An Atomic Bomb Test Veteran Remembers
by George Mace
George Mace is a veteran of nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific and Nuclear Operations Reconstruction Coordinator for the National Association of Atomic Veterans. There is nothing like a first hand account from someone who was there.
“Exactly 50 years ago I participated in nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse Tests. I had been assigned to Joint Task Force Seven, for participation in Operation Hardtack-I, to be conducted at the Pacific Proving Grounds. This mainly consisted of Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls, about 150 miles apart and by using two Atolls the U.S. could test many more bombs.
On 1 February 1958 I reported in at Travis Air Force Base, California and waited several days for a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) flight to Hawaii. This was the first time in my life for flying and some experience. There was no finished interior in the aircraft, just bucket seats and cold box lunch meals. It was a cold flight and one engine started to smoke, which had to be shut down (feathered) on the way over and I'm sitting on the wing seat watching out the window with more than a little concern! Hawaii smelled like a big pineapple upside down cake when we landed, because of the canning factories.
Again, several days pasted waiting for another flight which would take me to Eniwetok Atoll. It's a long way from Hawaii to Eniwetok, which is part of the Marshall Islands and near Bikini and Kwajalein Atolls, which almost everyone has heard of. Looking out the aircraft window all you could see was white caps (big waves) in a very blue ocean. After what seemed like an eternity of cold box lunches and rather cold sleeping, the aircraft started to descend and I couldn't see any land. Finally, what appeared to be the deck of an aircraft carrier came into view and we started our approach. It turned out that Eniwetok Island was about 90% runway and the remainder living quarters for the troops! This main island was named Eniwetok but code named FRED, which I shall use to prevent confusion between it and Eniwetok Atoll. Because the islands had native names and were hard to pronounce, all had been assigned code names by the United States, which I shall also use.
Once off the plane we were escorted to a building for in- briefing and further assignment. No cameras or weapons were allowed on the island and all our mail would be censored (read) for classified information before forwarding stateside. We would not be allowed to write anything about our duties or what took place on the island, or in the Atoll! This didn't leave a whole lot to talk about when writing home. In April I would celebrate my 23rd birthday on this "wonderful" island!
I had one duffle bag with all my uniforms in it and the first thing we did was turn it all in for storage. I was issued tan short sleeve shirts, short pants, sneakers and a blue ball cap, which would be my dress uniform for the next nine months! My quarters would be a ten- man tent with wooden lockers, heated 24 hours a day by a light bulb to keep the moisture out of my clothes. It also burned holes in your clothes if you weren't careful! The tent was constructed with a wooden frame and second tent over it with an air space in between to help keep it cool inside. The sides of the tent were rolled up to about three feet off the wooden floor for air circulation. This also allowed the horizontal rain coming in off the ocean to soak your cot during the frequent night time storms, (Many a wet butt night).
Wooden walkways connected the tents to each other and a central latrine with (showers, stools, wash basins). All you ever wore to the latrine was a towel! As luck would have it, the living quarters were located right at the end of the runway and you prayed a lot when the runways were in use. The big end of FRED island was all runway and aircraft hangers, with a single road running on the lagoon side all the way down the narrow portion of the island. I do mean narrow. From in front of my tent, I could throw a stone into the ocean, then turn and throw a stone into the lagoon. We were also only seven feet above sea level!
Although small, FRED island had a Joint Task Group Headquarters building, communications building, dinning facility, chapel, out door movie theater, base exchange (store), barber shop, metal buildings (Billets) for the officers, dozens of tent billets for the enlisted men, (there were no women on the island, or in the Atoll as far as I know), enlisted club (Tradewinds), officer club (Pau Hana) and boat landing. FRED island had one tree about eight feet tall located by the chapel. WWII and previous nuclear bomb tests took care of the rest. Because it was an isolated tour of duty there was no kitchen police (KP) that the troops had to perform, as this was accomplished by hired Hawaiians. I will have to say that the food as a whole was excellent, but men putting out their after dinner cigarettes in the mashed potatoes is something I will never get used to!
