Incident at Desert Base: The True Story of the Banner Gamma Bomb

In May 1962, physicist Bruce Banner was preparing to test an experimental weapon of his own design at a classified research base in the New Mexico desert. 

Moments before the weapon was to be detonated, it was discovered that a teenager named Rick Jones had somehow made his way through security and onto the test range, prompting an alarmed Banner to personally leave shelter and collect the young man. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Igor Drenkov—a Soviet spy who had infiltrated the project as Banner’s assistant—purposefully neglected to halt the countdown. 

Banner pushed Jones into the safety of a trench only an instant before the weapon detonated, bathing Banner in its radiation. The resulting change in Banner’s physiology would produce spontaneous muscle growth in response to external and internal stimuli and affect his brain chemistry. This is the story we all know about the creation of the strange, tragic creature that would soon be known to the world as “The Hulk.”

But it’s a frustratingly incomplete story. The slightest examination raises troubling questions, suggesting multiple points of failure. How was a Soviet spy able to access such a sensitive, top-secret project? How was a teenager able to sneak onto a heavily guarded military testing base? Why did Banner personally intervene to retrieve Jones?

And perhaps the most important question: what was the intended purpose of the so-called “gamma bomb” of Banner’s creation? 

A more powerful successor to the atomic bomb? The prevailing trend in nuclear weapons development at the time was focused on variable payload, not a higher yield. A “dirty bomb” capable of contaminating an area with radiation while leaving the local infrastructure intact? Such weapons are highly controversial politically and difficult to implement in strategic warfare. What exactly, for that matter, is “gamma radiation” itself? 

The facts surrounding the test have been classified for decades, but for the first time, eyewitness accounts from personnel actually involved with the program, along with testimony from others familiar with Banner and his work, can now be shared. They recontextualize the events we know and paint the incident in a shocking new light.


In 1959, a gigantic extraterrestrial invader known as Gormuu, self-proclaimed “warrior of Kraalo,” landed in Central City, California, with the stated intent of conquering the planet Earth. Gormuu was defeated thanks to the timely intervention of local scientist Dr. Reed Richards.

DR. REED “MISTER FANTASTIC” RICHARDS (chairman, Fantastic Four): I had already been privately developing a prototype spacecraft capable of being launched and crewed by untrained astronauts, and which would use a new type of magnetic radiation shielding to keep the size and weight to a minimum. After the Gormuu incident, Col. Edward Harrison with Army intelligence contacted me about funding further development into a viable craft. After the Gormuu incident, it initially seemed prudent to develop the rocket as part of a new line of defense against any subsequent attacks from space.

GEN. THADDEUS “THUNDERBOLT” ROSS (U.S. Air Force; director, Project Gamma): I spoke to Harrison often. He pulled funding for the Richards rocket when it became clear Richards was going to put his own interests over his country’s. A few years into the project, Richards started to insist the technology should be used for exploration instead of defense. You ask me, all he really ever wanted was to take his damn friends on a Sunday drive into space. 

COL. JOHN JAMESON (astronaut, NASA): My space launch [in March 1963] was in a rocket derived from Richards’ designs. “Ripped off,” you might say. If I’d known, I might have objected. The point of staging the launch just outside New York City was for publicity, but also to demonstrate that this kind of rocket could be prepped quickly and without all the infrastructure at Cape Canaveral necessary for a conventional launch.

This launch nearly ended in tragedy when the rocket—seemingly of inferior construction—encountered mechanical failure shortly after launch. The timely intervention of the costumed vigilante Spider-Man, then known primarily for his stunt shows and television appearances, saved Jameson’s life but humiliated NASA and the military. The program was scrapped.

ROSS: By that point, Richards and his crew were well up and running, operating out of the Baxter Building. The top brass decided—despite the strong objections of me and many of my colleagues—that they and all the other costumed yahoos crawling out of the woodwork would be the first line of defense against any future attacks from space. For the most part, the Army got out of the interplanetary defense game. But that wasn’t til ’63. In ’61, ’62, we still needed a bomb for that rocket. 

Highly decorated and respected for his services to his country, Gen. Ross, a third-generation military man, had been tapped to lead the weapons project of the overall extraterrestrial defense initiative shortly after its creation. 

ROSS: It was a new type of war, they said, with a new type of weapon, but they told me they wanted old-fashioned leadership. [Pause.] Just blowing smoke.

