Being There – A slice of history from Hydrogen Bomb Testing in 1958
I am delighted to be able to share a slice of life from a critical time in American history; hydrogen bomb tests. The following is an excerpt from my uncle Paul De’ak’s memoir, “Being There.” Paul was privy to several hydrogen bomb tests when he was in the army about 70 years ago. I love this stuff! Thank you , Uncle Paul!
Eniwetok Island, is about 2.5 statute miles long, not quite a half mile at it’s widest point (where the air base is) and only 200 yards or so wide at the other end, which is where we were and where most of army activity took place, including the radio station. The airstrip is 6,800 feet long, which meant that big planes really had to scoot along in earnest when taking off.
The other inhabited island at the time was Parry, which is about 3 nautical miles northeast from Eniwetok. While the military were largely situated on Eniwetok, Parry was the site of test headquarters and where the AEC, technical and engineering people worked and lived. It was a mostly civilian location.
Army Task Group 7.2 (of which we were a slice) was part of the Joint Task Group 7 consisting of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and the aforementioned scientific and technical personnel on Parry Island, who figured things out, placed the devices and pushed the buttons. We were all there to facilitate the nuclear testing series, “Operation Hardtack.”
The Air Force group was centered on a Weather Squadron, which made sense since weather was a vital factor in the decision making process of go/no-go for test shots. They also collected high altitude samples of radiation and particles and moved bombs and equipment around with helicopters. The Air Force’s MATS was the system by which we were hauled around, as well. Altogether, it was a critical component of the task force.
The Navy, of course, brought virtually everything we needed: food, fuel, equipment, construction materials, sailors, their helicopters, and atomic bombs (although sometimes the Air Force would deliver them too—I recall a big flat bed trailer with a tarp covered cargo driving though the island towards the “ferry” landing, proceeded by MP’s with red lights flashing, oh my). Think of it, and they brought it. And they were in involved in the setup and movement of the sacrificial barges on which to detonate the devices, delivering towers and such, to the little coral islets. And wherever there is a significant Navy presence, there will be some U.S. Marines.
The Army’s job was in the nature of general support to the test mission. It took care of the operation of the facilities and systems of the island’s infrastructure, it provided staff for food services, handled security matters, operated WXLE, the PX, drove trucks, dug ditches as necessary, took care of utilities and the like, and administered the performance of all this business and paid us.
The top officers and staffs of the three services worked in close coordination among themselves and of course with our clients, the scientists and staff of the Atomic Energy Commission, and their engineers.
I arrived on Eniwetok, November 5, 1957. The almost four months between that date and April 28, was spent ramping up for “Operation Hardtack.” Throughout April, as we approached the start of the operation, there was an anticipation that things were going to become awesome, and the preparations had already changed the way we worked and lived as we closed in on the start date. We were in a state of transition. With the Air Force drills going on, more aircraft showed up at the base. We hosted the B-52, a small squadron of fast fighters, an amazing U-2 ultra high altitude photo/surveillance aircraft, and more. (When I had first arrived, I was fascinated by the B-36 that was then at the island. I’d seen one before—fairly close by—cruising up the coast of Southern California at low altitude just offshore of Huntington Beach. Whatta big thing, all right; it completely dwarfed the substantial B-29 that saw WWII service, particularly over Japan. With its 10 engines (6 prop, and 4 jets), incredible wing span and length, the B-36 really lumbered—not exactly nimble—and was something to watch, but its days on Enitwetok were numbered as, when the B-52 finally came on line in the late ‘50’s the B-36 was sent home.)
Around the beginning of April, the Operation’s activities went to a 24 hour/day routine, and so subordinate services did too. The mess hall was feeding people all day and night, the signals radio communications unit was busier at night and staffing increased. More vehicles were on the move, and the overall pace of things had increased. WXLE changed to a 24-hour routine as well, to keep company with the all night workers throughout the atoll. We did shut down from around 12midmight to 1AM for housekeeping, and one man was on duty from 10PM to 6AM. I particularly liked that shift, which enabled me to work a couple of hours, shut down for my bacon sandwich and B-52 visit, then work till I was relieved, eat breakfast then hit the sack until about noon.
