by DAVID BRADLEY, M.D.
NOT so long ago San Francisco welcomed home the light carrier Independence, the first of the main target vessels to return from the Bikini atom bomb tests. Photographs showed the familiar lines of the wrecked ship — her island carried away, her flight deck ripped up, her hangar deck caved in. She looked less like a ship than a paper bag blown up and burst. It was the Independence all right, exactly as we had left her over a year ago in Kwajalein Harbor.
Anyone who has known a modern carrier in action would be shocked by her mutilation. Although the first shot burst at some distance from her broadside, she was left little more than a derelict. Yet what is more impressive still — and likely to be overlooked — is that she remains an outcast ship. The disease of radioactivity lingers on her decks and sides and along her dingy corridors. Blasted first from the air, she survived; smothered later under tons of water, she rode out the tidal wave of the second shot and remained afloat. But the invisible poison of radioactivity she could not throw off. Because of this, not because of structural damage, she had to be towed from Kwajalein home.
Having helped to attend her and the other ships during the acute phases of her illness, I should have liked to go aboard her again, but she was anchored offshore in strict isolation, a dangerous leper. As the papers said: “Newsmen and the public will not be allowed to approach the Independence. It is best, the Navy believes, to view this awful symbol of a possible future from a San Francisco hillside.”
Against this whole philosophy I rebel. Newsmen and the general public are exactly the ones who most need to go aboard and get acquainted with the Independence. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in civil courts; similarly, before the tribunal of all humanity, which now sits in the light and dark corners of the world, ignorance of the natural laws which produced atomic energy and wrecked t he Independence cannot be condoned.
The Bikini tests have never received adequate attention. The accounts of the actual explosions, however well intended, were liberally seasoned with fantasy and superstition; and as for the results of the tests, they have remained buried in the vaults of military security.
That sort of security is itself a superstition, and a dangerous one. It fosters misconceptions or — what is worse — indifference, and ultimately results in procrastination, half measures, and hysteria. There is nothing particularly difficult or mysterious about the scientific principles upon which an atomic explosion is based. Students all over the world are verifying them in the laboratory and applying them to further research. For some reason, Americans have found comfort in the phrase “our industrial know-how.” This is our Maginot Line. But surely our days of grace under this magic symbol are running out.
Copyright 1948, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
Perhaps it is good, then that the carrier Independence should return to America, like the proddings of a bad conscience. What happened at “Crossroads” cannot be buried with the ships in Bikini Lagoon or towed away to rot on the beaches of Kwajalein. What happened at “Crossroads” was the clearest measure yet of the menace of atomic energy. Less spectacular perhaps than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bikini tests give a far clearer warning of the lingering and insidious nature of the radioactive agent which makes it an ideal weapon for use on civil populations.
The first of the Bikini tests took place on July 1, 1946. At least eight months of planning and preparation preceded that event. In that time Joint Task Force One grew from an original few thousand people to something over 40,000, and all plans underwent complete metamorphosis several times. What started as a simple laboratory experiment to determine the effectiveness of the bomb, used above and under water, became the most complex and intricate project imaginable. The Navy wanted to test its ships. Ultimately the target fleet came to include a sample of almost everything that floats. American ships, German ships, Jap ships, flattops and submarines, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, landing craft, ships made of riveted plates, ships made of welded plates, floating dry docks made of reinforced cement — even seaplanes — were included.
The part of my group in this complex Task Force was a small one. We were what was called the Radiological Safety Section — or in the colloquialism of the Task Force, “Geiger men.” As a sort of Department of Public Health, the Radiological Safety Section included doctors, radiologists, physicists, instrument experts, and almost anyone with a smattering knowledge of electronics. Prepared for the worst, we even had psychiatrists.
Concurrently with the Task Force, we grew from a few score of men to several hundred, and eventually were given the use of one of the latest hospital ships of the Navy, the U.S.S. Haven, a beautiful white tall-sided ship equipped with ample laboratories and completely air-conditioned. This last luxury was not so much a concession to the soft, effete scientists as a necessary protection for the delicate electronic instruments used in the detection of radioactivity.
