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Humble Beginnings - page 44 / 63





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the use of sticky pans, air and water samples, dosimeters [radiation detectors], and even live rabbits. The Sheahans were informed that there would be "a lot of radioactive dust,...and the clouds would be coming in the direction of the Groom Mine."

There would also be times when the Sheahan family and the miners would have to evacuate. The days of non-productivity were a costly nuisance to the Sheahans. The frequent nuclear testing required the mine "to be shut down often, once as long as 12 days in a row," according to Fuller. As Fuller describes the fallout from interviews with surviving Sheahan family members, it "would just sweep in, thick as a dry thunder shower, just as heavy and just as pelting as actual rain." Cattle, horses, and deer in the Groom area were later observed dead or injured with beta burns, a form of radiation damage from fallout.

Other damage at the Groom mine was caused by shockwaves from the blasts. One detonation broke 30 windows and ripped sheet metal off the sides of buildings. According to Fuller, the Sheahans were informed that detonations were planned for times when the winds would send the atomic clouds north and east. In this way, the fallout would pass over sparsely populated areas, rather than major cities like Las Vegas, Nevada, and Los Angeles, California. In later years, this necessity would plague the workers at the secret Groom Lake airfield with the need to suspend operations and evacuate personnel during nuclear tests.

An open secret

The airfield at Watertown, on the southwest corner of Groom Lake, as it appeared during the 1950s. U-2 aircraft were parked north of the hangars and west of the runway.

The existence of the facility at Groom Lake was announced by the AEC in 1955, during its construction. The airbase was called Watertown, a name that was commonly used for the facility until 1958 when it was added to the Nevada Test Site as Area 51. In fact, Watertown is still officially listed as a member of Alamo Township in Lincoln County.

An information booklet distributed to the news media in 1957 by the AEC (titled Background Information On Nevada Nuclear Tests) mentioned the "Watertown Project." It was described as "a small facility at Groom Dry Lake adjacent to the northeast corner of the Nevada Test Site, and within the boundaries of the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range." It noted that the base included "dormitories, equipment, buildings, and a small airstrip."

Naturally, there was no mention of the fact that it had been built for the CIA to test fly a new spyplane and train pilots for covert reconnaissance missions. The booklet did include a cover story that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) had "announced that U-2 jet aircraft with special characteristics for flight at exceptionally high altitudes have been flown

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