Incredible Declassified Government Photos

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:46:00 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

The invention of photography changed our ability to record history like never before. The potential wasn’t lost on the U.S. government, which faithfully chronicled a huge collection of photographs featuring evidence that was never intended for public eyes.

Many of the best photos in an incredible government collection were only recently declassified as part of the Freedom of Information act. From JFK intel to UFO sightings, let’s take a backstage peek at some of the most infamous events in American history — in photos!

Atomic Bomb Test Dummies in 1953

Nothing creepy happening here at all. It’s just an abandoned house full of mannequins enjoying an evening meal. Okay, you may now proceed to freak out because things are about to get even worse. As it turns out, back in 1953, the government set up an entire fake town populated entirely by mannequins.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettman/Getty Images

Why? Well, Creeptown, USA, was assembled in the Nevada desert within a couple of miles of where they planned to test the atomic bomb. The goal was to see what effects the bomb would have on people within the blast range.

Saddam Hussein After His Capture

On December 13, 2003, American military forces captured notorious Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during Operation Red Dawn. In March of the same year, things had begun to unravel for Hussein in a big way when the U.S. stormed into Iraq to put an end to his 20-year rule.

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Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

Although he was reportedly obsessed with hygiene, the dictator was found hiding in a 6-foot-by-8-foot hole and wasn't exactly looking his best. After standing trial for a variety of crimes, he was executed three years later on December 30, 2006.

Emergency Response Teams at the Pentagon After 9/11

On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, two of which crashed into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York City. The photo here shows the devastation caused by the third plane, which crashed into the Pentagon, killing 125 people inside the building and all 64 passengers on American Airlines Flight 77.

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Photo Courtesy: FBI/

Passengers aboard the fourth hijacked plane, United Airlines Flight 93, received word of the other attacks and rallied to overwhelm their hijackers. Their heroism forced the plane to crash into a rural Pennsylvania field, rather than its intended target, which is believed to be either the White House or the Capitol.

Project 1794: Declassified Flying Saucer Plans

In 2012, a 1956 report called "Project 1794, Final Development Summary Report" was finally declassified. Its pages detailed the U.S. government's efforts to develop flying saucers in the 1950s. Why? Apparently, they were supposed to intercept Soviet missiles during the Cold War.

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Photo Courtesy: US Air Force/National Archives

The saucers were designed to be supersonic, achieve Mach 3-4 speeds and be capable of vertical flight at extremely high altitudes. Although the report claims they were developed in the 1950s, it's interesting to note that by rearranging the numbers in Project 1794, you get 1947, the year of the mysterious Roswell crash incident. Interesting, don’t you think?

Family Photo Charles Duke Left on the Moon

On April 20, 1972, Charles Duke became the youngest man ever to walk on the moon. The then 36-year-old father had spent months away from his family as he trained for the Apollo 16 mission. He had promised his young sons that he would symbolically take them along via a family portrait.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikipedia

Duke lived up to his word and dropped the photo on the moon's surface, where it remains to this day. The back of it reads, "This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth, who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972."

Pre-WWII Aircraft Listening Devices

Although we may be able to track aircraft on radar screens today, things weren't always so easy. This Pre-WW2 photo shows Japanese Emperor Hirohito checking out an array of acoustic listening devices that were used to locate enemy planes.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Each locator had both a horizontal and a vertical horn, both of which led back to a headphone set. A technician would listen via the headphones to see if he could make out the sound of enemy plane engines. He could then rotate the horns until the sound was centered, which would help determine the direction of the sound.

Atomic Bomb Preparations at Tinian Island

One of a series of declassified photos, this picture shows the final 1945 preparations of "Fat Man," an atomic bomb that was later dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki during WWII. The soldier pictured here is checking the casings on the bomb before it departed the military base at Tinian Island.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

When the bomb was finally dropped, it killed an estimated 40,000 people. Three days prior, another atomic bomb known as "Little Boy" was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, killing more than 80,000 people instantly. The two bombings convinced Japan’s Emperor Hirohito to surrender unconditionally.

Hiroshima After Atomic Bombing

The bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 marked the first time that an atomic weapon had ever been used in the history of war. Its effects were devastating for the once thriving Japanese city, leaving 90% of the urban metropolis completely leveled.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

In addition to the 80,000 people who were killed instantly in the bomb's blast, tens of thousands of survivors later died from injuries or radiation poisoning. After a second bomb was dropped three days later, Japan's Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender due to "a new and most cruel bomb."

Sam the Monkey After His Space Ride

This little rhesus monkey's name is Sam, and this photo was taken right after he returned from an adventure on the rocket ship Little Joe-2 (LJ-2). The spacecraft was a smaller version of a larger rocket and was developed to help test the effects of weightlessness on human astronauts.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Flickr

Sam experienced three minutes of weightlessness during his flight and was safely retrieved by the Navy after returning to Earth. The success of Sam's mission, as well as several additional flights, ultimately led to the launch of NASA's Project Mercury program.

Witnesses Right After JFK's Assassination

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was tragically assassinated during a parade in Dallas, Texas. Bill and Gayle Newman, the couple who can be seen above covering their young children, were among the witnesses closest to the President when the last, fatal shot rang out.