Our mission in Operation Crossroads may be simply stated in the words of President Truman, who requested Admiral Blandy to take all necessary precautions to see “that no one gets hurt ” at Bikini. Men of the Radiological Safety Section were therefore present at most of the activities of the Task Force. In the air, on the sea, and on board ship, their job was the same; namely, to stand watch with Geiger counters for invisible booby traps of radioactivity. Their assignment began at Bikini but spread to include the neighboring atolls, the hundreds of miles to Eniwetok, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, and ultimately to the seaports of the West Coast. Their job is still going on. Thus the men of the Radiological Safety Section had an unparalleled opportunity to meet the bomb at close quarters, and to learn something of the public health problem of fissionable materials.
SATURDAY, June 1, 1946. — The U.S.S. Haven is a good ship, and considering the amount of superstructure, does remarkably little rolling. She is 520 feet long, 70 abeam, and is powered by steam turbines which drive her along at about 16 knots. The engines and stack are aft, on the fantail, so we get little of the vibration and oily smoke. The “passengers” aboard — Army, Navy, and civilian — number several hundred. Most are older men. Some are well-known scientists, some have worked with radiation in the Manhattan District, but the majority come with little more than a scientific background.
THURSDAY, June 6. — Lectures in theoretical physics have given way to the practical business of the detection of radioactivity. We have been issued an assortment of instruments with which to become acquainted. The sun-scorched decks of the Haven are alive with schools of monitors moving to and fro in front of pigs of lead in which minute but potent radium sources are housed. The picture of a man stooped intently over his small magic box, listening, by means of his earphones, to the incoming barrage of clicks picked up by the Geiger tube, is becoming a familiar one.
From the opening in one end of each lead pig comes a stream of radioactivity as sharp and definite as water from a fire hose. Since the streams come from a known source, and die away as the square of the distance from that source, it is possible to test and calibrate the instruments with fair accuracy. Once the principles are understood, the procedure of interpreting the readings in terms of tolerances and dangers must become second nature to the monitor. The Geiger counter is a sixth sense, a prerequisite to survival in an atomic age.
All forms of radiation are too small to be seen or felt, too stealthy to be heard or smelled. But the disturbance they make in their environment can be detected in many ways: by the fogging of photographic film; by the comet’s tail of ionized particles in a Wilson cloud chamber; by the discharging of an electroscope; or by the clicks of electrical discharges in a Geiger counter.
The Geiger counter has one big disadvantage: it is too sensitive for the practical kind of work we shall have at Bikini. Designed for detecting radiations almost before there are any present, the counters are jammed and rendered completely useless in the presence of radiation of sufficient intensity to be significant or possibly dangerous. Most of us will entrust our manhood to a machine known as an ionization chamber. This type of radiation meter is a thousand times less sensitive than a Geiger counter, and was designed for the Normandy invasion, against the possibility of radio warfare by the Germans.
Such is the nature of our studies, conducted on the skillet of the navigation deck.
TUESDAY, June 11. — Tomorrow Bikini! Time has become short. Less than three weeks for the Commander of Joint Task Force One to brief and drill his team in the intricate plans for Able Day.
It will be difficult to convince people of the dangers of radiation, a danger which is evident only upon the dial of some Geiger machine, especially when you consider what minute amounts of radioactive materials are significant.
Take radium as an example: a few millionths of a gram of radium lodged within the bones of a human being may be fatal. The material of which the bomb is made — plutonium - has much the same action and is even more toxic. Once absorbed into the body — via cuts, or breathing, or by eating — these substances are hard to remove. They tend to deposit in the bones, where they either wreck the blood-producing marrow, so that the person dies from lack of blood, or stimulate the formation of fatal bone tumors.
Radiation from the outside — either gamma rays or neutrons — acts to injure or to destroy the cells by ionizing their constituent molecules, much as X-rays do. We are accustomed in medicine to using X-rays to burn out cancer cells. We know, therefore, about what is safe and what is not. X-ray specialists in this country have set as their safe maximum dose one tenth of a unit of radiation (the roentgen) per day. This is conservative. A person might be able to take a hundred or a thousand times this amount in a single dose and suffer no permanent effects. Nevertheless, the Task Force has accepted the standard one tenth of a roentgen per day as the maximum allowable daily dose of radiation.