Eniwetok Atoll consists of dozens of tiny islands (about 40) formed in a rough circle, with a lagoon of mostly calm waters in the center and shallow and deep entrances between the islands to the sea. The center of the lagoon was deep enough (approximately 200 feet) for navy ships to enter through the deep entrances for delivery of materials and personnel. From my island I could only see one other island ELMER, about two miles away. For some unknown reason this island was also called PARRY. I did not know it at the time but the next island from ELMER was named DAVID (Japtan) and on it a small group of men (13) manning an Army Signal Corp radio receiver site; commanded by Sergeant Orville Kelly. Their task was to receive all incoming messages from the Army portion of the task force scattered around the islands and relay them to my island FRED. All kinds of animals and electronic test equipment were placed on these islands by Army personnel and retrieved after each SHOT. Within 15 years Orville was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer; became the first veteran awarded service connected benefits for exposure to bomb radiation and died in June 1980, just 6 months after winning his seven year battle with the government!! I would come to know this man before he died and go on to help his widow Wanda, form the National Association of Atomic Veterans. But that's a whole other event in my life for future recall.
My main source of off duty activity was water skiing near the boat dock. I had never water skied before and it took some doing. For months I used two ski's and toward the end of my tour was getting fairly good on one ski. This was great exercise because every muscle in your body is used while skiing and I got dark as a peanut. My swim trunks got old quick from the salt water and the legs were very loose. One day while on two ski. I got the bright idea of bumping my butt on the water, from a spread eagle position. Without realizing it I gave myself a salt- water enema and hit the shore on a dead run for the latrine! Not to smart and I haven't told very many people about that one!
One time the boat operator pulling me on two ski took me all the way around a navy ship in the lagoon. This was out where the water turns dark blue and the sharks search for garbage from the ship. Had I lost my ski for any reason, I would never have let go of that rope, until back on shore!!
I also spent hours snorkeling in the lagoon, with air pipe and goggles. It's very easy to stay afloat in salt water and just stare at the lagoon bottom for helmet shells and other goodies. The water was about 15 or 20 feet deep close to shore and on the bottom lay all kinds of equipment from WWII; landing craft, tanks, engines, etc., which I would dive down to and search. One day while snorkeling I was just floating and concentrating on the lagoon bottom when I became aware of a presence. I had drifted into a large school of big brownish/black fish and there must have been thousands of eyes watching me. Scared the devil out of me and from then on I looked around while snorkeling, as it could have been a shark. Many of the guys went spear hunting for sharks out in the deeper water and had stories to tell, but that wasn't for me!
I also took long walks on the ocean side of the island and gathered live bullets, still there, after almost 15 years since the island was invaded during WWII. All this time they had been submerged in seawater and constantly agitated by the tides. I would break them open, which was easy because the brass casings were brittle and the powder would still ignite. One day I remember finding a live hand grenade with almost all the exterior projectiles and firing mechanism worn off and threw it far out into the deep water. The beach on the ocean side of the island was peculiar, as it was almost solid coral with very little sand. Rumor was, that if you walked off the edge of this coral you would be washed under the island, so I never went too far out. No use pushing my luck.
Some of the men would "borrow" a large tablespoon from the mess hall and using the round end hammer a silver dollar around it's edge and make rings, after boring a hole in it. Not a whole lot to do for thousands of men on a very small island!
There were many high paid civilians on the islands and on weekends the gambling would start around the clock. There was a Sergeant in the communications center who kept one thousand dollars in our safe, just for gambling! He was professional and sent the winnings home. He would start playing cards and if he lost 3 or 4 hundred dollars, would stop, until the next week! Me, I was lucky to have ten dollars in my pocket.