Several of our group would gather in the evening hours and pull Adirondack chairs into a circle on the reef-side beach to discus the meaning of life, the spectacular slice of the Universe above us, and what we imagined our sex lives might be like when we returned home. (This occupied us for several months after which we switched our focus from sex to gourmet foods, recalling experiences, and imagining what lay ahead.)
Our evening beach talk park
Bob Swanson, who had traveled, did us one better. He had a well-planned scenario for life immediately after his liberation; it called for taking his fiancé—I believe—to Paris, where they’d rehearse a grand honeymoon, wallowing in sex and French food for a week, or until they were satiated. It sounded pretty good, since he fully described the plan in flavorful and colorful detail. Many years later, Bob confirmed that trip to Paris.) When I was pulling the overnight, I’d get up at midday, and with the radio station’s faithful mutt dog, Stash (whose name was inspired by Colonel Sawicki), head to the swimming beach on the lagoon side of the island and we’d chase each other around in the water. He was a smart, fun-loving critter, a good swimmer too, and we were pals. Swimming was protected by a shark net running about 100 yards along its length. It worked well, but I did run into trouble when I stubbed my big toe on some coral. It caused a lot of pain and the fungus I encountered caused the nail to come loose and flop around. I stumbled into the hospital one afternoon to see what could be done about it, but I began to feel weird and literally fainted in the waiting room. I heard a couple of nurse/orderlies holler, “Oh, oh, no you don’t.” and they grabbed me and put me on a gurney. I was kept in the hospital a couple of days, after the nail was removed and I settled down. The hospital was doing a brisk business in “elective surgery” those days, with a bunch of guys getting circumcisions, which at their ages, took some doing.
Usually with the afternoon swim and sunbathing over, I’d shower then trot over to the PX, handle that shift, go to dinner, share beach talk, and then relieve the evening guy at the station. Women were in short supply on Eniwetok; that is: none (except for the briefest visit by a USO troupe, that once stopped for gas—and a visit to the officers’ club, don’t you know—on their way west). The closest women were on Kwajalein Atoll, 350 nautical miles to the southeast, where there were a fair number of military dependents. CBS network radio ran an overnight program of calming romantic music called “Music Till Dawn” featuring orchestras the likes of Montovani, Michelle LeGrand, Percy Faith, etc. Pretty, easy but not all sleepy listening. So I had the idea of replicating that format when I was on shift and it was simple; I could play one full side of an LP, pop in and say hello, and continue in that manner. Kwajalein was a Navy Base and had its own AFRS station, but with their lower power output than ours, we couldn’t receive it. With our signal bouncing off of the nighttime ionosphere and thence to Kwajalein, they could hear us though, and pretty well. That inspired my putting on my deepest, most mellifluous voice, aimed at fluttering the heartstrings of ladies on that island. The news drifted back to us that the Kwajalein women preferred WXLE to their own station.
One day, in the midst of things, I chanced to catch a round trip cargo plane hop to Kwajalein and back, just to get away for a day. While the crew did their stuff, and goods were put aboard our aircraft (we might have been out of marmalade), I went to the Navy PX & grocery to pickup something for lunch. It was a staffed by Kwajalein natives; substantial imposing women of whom I determined were probably not among my nighttime audience, so I didn’t raise the issue. The dependents were not in sight, so I took my sandwich and some papaya nectar and went to a park-like spot where I sat up against a shady palm on lush green grass. This was, it turned out, the high point of my brief visit. Shade of any consequence didn’t exist on Eniwetok nor did grass, except for a small patch in front of Colonel Sawickie’s quarters, so to be able to enjoy both at once, in a quiet balmy atmosphere under a lovely sky, was a treat indeed.