The danger from radiation, like the danger from sunburn, or snake poison, or strychnine, or almost any other hazard, is merely one of degree. Life on this planet is well accustomed to a measurable amount of radiation. Cosmic rays and the radioactive materials present at the earth’s surface total about one roentgen per year, or about one thirtysixth of the accepted maximum daily tolerance.
But in dealing with the enormous amounts of radiation which will result from the explosion of one atomic bomb, this factor of 36 does not seem much of a margin of safety. For example, if one ten-millionth of a gram of radium deposited within the body is the maximum amount a person may have with reasonable safety, thirty-six times this, or thirty-six ten-millionths of a gram, would almost certainly be fatal.
Millionths of a gram would be almost invisible fractions of a grain of table salt. Yet at Bikini we shall not be dealing in grains, nor shovelfuls. It is predicted that the radiation to be born in the Bikini explosions will be the equivalent of tons of radium. That is the problem.
WEDNESDAY, June 12. — Out of a hot sea, out of the hot monotony of an empty Pacific, came a low bright yellow line, and back of it loomed the gray silhouettes of ships. Bikini.
Soon we could make out the contours of the land, with its dense thatch of palms, its steel towers and cluster of dwellings. On either side, the land sinks into the breakers, emerging further on in little islets or mere sandspits. These frail island excrescences are protected from complete obliteration by a breakwater of red coral— the barrier reef— which surrounds the atoll on its ocean side as a sort of broken picket fence.
The atoll is roughly rectangular, 10 miles wide and running 20 miles to the west. To the southeast is the “pass,” and the main island of Bikini makes up the northeast corner; 75 miles due west is Eniwetok, and 150 miles southeast is Kwajalein. This is our laboratory.
Rounding in through the pass, we entered the quiet turquoise waters of the lagoon to find the fleet packed stern to bow in the anchorage. The target ships are all here, moored in their final array, stiff and solemn as though presenting arms before their last retreat.
The target fleet is composed largely of obsolete ships, some well known and loved. The staunch and storied Saratoga (“Sara”) is here, third of our big carriers, repeatedly wounded in the past war but still the queen of the fleet. She lies a little apart in regal privacy down toward the pass, and as we crossed close under her bow we could see the assortment of military gear, planes, tanks, anchored on her flight deck for the test.
The center of the target area is jammed like Gloucester Harbor in a blow: the New York, battlewagon of 1914, looking odd, squat, and junky compared with modern ships; the Pennsylvania; the Arkansas; and two old cruisers, the Pensacola and the Salt Lake City. Strangest of all is the giant Jap battleship, the Nagato, an ugly anthropoid creation easily distinguishable by the fantastic fire-control tower. This many-storied buttressed pile of junk looks as though it had been thrown together without plan or purpose out of odds and ends of American scrap iron.
Dead center in the target is the Nevada. For all that she is a relic of post-Spanish-American War days, she is still a handsome battlewagon. Something about her gracefully pyramiding superstructure appears designed for beauty first and utility second, although those who felt the weight of her mighty guns backing them up at Anzio and Normandy might disagree. She is painted entirely red now as a better target, and is a ship of singular beauty.
As for the chinks in this target array, they are caulked with destroyers, subs, attack transports, landing craft, cement dry docks, and a sample of almost everything in the Navy supply catalogue. Most are naval heirlooms now. Among the modern ships are the light carrier Independence and the graceful German battle cruiser Prinz Eugen.
This is, of course, a dead fleet, and something of the mute sadness and mystery of the cemetery hangs about the ships as they nose patiently into the trade winds and await their final ordeal. Around the periphery, and up toward the main island of Bikini, is anchored the live fleet in all its gay regalia, colors flying, signals blinking, small boats churning the lagoon into streaks of foam. Who knows? Perhaps this live fleet, for all its vain vitality, is also out of date — like ourselves, not designed for atomic wars.
FRIDAY, June 14. — Today we had our final briefing from Colonel Stafford Warren, chief of the Radiological Safety Section. The plan for Able Day is a fascinating one, involving the movements of thousands of people in hundreds of widely separated units, whose second hands must converge together on the final “How Hour.”