The initiative was divided into three projects. Project Alpha worked to develop a spacecraft capable of engaging with alien attackers. Project Beta remains classified, although some researchers now believe it was a Weapon Plus operation.1 Ross was tapped to head Project Gamma.

ROSS: Alpha was the bomber, Beta was the crew, Gamma was the bomb. Simple as that. 

RICHARDS: It needs to be stressed that Dr. Banner’s “gamma radiation” is not literally the form of electromagnetic radiation we commonly refer to as “gamma rays.” Gamma rays had been discovered in 1900 and were reasonably well understood by this point. Conventional gamma rays are not responsible for the Hulk’s existence, despite the popular misunderstanding.

ROSS: Banner didn’t have a name for the stuff yet, and naming it after the project conveniently gave us something innocuous enough to put on the official books for cover.


The newly christened Project Gamma was tasked with developing a new superweapon for a new age of possible interstellar warfare. Gen. Ross requested proposals from many of the country’s top minds.

ROSS: We went to Stark first.

TONY STARK (chairman, Stark Industries; inventor of the “Iron Man” defensive armor system): Of course they asked me first. S.I. was the top weapons contractor to the military at the time. I offered them an early version of my repulsor ray technology—a beam weapon instead of a bomb. But they didn’t want to contract out. Project Gamma they wanted to own, lock, stock, and barrel. I wasn’t comfortable with that, so I walked.

ROSS: We heard from a few others, but in the end, I wanted to go with [nuclear physicist Otto] Octavius. Octavius was my recommendation. But the brass, well, they took a shine to their new golden boy, Banner.

Dr. Robert Bruce Banner, a young nuclear physicist with degrees from Desert State University, Pennsylvania State University, and Harvard, was making a name for himself in the scientific community for his theories on an exotic new form of radiation but was having trouble securing funding for research.

STARK: Here’s the thing with Banner: he just fundamentally could not be bothered to show his work. You’re trying to get funding, you have to show people procedure and testing and results. Every respectable scientist does this as a matter of course, but to him, this was jumping through hoops. That’s the fundamental arrogance of Bruce Banner. So the military comes along and they hear how brilliant this guy is, and he says, “If you’ll throw some money at me to research this new radiation I’ve discovered, I’ll turn it into a bomb for you.” The Army, as you can imagine, salivates over this, and Banner’s able to basically dictate his own terms and secure a pile of cash with minimal oversight. Imagine that! Banner joined up with the military to avoid discipline!

ROSS: You know what the trouble with Banner was? He lacked discipline.

STARK: Ross said that? You know, that may be the only thing I’ve ever agreed with him on.

After the military and Banner had come to terms, Banner was installed at Desert Base in New Mexico, under Gen. Ross’s supervision. Almost immediately, they began to clash.

ROSS: They try to paint me in the media as this blustering old goat who’s got it in for “the eggheads.” Well, I’d worked with scientists before. I can respect scientists. But I demand that they respect me and the chain of command in return. Banner did not. [Pause.] He had this way of looking through you, you know. You would come to him with valid concerns and timetables, and he’d nod along, and it’s not that he wasn’t listening, but he wasn’t seeing you. There was just this dead, condescending look in his eyes, like he didn’t understand why we were bothering him in his important work. 

Gen. Ross would lodge several complaints to his superiors about Banner, none of which were followed up on.

ROSS: He got carte blanche. Anything he wanted, the top brass gave him. They were so scared that anything they might do or I might say would frighten away the precious boy genius Bruce Banner.

RICHARDS: It’s possible that, while I was still working on Project Alpha, the government was beginning to sense my discomfort with the military applications of my technology and didn’t want to alienate both of us. I was asked several times for my opinions about Banner, but all I could vouch for was the brilliance of his work. People are always surprised to hear it, but I hadn’t met him by that point. 

STARK: I’d met him, and I could’ve told them he was a headcase. There’s no way around it: Bruce Banner was creepy. Ultra-repressed. You know about the identical purple suits—the Einstein thing that if you wear the same clothes every day, that supposedly frees up part of your brain to focus on other things. But why purple? He told me, “Purple suits are never in fashion, so purple suits will never be out of fashion.” Don’t you think there’s a real arrogance to that? That’s some kind of weird power move, I think.

ROSS: He would make demands and then refuse to budge, no matter how reasonably you sat the man down and explained your position. “That’s just the way it has to be, General,” he’d say to me. I can respect a man who disagrees with you if he argues his point, shows a little passion, but with Banner you got nothing. So he’d never explain himself, he just expected you to roll over. And the top brass did, time and again. 