The main reason for there being sparse vegetation on Eniwetok was that all of it had virtually been demolished in 1944 during the battle to take it from the Japanese. The Navy’s big guns and aircraft bombings, flattened and pocked the whole island in a vicious fight that—counting fighting throughout the whole atoll—took the lives of 2,677 determined Japanese and 263 Americans (there were only 16 Japanese prisoners). Fifteen years later we could still see dozens or more of the rusted remains of American landing craft and other equipment, poking up from the sand beach along the lagoon side of the island, where the invaders landed. Near the passage between Eniwetok and Parry islands, there was a grounded Japanese freighter, rusting away on the reef. (Now, even 50 years later, satellite views show a great number of sunken war objects below the clear shallow water among the islands.)
Not long after I arrived there, we encountered Christmas. That was the low point of my time on Eniwetok, naturally because I missed [my wife], but also it was my first time completely away from family. I was morose, especially after playing all those damn Christmas songs on the radio and trying to be cheerful with a “stiff upper lip” while suspecting that just about everybody else was in my condition. Joining one of several doleful crowds, I attended a Christmas service at the chapel. It was uplifting, like a large group therapy session, and the chaplains who presided at the several services knew that their job was to make us feel better, and they were pretty good at it.
The main morale booster and distraction, was the semi-nightly movie at the outdoor theater. Seating was on wooden benches installed in a small open air amphitheater which stepped up the to projection booth on a mound of earth that, at 9 feet, served as the highest point above sea level. As with the payday lines, the dogs would be dogs, amusing themselves in the aisles when as the sprit moved them. We’d always bring a poncho or raincoat, a cap, and a cushion to the movie. It was almost certain that sometime during the film a squall would sweep over the island, but the movie did not pause. When we heard the noise of the approaching downpour, the drill was to yank on raingear, then hunker down and watch the movie as it swept over us. I often kept up with the film through the buttonhole of my raincoat.
Sometimes we’d get severe weather that would cause us close to up everything and wait it out. One afternoon, a few weeks after I had arrived, we were warned that we were to be affected by a typhoon’s band of wind and rain as it moved through the Marshall Islands. With everything buttoned down we endured the humbling wind, downpour, and racket when—near midnight—our sergeant jumped up and dragged me out of the sack and told me that we (I thought, what is this “we” stuff?) had to get to the station and turn off the transmitter. When we’d go off air, the routine was to shut down the modulator but not the carrier wave of the transmitter, which was left on as a backup loran navigational signal. The fear was that if the carrier was on and the antenna blew down in the storm, it could damage or ruin the transmitter. So we clung to little palm trees, tent ropes and even crawled along on hands and knees when there was nothing but the boardwalk to hang onto. It was truly blowing like “stink” as sailors would put it. Finally exhausted, drenched and very impressed, we reached the station and since power was still on, we had lights and we had this damn transmitter, clicking away quietly, with it’s red and green control buttons ominously glowing in the back room. It was at that point that the sergeant flipped off not only the power, but himself as well. He’d had just too much excitement and even though the carrier was off, the control lights were still on, and he decided that the thing was looking at him and refusing to be trifled with. Well, that was scarier that the typhoon. Eventually I got him calmed down and we spent the rest of the night drying off on couches in studio “A,” listening to the wind. A couple of days later, his weirdness caused his superiors to pack him off to Honolulu for observation, never to return again. And that is how I secured my regular position at the station.
“My” B-52. “Tommy’s Tigator,” the actual aircraft at a different location.
