The story of Sandia’s decades in nuclear field testing
Sandia video producer Myra Buteau sweeps her hand toward the top shelf of a bookcase stuffed with black cases of high-definition tapes. The biggest challenge in telling the story of Sandia’s years of work in above-ground and underground nuclear field tests, she says, was condensing the 100 hours of interviews on those tapes into a 32-minute historical documentary.
“Cold War Warriors” traces nuclear weapons field testing from the first nuclear detonation in southern New Mexico in 1945 to the US moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992. Myra (3653) narrates, but the story is largely told by 44 Sandia field testers, the people she calls “game changers in the evolution of nuclear weapons testing.”
“I wanted to create a documentary that not only showed the significance of their contributions but also gave the essence of who these nuclear weapons field testers were,” she says.
The film opens with a montage of historical photos and documents and progresses into interwoven interviews about nearly 50 years of nuclear tests in New Mexico, Pacific Islands, and the Nevada Test Site, now the Nevada National Security Site. It includes old footage of tests and the political events that shaped the era. Myra calls the field testers “behind-the-scenes heroes on the world stage during a frightening time in American history known as the Cold War.”
“It’s important for people to see the legacy of the Labs and the people who built that legacy,” she says. “I really wanted to pay tribute to the individuals who dedicated their lives, who had such a passion for this work, and to the families. There were a lot of stories of people who’d go away to testing and they’d be gone three weeks, four weeks, five weeks. It was a huge effort.”
Finding the guys who were there
The first interview shown is with the late Ben Benjamin, who teases that the filmmakers really wanted J. Robert Oppenheimer or Gen. Leslie Groves, the men who headed the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb. But they died decades ago, forcing the interviewers to go down a list until “you finally got to a technician who was there, and that was me.”
Myra says in the documentary, Ben “epitomized the field test, the can-do attitude, the esprit de corps mindset, and the get-the-job-done motto.”
The idea for the program came from David Thompson, former manager of the Nevada Test Site, who suggested capturing the recollections of those behind the nuclear tests. He turned to then-Sandia President Tom Hunter, who backed the idea. Thompson tapped Myra to put the documentary together. The project took a decade and countless people across the Labs — from the historian and archivist to people in testing and nuclear weapons groups, knowledge preservation, digital streaming, and classification, she says.
Field tester Al Chabai, now retired, suggested many of the people interviewed and conducted most of the conversations. Al, who also appears in the documentary, worked in the testing program for decades. “He was the perfect choice,” Myra says. “He knew the people because he worked with them. I did some of the interviews, but I just didn’t have the knowledge to ask the questions that he knew to ask.”
She began editing by paring the interviews to the most striking nuggets, then wove those clips into a chronological story with a natural flow. “When you interview people on certain topics they’ll say very similar things, and then it’s easy to cut back and forth,” says Myra, a Sandia video producer/irector for two dozen years. She introduced the documentary when it was shown at an April 25 Tech Symposium.
Those who lived it have passion for the story
Her previous work in everything from Weapon Intern Program graduation ceremony videos to an early career in television and radio taught her “people can tell a story better than I could ever script it, and they have passion and the emotion.”
The budget was limited, so she decided to begin by talking to as many field test workers as possible. That took a year. The original list was longer than the 44 eventually interviewed, but there wasn’t enough money to film everyone. When the initial budget ran out, there was no funding to edit all the footage and produce the documentary.
“I wanted to get as many interviews done as we could because of the advanced age of some of the individuals,” Myra says. “I thought that was more important. I thought perhaps sometime in the future we could get more funding to do the editing. Little did I know it would be 10 years.”
About 40 percent of those interviewed have since died, she says. “Had we not captured this knowledge, we would not have this historical archive of their stories and what they went through and who they met, what they did.”
Documentary made up of 44 interviews
Many people pushed for funding over the years to finish the documentary. Sandia’s nuclear weapons knowledge preservation office funded the original edit but not all the interviews made that cut. Myra again turned to the nuclear weapons program for additional funding. “I didn’t want to put anything out there that didn’t have everybody that we had interviewed,” she says.
Myra also wanted the entire interviews and the high-resolution format available in the future, so the original tapes eventually will be housed in the Defense Threat Reduction Agency archives. “I don’t want them to go into an abyss where no one has access to them,” she says. “I think they’re historically important.”
She hopes the film gives viewers a greater appreciation for field testing “in the era in which these people lived and worked, which was under the fear of the Cold War. I hope they have a greater appreciation of all that it took to protect our nation and to create a nuclear weapons arsenal.”
View the documentary below, or go to https://youtu.be/bCENYSK9qL0.