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Men on a mission to shoot the explosion
Doug Burton with the specially built camera. Picture: Guy Magowan, The West Australian

For five weeks, 17 newspapermen - perched on a Pilbara hill they named Nick's Nob - stared at the horizon to the west.

The team, including reporters, photographers, drivers and a physicist, had established a temporary lookout between Onslow and Roebourne to cover the imminent explosion of an atomic bomb in the Montebello Islands, about 100km away, for The West Australian and Daily News.

It was an extraordinary period, with the men having to organise all their basic requirements, including tents, toilets, food and keeping the beer cold.

Most of their time was spent organising and practising how to send stories and photos to Perth from their remote location.

But, at all times, someone was watching the horizon for the first sign of the explosion.

Doug Burton, who went on to become chief photographer for WA Newspapers, helped create a makeshift camera specifically for the assignment.

With one of the biggest lens ever used in Australia for newspaper work, the camera was permanently pointed at the islands. Photographers, including Burton, slept beside the camera to ensure the blast was not missed.

Physicist Bill Mangini, who also helped build the camera, was first to see it and, within seconds, Burton was taking photographs that would soon appear on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

After being developed in a makeshift darkroom on Nick's Nob, the film was taken to a nearby airstrip and flown to Perth. Waiting at the Maylands airstrip were two WA Newspapers executives who picked up the film and drove it to the offices in St Georges Terrace.

Burton, one of the few surviving members of the team, is 94 next month but remembers the five-week assignment vividly.

"We had lots of laughs, but it was tough work," he said. "Nothing was easy. Even trying to get the pegs in for the tents was tough work in that Pilbara rock.

"But we were all professional and able to get the stories and photographs down to Perth incredibly quickly. We were very proud of our achievements."