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Photo Courtesy:

They can be seen diving for cover on what was later called "the grassy knoll." The couple later reported that they heard the third shot come from behind them, leading some conspiracy theorists to believe that it came from a shooter other than Lee Harvey Oswald.

Man Wallpapering with German Money in the Early 1920s

Between 1921 and 1923, the German Papiermark became so hyperinflated that it became virtually useless. It all began when Germany decided to print more money than they could actually back with gold during World War I. The plan was to repay their own debt when they won the war and demanded huge reparations from the allied forces they were certain they would conquer.

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Photo Courtesy: Pahl, Georg/Wikipedia

As we all know, history didn't exactly work out that way. The value of the post-war cash soon declined to the point that the money literally wasn't worth the price of the paper it was printed on.

Early Draft of Mount Rushmore

Today, Mount Rushmore is one of the most recognizable landmarks in America. Surprisingly, the idea was first proposed by a South Dakota historian who suggested that Lakota Sioux leader Red Cloud should be the subject of the massive sculpture. Once the proposal was funded, however, sculptor Gutzon Borglum convinced everyone that presidents would attract more tourists.

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Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress

As this early model of the sculpture shows, the presidents' busts were originally supposed to extend all the way down to their waists. Due to money and time constraints, the sculptor ultimately settled for only carving their faces.

CIA Photograph of a Soviet Cruise Missile

During the 1960s, the CIA relied largely on photos to help them get a feel for what was going on in the Soviet Union. Many such photographs have since been declassified, such as the one you see here from the Dino A. Brugioni Collection in the National Security Archive.

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Photo Courtesy: National Security Archive

Brugioni was a CIA officer back in the ‘60s who was responsible for "all-source" intelligence and briefings that came from the National Photographic Interpretation Center. He later authored a book about his experiences called Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Operation Crossroads

In 1946, the United States military decided to conduct a series of tests to see how nuclear weapons would affect naval warships. So, they headed out to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and dropped a couple of nukes to see what would happen.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Although they were able to gather some information, the effects of all that radiation floating around soon convinced everyone that further tests weren't a great idea. The island where the experiment was held later inspired the name of the two-piece swimsuit. The designer explained that "like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating."

Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in Flight

How would you like to be driving through the desert near Area 51 and suddenly find this bad boy floating around above your head? This declassified NASA research center photo actually provides a close-up of Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) Number 1 from the 1960s.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Flickr

During the planning of the Apollo missions, NASA developed this flying gadget to help astronauts train for the moon landing. Neil Armstrong was almost killed while training in one in 1968 when the machine suddenly malfunctioned in the air. Luckily, Armstrong ejected seconds before it exploded into a fireball!

American POWs During the Bataan Death March

April 9, 1942, was a horrible day for American forces on the Philippine island of Luzon during WWII. It was the day that U.S. forces surrendered control of the Bataan Peninsula to the Japanese, resulting in what later became known as the Bataan death march.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

The Japanese forced approximately 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners to make a 65-mile march to prison camps under brutal conditions. It was common for prisoners to collapse or die along the route due to malnutrition and dehydration. In the photo, you see how American prisoners used makeshift gurneys to carry fallen POWs.

Plane Behind Many UFO Sightings

Ironically, many of the mid-20th-century files that the CIA has declassified actually weaken the argument for aliens and UFOs. The agency revealed that the U-2 Program in place from 1954 to 1974 was designed to produce high flying spy planes like the one you see here.

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Photo Courtesy: CIA/National Security Archive

The U-2 planes were developed to fly at more than 60,000 feet in an era when most commercial planes traveled at a mere 10,000 to 20,000 feet. One accidental side effect of the new technology was a "tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs)." Oops!

Cheyenne Mountain Military Complex

If the world ever finds itself plunged into World War III, then the military complex at Cheyenne Mountain will likely become host to some of America's most important political figures. Designed to withstand the effects of a nuclear bomb, the bunker has been called "America's fortress."

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Photo Courtesy: AirmanMagazineOnline/YouTube

Located 2,000 feet below the ground and deep inside the mountain, the bunker offers perks such as this 25-ton blast door that was designed to withstand any threat. The complex is like a small city, complete with its own diner, chapel, gym and living quarters.

Hitler After Conquering Austria

This chilling photograph from March 1938 shows Adolf Hitler as he announces the "peaceful" annex of Austria. In reality, the acquisition was the result of Austrian Nazis conspiring to seize their own government, by force if necessary. Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg had learned of their plans and met with Hitler in an attempt to work things out.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

Instead, he found himself bullied into appointing several top Nazi conspirators to his cabinet and ultimately resigned due to pressure from the Germans. The country remained a German federal state until the end of World War II.

Kennedy with CIA Director John McCone

The guy talking to President Kennedy in this photo is John McCone, the director of the CIA from 1961 to 1965. Among the most important witnesses in the JFK assassination case, McCone insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone and out of mere delusion.

