If you have never seen an atomic or hydrogen bomb explode, you are lucky. If the world never sees one detonate again, we are all lucky. If you have one go off right over your head, say a prayer. I did.
It was spring 1958 when the USS Boxer (CVS-21) was informed she would be the base and flagship of the last South Pacific atomic weapons test program, on Bikini and Eniwetok atolls. The United States and the Soviet Union were negotiating a test ban treaty.
The Boxer would serve as command ship for Combined Joint Task Force 7 (CJTF-7) and Commander Task Group 7.3 (CTG-7.3), the Navy component for Operation Hardtack, to take place at the Pacific Proving Grounds. The CJTF-7 operation ultimately would involve more than 14,000 service members and civilians, 120 aircraft, and nearly 100 ships.
I was a lieutenant (junior grade) who had just turned down orders as a destroyer department head and was planning to leave the Navy the following year. Asked if I would like to go to Bikini and establish a recreation and relaxation (R&R) center for sailors from ships and units participating in the weapons tests, my answer was an enthusiastic affirmative.
Soon a parade of scientists and engineers were coming aboard ship in San Diego with exotic equipment. I was ordered for temporary duty to CTG-7.3 and given a $10,000 check made out to me personally from its Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) fund. Assigned ten men from the Coronado amphibious base to create an R&R center, I would become officer-in-charge, Camp Blandy, Bikini Atoll.
The Boxer steamed into the atoll’s lagoon in March, leaving me and my team with our gear on an island that was beginning to come alive with contractors, scientists, senior Department of Defense military and civilian officials, and all kinds of equipment. The atoll had 26 islands; the largest, Bikini, had been denuded by previous tests. All test preparations and executions were from the island of Enyu, which still had palm trees and tropical vegetation.
The island had three partitions: at one end was the scientific and test preparation area, in the middle was jungle, and the third was Camp Blandy, where I was boss with three tenants. There was an LCM (landing craft mechanized) boat unit to take bombs and scientists around the lagoon and a Navy amateur radio station to help sailors call home. An experimental radio with new single-side-band technology could communicate with ham shortwave radio operators in the United States. There were four tents—one for the officers and the others for boat unit personnel and my men. Rodents were not a nuisance, until one jumped on my chest one night. Traps were set.
We built the Bikini Officer’s Club and a White Hat Hangar with a chief’s hangout at one end. The principal atomic weapons test support contractor, Holmes and Narver (H&N), became our source of support. We graded three ball fields and blew up coral to create a swimming hole with a shark net. We crafted horseshoe pits and volleyball courts while H&N provided liquor, beer, soft drinks, and bar munchies. A long, polished brass railing from a combat information center was “borrowed” to add a little class to the O-Club
We opened in ten days. I learned independence. No one told me what to do or how to do it.
But the serious business of Operation Hardtack was not about an R&R center.
For present-day officers, the atomic weapons testing in the South Pacific that began with Operations Crossroads in 1946 is only history. Most of the scientific information learned from those tests is now understood. That was not the case in 1958, when the last major testing cycle took place at Bikini and Eniwetok atolls and at Johnston Island. There would be 35 “shots” from April to August. The military services, the Atomic Energy Commission, and others had specific test plans and programs, and some shots had more than one sponsor. For the first time the Navy tested the effects of underwater detonations as antisubmarine warfare weapons.
Twenty-two of the shots took place at Eniwetok and ten at Bikini, most from barges anchored in the lagoons. Shot Yucca was a high-altitude event that took place between the two atolls on a balloon launched from the Boxer. The last two, also high-altitude atmospheric bursts, would come in July and August at Johnston Island. It was an experience never to be forgotten.
Shots would occur before dawn when the sky was dark and a night canvas permitted scientific photographic analysis. Bikini detonations were named after trees—fir, sycamore, nutmeg, maple, aspen, redwood, hickory, cedar, poplar, and juniper. On shot days I would take my ten men down to the beach below the White Hat Hangar. They would face me, away from the shot site, and with heads down between their legs. I could watch the detonation with special goggles provided to senior staff.
A major concern was flash damage and/or retinal burn. A blare from a horn would signal that my men could turn around and I could remove the goggles. On detonation, the first thing you saw was a brilliant flash, then came a rumble, followed by a rush of warm air. The sky would light up, and you could see the familiar mushroom cloud.