The plan is roughly this: —
Weather permitting, Test Able will be held on July 1. The bomb will be dropped from a B-29 at an unspecified altitude, and radio silence from all air and surface craft at this time will enable everyone in the Task Force to hear the bombardiers’ broadcast of their bomb run and final release. The five fleet will be coasting along twenty to thirty miles upwind; while in the air, and at varying distances, will be numerous planes, flying photographic, radiological reconnaissance, and numerous other missions. All personnel will be required to wear specially designed extremely dense goggles, for in the first few millionths of a second of the actual explosion a tremendous flash of ultraviolet radiation is released.
It is hard to convince the mind of the magnitude of this explosion. We are told, for example, that the power of the bomb is the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. But who of us have ever seen a Hercules Powder Plant go up, or even a small wheelbarrow full of TNT blow? We are told that the intensity of the heat and flash at the instant of detonation will be fifty times that of the sun, which sounds like a good way to get a year’s requirements of vitamin D. The ball of fire which then envelops the target center, representing the heat generated by the explosion, is about half a mile in diameter. As it expands, it rises, becoming a sphere, wrapped in smoke and steam, and at last collapses into a tremendous uprushing convection current, climbing at the rate of 10,000 feet a minute to the stratosphere.
After the cloud has been carried away by the ever faithful trade winds, the first cautious probings into the target area will be made by two Navy flying boats — Martin BPM-5’s — which will make sweeps over the area at progressively lower altitudes until dangerous radiation is encountered.
This interesting little reconnaissance problem has fallen to Frank Larson and me. Our planes are to be equipped with a variety of instruments so that radiation of several kinds and intensities may be picked up. According to our findings, radioed in to the control ship, and from information from automatic self-broadcasting Geiger counters located on buoys within the target area, the subsequent plan of attack by the Task Force can be directed. Small surface craft, and eventually landing parties, will be sent in. What they will find and what they will have to do cannot be predicted, but they will have to keep a constant close check on the lagoon water, and if possible attempt to beach sinking or burning vessels.
In the steady trades, the giant plume may be expected to hold together for some time. Army airplanes and Navy destroyers will ride herd on the outlaw as far as they can follow it, and Eniwetok, 75 miles roughly downwind, may have to be unceremoniously evacuated.
Such is the plan for Able Day, as described by the Colonel in our final briefing today. We drew our instruments and gear; tomorrow the air contingent moves to Kwajalein. Frank, Tom Madden, Charlie Wells, and several others of us make up a smaller group who will be based on Ebeye, next to Kwaj, where the Navy has its seaplane squadrons.
This afternoon, after getting our assignments and our gear, most of us went ashore to drink beer and think it over. The officers’ club was doing a landoffice business in dispensing cold drinks, and after a couple, just to make up for the day’s dehydration, Tom and Frank and I got to brooding over our assignment. Our main worry concerned the possibility of finding the air over the lagoon full of dangerous radioactive particles. We have been issued gas masks, the ordinary assault masks, but no one seemed to know whether or not they would filter out fission products. The B-29’s would be all right, since they have cabins which can be sealed off and pressurized with oxygen. But not the old flying boats, which were not designed for high-altitude flying.
So we dug up our old friend Dr. Hirschfelder, of Wisconsin, who has more useful information scribbled on his cuffs than a football captain at exam time. He is what is officially known as a “ Phenomenologist ” — one who not only can predict the direst events with candor and a sort of detached macabre humor, but who can also give the statistics to the third decimal point.
On hearing our problem, he proceeded to make a few logarithmic calculations on the back of an envelope, then announced that the dispersion of the fission products would be so great as to constitute no hazard. “Oh, no — em — you would all be dead from — em — radiation before you could inhale enough to hurt you.”
That was comforting, but to press the point: “So you think that the gas masks are superfluous?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And if you ran into a cloud of hot stuff, you would not bother to wear one?”
“I, well — em — ” putting the envelope back in his coat pocket — “yes —em — yes, I probably would, though I couldn’t tell you why.”
