I was an EOD (explosive ordinance demolition specialist) assigned to the chemical company that moved the chemicals (Agent Orange) from Okinawa to Johnston Island in 1971. Not much on the Island at the time. I was surprised to find there were 5 bars and numerous dogs running around. Funny I was issued a radiation detection badge upon arrival. Never did know if I had exposure to radiation. I’m certain I did with bomb testing going on until 1962. Steven817m
Go to Google Earth and type in “Johnston Atoll,” and you’ll take a long rapid trip out over the Pacific. One look will tell you that this is not an atoll. It’s a tiny man-made island in the middle of the Pacific shaped like an aircraft carrier. Most of these places that we used for the nuclear testing program in the fifties and sixties were real atolls, delicate necklaces of white coral islets surrounding shallow lagoons, places like Eniwetok, Bikini, and Tariti Island.
Johnston Island, however, never grew up to become a full-fledged atoll. In the beginning it was just a threat to navigation, the rim of an ancient volcano, There was the reef, a shallow lagoon and two sandbars. Widened and lengthened over the years by dredging, Johnston Island served many purposes. With no reporters allowed, the armed forces were free to run almost any kind of program on Johnston Island with minimal oversight. This is the story, as much of it as I have been able to glean from public sources, of these programs.
It was an idyllic little military outpost until the late fifties. Something out of a musical with a plaintive “We ain’t got goyls.” Veterans post stories of an outpost where you worked two days and had five days off. Ideal weather. Sun every day. A very sleepy place, primarily used as an airstrip to resupply the Coast Guard Fortan station. Housekeeping done by Hawaiian personnel who were rotated in and out. Never enough work for people. Great seafood in the EM club. A couple flights every week, sending out your laundry to Hawaii and getting it back a week later. The only excitement was watching the regular flights dare disaster on a stubby runway that began and ended at the seawall.
The “Runt” being bolted into a barge at Bikini Atoll. It was detonated in CASTLE ROMEO, and yielded 11 megatons.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and World War Two ended, the United States and Great Britain sought remote areas with accessible ports and land for installations to test atomic weapons. The technology of atomic weapons was still in its infancy. The United States had a couple big so-called pumpkin bombs, but we were working on the engineering that would enable us to mass-produce smaller, lighter, and more efficient weapons. Engineers and policy-makers wanted safer weapons, weapons that couldn’t set off by accident. The great bulk of the accidents, the so-called “Broken Arrows” happened in the 1950s, when training wasn’t as good and many of the first generation weapons were in use. We had a lot of close calls in those days. I enlisted in 1958, and was trained in nuclear weapons work in Albuquerque. We had at least one close call\ on our base, when a crew chief came in drunk and tried the wrong procedure the wrong way on a museum-grade Mark Five, a slightly smaller version of the “Fat Man” that we dropped on Nagasaki. Only when his crew deserted him did he desist from running a badly-adjusted in-flight insertion device (IFI) on power, jumping over many pages of procedures in his haste to meet the convoy pickup time. This IFI was powered by a high speed motor driving worm gears. The tolerances had to be just right or the nuclear element might go in cock-eyed and trigger a high explosive explosion and disintegrate the plutonium in the bomb.
It was a scary era. We were in an arms race with ourselves (Army versus the Air Force, etc.) and with the world. We were starting to mass-produce thousands of smaller and lighter bombs, bombs that could be hung on the wings of Navy aircraft, used for atomic mines, put on the nose of IRBMs, deployed as battlefield weapons. The Atomic Energy Commission and the military supervisor of the atomic stockpile, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Special Weapons Project (AFSWP) believed that the new weapons could not be maneuvered without full scale testing in the atmosphere. In the explosive environment of the cold war, both Russia and the U.S. were struggling to gain nuclear supremacy. Physicist Edward Teller at Livermore Laboratories had a lot of influence in Washington and was one of the key people in our weapons program. In 1958 there are two weapons laboratories, Lawrence Livermore at the University of California, and Los Alamos, run by Norris Bradbury, the legendary “old man” of the Manhattan Project who held the lab together after the end of World War Two, when the great majority of the scientists left Los Alamos to return to the academic community and peacetime work.