Now part of the National Museum of the US Air Force
Here’s how I came to have my own “close encounters” with the B-52. Colonel Anderson, the AF weather reconnaissance and base commander, was a big enthusiast of music and fancied himself a kind of disc jockey who could create programs featuring selections he particularly liked. One afternoon, while swilling milk in Studio “A,” he asked us if we’d mind his handling the console so he could tape some versions of his own programs, to send home to his family. There was no problem, and when we were off the air one evening, (before the operation started) I set him up in the control room after he’d picked his music, and turned him loose with the console, microphone, turntables and tape machine, then left him alone in private. He was so pleased with the results that he came back three or four more times, and that’s how we—and that includes the rest of the staff—got to be friends with Colonel Anderson. Down at the airbase, he’d check out a two-seater observation plane and invited each of us to fly with him around the atoll for a guided tour —about 50 miles, at a low but safe altitude—so that we could get a good close look at everything. The most impressive feature on the atoll was where the coral reef was interrupted by a pool of deep blue water—a crater 6,240 feet in diameter, 164 feet deep. Ivy Mike’s 10.4-megaton hydrogen bomb test had been set off in 1952 on the islet of Elugelab, which had been completely vaporized. Subsequent large tests of that sort were placed on barges over the same crater since it wouldn’t do to blow up too much more of the atoll. The Ivy Mike and nearby Hardtack Koa craters are quite visible on satellite images.
Ivy Mike” Crater
“Ivy Mike” Shot, 1952
Not long after that courteous thank-you tour, we were into the tests and there were few opportunities to encounter one another, except our appointed B-52 takeoffs. Things got busy, and planes were going up and away all the time. One afternoon as I was driving the jeep down to pickup our AF buddy on his milk run, I had to stop (it was the only traffic signal on the atoll, like a railroad crossing) where the road crossed the airstrip, as a U2 surveillance plane was taking off. It charged right by us, leaped off the ground, and proceeded to fly almost straight up into the sky on its large single engine: a very impressive sight.
The first test of the series was code named “Yucca.” Actually it wasn’t set off at Eniwetok, but over the ocean 80 miles north of it, between Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls. It was an airburst of a bomb hanging from a helium balloon, and set off at 7:15AM, so there wasn’t much to see. Those of us who hadn’t witnessed a nuclear test before were anticipating something that would hold us in awe, but when it went off, many of us could hardly spot it; it was a relatively small test of 1.7 kT (kilotons). Not much to see, not much to hear, at that distance—and so aweless, we went to breakfast to complete our lack of being marveled at the experience.
The second test, “Cactus,” was set off from Runit Islet on the atoll. Over two days, May 3 and 4, we all had to muster along the main road at 5:30AM to have noses counted to make sure nobody was running around willy-nilly in a dangerous area. We had our dark goggles with us and the other protection was our Hawaiian shirts. Everyone also had a radiation badge on his dog tag chain, a special kind of film thing that measured an individual’s accumulated exposure. The B-52 and U2 were already airborne, and as we stood there in the dark, a swarm of fighter jets took off with great snarls, and lights flashing. These aircraft were all positioning themselves to take samples and measurements at various altitudes, and in the case of my B-52, it was also measuring the stresses of actual explosions against presumed or theoretical assumptions.
So there they were, up in the sky somewhere, and we were standing or sitting around facing the islet as dawn came on. Loudspeakers announced the countdown, and at Zero minus 10 minutes we were instructed to line up and listen to the count. At minus 5 minutes we put on the goggles, and at minus 2 minutes, the shot was cancelled due to last minute judgments about the weather conditions (mostly wind direction and speed). Off we went again, to breakfast, and the rest of our anti-climactic day. On May 5, they gave it a third try for the charm, and we kept the goggles on while the count went to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, seconds, then, 12.6 miles from where we stood, an incredible bright ball of yellow-orange light erupted, and began to take the familiar form of an atomic bomb. Shortly, we could take off the goggles and witness something that did make us marvel. There wasn’t much sound, not much more than our shuffling and oooing and ahhhhing, as if it were fireworks. Next to me, Bob Burgee broke the silence and clapped, “Let’s have a big round of applause for the scientists!” Sixty seconds after the detonation, we got our earful from the 18 kiloton explosion. In the movies when we see one of these things detonate, the sound, like a great rolling whooshing explosion, is instantly heard (with background music to give add some drama). The way it really works is that at first you hear nothing at all, since sound traveling at 1,100 feet per second takes a fair amount of time to get to you from the site. When it does, it actually is a simple and direct loud BANG!—which is the concussion wave flashing by. No music, no growling noises, and by then, the applause fades and you pop your ears and go to breakfast.