SATURDAY, June 15. — On to Ebeye. The flight down to Kwajalein gave us our first relief impression of coral atolls. Seen from above the delicate irregular chains of islets and sand bars are so many necklaces of tiny green and yellow jewels, strung on a frayed silken strand of surf.
Our course was southeast 150 miles to the main island of the Kwajalein Atoll. Ebeye lies just four miles north, and both are at the southeast corner of the atoll. Heavy fighting took place on both islands, and along the way one sees a number of rusting hulks of Jap ships beached inside the reef, in the lagoon, chin up on the reef and stern in deep water.
Arriving at Ebeye — treeless Ebeye, one mile long and 150 yards wide — we reported for duty.
MONDAY, June 17. — This afternoon, Commander Pew, skipper of our seaplane squadron, called a meeting of all hands in the briefing room. Tomorrow is to be a rehearsal of all air groups, and in less than a week the final dress rehearsal takes place. The men of this squadron are good American types, clean-cut, vigorous, gum-chewing characters dressed in shorts and sandals cut from GI boots. Morale is clearly no problem on Ebeye. All they wanted from us “Geiger men” was an assurance of continuing manhood, and they would be willing to tackle an atomic bomb every morning before breakfast, if not before coffee.
TUESDAY, June 18. — Spot time was set at 4.30. We arose an hour early to find the darkness crying with wind and the promise of rain. Shortly before take-off time word came of storms at Bikini and official postponement of the rehearsal. So we returned to our sacks to doze and watch the dawn come up, gray, misty, full of rain squalls.
Tom, Lars, and I, having nothing better to do, caught the midmorning boat to Kwajalein, to have a look around and buy something just for the feel of buying something again. The Radiological Safety group over there have fared even worse with their instruments than we have. The humid and saltladen atmosphere has shorted out more than half of their Geiger counters.
We went down to the airstrip, which occupies two thirds of the island. From one end of that mile-long strip of macadam the B-29’s and giant cargo ships are lined up at parade rest. Those concerned with Operation Crossroads are under armed guard. The photographic planes can be identified by the black P on an orange field, painted on their rudders. Others bear an emblem of black chain lightning indicating that they are detailed to pick up and measure the shock wave of the first atomic blast as it is propagated through the air.
“Dave’s Dream,” the already famous drop ship, whose crew have been practicing their bomb run for months, is easily identified by the large black B on her fin. She stands entirely apart, on the far side of the runway. There, next to the ocean, and nearly half a mile from the regular installations, a special ramp has been built to facilitate loading of the bomb. Not far away is a group of Quonset huts and some cement vaults where the national secret and its attending scientists keep their strict isolation. “Dave’s Dream,” tail high on the ramp, looks set for a flying start as soon as the hot stuff comes aboard.
THURSDAY, June 27. — Colonel Talbot, chief of our Air Reconnaissance group, dropped in today with mail and the latest instructions from the U.S.S. Haven. Among other preparations for Able Day, we were instructed to make blood counts on ourselves. I doubt if there is the slightest scientific value in making a single blood count per radiological monitor, but it serves to illustrate again how difficult it is to assess the damage resulting from radiation, and to carry out preventive measures.
The belief that radiation affects the blood has become deep-rooted in people’s minds since the days when a number of radium-dial workers, making luminous clocks, died of an acquired anemia. This concept also has received additional support from stories that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dying from anemia or from hemorrhage.
These things are true. The same situation can be produced in experimental animals by exposing them to X-rays. At certain levels of radiation, the animals will die of massive and uncontrollable hemorrhage, usually from the bowels, which are delicate and especially vulnerable. This happens a week or two after a heavy dose of X-rays, and appears to be due to the disruption of the normal clotting mechanism.
With lower but repeated doses of radiation, the animals may survive this bleeding phase, only to die in a few months, like the radium-dial workers, of a lack of blood resulting from injury to the blood-producing bone marrow.
Like any other toxic agent, the danger of radiation depends upon three factors: (1) the nature or kind of radiation, (2) the dose, and (3) the resistance of the individual. An ordinary X-ray of the chest gives a person about one tenth of a roentgen. A study for stones in the gall bladder will amount to six or seven roentgens. If you have an ulcer and have to have a study made of the stomach and upper intestinal tract under a fluoroscope you might get anywhere from ten to forty roentgens. That probably won’t hurt you if you don’t have to have it repeated every two weeks. Indeed, given to small areas of the body, such as we often have to do in treating cancer, a person can stand 6000 to 8000 roentgens. However, if the dose is spread over the entire body, several hundred roentgens would probably be lethal.
