Pigs in Uniform
(Priscilla’s Stuffed Pork)
"Human beings, of course, would have been more satisfactory than animals, and as a matter of fact ninety-odd persons volunteered by letter before the first shot." (Defense Nuclear Agency report regarding Operation Crossroads, 1946).
But pigs aren’t a bad substitute if you are studying the protection provided by military uniforms against the thermal effects of atomic explosions. And that was a major goal of Priscilla, the fifth in the Plumbbob series of above-ground tests conducted in 1957 at the Nevada Test Site.
The "experimental ensembles," as the pigs’ uniforms were described in the official reports, were carefully tailored at the Department of Agriculture facility in Beltsville, Maryland. Not exactly a Milan fashion house, but the DOA folk didn’t adopt a one size fits all approach either. After all, one size could hardly flatter every physique and still be comfortable. The ensembles consisted of a cotton tee-shirt underlayer, an outer fire-resistant cotton poplin, and a middle layer of varying composition. The seams, zipper, the whole thing, met military M-1951 jacket specifications for hot-weather uniforms.
Although Priscilla was intended to update similar studies performed in 1953 at Operation Upshot-Knothole, the latter employed a degree of realism that wouldn’t be repeated at Priscilla: military insignia. Corporal and sergeant’s stripes had been sewn onto selected uniforms, and one pig, the ugliest, even received a pair of general’s stars. He might have been homely, but he was a Patton among pigs and he positioned himself at the head of his troops deployed for the test. Alas, he was among the casualties. As Ambrose Bierce once remarked: in as pig, out as sausage.
At Priscilla, no insignia were used to distinguish the ranks—the troops were all grunts. But despite their lowly status, the pigs were well cared for, even pampered, at Pump house Number 4 in the porcine hospice known as Pork Sheraton.
Pigs, especially Chester Whites (the military had not completely integrated), were the experimental animal of choice "due to size, skin and ionizing radiation response similar to humans" (Defense Nuclear Agency 19XX). In addition to the 78 porkers assigned to Priscilla’s thermal effects study, over 700 participated in other experiments. And Priscilla was not the only Plumbbob shot in which pigs participated - swine also served at shots Franklin and Wilson!
In the days leading up to the test, and unaware of what Priscilla held in store, the pigs grew quite attached to their handlers, often running up to the latter for a nuzzle and a scratch behind the ear. For the handlers, it was a bittersweet relationship knowing that many of their charges would soon be putting on their uniforms for the last time and making the ultimate sacrifice. It seemed only right that the pigs be treated to a last meal of sorts. And in the days leading up to the test, a few extra treats were surreptitiously slipped into the pens.
However, delays had plagued the Plumbbob shots and Priscilla was no exception. Originally scheduled for June 15, 1957, the test had to be postponed due to inclement weather. The pigs not only got a temporary reprieve, they also got extra goodies the night before the rescheduled test date. And the pigs’ luck held - the test kept getting postponed, and the pigs kept getting their forbidden treats. And with the treats came extra pounds—pounds that spelled potential disaster. Once-trim pork bellies were now bursting their military spec uniforms.1 What to do? Cancel Priscilla? Schedule workouts to a Richard Simmons Sweating to the Oldies video? Liposuction? Not according to Howard Rosenberg who described the solution in Atomic Soldiers as follows: "In typical bureaucratic fashion the Army scientists had new uniforms made rather than trying to find more slender pigs" (Rosenberg 1980).2
To get at the truth of the matter, I contacted William "Jay" Brady, Senior Radiation Monitor in the Radiological Safety Division at the time of the Priscilla test. According to Jay, the pigs had indeed grown too fat during the numerous delays of operation Plumbbob. However, larger uniforms were never ordered. Instead, a new herd of smaller recruits was brought in from Utah, and the lucky members of the original troop returned to the hog heaven of Pork Sheraton.
A celebration was called for! So the pigs and their handlers got together one last time at the military compound in Mercury for a festive three-day barbeque where the porkers were served most royally. Any more pig and the celebrants would have burst their own uniforms at the seams. Thanks to barbeque sauce, the once bitter-sweet relationship became much more palatable.
And when Priscilla was finally detonated, June 24 at 6:30 AM, rumbles were heard in Reno some 270 miles away (Nevada Test Organization, 1957). Rumbles not unlike the growl of a hungry stomach.
- General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, also had a notorious weight problem. To prevent his staff from making off with his favorite chocolate treats, he kept them (the chocolates) locked in his office safe.
- Despite the fact that Rosenberg didn’t identify his source for the story, it was picked up by Waserman and Solomon in Killing Our Own (1982). Catherine Caufield, in turn, included Waserman and Solomons’ version in her book Multiple Exposures (1989). Amazing how willing people are to repeat such a tale without any supporting documentation—tsk tsk.
- Caufield, C. Multiple Exposures. Chronicles of the Radiation Age. Harper & Row, New York; 1989.
- Defense Atomic Support Agency. Operation Plumbbob. Project 8.1. WT-1440; June 1959.
- Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Crossroads Gross Damage Report—Test Able Extracted version XRD-213; July 1946.
- Defense Nuclear Agency. Plumbbob Series 1957. DNA 6005F.
- Nevada Test Organization. Press Release (OTI-75-41) June 24, 1957.
- Rosenberg, H.L. Atomic Soldiers. Beacon Press; 1980.
- Wasserman, H. and Solomon, N. Killing Our Own. The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation. Delacorte Press, New York; 1982.
I would like to thank Jay Brady and Martha DeMarre for their kind and invaluable assistance.