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"I don't know what will be used in the next World War, but the 4th will be fought with stones."
-Albert Einstein


The film Thirteen Days is a dramatisation of the U.S. side of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It does seem something of a Costner vanity project, but as someone who wasn't alive at the time I find it very interesting. I don't personally know much about how accurate it is, although I know Kenneth O'Donnell (Costner's character) had nowhere near the prominence during the crisis, or ever, that he does in the film. I think it's acceptable, as it/he generally doesn't get in the way of the story and someone is probably needed for the viewer to latch onto. But for the love of god, did Costner have to attempt the Boston accent?

Fortunately the film has copious historically-accurate content. A good portion of the dialogue is taken directly from tapes of meetings that took place during the crisis, and the sequences of events are quite well-documented elsewhere. Also, there is plenty of recently-declassified footage of nuclear tests as an appropriately heavy-handed reminder that Nuclear War is bad, mmkay?

It's rather refreshing* that this film doesn't include the well-worn footage of the Crossroads Baker burst. I can almost guarantee that if you've seen nuclear test footage on television or in a film, you've seen this particular test at some point. The film Deterrence, hilariously, uses it as a representation of a one hundred megaton bomb (as if there were such a thing) being dropped on Baghdad. I say hilariously, since the device in question was actually detonated 90ft under the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Bikini Atoll. You can see a bunch of ships in the footage, for god's sake. To say nothing of, you know... an OCEAN!!.

So, anyway, what are all these explosions? When and where did they occur? Are they all real? And finally, is it just me that cares?

archiewood narrows his eyes at a tumbleweed blowing past, then briskly continues

This is an ordered listing of all of the nuclear explosions that appear in the film Thirteen Days. The opening credits sequence contains most of the footage, though there are some other clips scattered throughout the rest of the film. None of this footage is artificial, although there is a CG composite of footage from several explosions near the end of the film. There is little chronological ordering to the footage and one piece is misidentified. Timings are from the New Line DVD of the film.

  • 00:00:25 - Dominic Bluegill

    The first bit of footage in the film is of a Thor missile being launched during Operation Dominic-Fishbowl; specifically, I believe, for the Bluegill shot. Bluegill was one of several tests intended to judge the viability of high-altitude bursts as a defence against incoming warheads.

    Dominic Bluegill took place at Johnston Island in the South Pacific at midnight on June 3, 1962. The test device was a W-39 warhead lofted on a Thor missile, the first intermediate-range ballistic missile deployed by the U.S.

    This test was actually a failure, producing a rather odd name for the successful one: Bluegill Triple Prime, which was the fourth attempt (following Bluegill, Bluegill Prime and Bluegill Triple Prime). During Bluegill (the launch for which is shown in the film) the tracking station on Johnston Island failed; absent any means of monitoring the missile's path, the on-board destruct system was triggered, safely destroying the missile and payload without detonating the warhead.

    On Bluegill Prime, a fuel valve in the missile's rocket motor malfunctioned almost immediately after ignition and the destruct system was triggered while the missile was still on the launch pad. Fortunately the warhead did not detonate but the resultant, spectacular conflagration of explosives and rocket fuel virtually destroyed the launch complex and scattered radioactive material around the site. All had to be cleared and the site completely rebuilt before the third attempt could go ahead.

    The launch of Bluegill Double Prime was initially successful but the Thor missile's rocket motor failed about 90 seconds after launch and the missile again had to be destroyed, resulting in some missile debris and radioactive material falling back onto Johnston Island.

    The successful launch of Bluegill Triple Prime took place at 21:14 on 15 October, 1962. The warhead detonated 30 miles (160,000ft) above Johnston Island, yielding around 410 kilotons. The bright flash on detonation was visible from Honolulu and the sky continued to glow for about 30 minutes afterwards. This does not appear in the film.

    The shot of the Bluegill missile launch then cuts to:

  • 00:00:46 - Hardtack Teak

    This is a view from an on-board camera carried on a Redstone missile used for the Hardtack Teak burst.

    Operation Hardtack ran between April and August 1958. At the time it was the largest series of nuclear tests ever conducted, ahead of the planned moratorium on atmospheric testing agreed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It took place in the Pacific Proving Ground (variously Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls and Johnston Island) and included the first exo-atmospheric bursts conducted by the U.S., again intended to test the effectiveness of a nuclear warhead as an anti-ballistic missile defence.

    The shot in the film appears to show a view of the Redstone missile from the test device as it separates, and a view from the missile of the test device as it falls away. The device detonated directly over Johnston Island at an altitude of 252,000ft, yielding 3.8 megatons. The burst itself does not appear, however. The next view is:

  • 00:01:12 - Tsar Bomba

    The next couple of seconds are the initial flash from the detonation of the Soviet Union's 50-megaton Tsar Bomba device. This took place on October 30, 1961 over Novaya Zemlya island. It was and remains the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by humans.