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Photo Courtesy: NSA

Many historians today, however, believe he may have been an important part of a cover-up designed to hide a more complicated truth. In a recently declassified report, the CIA came incredibly close to admitting that the cover-up was part of an attempt to impede a more aggressive attempt to look into Oswald's involvement with Cuba.

Mysterious Balloons from a CIA File on UFOs

A look through the CIA's declassified files on UFOs turns up all kinds of crazy images. Some of them can be easily explained, while others, such as the images you see here, are left to the imagination. What exactly these strange balloons were has never been explained.

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Photo Courtesy: CIA

These may be images of the types of balloons the CIA sometimes used in the Cold War to deliver propaganda. In the 1950s, for instance, the agency released half a million balloons carrying somewhere around 300,000,000 leaflets, posters and books into Eastern Europe.

President Nixon Visits the Quarantined Apollo 11 Crew

July 24, 1969, was a happy day in the United States, as Apollo 11 splashed down at 11:49 a.m. after its return trip from the moon. Here, you can see astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. inside a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF). The men remained inside the MQF until they got to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL) and were thoroughly examined.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA/Flickr

But that didn't stop President Nixon from dropping by to say hello. Due to the "space race" between the U.S. and Soviets, Americans across the country were thrilled with the trio's successful mission, and the president wanted to be a part of it.

Early Pioneer of Aerial Recon Photography

In many ways, World War I forever changed the face of warfare. As the world took up arms after the turn of a new century, horses, swords and single-shot pistols were replaced by tanks and machine guns. It was during this time that aerial photography also made its debut as a form of information gathering.

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Photo Courtesy: CIA

The feat wasn’t easy for the first aerial photographers, as it involved taking photos with huge cameras while also trying to keep a plane in the air. The intel the photographers gathered, however, proved to be priceless and completely changed military tactics and strategizing.

Yucca Mountain

This scene looks like something out of Star Wars, but the photo you see here was actually snapped back in 1997. The two men who are gazing at the weird object on Nevada's Yucca Mountain are not admiring an alien spaceship, unfortunately. They were working on the installation of a nuclear waste repository.

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Photo Courtesy: Dept. of Energy

The project was aimed at building a deep geological storage facility for high-level radioactive waste, in accordance with amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987. These guys had just finished drilling a 5-mile long exploratory tunnel at the proposed site.

Astronaut in Reduced Gravity Simulator

Before we touched down on the moon, humans still had plenty of questions about how the atmosphere of space would affect the human body. NASA attempted to get as much information as possible by designing a series of experiments at Langley Research Center.

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Photo Courtesy: NASA

This one took place in 1963 and was designed to mimic the gravity on the lunar surface, in which an astronaut's legs would only feel one-sixth of their weight. Researchers studied what happened when the subject tried to run, jump, walk, etc. to get a feel for how much energy it would take in real life.

The Flu Epidemic of 1918

Back in 1918, a huge flu epidemic took out millions of people. It all began that spring when people around the world began getting feverish. By the time it was all said and done, one-fifth of the entire population of the world had fallen prey to the virus.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

Although it strangely isn’t a hugely covered topic in history books, the influenza epidemic of 1918 killed approximately 50 million people around the world. Doctors seemed powerless to prevent its spread, and within a few months, it had caused more deaths than any other illness in history.

Wedding Rings Nazis Removed from Victims

The number of chilling images from World War II is far too high to count. Some are heartbreaking even when they don't depict actual violence. Among them is this photograph of a box of wedding rings that U.S. forces found after the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

Nazis removed the rings, watches, eyeglasses and even gold tooth fillings from their victims’ teeth in order to salvage the gold. Approximately 240,000 prisoners from 30 countries were held at Buchenwald during WWII, and about 43,000 of them died within its walls. At least 10,000 others were transferred to other "extermination camps."

Thomas Edison's Patent for the Incandescent Light Bulb

On January 27, 1880, Thomas Edison patented his incandescent light bulb. Although many mistakenly believe he invented the light bulb himself, that wasn't actually the case. By the 1880s, light bulbs had already been around for some time, but they didn't work all that well.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

Edison's contribution was to develop bulbs that not only provided light, but also burned for a long enough time to justify their use. Several other inventors were working on the same concept, but his was the first one to be patented. His bulb ultimately led to the shift from gaslights to electric lighting.

American Troops on D-Day

On June 6, 1944, American soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France. Their invasion on what came to be known as "D-Day" proved to be among the greatest in military history. Here, you can see soldiers pouring out of the ramp of a landing boat and struggling to avoid heavy machine gun fire from the Nazis.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

As he gave his final orders for the invasion, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a note in which he took total responsibility for any failures the mission might bring. He praised the soldiers for their bravery in "The Great Crusade."

Lyndon B. Johnson During the Vietnam War

If the pressure that President Lyndon B. Johnson must have felt during the Vietnam War could be summed up in one photograph, this would be it. The image was captured on July 31, 1968, right after a meeting the president had with his advisors.

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Photo Courtesy: National Archives

Tensions were high after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy, and the Vietnam War was raging halfway around the world — and heavily opposed in the U.S. Johnson was listening to a tape made by his son-in-law, Marine Corps Captain Charles Robb, in which he described first-hand accounts of the war in Vietnam.