17 March 2023
St. Patrick’s Day always rocks in Las Vegas, but not like it did 70 years ago when a 16-kiloton atom bomb detonated atop a tower at the Nevada Proving Grounds, 65 miles north of the city.
The March 17, 1953 above-ground nuclear test destroyed or damaged various test objects placed at differing distances from ground zero, including houses, cars and mannequins meant to simulate real people who might get caught in a nuclear blast. The explosion sent a shock wave through southern Nevada and left behind an atom-age mystery: What happened to the life-like mannequins used in the test?
The code-name for the test was “Annie,” and it was the first experiment to gauge the effects of an atomic detonation on a mock American city. Among other things, scientists wanted to learn how people exposed to the blast might fare in their homes, cars or basement bomb shelters. This aspect of the test was known as “Operation Doorstep,” and it required the construction of a simulated small town.
“The construction people who were out there called it ‘Doom Town,’” remembered retired test site technician Al O’Donnell.
Before he passed away in 2015, O’Donnell spoke to the author about Doom Town and the people who put it together.
“They weren’t building it to be occupied,” O’Donnell said. “They were building it to be destroyed.”
Private industry furnished the materials to assemble Doom Town. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors donated cars to be blasted. The L.A. Darling Company of Michigan provided the mannequins to pose as people, and JCPenney of Las Vegas supplied clothing to dress the mannequins, although not all of the dummies were initially clothed, according to O’Donnell.
O’Donnell said some test site workers, during a free moment when the bosses weren’t looking, placed “mom” and “dad” mannequins in compromising positions in the bedroom of a test house. The joke was that if nuclear armageddon was expected, this is what Mr. and Mrs. America would be doing the night before.
However, O’Donnell said a high-ranking test official, inspecting the site shortly before the blast, discovered the undressed dummies in their connubial positions.
“He went ballistic,” O’Donnell said. “He ordered us to put the dummies back where they were originally, with Dad sitting by the window reading his paper, while Mom worked in the kitchen.”
With the dummies dressed and in their original places, the atomic detonation went off as planned.
Blast from the past
The blast’s impact on Doom Town was captured in now-iconic black and white footage. One test house, built less than a mile from ground zero, is seen being seared by the nuclear flash and then blown to bits by the pressure wave. Following the structure’s destruction, the debris was hauled away.
Also carried away were the blast-damaged test mannequins. But, the test dummies were not taken to a nuclear waste site. Remarkably, they were brought to downtown Las Vegas and displayed at the JCPenney store at the corner of 6th and Fremont Streets.
JCPenney was so proud of its contribution to nuclear testing that it took out a double, full-page advertisement in the Las Vegas Review-Journal urging locals to visit the store and view the bomb-blasted mannequins for themselves.
A 1953 advertisement in the Las Vegas Review-Journal by the J.C. Penny Company advertising the company’s use of dummies in recent atomic testing. (Glen Meek/ Courtesy)
The April 1953 ad featured 50 pairs of “before and after” photos of the test dummies and stated: “These mannikins (sp) could have been real people. In fact, they could have been you. JCPenney was happy to donate the clothing to the Federal Civil Defense Administration for the test. LA Darling Co. is to be complimented for donating the 50 mannikins which are now on display at our store for your inspection.”
An Associated Press photo from the era shows the store manager, Hillman Lee, seated among the explosion-scarred dummies, balancing a mannequin toddler on his knee.
Although copies of the ad inviting citizens to view the test dummies still exist, no official record can be found regarding what happened to the mannequins after they were displayed at JCPenney.
One former test site worker told O’Donnell he thought the mannequins had been returned to the test site and burned in a trench. Another suggested — in shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark — that the dummies were stashed away in a secret government warehouse. A persistent rumor held that the dummies had been stored in the JCPenney basement and were simply pilfered by employees over the years.
None of these theories was ever verified. None of the mannequins has ever been accounted for, according to Joseph Kent, Director of Curation and Exhibits for the Atomic Museum in Las Vegas.
“We do not have any documentation — at least that we have found — pointing to the eventual fate of the mannequins,” Kent said.
Replicas, not relics
At the Atomic Museum today, there is an exhibit featuring mannequins in a simulated bomb shelter that mirrors the test conditions of “Operation Doorstep.” It features effigies of an adult male, an adult female and a male child. Although some visitors erroneously assume that these mannequins were used in atomic tests of the 1950s, they are modern look-alikes, dressed in vintage or vintage-style clothing.
“None of the mannequins that we have here at the museum, whether they are on display
or in our collection, have actually been used for atomic testing,” Kent said.
Not only is the disposition of the actual “Annie” test dummies unknown, the provenance of two mannequins in the museum’s collection is also a mystery.
These mannequins, donated to the museum years ago, are figures of an adult woman and a boy about 12 years old. They are on loan to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in California, where they are featured in a special exhibit about the Cold War.
The Nixon Foundation website stated: “These mannequins were set up in Doom Town to be used in atomic tests as a way to understand radiation effects on people.”
From that description, you might easily mistake these mannequins for genuine, atomic testing artifacts. They are not.
The backstory of two of these dummies, however, may relate to nuclear testing — in a roundabout way.
Atomic test dummies were depicted in the 1987 TV show Crime Story during the last installment of season one, entitled “Ground Zero”.
In this episode, which takes place in the 1960s, two crooks engage in a fierce, nighttime gun battle with cops in downtown Las Vegas. With one of the bad guys wounded, the pair flee deep into the Nevada desert. They hole up in what appears to be an abandoned ranch house.
The next morning, the crooks awaken to discover mannequins populating the otherwise empty house. The more astute of the bad guys realizes they are in a test home on the Nevada Proving Grounds, where an atomic bomb is about to go off. The episode ends with the villains trying to escape in their 1959 Cadillac (historically inaccurate as nuclear tests using houses and mannequins ended in 1955) as we see a blinding flash and a billowing mushroom cloud behind them.
But are two of the mannequins seen in that TV show the same ones on loan to the Nixon Foundation? Aspects of the museum mannequins are similar to those in the Crime Story episode, including a striking resemblance of the museum’s “boy” mannequin to its TV counterpart. But efforts by museum staff to determine if these figures were TV test dummies have not been conclusive.
“While some believe that the boy and woman mannequins were featured as props in an episode of the NBC TV show Crime Story, which was set in early 1960s Las Vegas and shot on location in the late 1980s, I cannot say that this is definitively the case,” Kent said.
On the former Nevada Proving Grounds, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, sit two empty houses, one brick, the other wood. They were constructed in 1955 to test the effects of the atomic explosion called “Apple-2”. The homes are in rough shape, and the doors and windows are long gone. But, both buildings survive.
But where are the test dummies that faced a nuclear blast on St. Patricks’ Day, and later posed for shoppers at JCPenney? Did any of these mannequins survive? Are any resting silently, long forgotten, as macabre souvenirs in someone’s basement?
Without records regarding their fate, no one can be certain. We only know the mannequins left the test site for a brief stint as window dressing at JCPenney’s, where they stood in mute testament to the destructive power of the bomb.
What happened to them after that remains an enduring mystery of the atomic age.