    This test broke the testing hiatus being observed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union at that time, but was purely a sabre-rattling exercise: the 27-tonne bomb was so large and unwieldy it exceeded all military requirements and was physically impossible to deliver any significant distance. The Tupolev Tu-95 that dropped it had to have part of its fuselage cut away and its bomb bay doors removed to accommodate it.

    The shot of this burst quickly whites out to:

  • 00:01:14 - Castle Bravo

    An aerial shot of the fireball and blast wave from Castle Bravo, the largest nuclear explosion ever carried out by the U.S. (caption: A Roger Donaldson Film).

    Operation Castle was a test series intended to trial 'dry' fuel which did not require cryogenic freezing, unlike the fuel used for the thermonuclear devices tested in the previous test series, Operation Ivy. The devices detonated in this test series produced yields dramatically exceeding expectations and the three most powerful nuclear explosions ever carried out by the U.S.

    The Castle Bravo burst was conducted on March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll. It was expected to yield a maximum of six megatons; it actually yielded fifteen, and contaminated a large swathe of the Marshall Islands and a Japanese fishing boat unfortunate enough to have wandered into the testing area.

  • 00:01:23 - Dominic Chama

    The mushroom cloud from the Chama burst of Operation Dominic is next. Although this looks totally CG to me, it is real and can be seen in various archive pictures (caption: Kevin Costner).

    Dominic was the U.S's response to the Soviet Union's breaking of a moratorium on nuclear testing on September 1, 1961. Aside from the high-altitude bursts mentioned earlier, the majority of the test devices in this series were delivered by airdrop. Chama was one of these, a test of a possible replacement warhead for Atlas and Titan missiles. It was dropped from 11,970ft over Johnston Island by a B-52 and yielded about 1.5 megatons.

  • 00:01:27 - nuclear test streamers

    There are several shots of these during this opening credits sequence. I suggest reading the self-titled node for more information; the smoke trails from these small rockets are intended to give a visual indication of the passage of the shock front from a nuclear explosion.

    They are launched in a row near the test device, just before detonation. When that occurs, the pressure differential between the shock front and the air in front of it creates a refraction of light, which visually distorts the smoke trails to the observer. This allows the passage of the shock front to be observed and its speed measured.

    As these same segments appear in the film Trinity and Beyond during a section about Operation Dominic, I assume they were fired during one or more shots in that series.

  • 00:01:30 - Operation Plumbbob (I am not making these names up)

    This is the fireball and beginnings of a mushroom cloud I believe to be from either the Shasta or Kepler bursts of Operation Plumbbob.

    Plumbbob took place during October of 1957. It included some thermonuclear bursts as small-scale trials of bursts planned for the the forthcoming Hardtack test series. The Shasta and Kepler bursts were both tests of this type. They were detonated atop 500ft towers, yielding 10 and 17 kilotons respectively.

    One interesting quirk of this test series is that it includes earth's most unusual space launch. Go vote it up.

  • 00:01:32 - Another sounding rocket launch.
  • 00:01:33 - Upshot-Knothole Grable

    Fireball and mushroom cloud from the Grable shot of Upshot-Knothole, which was a test series intended to trial weaponised devices, most notably the first nuclear artillery shell in this shot, and in shot Annie briefly opening testing up to viewing by the press.

  • 00:01:36 - Another sounding rocket launch.
  • 00:01:37 - Upshot-Knothole Encore

    This shot is the fireball (that's the most suitable term I can think of, but it doesn't look anything like that) from the Encore burst of Operation Upshot-Knothole.

    The most interesting aspect of the Encore shot as it appears in the film is the highly prominent distortion of the smoke trails of the sounding rockets, by the shock front from the explosion. The device was airdropped from 1,334ft by a B-36 at 04:15 on June 4, 1953 and yielded 61 kilotons, the highest yield of any test on U.S. soil at the time.

  • 00:01:41 - Another sounding rocket launch.
  • 00:01:44 - Operation Teapot

    Fireball and mushroom cloud I believe to be from the Apple-1 shot of Operation Teapot, but I am open to correction.

    Teapot was run at the Nevada Test Site from February to May 1955 and tested devices using new spherical implosion systems, intended for tactical applications.

    The device used in the Apple-1 burst was a two-stage design, where the primary stage acts partly as a detonator for the second. In this case the primary thermonuclear stage failed to trigger the secondary stage, reducing yield from a predicted 40 kilotons to 14 kilotons. The design was modified and tested again in a subsequent burst, Apple-2, increasing yield to 29 kilotons.

    This fades to:

  • 00:01:48 - Redwing Apache

    This is another clip I thought looked a little contrived (the way the clouds change shape so quickly is probably part of the reason) but again, it is genuine. This is a shot of the rising mushroom cloud from the Apache shot of Operation Redwing.

