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Marine veteran from SC took iconic atomic bomb photo

Owen Priester examines, on Oct. 18, 2013, one of the negatives taken during his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. Priester captured the image of an atomic bomb test explosion in 1952.

ORANGEBURG, S.C. — It was proclaimed in its day by national press as the best photograph to be taken of an atomic bomb explosion.

The man who took the photo was reluctant to tell the story of how he went from being a South Carolina farm boy to photographer at the nuclear test ranges of Nevada.

"I'm not going to get out here and have a show off with that picture," says 82-year-old Owen Priester of Orangeburg. "You've got guys with Purple Hearts and been in combat. I went in there and did what I could."

The iconic photograph taken by Priester in May 1952 shows the now-familiar mushroom cloud of an atomic blast at Desert Rock, Nev., once ground zero for nuclear testing.

The photograph was plastered on newspaper covers across the country, demonstrating the nation's military might. The atomic yield was equivalent to 19,000 tons of TNT. As part of Operation Tumbler-Snapper, the explosion was named "Dog," the fourth in a series of tests that month.

Priester left his parents' farm in Hampton after being given a choice between joining the U.S. Army or the Marine Corps. He chose the latter, and was sent to Parris Island.

After completing basic training, he was sent to Camp Lejeune, N.C. where an officer asked for a volunteer for office duty. But the Marines had learned to keep their heads down, even at home.

"I done learned down at Parris Island — don't volunteer for nothing," Priester said.

Sensing that mistrust, the officer specifically stated the Marines weren't at Parris Island any more. Priester hesitantly raised his hand.

At the time, the 2nd Division had a photographer who took pictures of the individual Marines to send to their hometown newspapers. When that position came open, Priester was "volunteered" to fill it.

He was given a Speedgraphic camera complete with detachable flash that for the day was fairly sophisticated. His first photograph — a work crew laying cable.

"I learned how to set the speed on the camera to produce a (motion) shot that was clear instead of blurry," he said.

He was then assigned to the 6th Fleet, which would be sent to the Mediterranean. Priester moved with the 6th to Scotland before it worked its way down the European coastline to France and Italy, then on to the "Med," as he calls it.

Some of his photographs as official division photographer include one of Edinburgh Castle. He took photos of a NATO exercise in which a multi-national force made a beach landing. The negatives of the landing were seized.

After the "Med" tour, Priester and his camera were sent back to Camp Lejeune for more newspaper photos. But that didn't last long. The then-21-year-old Marine was ordered to get his gear, the division was being sent to Nevada. He was to be the photographer of an atomic bomb test.

"I didn't know whether to be excited or not. I just went along with the plan," he said. "But it was something nobody else was selected for."

After a rocky flight on a no-name airline, the nervousness over an atomic bomb diminished. Priester said he and his buddies were just glad to be back on firm ground.

"I wanted to lay on the runway," he said.

The Marines were moved to the Nevada desert and ordered to dig foxholes in what seemed to them to be the middle of nothing. Priester was in the second row of foxholes behind a line of his buddies.

While waiting in their holes, the Marines remembered the men dying in Korea. With that in mind, they wanted to show they were doing their duty as well. Priester instructed several buddies in the front line to get on top of their fox holes when the bomb went off.

"We were told to keep our eyes closed and stay down," he said. "Then I heard this 'whoomp' and felt a breeze come by."

The Marines were instructed they had to keep their eyes closed for at least 10 seconds after the explosion to allow the initial light from the blast to subside.

After that waiting period, Priester and the Marines moved.

"When they got up in position, I snapped the shot," he said. "I'm 10 miles away from it. It looks like I'm right under it."

Soon after, an officer ran down the line screaming for Priester's film. He thought he'd never see if he got the shot or not.

However, as the division was sent back to Lejeune, so was the film. Copies were sent to Washington and Priester was told the negatives were his.

After his service was up, Priester stuck with his photography as a hobby. He says he's taken some memorable shots. Some of his favorites were taken during his service in Rome, a city he felt was the most impressive due to its history.

But there's one photograph that stands out, one that marks an actual historical moment in time, a black and white photograph that stirs images of smoke plumes and still causes an Orangeburg man to say under his breath, "Semper Fi."

"Being in the Marine Corps and being a photographer, I guess taking that picture is one of the most memorable days of my life," he said.
 

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