It is this radiation to the body as a whole which we must expect in working with the atomic bomb. Conceivably one of us could accidentally get himself overdosed with radiation and die as other experimental animals do. If we were so injured by a fatal exposure, doubtless our counts would show the expected changes. But to a dead man this is pretty academic. A far more important practical consideration is whether or not blood tests can be used to indicate dangerous but sublethal exposures. Could they, for example, be used to safeguard the health of crews going aboard ships after the shots? Would they indicate when a man is getting too much, and do so in time to get him out of his hazardous assignment? Or to give the problem wider scope: in the event of an atomic war, would blood tests be of any value in protecting the fire fighters and engineers at work in a bombed city?
That is the hitch. When would there be time for such complex measures? One blood count is meaningless. First you must establish the norm for each individual. To do this accurately would require five or ten blood determinations taken before exposure. After exposure frequent checkups would be necessary to determine any downhill trend. This meticulous determination of the normal is necessary because exposures of significance to the patient might be reflected in only slight variations in the blood.
Blood tests were made by the thousands in the Manhattan District, where the clean and controllable conditions of a scientific laboratory were available. But during an atomic war there would be no time for such precise measurements. There typically field conditions would exist and immediate decisions would have to be made, based on the crude and practical measurements available.
Thus it seems doubtful that either science or humanity will be advanced many micra by our making isolated observations on our blood now, a few days before Able Day. The order is understandable. Under the circumstances there is not much else to do. There is no harm in it provided no one is deluded by the false security of such a scientific fetish.
JULY 1: Able Day. — Our alarm clocks rang at 3.30. Last-minute reports showed that Able Day had arrived as scheduled. We stumbled through the darkness to Squadron Headquarters where the crews and pilots were gathering. My ship had been at her mooring all night; so after digging up a few spare canisters for the gas masks, I hiked across the cement apron to the wharf.
By 5.30 in the first light of dawn we were airborne, climbing slowly to 8000 feet and swinging away to the northwest. Dawn came and passed unnoticed. There was much to do. First there were the instruments, the six of them on the navigation table. Turning them on I tested each one with a small pocket radium source. Over the Geiger counters the background clicks were coming in at their usual hundred or so counts per minute.
Next there were the film badges, protective goggles, and gas masks to pass out to all hands. In spite of the distracting smell of steak — ah, the wonderful fragrance of frying steak! — coming from the galley, the crew welcomed their issue of strange gear. The little films, worn in the pocket, were sheer mystery to them; the goggles meant total darkness during the actual flash; but the gas masks they understood, and despite the inconvenience of flying encumbered with such a device, they were glad to have them.
The hour and a quarter passed quickly. By the time we had cleared away the steak and French fries, washed them down with a cup of coffee, and topped it all off with a cigarette, we were dropping down through the cottony cloud layers to Bikini. The live fleet was strung out in several columns under us, and some twenty miles away the target Meet was visible bunched up at one end of the lagoon. At 3000 feet we were running into a steady sea of fleecy clouds and there was some doubt in our minds whether the drop ship could make out the target.
However, we soon picked up the broadcast we had been waiting for. Calmly and slowly the bombardier aboard “Dave’s Dream” was saying, “This is Skylight 1. Skylight 1. Ten minutes before first simulated bomb release. . . . Stand by. . . . Mark. . . . Ten minutes before first simulated bomb release. . . . First practice run. . . .”
It came through clear and sharp, and instinctively you looked up even though knowing that Skylight I was too high to be visible. Radio silence had been ordered throughout the fleet so that all planes and ships could hear the big bomber.
“This is Skylight 1, Skylight 1,” came the voice again. “Two minutes before simulated bomb release. Two minutes before simulated bomb release. . . . Stand by. . . . Mark. . . . First practice run.”
