At 5:51 a.m. on Monday, May 21, 1956, the famed New York Times science correspondent William Leonard “Atomic Bill” Laurence watched a new universe burst into existence.
As with most profound revelations, this one took a few minutes to sink in, even as Laurence watched it unfold about 40 miles away through a set of heavy goggles. Reliable eye protection was necessary when watching the birth of a new universe, as Laurence well knew, having already done so several times in his long career. No one else among the 14 other reporters who stood around him on that 1956 morning, clustered on the flag bridge of the Amphibious Force Command Ship USS Mount McKinley (AGC-7), could boast of such exclusives.
But even Laurence had never seen anything like what he was now contemplating. Called Cherokee, it was a hydrogen bomb that moments before had been dropped about four miles off target from a B-52 bomber flying 10 miles over the northern Pacific, near the island of Namu in the Bikini Atoll. Cherokee detonated at an altitude of about 5,000 feet with an explosive force of 3.8 megatons, hundreds of times as powerful as the Trinity test that had once so awed him.
All of America’s previous H-bombs had been huge, heavy, cumbersome things. And though America had been first to build the H-bomb, the Soviet Union hadn’t been far behind, and was even ahead of the United States in coming up with an H-bomb small and light enough to be carried by airplane. Cherokee was America’s first air-launched hydrogen weapon, its first truly practical thermonuclear bomb. With its successful test, the United States had proclaimed to the world—particularly the Communist parts of it—that it now had a handy, portable H-bomb that it could easily deliver (in the Air Force’s charmingly innocuous term) anywhere on the planet.