The water would begin receding as if someone had pulled a plug and was draining the lagoon. Several feet of ocean floor were visible before water rushed back like a rapidly returning tide. We wore dosimeters to record the amount of radiation being received. The island was evacuated only once, when there was a prediction of serious atomic fallout. For years, I would receive reports on the amount of radiation my body had taken, always within tolerance. One can imagine the bar banter about glowing in the dark.
Running Camp Blandy was exciting. I wore tan tropical shorts and a pith helmet, no swagger stick. We were up in the morning for calisthenics, then down island to the H&N mess hall for breakfast. We took our meals there supported by a $5.40 perdiem, money saved and later used for my wife and me to have our own R&R in Hawaii. Ships would come and go between Kwajalein, Eniwetok, and Bikini. Liberty parties would come ashore at 1100 but had to be off island an hour before dusk.
We had a small pier, and each ship provided her own shore patrol. Our athletic gear locker was a Conex box, and you could check out swim fins, snorkels, balls, bats, horseshoes, etc. The bars were open from 1100 until an hour before dusk. Any “drunks” were laid out on the ground to dry and taken home by shipmates.
There was a coral stone wall facing the lagoon where one could sit, ponder, and write home. When not on duty, my team snorkeled, avoided sand sharks, and collected seashells. Opposite Enyu was a small island with abundant clams on a coral platform that had not yet been obliterated. We would take an LCM, drop the ramp, and dive down seeking giant clams with a three-pronged boat hook.
The animals are beautiful, with protruding wide, translucent flesh. We were careful to not put a foot in one of their clam clamps. We dropped the hook into their open lips, they would shut, and we would pull the animal into the LCM. Some clams were two feet wide. Immediately we would scan for radiation with a Geiger counter. They were always “hot,” a condition all shellfish had from previous tests. Quickly we would cut out the meat and toss it over the side. Back at camp we would soak our catch in 55-gallon drums with bleach that would turn the brown and green mollusks into white yard ornaments. I still have mine in the garden.
There were 23 atomic weapon tests at Bikini between 1946 and 1958 during four operations: Crossroads, Castle, Redwing, and Hardtack. In the bottom of the lagoon rest 11 ships, including the carrier Saratoga (CV-3) and battleship Arkansas (BB-33), along with one German and two Japanese warships. The host island of Enyu, or Eneu, is at the bottom starboard of the entrance to the lagoon.
Shots were not perfect. One, in 1946, caused massive contamination and was called the “world’s first nuclear disaster.” Castle Bravo, a multimegaton device and the first hydrogen bomb test, was detonated in 1954; it far exceeded expectations and was 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs used to end World War II.
Toward the end July, I returned to the Boxer and left what was once a paradise. Then began another experience unique in the history of atomic weapons testing.
In an age of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), information was needed on the high-altitude effect of detonations in near space. Previously there had been some high-altitude testing using balloons and rockets, but only with devices in the kiloton range and a few at very high altitudes with detonations in the megaton range. During Hardtack, there would be two shots, Teak and Orange, in a test called Operation Newsreel.
Originally scheduled for Bikini, the shots were moved to Johnston Island, about 750 miles southwest of Hawaii, out of concern for retinal damage among South Pacific Islanders. Teak would be a 3.8-megaton (million-ton pounds of TNT equivalent) detonation taking place 50 miles in the atmosphere, and Orange, also at 3.8 megatons, about 25 miles high. The detonations were more than 170 times more powerful than the less-than 22 kiloton (thousand, not millions, of pounds of TNT equivalent) Little Boy and Fat Man of World War II.
We were not there for R&R.
Teak took place on 31 July with the Boxer off Johnston Island serving as host platform. The Army’s intermediate-range Redstone ballistic missile had been chosen to execute the test. The Redstone was proven reliable, having been used in a previous 3-kiloton test, Operation Teapot, and then earlier in January to send Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, into space. The purpose was to assess high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) effects.
A “Notice to Mariners” was issued, and the Civilian Aeronautic Authority advised to keep aircraft 600 miles distant. Johnston Island personnel were evacuated to the Boxer, with 175 remaining on shore in bunkers. Among those on board the Boxer was Dr. Wernher von Braun, the father of the Redstone and the U.S. missile program. We were told he was there as testament of the missile’s reliability. I think he was there to watch history being made. Because of programming problems, the device detonated at 2350 directly over the island, and us, and not the planned six miles south.
The visual effects were remarkable. I had my high-security access tag and special protective goggles and could join the dignitaries on the flight deck. I sat directly behind von Braun. Flash blindness was a concern. The flight deck on this 888-foot Essex-class aircraft carrier was covered with more than 700 evacuees from Johnston Island as well as the ship’s officers and crew. Like on Bikini, heads were down between the knees until a signal was given that it was safe to look up.