We had been told that in the coming months testing of atomic devices would be started, but not how many or that hydrogen bombs would be included. It didn't matter at the time because I didn't know an atomic bomb from a hydrogen bomb and we were assured that everything would be safe. Only in the late 1970's did I find out that hydrogen bombs are hundreds of times more powerful than atomic bombs. There was no talk about danger from radiation produced by the bombs and at different times we were issued film badges to measure radiation. I now believe that I was fortunate working every day in a concrete, air- conditioned communications building, which limited my radiation exposure to some degree. From February 1958 to the beginning of May, I was busy working in the communications center getting the equipment ready, before the bomb tests began. Because the Operation was a Joint Military effort, there were two air force enlisted men, including myself and one Army Warrant Officer (WO) as Maintenance Chief, to maintain all equipment in the communications center on FRED. We provided the Operation with long-haul secure circuits back to the states via Kwajalein and Okinawa.
I was a lost entity in a very busy Joint Operation, with no hope for promotion! At first I didn't like WO Milton Learner, the maintenance chief, because he made me work! Every piece of teletype and crypto equipment in that communications center we cleaned and checked. All wiring was tested point to point and many operational checks performed. The online secure systems were of the one-time tape variety and included the B-2 Table, SSM-33, TT-160/SAMSON unit, all using SIGTOT Distributors. One- time tape systems were considered the most secure devices available (Still Are). Off-line equipment included the TSEC/KL-7, TSEC/KL-47 (NAVY) and the SP 3000, all Rotor Secured devices. Only after the bomb testing started and we had no equipment problems did I come to appreciate WO Learner's wisdom of preparation!
WO Learner was a big, tall, well -built Jewish man and could take his part in any scrap. If angry he would come nose to nose with you and talk you down! The communications center had another Warrant Officer who out ranked WO Learner and was in charge of the operations portion. He directed that all maintenance personnel leave the secure area when Top Secret message traffic was being processed. WO Leaner turned red and stated that we all had Top Secret security clearances and would remain in the area, unless operations wanted to repair their own equipment and that ended the discussion!! Years later WO Learner would play a part in my being hired as a civilian Crypto technician. Always mend your bridges and never burn them behind you!
From the 6th of May through the 11th of August, no less than 35 nuclear devices were tested at Eniwetok Atoll, Bikini Atoll and the Johnston Islands. This was an awful lot of detonations in just over three months! All total 35.628 MEGATONS were detonated which equals 1,781 Hiroshima size bombs! Later in life I found out that the United States and Soviet Union were negotiating a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and both sides wanted to test as many nuclear devices as possible before sitting down at the table! Every detonation was called a "SHOT" and at that time I wasn't told their Code Names, how far away they were, or their size (KILOTON=1,000 tons TNT, MEGATON=1,000,000 tons TNT). Any information that we received concerning the tests came a week late, when we read the Hawaii Newspapers! Whenever I ask how far away the detonations were, I was always told about 50 miles.
Years later I found out that the 22 detonations conducted at Eniwetok Atoll were never more than 15 miles from the island of FRED and consisted of a mixture of atomic and hydrogen devices. I also discovered that the 11 detonations that took place at Bikini Atoll, about 150 miles east of Eniwetok, had a nasty habit of drifting their radioactive clouds over us! I know this because in 1979 I had the government sent me the declassified Operation Hardtack-I plans, which included wind drift charts for all SHOTS. I paid Uncle Sam $35.00 for these Xerox copies, however I'm glad I did as they are no longer available! Once it became known that veterans were expressing an interest in nuclear testing, almost all government sources dried up!!
Some of the nuclear devices must have come by plane as they would be loaded on flatbed trucks, covered with canvas and driven down the lagoon road for reloading onto water landing craft. The trucks were guarded with machine guns and I remember thinking "Who's going to steal it and where would they go with it." We were never told ahead of time that a SHOT was going to occur, but the day before they would anchor the water tower down with cables and trucks.