When it seemed that President Eisenhower was going to approve a moratorium on atomic testing, Bradbury didn’t think it would be such a bad idea, but Teller and his allies in the Air Force and Congress fought it tooth and nail. Teller was a brilliant, very determined man, a Hungarian born physicist, someone who was probably the model for Doctor Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s satiric movie about the buildup to World War III. In his fight to develop the hydrogen bomb, he found many conservative allies in the Congress. He considered E. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a security risk. His struggle to discredit him turned into a witch-hunt that divided the scientific community and destroyed Oppenheimer’s career. He also was an influential figure in killing President Eisenhower’s attempt to get a comprehensive test ban by sowing doubts about the feasibility of seismic detection of underground atomic tests. His ability to influence decision makers with his theoretical projections was phenomenal. He showed that it was theoretically possible to muffle the seismic signals by setting off bombs in great cavities deep under the earth so as to cheat on any detection system. It seemed doubtful that the Soviets could or would spend the kind of money and national resources need to cheat on this scale, but this set off a dubious “big hole scare” that British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan said was a major factor in killing off negotiations for a test ban treaty .
Between 1947 and 1962, the physicist William E. Ogle and Army engineer General Alfred Starbird played prominent roles in the complex dangerous business of atomic testing. There were more than 200 atomic tests in Nevada, on Bikini and Eniwetok, on Christmas Island and Johnston Island. They saw the WW II era ghost fleet enveloped in a radioactive storm surge at Bikini at Crossroads and commanded another great fleet of ships and aircraft that witnessed the first hydrogen devices detonated at the Marshall Islands between 1954 and 1962. They had a front row seat when a Thor missile blew up on the launch pad on Johnston Atoll with a 1.4 megaton weapon on board.
These men didn’t push the buttons, but they said that it was okay to push the button. They marshaled thousands of men on the beaches, their backs toward the blasts. William Ogle’s book tells the inside story of the rocky road that the U.S. traversed when we resumed atomic testing in 1961 after Russia started testing with their 62 megaton “super bomb.” Ogle and Starbird were the gatekeepers that did the preliminary safety analyses, checked the weather and wired up the testing apparatus. They were in charge of the operations of Task Force 8.3, who supervised the atomic testing at Johnston Island.
By the time he retired in 1972, Bill Ogle had witnessed every A-bomb explosion we had ever set off, including the first atmospheric test of an atomic bomb on Compania Hill in the rolling hills east of Socorro New Mexico. He had also witnessed our last atmospheric test off Johnston Island, “Tightrope” on November 3 1962. By the time he retired from the AEC in 1973 he had played many roles, from staff scientist to test director. He was in and out of the oval office many times, serving under President Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. After retirement, he worked on a book about the A-testing program, but died of a heart attack before completing it. I found the book by accident one day. The Return to Nuclear Weapons Testing will never be on the best seller list. It is too long, covers too much mind-boggling detail, but is an eye-opener. It never made it to paper, but exists in the arcane back files of the internet, in the historical files of the Nevada Field Office of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Big black blocks dot the text where the censor worked it over. Four of his co-workers at Department of Energy edited it and added some missing material.
Johnston island is now mowed flat, but still carries the shadows of many vanished buildings. There are sealed bunkers behind decaying sea walls, and an airstrip with two big white “X”s that say “Do Not Land Here.” There are four smaller islands whose square or trapezoid shapes say bulldozers and dredgers made us. Here on the north shore was Mount Pluto, 80,000 metric tons of plutonium tainted earth and coral. Today much of the plutonium has been moved to the United States, and a 24 acre landfill has replaced launch sites one and two. This is where ill-fated Thor missiles were prepped for takeoff in 1962. It has taken a lot of work and a lot of money to clean up Johnston Island, and even today it is barren and contaminated, The only animals that thrive on the main island are poison ants.
