Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Survival Town: The Real Nevada Boomtown of the Mid-Century
The 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a scene in which the intrepid Dr. Jones finds himself in a "typical" mid century suburban town. He realizes in the nick of time that the "town," inhabited by department store mannequins, has been staged by the U.S. military for an atomic detonation test.
The gory 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes is premised upon a group of people living in the Nevada desert who were subjected to atomic atmospheric testing over a period of decades. They have thus been transformed into an isolated band of cannibalistic mutants. One of the film’s many victims stumbles upon an abandoned house within the mutant territory. Abandoned except for mannequins resplendent in mid-century garb.
So is it true that the government constructed a fake town expressly for the purpose of blowing it up? Yes! On May 5, 1955, a nuclear test detonation dubbed "Apple-2" was conducted at the Nevada test site. Apple-2 was one of 14 detonations conducted in the first half of 1955 under the codename Operation Teapot. The bomb detonated that day had a yield of 29 kilotons, just under two and a half times the destructive power of the one dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
In preparation for the Apple-2 detonation, the Department of Defense built "Survival Town," a suburban enclave in the middle of the desert replete with homes and offices wired for power, and department store mannequins positioned to replicate typical human activities. The experiment was designed to test the impact of an atomic explosion on various kinds of structures and at varying distances within the blast radius. The docile indifference of the mannequins towards their grim fate, coupled with the synthetically cheerful 1950s suburban vibe makes for an unmistakably eerie result.
The military personnel and civilian volunteers who participated in the experiment lived in a barracks a few miles from the blast site dubbed "Survival City." Their objective was to simulate the rebuilding that would occur immediately after an atomic attack. They performed such tasks as providing “first aid” for the "victims" of the attack, restoring communications antennas and other infrastructure within the blast radius, and airlifting food into the affected area. They did so while being unknowingly exposed to enough radiation to give anyone a healthy green glow.
Of course, most of the structures were incinerated or otherwise destroyed. But somewhat surprisingly, a few remain to this day, and can be viewed on the official tour of the Nevada Test Site.
Readers interested in learning more about our nuclear heritage should visit the Atomic Testing Museum. The museum, located not far from the Las Vegas Strip, is offbeat and quirky but not in the same way that most Vegas attractions are. Highlights include a simulated atomic blast viewing, pop cultural artifacts from the nuclear age, and even a few of the original mannequins from Survival Town.
The 1982 film The Atomic Cafe makes for fun, yet sobering watching. Aptly described by the Village Voice as a "comic horror film," it is a collection of classic Atomic Age clips, from the famous cartoon turtle exhorting school kids to "duck and cover" in the event of a blast, to U.S. military officials explaining to trusting native Polynesians the positive aspects of a nuclear test blast on their home island.
Additional links of interest:
Blown to Smithereens: The Secret Story of Survival Town (via WebUrbanist)
More information on Operation Teapot (via Wikipedia)
Contemporary newsreel footage of the Survival Town test, boasting the installation of "a million dollars worth of equipment" (via RonnieshowFriends)
A much longer Civil Defense video which covers some of the nuclear science behind the test before coughing up some great footage of the town. At 7:24, the narrator cheerfully notes that the mannequins have been supplied by industry to stand in for "Mr. and Mrs. America." (via AutomobileHistoryUSA)