For most of the SHOT detonations at Eniwetok all personnel would be assembled on the lagoon side of the island, sitting with our backs to the blast, head on our knees and our arms over our eyes Officers had welders goggles and could watch the whole show. Only after the fireball died down could we turn and look at the cloud rising. I did learn to respect (Fear) the tremendous power displayed by each detonation. A few seconds after detonation you would see this tremendous flash and then a wave of heat would feel like the sun coming up on your back. The largest SHOT I ever witnessed was code named OAK on 29 June and the heat on my back got to the point of becoming uncomfortable, in fact it started to burn my skin right through my shirt. Once the fireball had subsided I turned around to see the water column rising into the sky and forming the familiar mushroom cloud.
Then high winds hit me within minutes or seconds. It's hard to put a time frame on it though because time really stands still when you see something like that. This was all very scary of course but it was also really beautiful. There are so many colors to it, especially in a Pacific island setting; there's the aqua green water and a brilliant red residue from the fireball, and then the luminous white mushroom cloud going up into a clear blue sky. It's awe- inspiring and my first emotion was pure amazement.
Only years later did I find out that the OAK detonation was a nine megaton hydrogen bomb ( 700 times greater than the Hiroshima Bomb );detonated on a landing craft, about 15 miles from my island. We sandbagged the island beforehand, because it was only seven feet above sea level. When OAK detonated there was this wink of light that I sensed through my closed eyes and arms, just like a flashbulb going off inside my head. And when I turned to see the column of water rising out of the lagoon, it was so tremendous that no one spoke. You could hear the sound waves bouncing off the islands Boom! Boom!, as it came down the atoll chain .And when the sound wave hit Eniwetok, the whole island shook and a hot wind blew our baseball caps off, but within seconds the wind reversed and sucked in toward the bomb. The column was surrounded by ragged haloes of white shock waves, which produced an electrical field. I actually experienced an electrical field passing through me; my arm hair stood up and there was a cracking sensation all through me that was as much felt as heard. I knew what this was because I had felt the same effect when in the field of a high- powered radio antenna. There was also a metallic taste in my mouth, like when chewing gum foil touches a tooth filling. And that mushroom cloud just continued to build and grow until it had risen about sixty or seventy thousand feet into the air and covered the entire atoll. A circle of islands about fifteen miles in diameter were all shadowed by this terrifying, magnificent thing.
I remember talk of evacuating the islands because of concern about fallout, but it never occurred. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the water in the lagoon began to recede until the lagoon bottom lay exposed for about two hundred yards from shore. I could see sunken PT boats and equipment from WWII that was normally covered by fifteen or twenty feet of water. I really thought the earth had cracked and that the water was running into it! I mean, it had to go somewhere, right?
Finally, the water stopped receding and it just stood there like a wall for a minute. I thought of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, for it must have looked like this! Then it started coming back and I got a sick feeling, because here I was on this dinky little island, not very wide, and here comes what seemed like the whole ocean. The wave hit the island and sprayed up over the sandbags and all day long the water kept seesawing back and forth. Because of this agitation, the lagoon water turned an ugly milk chocolate brown and it started to rain very hard. At this point the effects of the bomb detonation took on apocalyptic gloom and I felt oppressed! Prometheus had stolen heavens fire and Pandoras' box spilled a Nuclear Holocaust on mankind forever!
The bomb had created a column which sucked up all the lagoon water for fifteen miles around. I will never forget that. The lagoon water was off limits for swimming for three days, but the ironic part of it was that the lagoon was our source of drinking water, after it went through the desalinization plant, which didn't remove radiation. The mighty OAK had dug a crater 183 feet deep in the lagoon and 4,400 feet in diameter. It also made a good size dent in my memory bank!
Another SHOT named PINE occurred on 27 July and was detonated in the lagoon, on a barge off of Janet Island, again about 15 miles from my island. This was a 2 MEGATON bomb and the mushroom cloud rose to 66,000 feet. Later information I obtained from the government stated this bomb used two primaries for detonation. This indicates the device was a two stage thermonuclear bomb, using Tritium and Deuterium, (both by products of hydrogen) and not the normal lithium deuteride. Through study I found out this was done to maximize the release of neutrons; therefore the PINE SHOT must have been a Neutron Bomb! During this 1950's time period the United States had announced it was developing a Clean Bomb with very little radiation fallout and minimum blast damage; however the massive release of neutrons would kill or damage all living matter for miles around. Such a bomb would permit U.S. ground troops to enter enemy towns immediately after bombing, with little concern about radiation fallout or military resistance; and as a bonus the buildings and utilities would still be intact! I still wonder if my fifteen miles was far enough away!