The testing began in earnest, and it seemed that shots were going off, left and right, every four or five days—mostly from barges in the lagoon—and we got used to them almost as part of a daily routine: Up early, stand around, a big flash and bang, then breakfast, and on with the day: almost mundane. Except there were a couple of big standouts that did gave us pause to think. And above those, there were three huge “whoa!” sized attention getters that put on very ferocious displays producing between 44 and 100 times the power that was used to flatten Hiroshima in 1945. These were the code named tests, “Koa,” “Elder,” and “Pine,” and they were truly alarming and caused a lot of talk. When these nasty things were detonated, there was a hypnotizing commotion in the rising ball of fire, and the fireworks and water rising with it, as it expanded into the mushroom cloud. Even though you couldn’t hear them right away, you could “see” the sound (concussion) waves expanding through the air, pushing a ring of atmosphere before it. “Elder” did all that and more as it was pretty damn big and gave us much more vivid visions of catastrophe and hell than what we’d grown used to—almost blasé about. It was a kind of overture to the immense thing we would witness the following day.
Orders of the day for June 28 were to dig out our fatigues, caps and listen to instructions. We had to cover all skin as a lot of radiant heat would be generated by the test. Windows and doors would be left open in every building so that the concussion wouldn’t flatten them (Oh, really?). All non-essential activities were to be suspended. We were preparing for the thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) test of “Oak.” There was no doubt, especially after “Elder”—the day before—that this test was going to be a real eye popper. They explained to us that the experience would be entirely different from what we’d seen, that they were taking extraordinary measures to ensure everyone’s safety, and that the weather judgments would be solid and confirmed up to the last instant before test. Even so, in case of some bizarre, unforeseen hiccup in the process, Navy ships were standing by to evacuate everybody before any fallout that might reach us could be of significant levels. With these comforting thoughts in mind, and sweltering in fatigues and boots, we assembled at our appointed spots and waited for the countdown to begin. We were a very restless bunch. As the count down to 8:30AM grew short, we were instructed to get down on hands and knees, and face away from the blast, covering ourselves completely, with goggles on and eyes closed. We were told to leave our butts pointed at the blast (in case we didn’t understand what “face away” meant), and remain in that position until the “all clear” announcement was made, at which point we could get up and take a look at what had happened.
The countdown went to zero, and immediately we were in the midst of a blistering hot and bright event that, in my case, was made even more forceful by the fact that while my butt was duly facing the blast, my other end was facing a galvanized metal building which reflected back the heat and the luminance, so I was getting toasted on both ends. To make matters worse, in the first two or three seconds the island started bouncing around as if was suffering a major earthquake. It was utterly unnerving and I began to suspect that there might have been some sort of mistake! However, within 10 to 15 seconds, the heat subsided and the shaking quit, we received the all-clear signal, and then stood up to take a look at “Oak” doing its thing.
My first impression was that it was way too big; it was not just an event, it was everything—a monster red-orange kaleidoscope. From 21.4 miles it appeared to fill the whole horizon, and it was expanding and rising with incomprehensible energy. It was a stupendous roiling tumult, appalling and magnificently threatening, even from that distance. Like an apocalypse let loose, I wondered how the hell we could ever be angry or frightened enough to use something as enormously terrible, a force of anti-nature beyond our control.* It grew, rising higher into the atmosphere: by comparison, the earlier tests’ clouds were mere toys. At 8.9 Megatons, “Oak” was 445 times as forceful as “Little Boy.” We stood gaping, as the mushroom rose and spread until it was stupendous and eventually, at an extremely high altitude, the edge of the mushroom cap reached over the island and we could look directly up at it. For those of us who said “ahem,” the word came that there was no cause for alarm as the cloud and all its particulates were being shoved downrange by a brisk high altitude wind and air mass, and that no fallout from that thing would be landing on us. It would be okay then to change back into our scantys, and have a nice day.
“Oak” mushroom, reaching toward us.
