You’ll have to decide whether Kirbyonloose version 1.1 is useful or enjoyable for you. It’s going to be different. No problem if you decide to disenroll. My focus may be more global and personal than local. Sometimes I will recycle old articles that I think need to be dusted off and renewed. If you think I should pay attention to something that bothers you and you think I should write about, email me. Some of you know that I was a Navy nuclear veteran during the late fifties and early sixties. This posting will be on the research I have been doing lately on Johnston Island. It will be the first of a series on one of the worst places that technicians got assigned in the 1958-72 period, working on Johnston Island, out in the middle of the Pacific. I lucked out, serving a land-locked enlistment, almost four years in New Mexico and Nevada.
Johnston Island Blues
I was EOD 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. Many of these places that we used for nuclear testing once were small paradises, delicate necklaces of white coral surrounding aqua green lagoons. Eniwetok, Bikini, Christmas Island, atolls now worked over with bulldozers and reshaped by dredges to host runways, taxiways, harbors and dirt roads. Johnston was just a sandbar when we claimed it, but widened and lengthened by dredging, it served a lot of dubious purposes. With no reporters around, almost anything went.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and World War Two ended, the United States sought a remote area with accessible ports and land for installations to test atomic weapons. The technology of atomic weapons was still in its infancy. The country had a couple Nagasaki-style big pumpkin bombs, but we were working on the engineering that would enable us to mass-produce smaller, lighter, and more efficient weapons. 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. Fallout was not a big problem until the first hydrogen bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled, but radiation aftermath was minimal. Engineers and policy-makers wanted safer weapons, weapons that idiots in the field couldn’t set off by accident. The great bulk of the so-called “Broken Arrows” happened in the 1950s, when many of the first generation of weapons were in use.
In the explosive environment of the cold war, where both Russia and the U.S. were struggling to gain nuclear supremacy, Edward Teller’s fight to develop the hydrogen bomb developed into a witch hunt that divided the scientific community and destroyed the career of E. Robert Oppenheimer, the first director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He opposed the H-bomb. His loyalty was never really in question, but he never was happy with the ethos of security, and members of his family and friends had connections with communist-aligned groups in the forties. He lost his security clearance in a public star-trial. Teller,a Hungarian born physicist convinced Truman and the Joint Chiefs to go ahead with the “super”, and then followed up his victory with punishing Oppenheimer because he didn’t get on board. In this series of articles, I am frequently going to reference The Return to Testing by George Ogle. It’s probably the best single source on Dominic I as seen by one the major players in our atomic weapons testing program, Henry E. Ogle, a physicist who was the science director of Joint Task Force Seven and Eight, and number two man to General Alfred Starbird, an army engineer. Now both men are forgotten, but they were there for more than 200 atomic tests. In Nevada, on Bikini and Eniwetok, on Christmas Island and Johnston Island. They didn’t push the button, but they said that it was okay to push the button. They were the gatekeepers that did the preliminary safety analyses, and wired up the testing apparatus. They saw a makeshift fleet of German, Japanese and surplus United States ships enveloped in a radioactive storm surge in Crossroads, they commanded a great fleet of ships and aircraft that witnessed the big megatonnage going off between 1947 and 1962.
Reporters were not allowed on Johnston Island. It still is a hassle getting permission to visit it. Now the Department of Interior controls access. It has been the home of many top-secret programs. Most of them are controlled by the military supervisor of our nuclear weapons program. It was called the Armed Forces Special Weapons Program (AFSWP) in the days I was in the project, then it became the Defense Atomic Support Agency. Then there was the Air Force-managed Program 637, which was so secret it didn’t have a name.
The fifties and the sixties were the times when AFSWP went on a security binge, long after Klaus Fuchs gave the Russians the only secret worth having, the Teller-Ulam concept of the three stage hydrogen bomb, the fission/fusion/fission process. When we were stationed in Albuquerque going to NW school, we got more lectures on security. You’d think that there were FBI and KGB agents all over town, and Mata Haris trying to put the make on us in the local bars. A couple times forty of us spent almost twenty-four hours being locked up in our underground bunker because of a missing page in one of our assembly manuals. A page in a Mark twenty-eight assembly manual. The last page. No content on it whatsoever. Nothing but the phrase, “this page, page ______ has been deliberately left blank.
We had to turn the whole place upside down looking for that damned page. We found its plastic overlay but the page never showed up.We took all the drawers out of the lockable file cabinets, moved all the furniture around, had to stand outside in ranks at attention being patted down. No, Lieutenant, nothing up my nose, nothing in my hair. We had the security people on our butt every minute, we were all interrogated and it wasn’t until after midnight that we got some sleep, on the floor. And it was never found, that phantom page. And it wasn’t until we blew two convoy deadlines that the base commander got a waiver for us, and we were able to go back to the barracks and life went on.
The powers that be have done their best to make us forget about Johnston Island, and everything that happened there. Only now little bits and pieces of the many messy painful truths starting to leak out on the internet. I am tired of looking at the pictures of young handsome men with buzzcuts and cheerful smiles posing for unit photographs in 1962, lining the rails of the U.S.S. Sioux, that heroic little tug, standing under the wings of the B-57b samplers, the PV-9 Neptunes, and the C-130s. The men of missing units, the MPs that walked their beats on the beaches. The guys who took a short cut across the taxiway to get to the beach. The UDTS that went scrounging in the surf for all the junk that was washing up on the beaches for days. I am tired of looking at their faces and knowing that many of them are dying dirty painful lonely deaths. death by diminution, deaths that are just a succession of bad days seeing doctors or not seeing doctors, of changes in medications, days when you don’t sleep worth a damn. And okay, many of them are okay. I am okay.