It's interesting now, years later, to remember that the OAK and PINE SHOTS were detonated at sea level; which means that an awful lot of coral became radioactive fallout in the atmosphere and stratosphere throughout the planet. It would be years before this "stuff" came down! And today the medical profession wonders why there is so much wide spread cancer!
Two other SHOTS of interest occurred during this test series, which again only became known to me years later. Two missile warheads, each 3.8-MEGATON were detonated at 252,000 and 141,000 feet. They were fired from Johnston Island on 31 July (TEAK) and 11 August (ORANGE) to see what would happen if nuclear bombs were used as weapons against incoming enemy nuclear missiles. Quite unexpected the United States found out that hydrogen detonations in the atmosphere create an Electromagnetic Pulse; which destroys solid state electronic equipment of all kinds. Communications all over the Pacific, including Hawaii were wiped out for hours! This meant that all military communications facilities, including aircraft would require special devices to filter out such a pulse or havoc would occur. Knowledge of this Electromagnetic- Pulse (EMP)- phenomena became ultra Top Secret for many years to come, until fixes were made.
My experiences at Eniwetok may sound to some as a fun time, but I can assure you that nine months living on a small island with thousands of other men, (and one tree) was no picnic! At age 23 and very naive I didn't give any thought about the 1945 Atomic destruction of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Having grown up during WWII, I was taught to hate the Japanese and that the Atomic Bomb ended the war and saved thousands of American soldiers' lives. This was 1958 and my country needed nuclear weapons to defend our freedom and keep the world safe. In fact, I was proud to be part of this Nuclear weapons development and would have agreed to their use on any enemy. This mind set would change later when I discovered that the government of the United States was not above lying to their own people and the world, concerning nuclear weapons or reactors.
Operation Hardtack-I delivered the coup-de-grace' to Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls as they would never again serve for the testing of nuclear devices. From 1946 to 1958 Bikini withstood 23 detonations and Eniwetok 46 detonations. Both atolls are now so radioactive that they can never again support human life, without damage. Over the years the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to clean up the atolls, to no avail. Natives from these atolls still live as Wards of the United States on a single congested island, where we relocated them over 50 years ago! Just as we had done to the American Indian, the United States once again destroyed the physical environment and cultural ecology of an entire race. What goes around, comes around and we're not going to like it! To add insult to injury, in later years the United States and Japan dumped radioactive waste into the sea trenches of the Marshall Islands. Henry Kissinger summed it all up by saying "there's only a few thousand natives out there and who gives a damn!" I do Henry, I do!!
I was assigned to McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey to finish out my tour of duty. The Air Force at that time was down sizing, so I got a 60 day early out and was discharged 15 December 1958. Three years, ten months and one day of active service to be exact!”
There is a post script to this story. The struggle of the Atomic Veterans with a government they once served has not been in vain. In the beginning even the other service organizations such as the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) would not acknowledge the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) as a creditable organization, not already encompassed in their charters. A ground swell of forthcoming Atomic Veterans however, would change this attitude and both organizations now embrace the NAAV and do battle for it! The creation of Atomic Veterans did not cease in 1963 with termination of atmospheric Nuclear Weapons tests. Everyday, men and women continue to serve in nuclear powered submarines and surface ships working and sleeping near nuclear reactors and soldiers use artillery shells treated with depleted uranium.
Bills have been passed by the U.S. Congress listing certain cancers which are now recognized as possibility connected to radiation exposure and therefore are covered as service connected disabilities by the Veterans Administration.