    Redwing was conducted in the Pacific Proving Ground from May to July 1956 and included tests of devices specifically designed for high fallout or low fallout. It also included the first airdrop of a thermonuclear device by the U.S. After the unexpectedly high combined yield from the previous Castle series (almost double the combined predicted yields), Redwing was under a yield 'budget' of 20 megatons, no more than half of which was permitted to be from fission (which produce radioactive fallout) as opposed to fusion.

    The device used in the Apache burst was one of the 'dirty' devices, a high portion of its yield coming from fission reactions. It was detonated on July 8, 1956 in a barge over the crater left by the earlier Ivy Mike test at Enewetak Atoll. The yield was 1.85 megatons.

  • 00:01:53 - Castle Bravo (again)

    This is the expanding mushroom cloud, condensation rings and ice cap of the Castle Bravo test. This appears to be about a minute after detonation (caption: Bruce Greenwood).

  • 00:01:57 - Redwing Tewa

    Fireball and mushroom cloud from the Tewa shot of Operation Redwing (caption: Steven Culp).

    The Tewa device was the first three-stage weapon design to be tested by the U.S. As with the two-stage design, each stage acts as a trigger/detonator for the succeeding stage. This test yielded six megatons and produced the highest known fission fallout of any U.S. thermonuclear test.

    The design was later developed into the MK-41 bomb which, with a 25 megaton warhead, was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever fielded by the U.S (nuclearweaponarchive.org refers).

  • 00:02:03 - Dominic Arkansas

    Mushroom cloud from the Arkansas shot of Operation Dominic. The reason the colour looks so dodgy is that this started out as daytime footage; it has evidently been jigged considerably in post to get it to this state. Why this was done rather than using footage from any of the dozens of other tests that were actually conducted at night is anyone's guess (caption: 'Thirteen Days').

    The Arkansas burst took place at Christmas Island and tested a design which would ultimately be deployed in Minuteman and Minuteman II ICBMs in large numbers. It was airdropped by a B-52 and yielded just over one megaton. The W-56 warhead, of which this device was an example, remained in use up to the retirement of the Minuteman II, sometime in 1993.

  • 01:06:03 - Ivy Mike

    This is a segment of footage from the first full-scale thermonuclear detonation conducted by the U.S. This was conducted at Johnston Island in the South Pacific and yielded 10.4 megatons, at the time the highest-yield device tested by the U.S. Bizarrely, as part of the same representation the view then switches to:

  • 01:06:15 - Greenhouse George

    Fireball and mushroom cloud from the George shot of Operation Greenhouse. This is shown as if it were an alternate angle of the Ivy Mike burst; although like Mike it took place in the Pacific Proving Ground, it predates the Ivy series. The principles tested would later lead to the Ivy series' thermonuclear devices, and the George shot was the world's first thermonuclear explosion (though the majority of the power from the shot still came from fission).

  • 01:36:36 - Atlas missile test launch on October 26, 1962. No nuclear burst.
  • 02:13:02 - an alternately crude and subtle blending of several nuclear explosions, probably with some CG elements.

    Starts off with the initial flash from the Tsar Bomba burst (again), blending with some rather artificial-looking shafts of light which retreat into what appears to be colour-altered footage of the mushroom cloud from Redwing Dakota. This burst tested a thermonuclear warhead design that would become the most widely-used design employed by the U.S. It was first deployed in 1958 and was retained until the last missile was dismantled in 1990. The predicted yield for this test was 800 kilotons; the device actually yielded 1.1 megatons.

    The use of footage of this burst at this moment in the film - the "this is it, we're going to die" moment - is interesting, given Ninja9's comments in his Operation Redwing node:

    The Dakota fireball is famous, for the way it ominously creeps up out of the clouds, throwing a sick red light on them...

    The footage is tinted a sickly yellow-green as used in the film, which made the burst difficult to identify (I only did after looking again at a photo of the burst after reading Ninja9's comment above). This footage further blends into and is overlaid with the condensation rings of the mushroom cloud from Redwing Tewa, which are then overlaid by what looks like the mushroom cloud from Dominic Arkansas (again), heavily cropped, all of which then blends into the rising sun.

    I do like how the condensation rings blend into the shimmering edges of the sun at the end of this sequence, but overall it is rather a messy collage. Considering the amount of footage now available, I cannot understand why a sequence like this was desired rather than just blending one piece of footage into another, which the last few seconds demonstrate could have been done quite effectively. On one hand, it was probably never meant to stand up to excessive scrutiny, but on the other I thought it looked dodgy the first time I saw it.

    That is pretty much the extent of this writeup. Sorry.


    *If it could be imagined that nuclear test footage is in any way refreshing. Still, I suppose if anyone would think this it would be me, as the person who decided that accidental nuclear war would make good Christmas Day reading.

    Sources:

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