But I guess I have this weird kind of survivor’s guilt. There were examples of things gone wrong coming in from the Pacific by way of the airstrip and the railhead, a Mark 49 with its tail section sheared off where men had tried to bring it up an elevator too short for it, and a Mark Seven bomb that had been dropped in the Pacific.
I remember this particular day very well. Sat down at the typewriter the next week and wrote that one up. I was in the coffee locker one afternoon clearing up after the lunch time massacre, emptying out the ashtrays, wiping off the vinyl seat cushions and clearing away the mess that the brown baggers had left behind. After I had scrubbed out the coffee urn, I sat down to enjoy a Pall Mall and contemplate things. Lieutenant Murchison stuck his head in through the doorway.
He wondered where everyone was, and I told him. It was a slow time in the electrical bay, and most of the crew were working out in back checking humidity and temperature records in the storage igloos. He told me to get down to the mechanical bay on the double. He said that Vandalowski was short handed and had some kind of problem on his hands.
The problem was sitting all by itself on a semi-trailer outside the main blast door. A red-tagged Mark Seven warhead in its olive drab capsule-shaped carrier vehicle. My old nemesis and good friend Caproon was still on forklift duty in those days, and he was being very careful, for once. No wheelies today. He slid his forks very gently under the carrier and picked it up. It had been gored by something. There were dents and a big gash in the protective cover, rusting bolt heads, and two flat tires. Almost everyone in the bay had come out to see the show, including the big boss. The forklift crept along, the blast doors rolled back, and he set it down in the outer bay. There was the sound of water sloshing within the bomb case. Vandalowski was wearing rubber gloves and bootees and was passing a Geiger counter over the pools of water. It was buzzing like a rattlesnake.
“Son of a bitch,” said the Chief, “What crazy birds shipped it to us this way?”
The sound from inside the bomb case was sea water, and the bomb had been dropped into the sea somewhere in the Western Pacific. They had been transferring it by highline from a transport when something happened. The bomb went into the sea and was in the sea from twenty minutes dragging behind the two ships like a big piece of bait before the carrier reeled it in. Some admiral decided to pass the buck and let us decontaminate, and had it flown directly from the carrier to our airstrip. The C-130 was being hosed down at the taxiway. Something radioactive in the bomb was corroding at a high rate of speed, and when Ski brought his probe close to the skin of the bomb cover it hit the top of the thousand scale.
We put on our protective gear, the all white outfit of rough sail cloth from the white booties on your feet to the cap on your head. All the junctures had to be taped.
Five minutes later one guy was perched up on the carrier with a breaker bar and three of us were supporting the front shield by the grab handles. I watched the water dripping from the bottom seam. There was quite an audience in the operating room, including a civilian from the AEC, everyone hanging well back.
My friend put his big breaker bar on the clamping ring, and leaned on it cautiously. There was a crack, another crack, and it sagged. The three of us now had its full weight and my legs were wobbling. It weighed a ton. We tilted the case forward a little bit and the sea water came out in a tide. Soon the three of us were standing in the middle of the water and our anti-radiation booties were sopping wet. There was a briny smell in the air and the Geiger counter was going crazy. The bolts were backed off the rest of the way, and we pulled the front shield loose. Our shoes and socks and booties went into the radioactive garbage can. And there it was. We now had a radioactive lake on the floor and the bomb’s big implosion sphere was revealed. The Mark Seven was unarmed with the detonators out of it, thank God. We were given dosimeters. I don’t know if soap and water and squeegees kill radiation, but we turned into maniacal washers and scrubbers and pretty soon the water had been mopped up, the floor scrubbed and the mops and other cleaning materials thrown in the radioactive waste cans. The count was down. We unbolted the in-flight insertion mechanism and that was hot. Everything went into big A & N cans. The radiation was coming out of the beryllium-lined tunnel leading into the weapon’s pit. And so it came that we got about as intimate as you can with an atomic bomb, up to our armpits swabbing out its implosion cavity with Kleenexes saturated with cleaning fluid. My best friend got the worst of it, two hours of nonstop cleaning with TCP when the count was really high and the active material was throwing out hot particles.
By the time I relieved him, the count had come down. I always wondered if he got a dose, but after his discharge he went home to his family’s ranch in Montana, got a well-paying state job and lived to retire, dying at seventy. I worked at cleaning it up for a couple hours. Soon the Kleenexes that I pulled out of the pit were fairly clean. The spalling abated once the pit dried out. About ten o’clock cheese sandwiches and Cokes were brought in, and I was relieved. Had to take two showers. It was some kind of strange thrill, inhaling the spicy odor of that TCP-soaked Kleenex, not knowing what other things were in the vapor. Holding the damp Kleenex and looking at those grey flakes of plutonium that came up with every swipe. Let’s just call the bits active material, if we had special glasses the particles might have been glowing a spectral shade of electrical blue. The routine play activity of Uranium 235 or Plutonium. Uranium and the other exotics are uncomfortable in their present state. They are human in that respect, unpredictable. Burping every now and then, kicking out a very fast, very deadly neutron, radiating some gamma rays or an Alpha particle.
- The Story is in Nuclear Hostages, Bernard J.O’Keefe
- A generous portion of this posting first appeared in the London Review of Books