The voice from above called the one-minute mark. Then, “This is Skylight 1, Skylight 1. . . . Coming up on simulated bomb release. . . . Stand by. . . . Mark. . . . End of first practice run, first practice run.” In our minds we could see the slim, silvery B-29 swinging slowly away to begin her next run. Would this be it?
As though in answer the calm voice said, “This is Skylight 1, Skylight 1. . . . Predicted time of actual bomb release 30 minutes. . . . Predicted time of actual release 30 minutes. . . .”
We made another sweep over the fleet. As in the rehearsal, the ships were strung out in Indian file and barely stirring up a green wake. You could see the people standing motionless at the rail, watching the faint smudge of Bikini Atoll on the horizon line. Even the smoke lazily tailing out from the stacks seemed intent upon the fateful island. For all the roar of our engines, everything seemed to be holding a breathless silence. Finally, after twenty minutes had passed and no sound had come from Skylight 1, our radioman began to get the jitters. Suppose we shouldn’t receive the word of the bomb drop and were blinded by the flash. He began to spin his dials. What a relief when the words came through, calm as ever: “This is Skylight 1, Skylight 1. Five minutes before actual bomb release. . . . Mark. . . . Five minutes before actual bomb release. . . . Stand by.”
“Skylight 1, Skylight 1. . . . Two minutes before actual bomb release. . . . Mark. . . . Two minutes before actual bomb release. . . . Adjust all goggles. . . Adjust all goggles. . . . Stand by. . . .”
And then at last: “Coming up on actual bomb release. . . . Stand by. . . . [An eternity]. . . . Bomb away. . . . Bomb away. . . . Bomb away. . . . Bomb away.”
I began to count the seconds to myself: 20 (our ship was flying away from the target under automatic pilot.)—30 (nothing to be seen through the black goggles, and the pounding of one’s heart made counting difficult) — 35 — 40 (I suddenly realized I had been holding my breath since the time of the bomb release) —45 —50 — 60 — Nothing happened.
For us the bomb went off unannounced. The ball of fire which had fused acres of the New Mexico desert into glass, and had turned Hiroshima into a symbol of man’s inhumanity, burst over the target ships, seared the paint from their decks and melted down their masts, but at twenty miles gave us no sound or flash or shock wave.
Coming out from under we could discern no change in the world. Had it been a dud? Had we miscalculated the time— to be now blinded by the flash? The radio was silent.
Then suddenly we saw it — a huge column of clouds, dense, white, boiling up through the stratocumulus, looking much like any other thunderhead but climbing as no storm cloud ever could. The evil mushrooming head soon began to blossom out. For minutes the cloud stood solid and impressive, like some gigantic monument, over Bikini. Then finally the sheering of the winds at different altitudes began to tear it up into a weird zigzag pattern. Winds high up were from the west, so the head tended to move out over us and menace the live fleet, while shreds of the torn column beneath could be seen moving slowly westward above the water.
We turned and made a couple of sweeps over the live fleet just to reassure the Senators and Admirals, and then climbed to our specified altitude and headed for the tiny atoll. For a long time we could see nothing. Someone ventured to suggest that all the ships had been sunk. But smoke at least was visible, moving slowly downwind. Then our pilot said, and his voice was something to hear: “Say, look! There’s the Sara — still standing—beautiful, ain’t she? Just like she was getting up steam to move out.”
Soon after that we were able to make out the entire target area. Few ships, if any, had been sunk. Many of them were beginning to smoke and new fires seemed to be breaking out by the minute.
We were by now well under the tawny canopy. Nothing, however, had shown up on our instruments. The air was clear of fission products, which, carried aloft by the boiling updrafts, would soon be joining the three other atomic bombs in the stratosphere. Then we heard Larson break through with the message, “Leg 3 completed. Zero dose leg 3.”
That made us feel a lot better, and we decided to try to make our sweeps without gas masks. Things were hectic. We would fly a leg for a few minutes and then our pilot, Lieutenant Lower, would upend the ship in a vertical bank, with the lagoon and its ships spinning like a pinwheel on the end of our wing, and we were off on the next leg.
Lars, transmitting on the same frequency, had found radiation, and we, as we approached the center of the target area, ran into it too. With a nervous sputter my Geiger counters came to life. At first it was patchy, seeming to be highest when we were passing over some ship. Toward dead center the ships were more closely bunched and there our counters really began to sing.
