Lowell Garrett at ground zero in ’53 for test of ‘Dooms Day on Wheels,’ atomic cannon
Lowell Garrett of El Jobean, Fla. had a front row seat for the final blast of “Dooms Day on Wheels”, the 280 millimeter atomic cannon fired at the government’s Nevada test site during the Korean War in 1953. He and the other 200 members of his 59th Field Artillery Battalion that operated the gun were at ground zero in 31-inch-deep slit trenches clad only in Army fatigue uniforms and no protective radiation glasses.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, in charge of the experiment wanted to determine what the effect of an atomic explosion would be on a battlefield soldier. In Garrett’s case, the 91-year-old said recently, “I think there is no more than a dozen of us left who were in those trenches. The rest died from cancer (over the decades).
Five times during World War II, from the time Garrett was 17, he tried to enlist, but his draft board wouldn’t take him because his dad farmed acres of corn and was over 60. They wanted Garrett to stay on the farm in case he was needed to run the place.
“Later on when I gave up farming I got a notice from my draft board. By then it was 1953, I was 26-years-old, married with a kid on the way,” Garrett recalled. “The Army wanted me because I was good at math. I was put in a top secret unit at Fort Sill, Okla. helping operate an atomic cannon.
“I was the person in charge of figuring out the firing range on the new gun. We could drive down the road at 50 mph with that gun, then set up and fire it in 20 minutes. With a normal gun that size it would take all day to prepare to fire it,” he said.
Garrett’s unit spent most of its time firing practice rounds at pre-assigned targets. “Only during special tests were atomic rounds fired. They were the same size dropped on Hiroshima ending World War II,” he explained.
“On the first atomic test we went out into the desert (at Frenchman Flat in the Navada test sight) and they fired the gun at a 25 mile range. We were just standing there watching it. There were no slit trenches and we didn’t even have protective glasses,” the old soldier recalled.
A second atomic blast followed in the desert at a distance of 10-miles. But the explosion that got his attention was when all 200 of Garrett’s battalion was put at “Ground Zero” for the third and last atomic detonation.
“We dug 31-inch deep slit trenches to protect ourselves during the blast. When it went off I looked down at my hand in front of me and could see my finger bones in the glaring light from the explosion,” Garrett said. “I swung one leg up over the top of the trench I was in and the heat wave slammed me on my back. If my leg had been any further out of the trench I wouldn’t be here today.
“The atomic shell was fired 500 feet over our heads in the desert. They came up to me with a geiger counter after the test and the thing went wild. I had 300 Röentgens of radiation in me. You’re only supposed to be able to take 100 Röentgens, but mine was for a very short time.
Garrett’s duty that day was to check out what the blast did to an American-built “Sherman” tank of World War II vintage and a two-story wood frame house built for the experiment by the Atomic Energy Commission.
“The blast had tumbled the tank about two blocks away from where it was originally. Then I went looking for the house. Nothing remained but a small piece of the cornerstone,” he said.
When all the testing was over, the Atomic Energy Commission gave him a physical, a special bar of soap to wash off the atomic blast residue and told him he was going to be part of the contingent of soldiers that would take the atomic cannon to war in Korea.
“Three or four days before we were ready to leave for Korea they changed our orders,” Garrett said. “The next thing we knew we were going to Germany with the gun. The gun went to Germany, but I stayed in the U.S. for the final year of my enlistment teaching new recruits fire direction on the atomic gun.
When he got out of the Army he didn’t return to his dad’s farm. Garrett went into the building supply business and spent the next 20 years selling supplies throughout the state of Illinois.
He and his late wife, Dolores, retired to Florida in 1996. They have two children: Mark and Laura.
Looking back on his time in the service almost 70 years ago, Garrett said, “I guess I’m not prone to having cancer. I’m still here.”
Name: Lowell Garrett
D.O.B: 5 April 1926
Hometown: Arcola, Illinois
Currently: El Jobean, Fla.
Entered Service: 1951
Unit: 59th Field Artillery Battalion
Commendations: National Defence Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 26, 2018 and is republished with permission.
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