was talking about was part of what we know today as the Desert Rock Exercises.  My research seems to single him out for what was called Desert Rock IV, or a series of tests called Operation Tumbler-Snapper.

From 1951 to 1957, at the Nevada Proving Grounds, a small camp called Camp Desert Rock was built. Its job was to provide for billets and a staging area as the US Military conducted a variety of tests using military personnel and the bomb. The idea was to gauge the effectiveness of combat troops where a nuclear weapon had been used to soften up enemy positions.

“We were out at the camp for a few days before the actual test. They had us go out and dig trenches. In some cases, sandbagged defensive positions were built. The positions were deep enough for us squat or stand in.

An example of the Dog bomb, the Mark 7 nuclear bomb. – USAF Museum.

“I remember as we were digging, trucks were going by carrying tanks or jeeps. Some vehicles were towing artillery pieces out there. Some of our guys went out with them and came back saying that dummies in uniforms had been included, some standing, some lying down.”

From my research, the Sheriff, who was a Marine at the time, was part of Shot DOG nuclear test, and the test was conducted on May 1, 1952. The weapon was most likely a Mark 7 bomb.

The aircraft used in the drops were the Boeing B-50 and the North American B-45. I don’t know and wasn’t able to find which did the drop here. I looked at the video of the drop, but couldn’t tell.

“Our trenches were about four miles from the blast,” the Sheriff said. “The day of the test, we got up, had breakfast, then they trucked us out to the site. We got into our trenches and were instructed to crouch below the rim of the trench, our faces down, and eyes closed when the blast happened. They’d let us know beforehand, and we’d see and hear the bomber coming in.

“About 8:30 or so, we heard aircraft high up, and then came the warning of the drop. We climbed into the trench and crouched down like they instructed us. I had my head down and eyes closed.

“Suddenly, there was light. Even with eyes closed and head down, I saw it.”

A-bomb explosion. Not the Dog bomb, (this one isn’t a dropped bomb, but a tower test) but part of the same series of exercises. What’s hanging down from the blast is referred to as a Rope Trick. 

What the Sheriff had witnessed was an detonation of a 19 kiloton bomb. It exploded about a thousand meters above the ground.

“The light faded, but as it faded, I heard painful thunder. Then a sudden wind came up. Dirt and sand blew over and into the trench, the wind rocking me back against the wall of the trench. Then the wind rushed back from the other direction, shoving me into the front of the trench.

“Seconds later, when the order to leave our trenches came, we climbed out. Movies can’t describe the mushroom a bomb generates. It cascaded up into the sky, an angry white and black cloud boiling up like something from hell. There’s no way you can imagine it. Even if you see it, you can’t believe it’s real.

“They told us to start walking forward, so we did. Along the way we passed some of the things set up the day before. At one location I remember seeing a Sherman tank.

Soldier move forward during Operation Desert Rock.

“The blast had knocked it over as if a giant had swatted it. Here and there were some of the dummies. Some had burnt up almost entirely, others were smoldering. We got to about three quarters of a mile from where the bomb had exploded. They stopped and turned us around. I remember hearing someone say ‘It’s too hot to go further.’ I learned later that they meant it was too radioactive.

“They marched us out of there to a place where we were swept and hosed off. I was surprised at the dust that came off me and the rest of my platoon. I threw that uniform away.

Sheriff Toby Madrid as a then young Marine. After fighting in Korea, he found himself with a part in Atomic Bomb tests.

“We were kept out there for a few days, and people came around asking how we felt. I felt fine and said so. A few days later, they sent buses out and they took us back to base.”

That’s the only time I ever recall the Sheriff talking about it. My buddy JR confirmed that in all the years he’d been with his father, he’d rarely heard him speak about the day the bomb exploded.

While the Desert Rock Exercises are public knowledge, it’s also something a lot of people don’t stop and think about. I hope the Sheriff’s story brought attention to events that still impact us to this day.

A dramatic picture of soldiers walking forward towards the blast during tumblr-snapper

Many of us might recall our parents telling us not to eat the fresh fallen snow because of fallout from the bomb. It kind of shows the scare the tests put into just the regular people.

After I wrote the original story, I received several comments that people they knew (in some cases – parents) lived downwind of the blast, and that’s where the fallout came down. Many died because of cancers. Most never knew the cause until well after the fact, or that fallout had come down on their them or their homes.

An incident that has never been proven conclusively, but may well be linked to the Desert Rock tests was the filming of the John Wayne movie, The Conqueror. Apparently the site they filmed at was where a vast amount of fallout came down. Odd part was the studio asked the government if the site was free of dangers since it wasn’t far from the test sites. They were assured that it was well outside the fallout zone.

It wasn’t. The area they filmed in had fallout come down on it more than once.

I recall reading an interview with John Wayne who said there wasn’t a lot to do after they finished shooting for the day, and so they played baseball. He recalled watching Susan Heyward running the bases in her bare feet and her feet kicking up dust.

What no one seemed to know or was willing to admit to was that the dust kicked up by their feet was laden with radioactive fallout. Events show of the 220 people involved in the shoot, 91 developed cancer, to include John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead who all died from it.

Now here’s where it becomes a little controversial. According to the National Cancer Institute, at that time, 40 people out of 100 could be expected to develop cancer in their lifetime. Or put another way, one out of every three people would develop or die of cancer. That said, 91 isn’t to far out of that range.

But the science of statistics involves numbers and not people. While it’s common knowledge that a number of the actors and actresses of the time indulged in things that could lead to cancer (smoking like a train for openers), what the number doesn’t answer is would they have developed or died of cancer anyway? And if so, did the fallout just gave them a little extra nudge? How about those that lived clean lives? What of the countless soldiers and civilians in the fallout zones who developed it?

I’m trying to stay unemotional and unbiased while researching this part, but I have to admit, I’m failing. The emotional aspect that makes me who I am can’t help but call into question the assumption the cast and crew of The Conqueror, as well as all the military members who participated in the events, fit into that magic 40 percent.

The events that Sheriff Toby Madrid was part of may have impacted not only him and those around him, but hundreds if not thousands of military personnel and civilians alike.

And the ghosts of those events may well haunt us for a long time to come.

The Sheriff passed away in 2014, and it didn’t seem what he passed away from was related to the bomb.

All things considered, he may have been one of the lucky ones.


Information from the VA concerning radiation exposure during military service can be found here.

A casual Google search will turn up all manner of information on Operation Desert Rock.

Additional information on Operation Tumbler-snapper can be found here.  Additional information here.

Information on the Nevada test site can be found here.

NOTE: 22 Oct 20 – Our Great American Stories did a story on Sheriff Madrid and the Desert Rock Exercises. You can find it here.