“Oak,” in its dwindling wildness, was still quite in evidence through most of the day, gone well downrange and its cloud dissipating. The earthquake-like shaking had been a high-speed ground shock wave traveling quickly through non-compressible material, unlike the airborne concussion wave that took about 1.4-minutes, casting off visible shock waves, to deliver a big BOOM, this time. Another anxiety about the blast was the effect it would have on the water in the lagoon. The detonation had sucked up an enormous volume of water in its rising column. As expected, the beach water level soon dropped significantly, and we could see a kind of “tide” going out, exposing all manner of rusted war rubbish as it receded. With the same expectation, we watched for the mini-tsunami we worried about as some of that water fell back into the lagoon, but mostly as the ocean itself surged through passes and over reefs to fill its lowered level. Eventually we did get some surges over the beach and against the seawall, but happily it was not a real problem. It was a reasonable concern, though, seeing that Eniwetok’s average height was about 3 feet above sea level. With all the bravado we had acquired over the past dozen or so shots, none of us ever heard anybody try to make a joke about “Oak.” We had become believers in the awful.
As I mentioned earlier, we at WLXE were under strict security prohibitions to mention or discuss the nuclear nature of Hardtack, or to even acknowledge its existence. Any pictures of the operation that I have assembled were from public access many years later. Cameras were contraband, and strictly prohibited. That rule applied to all of us, in our correspondence as well; 21 nuclear explosions were a secret. Except when published with a photo in Time magazine, which I read waiting for a haircut about a week later. Note that I cite 21 explosions. Actually 23 tests were conducted at Eniwetok, but two of them did not result in an explosion; one of these was intended as a safety experiment, and the device was “stressed,” but did not go off. The other was a test that just fizzled. But at Eniwetok Atoll, the 21 tests ranging from a mere 20-ton tactical weapon, to “Oak,” which yielded a force 445,000 times greater, were facilitated in just four months. There were also the 12 Bikini shots, part of Hardtack as well. This array of weapons tests, featuring a wide variety of nuanced design systems, was extremely complicated in of itself. To compound the complication was the orchestration of the testing setups, logistics, and the gathering and immediate analysis of data. Further, the coordination of the military participation and support functions involving over 6,800 personnel and their tasks, was yet another layer of complication. Finally, the added factor of safety, which incorporated often-uncooperative weather behavior, was of overarching importance. The fact that the testing series could have been pulled off as well as it was is a testament to Planning. Today, with the power of supercomputers, such a process would be organized much more swiftly and nimbly. Without such tools, people with pretty good brains and the ability to operate slide rules, deserve credit for pulling off this enormous task.
A test, which is still famous in pictures, was the 8-kiloton underwater shot called “Umbrella.” It was detonated June 8th within the lagoon at a depth of 150 feet, and was a spectacular fountain, and I wish that I had seen it, but it was the only test for which a muster was not required, and since I was working the night shift and was sound asleep at 11:15AM, it went off without my attention. Too bad, I was a heavy sleeper, I guess. At least I had a good picture of it.
“Umbrella” Shot , while I was asleep
Eniwetok Island 2011
On Parry Island, where the scientists and engineering people were situated, things were all business with hardly time to take a breath during the Operation. But, before and after the April-August testing window, a certain number of us were able to visit Parry on Saturday nights, to enjoy their big south seas bar for drinks, play high stakes bingo (a lot of guys playing), have an amazing $3 feast—usually featuring tenderloin steaks with gourmet level accompaniments, fresh strawberry shortcake and such—after which we were poured back on the boat (a landing craft) and staggered, in a stuffed and bloated state, to our bunks. Holmes and Narver, a construction and engineering company from Orange County, CA, ran things on Parry. They had a lot of very well paid people on the payroll who were working for the AEC. As such, their civilian status provided for upscale (at least by Atoll standards) accommodations, food and entertainment. A Chef from the Beverly Hills hotel was contracted to operate the H&N mess hall, so meals were splendid. In addition to our radio station, which served everybody, they had a closed circuit television system feeding public and housing locations around Parry. On my first trip there I stopped by the studio to see what was going on, and to my astonishment, was welcomed by an engineer who I knew from NBC who had taken this job for the big bucks and was having a time of it. He fed movies and kinescope recorded TV programs throughout the system, and even did a little news program as well. It was pretty cool; he was the chief engineer, program manager, regular on-air talent, and maintenance guy all at once.