 Ogle, ibid, page 451
 An Account of the Return to Nuclear Weapons Testing by the United States after the Test Moratorium 1958-1961, William E. Ogle, U.S. Department of Energy Nevada Operations Office, 481 pages.
In 1796 the American Brig SALLY out of Boston grounded on a shoal some 717 nautical miles WSW of Honolulu. At that time her skipper, Joseph Pierpont, saw a rough circular reef some eight miles across. Inside its shelter lay a patch of sand covered with bird shit (guano) 1000 yards long and about 200 yards wide, reaching a height of some forty-four feet at its northern end. About a mile and a quarter to the northeast was a sandbank about 200 yards in diameter. This island would be later called Sand Island.
Pierpoint was apparently so little impressed that he logged it and got away as quickly as possible, not bothering to claim it for the United States. Its official discovery came three years later on December 14, 1807, when the island was visited by Captain Charles James Johnston, of the British frigate CORNWALLIS. The island bears his name. The description of Johnston Atoll Island in the log of CORNWALLIS was brief, and the British didn’t claim it either.
Only when the United States passed the guano act that entitled the seizure of islands by U.S. citizens seeking mining rights, did groups of competing companies come to Johnston Island to lay claim to the island and plant the U.S. flag. The Kingdom of the Hawaii, then independent, also claimed the islands. The island was mined of its guano, and when what was left was too mixed up with the coral base to be of any value, ships stopped coming. The forty-four foot altitude was down to 14 feet by the time that a ship belonging to a scientific expedition from Hawaii docked there to set up a crude camp and study the wildlife, mainly the thousands of seabirds nesting on its coral. The local pest was a species of louse.
“The flattened sand louse. . . is very abundant here and is a decided nuisance, as at night it invades our cots, crawls all over us and sucks our blood . . .The creatures crawl out of the sand and do not make an appearance until I have been asleep for an hour or so. I awake then and with the light of an electric torch kill 30 or 40 .”
On July 29, 1926, as a result of a memorandum submitted by Dr. Wetmore, Executive Order No. 4467 placed Johnston Island under the control and jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture as a breeding ground and refuge for the native birds which flocked there. But the possible military uses of the island was also acknowledged by President Coolidge. In the 1920s and 1930s, both the Japanese and American military had their eyes on the little island as a possible seaplane base. The U.S. got there first. For the next sixty years the island remained under military control. Continual dredging expanded the size of the islands.
For the next sixty years the island remained under military control. Several seaplanes made flights from Hawaii to Johnston. A squadron of six planes visited the island in November, 1935. On April 8, 1937, two VP-6′s made the round trip in ten and a half hours, to bring back a sick seaman. Dredging created channels for ships and places for float planes to dock. In 1941 Johnston Atoll was shelled by the Japanese after the Pearl Harbor attack. After the first attack, shore guns were installed, and the subs were driven off. Continual dredging of the deep coral buildup in the old crater under the sea added to the island year after year, eventually making it big enough to land B-29s and C-47s on. An underground hospital was constructed. During the remainder of the war, American submarines used the island as a refueling base, and by 1944 the atoll was one of the busiest airports in the Pacific. On 25 February 1944, ATC flight nurses Lieutenants. Alice Kirais and Elsie Nolan stepped off a C-54 medical evacuation plane, becoming the first women known to set foot on the island.
Following V-J Day on 14 August 1945, Johnston Atoll saw the flow of men and aircraft that had been coming from the mainland into the Pacific turn around. Beginning 27 September 1947, over 1,300 B-29 and B-24 bombers passed through the Marianas, Kwajalein, Johnston Island, and Oahu en route to Mather Field, their destination civilian life. On 1 July 1948, operational control of JA transferred to USAF under the Pacific Air Command.
It was a lonely place to be stationed. After the war, continual dredging expanded the number and the size of the islands inside the atoll. Soon Sand Island became a Loran station built to improve navigation in the mid-Pacific manned by the U.S. Coast Guard.