WATERLOO — Richard Meyer never stepped foot in Korea during the war, but he saw plenty of action within two miles of an atomic blast launched stateside by the U.S. military.
Born April 29, 1932, on a farm north of Eldorado, Meyer grew up on a dairy farm and attended country school with eight grades in one school room, graduating in 1950. His great-grandparents came to the U.S. from Germany in 1876, settling north of Eldorado.
Meyer was familiar with the military as his older brother worked on air fields and ran a bulldozer while serving in the Army Air Force in Germany at the end of World War II.
Meyer was drafted into the U.S. Army in July 1953, after being deferred once when his mother had an operation. “So I knew it was coming up,” he said.
He was sent to Fort Riley in Kansas and after two weeks he boarded a plane to Baltimore, Md., and was bused up to Aberdeen, Md., for ordnance training. He graduated basic training and attended school for anti-aircraft repair in New Jersey until the military announced anti-aircraft repair was obsolete because of a different process they were using.
Meyer was stationed in the barracks at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey with famed writer Ira Levin, who was assigned to write propaganda for the Army. Some of Levin’s most notable works include novels “A Kiss Before Dying” in 1953, “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1967 and “The Stepford Wives” in 1972.
“He was a nice fellow,” Richard said. “He was on (CNN’s) Larry King Live one night so I called in, got to talk to him,” he said. “He remembered ... Company Q.”
Meyer was then sent to Fort Lewis in Seattle, where he later took a train to San Francisco to report to the 3623rd Ordnance Company, later changed to the 573rd company. There he cleaned weapons and supplied tanks and artillery to the California National Guard.
Later, Meyer was assigned to serve — preparing trucks, batteries, tires and engines —at an atomic testing sight in Nevada, as a private first class. There he slept in a shack made out of wood and had an oil heater for the cold nights.
“They set off 14 atomic bombs that year — 1955,” he said. Most bombs were blasted from 300-foot steel towers, but a few were detonated underground and one from a plane.
Base Camp Mercury was a military-style encampment for civilian personnel involved in the testing program. Now known as Mercury, Nev., it is a closed city in Nye County in Nevada, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Meyer was positioned near the camp in the southern outskirts of the testing grounds.
“There was a gate there by Mercury where you crossed over into the atomic test sight. We went there to Mercury for movies and stuff like that,” Meyer said. The soldiers took Army trucks through Camp Mercury and up into the test site, a dry lake bed, with the steel towers for the bombs.
“We parked our trucks around this tower to see what effects the atomic bomb would have on these trucks,” he said.
Meyer’s company hunkered down in trenches “about 2 miles from the bomb tower. They set off the bomb and we were covered in dust, and after we stood up after the bomb was over, we would see what happened,” Meyer said.
“We never found out how much radiation we really did get.”
Meyer described the explosion as a bright white flash.
“You had to cover your eyes, and a loud bang followed. ... You could see the shock wave coming toward you ... and when it hits your building it just shook,” he said. “And one time they broke windows in Las Vegas ... and they could see the mushroom cloud in San Francisco, which is quite a ways away.”
One of Meyer’s jobs after the blast, was to detect radiation with a Geiger counter, a handheld device built to detect radioactivity. The soldiers used these to test the tanks after the blast. Meyer recalled there was still radiation inside them.
“The fallout really came across Iowa in some places. The cows were tested positive for the radiation, it went clear across the United States,” he said, including killing sheep located north of the test site in Nevada.
About five years ago, Meyer discovered he had developed cancer in the lining of his bladder, which has since been removed.
“They figured it came from that (radiation), I don’t know, maybe,” he said.
He also recalls visiting another site in the Mohave Desert where an atomic bomb was launched. There, nothing remained of the large tower once holding the bomb.
“The sand was like it was swept, just as smooth as can be, with a bunch of glass puddles where the sand had melted. They had a motel there, with the windows facing the bomb, and the door and the back wall was solid brick. It had blown out the back wall.
“The first mile or two (outside the blast) there wasn’t any vegetation at all, about three miles out it was charred, burned vegetation,” he said.
Before being discharged, Meyer was stationed at Camp Roberts in California. He was in San Francisco during the United Nation’s 10th anniversary event in 1955. Meyer remembers seeing President Dwight Eisenhower as well as several officials from different countries.
After recovering from a ruptured appendix, Meyer was discharged in June 1955. He returned to Eldorado and began farming again.
“I suppose the military discipline taught you how to live your life,” he said. “A lot of fellows found their home in the military, they reenlisted and it was like a family to them.”
But not for Meyer, now 85 years old. His family was at home in Iowa where he married his girlfriend, Ramona Olson Meyer, in September 1955. They have four sons.