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Atomic blasts lit up the early morning sky in 1950s Los Angeles

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Eerie photos from the era capture these “A-bomb sunrises”

Bomb test glow
An atomic bomb test lights up Downtown LA in the predawn hours in 1953.
Photos courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

With Culver City’s Cold War-focused Wende Museum announcing last week its plans to move into a 1949 National Guard Armory building, now seems like a good opportunity to take a look back at how Los Angeles looked during that era of international tension—specifically, how it looked during atomic bomb tests in the Nevada desert.

The United States hasn’t detonated a nuclear weapon in nearly 25 years, but between 1945 and 1992, 1,030 bombs were tested, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (an additional 24 tests were performed jointly with the United Kingdom).

For the final 30 years of this period, the weapons were detonated underground, but before that many of the tests were mushroom cloud-producing atmospheric tests performed in the open air. The bulk of these were carried out at the Nevada Test Site, just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 300 miles from LA.

Despite the sizable distance, the flashes of radiation produced by many of the bombs detonated at the test site were bright enough to light up the early morning sky in Los Angeles. These “A-bomb sunrises,” as they were sometimes called, were a regular enough occurrence that people rose early in the morning to witness them on days when tests were occurring.

These photos show the eerie glow the bombs produced in areas around LA.

Rooftops illuminated by bomb
The flash of the bomb can clearly be seen over the glow of streetlights in this image from 1955.
man pointing at flash from bomb
The flash of the bomb seen from the roof of the Herald Examiner Building on Broadway.
People watching bomb test
A group of spectators watch during a test.
Man watches light from bomb test
Light over Downtown LA
Another view of Downtown during the tests, with the now-demolished Richfield Tower on the right.
Man pointing to atomic bomb glow
The glowing sky seen from Exposition Park in 1955.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Angelenos observing the flashes of light produced by the bombs, a government-assembled team of movie industry professionals was busy documenting the tests. The collection of over 250 producers, directors, and camera operators worked out of a secret film studio in the Hollywood Hills and traveled to Nevada and the South Pacific in order to photograph the massive explosions.

Their footage has now been declassified and can be seen here.