Banner was asked to hand-pick his personnel for the project. He insisted on a minimal staff with one chief assistant.

ROSS: At first I thought this was the one—the only—checkmark in the plus column for Bruce Banner. A smaller staff minimizes the risk for leaks and keeps the budget under control.

Ross would not, however, be pleased with Banner’s choice of assistant.

IGOR DRENKOV (former spy, U.S.S.R.):2 My name is Igor Drenkov. In November of 1961, I was recruited by Dr. Robert Bruce Banner to assist him on the gamma bomb project. At the insistence of my government, I accepted the position.

ROSS: Obviously, he was a spy. I couldn’t believe they allowed this. His name is Igor Drenkov! I thought everyone had lost their damned minds.

COL. NICHOLAS FURY (director, Supreme Headquarters International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division): Drenkov ran a hell of a bluff. He had almost no cover story whatsoever, but that’s what convinced ’em he was on the level. 

ROSS: Oh, I raised hell about Drenkov. Trusting a supposed recent defector to work on the top national defense project at the highest levels of secrecy? But Banner had heard of the brilliant Dr. Drenkov in some journal somewhere and was convinced he was the only man for the job. “It’s got to be Drenkov, General. He’s the only one who will be able to follow this work,” he told me. It’s his own damned fault.

DRENKOV: My superiors knew only that Banner was working with the military on a weapon. I was to determine the nature of that weapon and—if it was intended to be used against the Soviet Union—eliminate him to prevent its creation. 

Throughout his time at Desert Base, Drenkov kept in constant contact with his superiors.

DRENKOV: I had implanted a miniature transistor shortwave-sending set of my own design under my thumbnail, which was undetectable by the Americans’ technology at the time.

ROSS: That thumb radio! I swear to God, I caught him once out of the corner of my eye talking into his thumb. They said I was being paranoid! God damn it. The only reason I didn’t resign is because nobody else was keeping an eye on Drenkov!

DRENKOV: Once I was satisfied that Banner’s weapon was not a direct threat intended to be used against my country, my new orders called for me to learn as much as I could about the gamma bomb so that I could relay that information back to our own scientists.

But Drenkov would not be able to get his hands on the documentation he needed.

DRENKOV: My fellow scientists and I were only ever given just enough information to complete our portions of the project. Even in my position as chief assistant, all I ever had access to were pieces. Incomplete and useless on their own.

ROSS: The one saving grace, the only thing that prevented a complete disaster, is that any documentation Banner had was minimal. For the most part, it was in his head.

STARK: Arrogance, I’m telling you. See how well the “all in my head” strategy worked out for Abraham Erskine [creator of the super-soldier formula, which was lost in Erskine’s assassination in 1940].


Tensions between Banner and Gen. Ross only exacerbated after the arrival of the general’s daughter, Betty.

ROSS: She had just graduated from college, and I told her she could stay with me at the base while she decided what her next steps were going to be. I…[Hesitates.]…hadn’t always been the most attentive father. I won’t apologize for serving my country, but I wanted to get closer to Betty again—hell, maybe for the first time—and since it looked like I was going to be nothing but a glorified babysitter on the base, I’d have time to reconnect. So I invite her to stay and—what do you know?—she falls for Banner. I still don’t understand what she could’ve seen in him.

MAJ. GLENN TALBOT (U.S. Army; ex-husband, Betty Banner): Banner was the only guy she’d ever seen stand up to her father! Anyone could see that. It’s so stupidly obvious. How many boyfriends had she brought home that ol’ “Thunderbolt” scared off? All she’d ever known were tough guys, and Ross out-toughed every last one of them. But Banner? Banner was never scared of Ross. He knew the Army would do whatever he wanted in exchange for the bomb. So he never backed down, no matter what kind of cartoon shouting match Ross tried to provoke him with, and that intrigued her. She sees this guy, and he seems quiet and reserved and mysterious, and she thinks he’s this sensitive soul in need of understanding. Plus, he’s got his sob story with his mother and father. You know how women are; they like a project. She thought she could draw out the “real” him. Well, the real him came out, all right.

Banner and Betty Ross gradually came to spend time together at Desert Base, but they did not strike up an immediate relationship.

TALBOT: She’s shy, Betty is. Two introverts: it doesn’t work.