Speaking of bars, our island featured an Officers’ club, an NCO club, but no place where lower grade enlisted people like me could go get a drink, so we were all on the wagon. A bad example had been set by a deranged sergeant who’d had too much at his club, and in his either angry or overly happy cups, decided to drive one of the amphibious “Ducks” off the beach and into the lagoon for a joyride, one night. Well, he drowned (maybe the only Hardtack fatality), and that may have discouraged our leaders from allowing the rank and file from occasionally enjoying a beer or cocktail. But eventually they relented, and an Enlisted Man’s Club was set up along the beach and was open, with close supervision, over the weekends. Several of my crowd decided to visit the bar and the drinks were great. I put away two large 50¢ martini’s, and that was all, folks. I was out of practice and they it hit me like a brick, but admittedly I was a cheap date.
I’m almost through focusing on Eniwetok, but there are a couple more items to cover. A ham radio shack was setup near our station, and it was operated by two or three experienced NCOs. Their main activity was to do “phone taps” to servicemen’s families which involved contacting another mainland Ham operator who’d plug the radio transmission into a phone line to connect the parties. One day, aware of San Francisco time, I was able to connect with [my wife] while she was working at the Met. Somebody answered her line, and yelled to her that I was on it. Well, she didn’t know about phone taps, and was flabbergasted at first, but we had a thrilling, short but sweet, conversation—involving lots of back and forth “overs” —on the radio, you know—and it did wonders for morale while adding some anxiety too.
Doing my thing in my only green uniform
We loaded up the car and dropped a copy of the order off at the Company orderly room on the way out. Such a howl from the duty guy at the desk, but there was nothing he could do about it. We were gone two days and got some good film and interviews, so it was a decent story. We almost got completely away with it, but during the next week we had to listen to the First Sergeant bellow at us, well aware that we had thwarted his attempt to collar us, the reluctant cigarette butt collectors for the inspection. He told us not to worry, he was gonna arrange a special inspection just for us. Which he didn’t, of course, but it caused a dark cloud to hover above for a week or two, until finally, like “Oak’s” mushroom cloud over Eniwetok, it too, dissipated.
One day all of us in HQ Company showed up in field gear, and were bussed over to a rifle range in Marin County. Every year or so, since we were still in the Army, we had to qualify as riflemen. On this occasion, we were issued the M-1 Carbine rifle, smaller and lighter, which used lighter, but the same caliber loads. These were used by paratroopers, and some invasion troops in the Pacific war theater. I found the weapon to be easier to handle and qualified as “Expert” this time and was issued another medal. That was satisfying. But all in all, it was a mere footnote to the army experience, as I was soon headed for the door.
Finally—and I had to pinch myself—the day came that I was to be separated from active service.
Fort Ord: It’s Gone. It was officially closed in 1994 and has since been administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and is open to the public for recreational activities.
Fort Slocum: It’s Gone. It was officially deactivated in 1966 by the federal government and Davids Island was subsequently sold to the City of New Rochelle, NY, which now owns it. Between 2005-2009 the Army Corps of Engineers razed the 94 buildings and structures, clearing out asbestos and other contaminants. At one point Consolidated Edison was advocating building an atomic power plant there, but that failed to find enthusiasm from the voters and regulators. New Rochelle is still studying ways to create a recreational and or commercial/hotel and conference facilities there.
The Sixth United States Army: It’s Gone. It was inactivated in 1994 and the Presidio was transferred to the National Park Service. Letterman Hospital was demolished.
Presidio of San Francisco:In 1996 the Park was privatized through congressional action.