What we saw was light—bright light—all around, and beautiful spectrum-colored light bands with charged particles shooting in every direction in the earth’s magnetic field. Even with low-level clouds, we were momentarily in daylight. Some members of the crew leaped to their feet, frightened, and ran down ladders belowdecks. Above us was an artificial aurora far different from the Northern Lights. Atomic particles were captured in the earth’s magnetic field, and it seemed every few seconds lights would flash, going one way, and then another, and then another. High-frequency communications were interrupted across parts of the Pacific.
The shot was seen in Hawaii and woke up the islands. Although aircraft had been warned to stay away, the people of Hawaii had not been informed. There were hundreds of calls to emergency numbers. Communications with Johnston Island were slow to return, and a first message was, “Are you still there?” The sight lingered for almost 30 minutes. A newspaper later described a resident thinking Pearl Harbor was once again under attack.
Orange took place 11 days later. This time the public was informed. Hawaiian atomic bomb parties were planned, and people stayed up late to watch the skies light up. Sadly, the shot provided only a disappointing five- to ten-minute glow.
The Boxer left for Pearl Harbor on 13 August 1958 and en route was diverted to pick up the remaining crew members of an Air Force C-124 Globemaster cargo aircraft downed at sea. Few survived, as we arrived in the early morning to a shark-filled crash area. Hanging all night onto mail bags had saved some lives. Our ship’s helicopter recovered bodies being tossed about by sharks by scooping them up with a suspended basket used to pick up atomic test instruments at sea. I watched a shark get snared in a basket and then flop back into the waves.
In 1961, the Soviet Union announced an end to a three-year moratorium on nuclear testing. There was still much to be learned from high-altitude bursts, especially those on the fringe of space. In 1962, Operation Fishbowl took place at Johnston Island, with only five of the nine planned shots successful. None used the Redstone. There were four in the kiloton range, and one very important shot, Starfish Prime. It was a planned detonation of 1.4 megatons at an altitude more than 250 miles above Earth. The aurora phenomena were widespread across parts of the Pacific; the resulting electromagnetic pulse disabled both U.S. and Soviet satellites, and knocked out streetlights and set off burglar alarms in Hawaii.
A decade later, as supply officer on board the USS Princeton (LPH-5), another Essex-class aircraft carrier, my ship was ordered to support another nuclear test, this time underground on the Aleutian Island of Amchitka. We were about to be decommissioned and most supplies had been offloaded. No problem, the deployment would be up, back, and brief. We would be a floating hotel and evacuation station for scientists and technicians. I was the only member of the ship’s company who had ever seen a nuclear detonation.
Amchitka was a volcanic, tectonically unstable island, and there was fear of earthquake and tsunami. The one-megaton shot would be 4,000 feet underground in a hole drilled in solid volcanic rock. Called Milrow, it was a “calibration shot.” International protests began, including in Russia and Japan. In Canada, there were student protests at the U.S. border. Fearing a tsunami, the “Don’t Make a Wave Committee” was formed.
We waited, boring holes in the ocean. Supplies ran low. Our Navy special fuel oil was dangerously below 40 percent. We called for resupply. A week later, a fleet oiler came alongside, bouncing in turbulent seas, passing fuel oil by hose and supplies by highline. I was on the bridge with the commanding officer and chief engineer. All feared we might need an emergency breakaway. We watched as the fuel level rose to where the ship was safe. We were still swinging pallets across by ship-to-ship highline in rough seas. There were two pallets of oil left. The skipper asked if we could break away. I said, “Captain, let’s just bring those last pallets on board. The ship needs the oil.” Soon, we were steaming to safety.
Have you ever tried to entertain a wardroom of bored and grumpy scientists and engineers? Along with the movies, those two pallets of popcorn oil saved the day.
The shot on 2 October was successful, and we headed for home. Milrow was the second of three shots. The final, in November—Cannikin—was to test the design of the Spartan antiballistic missile interceptor.
After years of negotiations, the United Nations Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was approved in 1996 by more than two-thirds of the General Assembly. It has yet to be ratified by eight nations. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States have signed but not ratified the treaty, while India, North Korea, and Pakistan have not signed the treaty. Only India, Pakistan, and North Korea have announced testing since the treaty originally opened for signature.
The last U.S. nuclear weapons tests took place in Nevada on 23 September 1992.