Desert Rock exercises

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Aerial view of Camp Desert Rock.

Desert Rock was the code name of a series of exercises conducted by the US military in conjunction with atmospheric nuclear tests. They were carried out at the Nevada Proving Grounds between 1951 and 1957.

Their purpose was to train troops and gain knowledge of military maneuvers and operations on the nuclear battlefield. They included observer programs, tactical maneuvers, and damage effects tests.

Camp Desert Rock was established in 1951, 1.5 miles south of Camp Mercury. The site was used to billet troops and stage equipment. The camp was discontinued as an Army installation in 1964.


Exercise Nuclear Test Series Date Total DoD Participants Tactical Maneuver Personnel
Desert Rock I, II, III[1] Operation Buster-Jangle 22 Oct. - 22 Nov. 1951 11,000 6,500
Desert Rock IV[2] Operation Tumbler-Snapper 1 Apr. - 5 Jun. 1952 11,700 7,400
Desert Rock V[3] Operation Upshot-Knothole 17 Mar. - 4 Jun. 1953 20,100
Desert Rock VI[4] Operation Teapot 18 Feb. - 15 May 1955 11,700 8,000
Desert Rock VII, VIII[5] Operation Plumbbob 24 Apr. - 7 Oct. 1957 14,000
Desert Rock I - Buster-Jangle Dog - November 1, 1951.
Desert Rock IV - Tumbler-Snapper George - June 1, 1952.

Desert Rock I, II, III[edit]

Observer programs were conducted at shots Dog, Sugar, and Uncle. Tactical maneuvers were conducted after shot Dog. Damage effects tests were conducted at shots Dog, Sugar, and Uncle to determine the effects of a nuclear detonation on military equipment and field fortifications.

Desert Rock IV[edit]

Observer programs were conducted at shots Charlie, Dog, Fox, and George. Tactical maneuvers were conducted after shots Charlie, Dog, and George. Psychological tests were conducted at shots Charlie, Fox, and George to determine the troops' reactions to witnessing a nuclear detonation.

Desert Rock V[edit]

Exercise Desert Rock V included troop orientation and training, a volunteer officer observer program, tactical troop maneuvers, operational helicopter tests, and damage effects evaluation. This is the account of Pfc Curtis Sandefur, 2d Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic, based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and what he witnessed during his deployment to Exercise Camp Desert Rock V. During the predawn hours on Saturday, April 18, 1953, Pfc Sandefur along with some 2,100 other U.S. Marines would begin arriving by military trucks to the Nevada Proving Ground. The NPG is just north of Camp Desert Rock with 1,350 square miles of desolate desert in a rough flat range with northerly high peaks. Las Vegas is located about sixty miles to the southeast. This early arrival allowed ample time for officers accompanying the troops to present a briefing over a public address system. They informed them that radiation levels were minimal and perfectly safe. Approximately 10 minutes before detonation, outfitted in full battle gear, the Marines would be positioned in an open 6-foot-deep trench 3,660 meters south of ground zero. Pfc Sandefur was amongst other Marines positioned along the right side. Just minutes before detonation, they knelt and braced themselves against the ground zero side of the trench and then ordered to take cover. They would be instructed to close their eyes tight and place an arm in front of them, even though they would still see the light and feel the heat from the blast. At 4:35 am (PST) with the ground temperature of 7.7 degrees Celsius and relative humidity at 40 percent, a device named Badger was detonated from a 300-foot steel tower in Area 2. It had a yield of 23 kilotons, slightly higher than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The top of the mushroom cloud formed by Badger rose to an altitude of 36,000 feet. Badger was the sixth event of Operation Upshot-Knothole and gave the Marines the opportunity to investigate the capability of helicopters in transporting troops in an attack after the employment of a nuclear weapon. The explosion from Badger was so powerful it pierced the desert floor causing the earth to shake. It illuminated Las Vegas like daylight and was evident 500 kilometers to the southwest in Los Angeles. After the shock wave passed, the Marines left the trenches, formed up, and moved out in attack formation toward the objectives to the north. Though the dust raised by the shock wave was thick, the cloud formed by Badger was visible to the Marines as they moved forward to their objectives. A northeasterly surface wind of about ten to 15 knots from ground zero gusted across the right flank exposing Pfc Sandefur and other Marines to unprecedented and unanticipated radiation fallout. After proceeding less than 460 meters, these Marines had dosimeter readings exceeding 3.0 roentgens, half the allowable dose of 6.0 roentgens and were ordered back to the trench area and were not permitted to continue the maneuver. During the withdrawal from the trench area, some elements of the battalion exceeded the allowable dose of 6.0 roentgens, with film badge readings as high as 7.1 roentgens. Although the measuring devices employed only indicated gamma and instant beta, they did not measure neutrons, alphas and residual beta. The constant movements of helicopters, trucks, tanks and personnel guarantee that all participating in these nuclear tests were also exposed to invisible elements which are not measurable on a film badge. These alpha emitters lodge in the lung, bone and lymph system, precipitating cancers from five to 20 years after exposure, depending on the dose received.

Desert Rock VI[edit]

Observer programs were conducted at shots Wasp, Moth, Tesla, Turk, Bee, Ess, Apple 1, and Apple 2. Tactical maneuvers were conducted after shots Bee and Apple 2. Technical studies were conducted at shots Wasp, Moth, Tesla, Turk, Bee, Ess, Apple 1, Wasp Prime, Met, and Apple 2.

A test of an armored task force, RAZOR, was conducted at shot Apple 2 to demonstrate the capability of a reinforced tank battalion to seize an objective immediately after a nuclear detonation.

Desert Rock VII, VIII[edit]

Tactical maneuvers were conducted after shots Hood, Smoky, and Galileo. At shot Hood, the Marine Corps conducted a maneuver involving the use of a helicopter airlift and tactical air support. At shot Smoky, Army troops conducted an airlift assault, and at shot Galileo, Army troops were tested to determine their psychological reactions to witnessing a nuclear detonation.

See also[edit]

Totskoye nuclear exercise of 1954, a somewhat comparable series of Soviet exercises, although with fewer radiation safeguards present.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Operation BUSTER-JANGLE Fact Sheet, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  2. ^ Operation TUMBLER-SNAPPER Fact Sheet, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  3. ^ Operation UPSHOT-KNOTHOLE Fact Sheet, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  4. ^ Operation TEAPOT Fact Sheet, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  5. ^ Operation PLUMBBOB Fact Sheet, Defense Threat Reduction Agency

External links[edit]