ROSS: Here’s the thing of it, and you don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to. I’m not some jealous father with a grudge for the guy making time with his daughter. I knew Banner was bad news already. That was the whole problem. I could tell she cared for him, and I could tell he cared for her. If Banner would have come up to me and said, “I’m in love with your daughter,” well, I would thunder to high heaven, but I know I’d have to live with it. But he never said anything, not to me, not to her, not to anybody. That’s the real reason I called him a coward. He couldn’t tell the woman he loved how he felt.

DRENKOV: Knowing that the only way to gain information about the gamma bomb was directly from Banner, I made it my mission to ingratiate myself to him. I knew about his attraction to Ross’ daughter—every time he looked at her, his face betrayed it—so I attempted to strike up a personal friendship with Banner, with Ross’s daughter the key. Perhaps, I suggested, I could help him woo her. But he would have none of it, do you understand? I opened up to him about my personal life, the girl I’d left behind in Russia—not my cover, my own true life—to give my words authenticity, to attempt to break Banner’s defenses. He could listen to me pour my heart out for an hour. And then he would look at me—look through me—and say, “Yes, but I could never do that.” [Pauses.] I could have throttled him!


Work progressed slowly on the gamma bomb, largely due to Banner’s insistence that none of the scientists but him ever have the complete picture of the project.

DRENKOV: We were leaders in our fields. We were not on Banner’s level, it’s true. But, I reasoned, he should have told us more. He treated us like glorified errand boys. “Do this and only this, and tell me the result.” Do you understand? We were never even told what results we were looking for. I could not understand it. All I could do was carry assignments and results back and forth. I could not risk alienating Banner, but I lodged a confidential complaint to Gen. Ross.

ROSS: So picture this! A so-called “defector” from Russia walks up to the only man on the base who suspects him for what he is, and he complains to me that Banner isn’t telling him enough!

FURY: Not the sorta thing you’re supposed to do if you’re a spy. ‘Course, it only convinced everyone but Ross all the more that he wasn’t a spy. It’d be brilliant if he’d done it on purpose. 

DRENKOV: I had all these pieces of information, you understand, but I could not see what they were supposed to add up to. I never had the high-level picture of what we were supposed to accomplish. I racked my brain. What, exactly, was this gamma bomb supposed to do? An enormous source of untapped energy. What was this energy? What effect would it have? I was the chief assistant to the program, and even I did not know. 

ROSS: I started to agree with Drenkov! I didn’t know whose side I was on anymore.

DRENKOV: No matter how close I tried to get to Banner, no matter how much I gave of myself, he gave nothing in return. I began to grow paranoid. I thought it was perhaps an elaborate ruse: a test, for me, from my country. To test my skills, my loyalty. I began acting erratically, even violently toward Banner. But Banner always reacted to me the same way, no matter what I would do.

FURY: Banner broke Drenkov, I’m tellin’ ya.


After the bomb’s completion, Banner engaged in a series of personal tests that delayed the final test detonation of the gamma bomb.

ROSS: I had my men stationed at the base just sitting on their hands waiting for that test. And I couldn’t get through to Banner that it wasn’t just time and money; there was the human element as well.

“FRANK”3 (military police, Desert Base): We got there and it was, “When’s that bomb supposed to go off?” “Couple of days.” They kept pushing it back so that any time you asked, it was: “Couple of days.” We were there for weeks, doing exactly nothing.

ROSS: Morale was cracking. The men weren’t taking this seriously.

“FRANK”: Oh, we had a pretty wild time once we figured out we were in this for the long haul and that “Thunderbolt” Ross couldn’t say “boo” to Banner. Up all night, booze and drugs, sneaking girls in. Be so hungover you’d just barely make it to your post, but that was the thing: it just didn’t matter. We knew it, and Ross knew we knew it.

ROSS: The base was a mess. Increasingly disgruntled scientists, guards falling asleep on the job, my daughter mooning over a man, a Russian spy storming around whispering into his thumb. And in the middle of it all: Banner. Just the same Banner as ever, not caring one whit about what happened to anybody else in the world. My nerves were a mess. And all I could do was yell, like an idiot. I’d fought in the war, I’d led men to victory and led men to their deaths. Is this what it was going to be like from now on?

Suddenly, Banner announced the bomb was ready for its final test. Knowing that the end of the long project was near did nothing to alleviate tensions.