Upon our first contact with radiation I had called over the interphone to the skipper to reassure him. Now with radiation a hundred times stronger I called him again: “Skipper, where are you now?”
“Coming in over the main target area.”
“Well, we’re really in it now. Are we halfway through ?”
“Just about. The Nevada is just ahead. Want to turn out?”
“No. It’s not that bad yet. You could stick around here for several days if you had to.”
The Nevada, gaudy red forward and pretty well singed aft, turned out to be some distance from the most intense radiation, so we knew that “Dave’s Dream” had not exactly scored a bull’s-eye. We were flying low enough so that the ships passed rapidly beneath us, and it was impossible to get more than a fleeting glimpse of them. Most of them seemed to be afire but not in critical condition. The apparent damage was surprisingly slight. The Sara, of course, had been wiped clear. Some of the cruisers and battleships had had their superstructures twisted and melted into a tangle of junk, and the light carrier Independence had been blown into a cocked hat. But otherwise the fleet looked as if it might survive.
Expecting much more dire and dramatic events, our crew was disappointed. There was much poohpoohing of the bomb over the interphone, and at last the co-pilot, growled: “Well, it looks to me like the atom bomb is just about like the Army Air Force — highly overrated.”
Our first sweep went very well. There was nothing to be found in the air; the only radiation was that coming up from the water and from the ships. Most of this was doubtless due to radiation induced in the central target ships themselves, for each one seemed to catch us in a beam, as though from a searchlight, as we passed overhead. However, up near the northwest corner we suddenly ran headlong into an unexpected jolt of radiation which made the counters sing. We were by that time miles away from the ships. Thinking that we might be running into an invisible streamer from the original cloud I called to Lieutenant Lower: —
“Monitor to Captain! Skipper, I don’t know what we just ran into but we’re back in the hot stuff. See anything below?”
In a moment: “Nope—not a thing. No oil slick, no ships.”
The co-pilot chimed in: “What about that smoke? We’re just about downwind from those fires now. See it?”
That caused a spontaneous scramble for gas masks, and so for the next two hours, making surveys at lower altitudes, we huffed and puffed, sweated and cursed, and struggled with communications from the inside of the steamy masks. The radiation got progressively more intense as we came down, and, of course, the smoke got more generalized. However, the fires seemed to be selflimited, and we were thankful that no ships, loaded with ammo as they were, blew up beneath us.
By early afternoon our job was done, and we climbed out over the live fleet which by now was approaching the atoll from the southeast. Warily and still in single file they were lifting along, and the first of the small boats were already beginning to probe into the outer lagoon. These small boats were equipped with radio transmitters and batteries of Geiger counters. We did not envy their job; monitors and damage control personnel would be sweating it out in heavy coveralls, boots, rubber gloves, and gas masks, trying to board the big ships from those wet, greasy, jumping decks.
At last from the control ship came the welcome message: “Mission completed. Return to base.” We had been in the air nearly twelve hours. Now the tension was gone, everyone suddenly became tired and starved. No smoking and eating had been permitted during the surveys, lest anyone should thereby pick up dangerous material from the air. So a complete survey of the ship was in order. We discarded everything that had been open — all cigarette packs, bread, fruit, even the rest of that juicy steak. The boys took it pretty well, especially when I okayed a fresh gallon jar of olives and some canned beef.
But not to be able to smoke — that was torture. Finally Lieutenant Lower could stand it no longer. “Bradley,” he barked over the interphone, “how soon will I die if I smoke?”
“How old are you, Skipper?”
“Oh, probably not for another thirty years.”
“Well, hell, I’ll die a lot sooner than that if I can’t have a smoke.”
After that we abandoned all conservative policy. The Captain ordered the ports to be opened to air out the ship, and all broken packs of cigarettes to be thrown overboard; then we began to live like human beings again. Kwajalein looked as sunny and serene as ever as we circled for our approach.
(To be continued)
(Dr. Bradley’s book will be published under the Atlantic Little, Brown imprint later this fall. This is the first of three installments entered for the I Personally awards.)