Who Nuked Mississippi? - Part One

Watch WLOX News at 10pm Thursday night for part two of Steve Phillips' special report, "Who Nuked Mississippi?"

Elementary school children from the late 1950s and early 60s will remember the civil defense film called "Duck and Cover."

It featured Bert the Turtle as its animated star. He was the role model for what to do when a nuclear blast was a real threat.

"When danger threatened he never got hurt, he knew just what to do. He'd duck and cover,  duck and cover," the catchy song said.

The classic film was shown to elementary students in classrooms around the country during the Cold War.

"First, you have to know what happens when an atomic bomb explodes. You'll know when it comes. We hope it never comes, but we must get ready," said the announcer with the deep as a well voice.

A significant part of the government's nuclear readiness took place in Lamar County in the early 1960s. That rural setting became the chosen site for a nuclear testing program called Project Dribble.

The Tatum Salt dome served as ground zero for a pair of nuclear explosions called Salmon and Sterling.

"In that particular community especially, it's still a topic of discussion quite regular. Sure is. It was a big deal," said former supervisor William Bishop.

"They evacuated us that day they shot it. And let us back in late that afternoon. And when they shot the other one, they evacuated us again," recalled store owner, Willie Ray Burge.

Film from the Atomic Energy Commission showed the massive test site, tucked away between Purvis and Baxterville, surrounded by hundreds of acres of piney woods.

A timber company site, just off Purvis to Columbia Road served as a staging area during the nuclear testing. It's just north of the blast site.

"I'm originally from this area. And grew up about a mile from ground zero," said William Bishop.

The former county supervisor is quite familiar with the project. He was successful in getting a water project for the community, which was worried about tainted wells after the nuclear testing.

"I think the big blast was really way bigger than everybody anticipated, including the Atomic Energy Commission. It broke windows and shattered chimneys and did all kinds of stuff out in that community. And the shot was felt for I guess 20 or 30 miles from ground zero. It was a, it was a big boom," Bishop said.

The testing project was big news; the subject of countless stories in the weekly newspaper, The Lamar County Times.

For as many questions and concerns the project may have raised, it also brought economic opportunity.

"Oh, it was a good project here then going on. A lot of people working, yeah. Near about everyone that wanted a job could get one then," said 81-year-old Lionell Lowe of Baxterville.

He didn't work on the project, but knew plenty of folks who did. The Salmon and Sterling tests created dozens of jobs, from heavy equipment operators and truck drivers, to welders and carpenters.

"I forgot now how many drilling rigs they had out there. I know they had one that drilled that great big hole they had," he said.

Remember, the nuclear testing in South Mississippi was all about keeping pace with and keeping track of the Russians. The Tatum Salt dome tests served a specific purpose.

Stephen Wofford works for Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

"Determine how a country might conduct a clandestine nuclear test. And whether or not the tools that were available at the time to the scientists and engineers were up to the task of detecting such a test and distinguishing between a nuclear event and an earthquake," he explained.

The Salmon explosion created a jolt like an earthquake. Although the five kiloton bomb was detonated 2700 feet, or a half mile underground, it shook the ground all the way to Hattiesburg, 24 miles away.

The front porch of Willie Ray Burge's Old Mill store is just over a mile from ground zero. His family was among those the government evacuated. They were paid ten dollars for the inconvenience. His daddy returned to find the house damaged by the atomic blast.

"Damaged his house pretty good. Yes sir. Cracked his chimney. He had a brick flue in the kitchen. It tore it down in the floor and some more stuff. Cracked a lot of brick walls here and chimneys," said Burge.

Information gathered from the testing in Lamar County was designed to help the U.S. better detect Soviet nuclear explosions. But the measurement technology developed there more than 40 years ago was used as recently as 1998 to help the U.S. detect nuclear testing in India and Pakistan.

A granite marker and government plaque are the only official reminders of ground zero. They are not accessible, far beyond a locked gate and barbed wire.

But the stories can still be found.

"Uh, you don't hear too much about it no more. But it was the talk of the town back in them days," said Lionell Lowe, as he laughed.