DRENKOV: I was ranting, by the end. I didn’t care about my mission anymore. It wasn’t even as a scientist that I wanted to know what would happen when that bomb went off. I just wanted to know. As a man! He owed me that!

Gen. Ross arrived to oversee the detonation.

ROSS: I should have been glad that it was almost over, should have just held my tongue. But I gave him hell. Just seeing him, I couldn’t stand thinking of what that man had put me through.

Betty Ross accompanied Gen. Ross and defused the argument.

TALBOT: Years later after I’d married Betty, Ross told me—when he was drunk—it was the first time his daughter had ever brushed him aside. That’s what really wrecked him, I think, derailed his career. I have the greatest respect for Ross’ past service, but…they’re all insane. Banner, the Rosses, Drenkov, all of them.

Drenkov made one final plea for Banner to tell him the secret of gamma radiation.

DRENKOV: I remember his exact words. “You know I detest men who think with their fists.” That was it. No matter my own scientific credentials, no matter how much I had opened up to him, that was the limit of his regard for me. A man who thinks with his fists. I—I was devastated.

At that moment, Banner detected there was a person on the bomb range. He told Drenkov to hold the countdown and personally drove out to the range.

“FRANK”: One of us [military police] should have gone, of course. One of us should have grabbed him by the shoulder and gone, “Hold on, buddy, that’s our job, you stay here.” But no one was engaged. I was hung over.

Banner discovered Rick Jones, casually sitting on the bomb range, claiming he had been dared to sneak in and had evaded the guards.

“FRANK”: I don’t know who should have caught Jones. I was stationed inside, none of this is my fault.

TOM RHOYMAS (former friend, Rick Jones; author of Marvel Boy: A Childhood with Rick Jones): Listen, I didn’t tell him to drive out on that bomb range. None of the guys we used to hang with—and I’m sure of it—dared him to drive out on that bomb range. We were dumb kids, sure, but we weren’t “break into a secret government test area” dumb. But Rick, I know he’d—he’d gotten bounced from another foster family just before that, and he was pretty raw about it. I mean, I can’t prove anything, and Rick won’t talk to me anymore, but read my book, I make the case. Rick always thought he was destined for greatness but he kept saying life kept getting in the way of that. Imagine them finding an overturned convertible with his smoking body in it, still holding onto his harmonica. I think he thought people would remember that.

RICK JONES (associate, the Hulk, Captain America and the Avengers, Captain Mar-Vell):4 It’s just like, it’s destiny, man, movin’ us around. You know, pieces on a chess board. I know everyone focuses on, like, property damage or whatever, but think about the lives the Hulk has saved, all the villains and aliens and monsters he’s stopped. Or think about where we’d be today if Nixon had a couple gamma bombs to drop on Vietnam! I think in the balance of like, everything, right, the Hulk’s done more good than bad. So that’s my story. The universe, or something, running through me, put me there, on that bomb range. 

It was then that Drenkov made that fateful decision.

DRENKOV: Everything was happening so fast, my head was whirling. Why had Banner driven out himself? A man who cared nothing for anyone was suddenly shaken to the bone. The Banner I knew would have said, “Why doesn’t someone drive out there to fetch that boy? He’s interrupting my experiment.” But then I thought about what it was he said just before he saw Jones. I think the momentousness of the occasion breached even his defenses, his callous lack of concern for the rest of the world. Because what he said, I suddenly realized, was a confession: “We’ll finally learn what happens when the powerful gamma rays are released.” Don’t you understand? When I realized what he’d done—who he truly was—I discovered a moral outrage. I decided not to halt the countdown. Banner deserved to die.

STARK: I know everybody thinks Drenkov’s crazy—and, you know, they’re not wrong—but I think he’s 100% got Banner’s number on this. I told you, he couldn’t be bothered with academia, with the standard research process. It was just about pure knowledge with him. He just wanted that end result and didn’t care how he got it.

RICHARDS: It’s really a very serious accusation to… [Hesitates.] You know, in his heart, I’m convinced Bruce Banner is a good man, and I don’t want to believe he could be this…this reckless.

DRENKOV: Listen to me: the radiation that Banner discovered was highly esoteric and unstable, and he came to realize that wielded only at an extremely large scale could he determine its properties. Do you understand now? The reason we were never told what the gamma bomb was supposed to do? Because he never understood himself! He designed and built the largest, most dangerous weapon in the history of the world, the source of untold pain and destruction…just to see what it would do.