Eniwetok Nuclear Testing Site: It’s Gone. It went out in a “blaze of glory” with the 1958 Hardtack series (as did the Bikini site).
Enewetak Atoll: Exists. Because of the level of radiation left in the soil after the test series, local residents were not permitted to return until the 1970’s, and in 1977 the U.S. government directed the military to decontaminate the islands. This was done by mixing the contaminated soil and debris from the various islands with Portland cement and burying it in the “Cactus” (18 kT) blast crater at the northern end of Runit islet. This continued until the crater became a spherical mound 25 feet high. The crater was then covered with an 18-inch thick concrete cap, dubbed “Cactus Dome.” The United States government declared the islands safe for habitation in 1980. In 2000, the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded over $340 million to the people of Enewetak for loss of use, hardship, medical difficulties and further nuclear cleanup. This award does not
Radioactive waste buried in the “Cactus” crater on Runit islet (Third time’s a charm inspiration for Burgee’s “Let’s have a big hand for the scientists” moment)
include the approximately $6 million annually budgeted by the United States for education and health programs in the Marshall Islands. I once saw a photograph of the concrete amphitheater that was our movie theater. It was taken in the early ‘70s and—overgrown with vegetation and littered with debris—it was a poignant vision, with resonances of that time; the dogs were missing. Demographic data from 2008 show a population of the atoll to be from 715 to 800 native individuals. A 2010 U-Tube video of a visitor taking a shuttle bus tour—of all things—around the island shows agricultural cocoanut groves, with fishing clearly a main source of food. Except for the chapel, I couldn’t recognize any of the buildings, and most of what are seen is a collection of recent modest structures, although they now have a serious, large white church as well. The population will likely remain stable as the island’s ability to sustain a greater number is probably limited by a number of factors: area, fresh water and other demands. (Although the main Atoll islands are now habitable, the “Cactus Dome” area has been declared off limits for 25,000 years—with a warning sign, yet—due to the plutonium that was collected and entombed there. In say, a mere 10,000 years, I wonder whose job will it be to go check that the sign is still there. Will anybody be left to do that?
After-effects: Debatable: I’ve been reading on-line accounts by other veterans of the Hardtack (and earlier) testing operations. Most of the comments indicate no medical problems directly associated with radiation exposure. Our badges were reviewed to measure the exposure and, because of the uproar following early Nevada testing issues, the AEC and Department of Defense were mandated to inform anybody who might be at risk. However, I have also read heartrending accounts from people who claim their many maladies—now, at their advanced ages—should be laid at the doorstep of the nuclear testing programs. I’ve heard, but am not certain, that if medical problems aren’t manifested within 30 years of the exposure, the likelihood that one will suffer direct effects is low. Despite the radiation, excessive smoking, consumption of bacon, butter, and even riding motorcycles, I’m here to tell you that I’m still here to tell you this. Puzzling.
“Oak”: *Silly me. It happened that “Oak” was the weapons feasibility test for the thermonuclear bomb designated Mk-53 which would yield a 9 mT explosion. Just right. The Strategic Air Command ordered up 50 of these bombs for aircraft deployment— which were good for riding on—(see “Dr. Strangelove”), and another 54 for Titian ICBMs. And that was just the beginning: Later versions added 236 more to the U.S. inventory over the years. We had a whole bunch of these weapons, with a potential equivalent force of three billion, sixty thousand tons of TNT, surely enough to destroy life on earth with the explosive violence, the radioactive fallout and the “Nuclear Winter” that would ensue (all without the certain assistance from the Soviets). A large percentage of the Mk-53 and later versions have been dismantled, which seems to be a pretty good thing to do.
Son of “Oak” (I’m so proud)
I’ve been recognized!
The Grease Trap: Not too long ago, with my son and granddaughters I toured the Presidio while on a brief visit to San Francisco. I told them the story of my KP duty at Headquarters Company, and as we slowly drove past that building I pointed out the historic grease trap, still solidly in place. Naturally this evoked waves of nostalgia—or was it nausea?—much the same, I guess.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Peter Sellers and Google