BIKINI, THE "H" BOMB - RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATION
March 1, 1954 was a landmark day in the history of weapons development. The US tested it's first "H" bomb at Bikini atoll in the mid Pacific. The theory of a hydrogen bomb had been around a long time but there was no known way to generate the estimated 50 million degrees F. heat required to start the fusion process.
Once the process for exploding an "A" Bomb had been perfected there was now a device to generate the necessary heat for "H" bomb "fusing". In the "A" bomb explosion heat is generated by "fission", the dividing of particles of the atom. "Fusion" , a more productive explosive process is the result of atomic particles "fusing" together.
The test was to be conducted with the utmost secrecy. If a spying nation could have a ship near enough to pick up water samples containing residue from the bomb , they could determine the half life of the particles collected and determine the strength of the bomb.
President Eisenhower had determined this was to be a civilian project of the Atomic Energy Commission.. He practically ordered the Army, Navy, and Air Force to muzzle their public information officers. He threatened that if any military department originated any press releases before or after the event "heads would roll".
We on the PATAPSCO were making a routine delivery of liquid cargo to the army at Bikini. During World War I, the shipbuilders built some ships with "concrete" hulls. The army was using one of these to store its liquid fuel. I had expected to go into Bikini, spend a few hours unloading the fuel, and then head back to Pearl Harbor. All of the natives had been removed to other islands so there was no need to let the crew go swimming on the beaches where the skimpy outfits worn by natives gave rise to naming minuscule bathing suits "Bikinis."
I moored our ship alongside the concrete ship. An army representative met with us and said the vessel was leaking and they could not receive the fuel. When I asked what we were going to do with our cargo, he threw up his hands and said, "I don't know. It is the only storage facility we have."
In frustration I had our boat crew take me to a Navy Destroyer to see the Senior Naval Officer present. (When two or more Navy ship's are in the same port every one knows who the (SOPA), Senior Officer Present Afloat is.) It is his duty to assume command and make decisions about any matter requiring command decisions involving the ships present.
The captain, a commander USN by rank, detected my frustration and said, " It is lunch time. Join me for lunch and we will talk it over."
He told me he had been in some frustrating situations in the time he had been operating with the joint task force consisting of the army, navy, air force, and the civilian agency. The Atomic Energy Commission was in command and making final decisions.
During the six day cruise from Pearl Harbor to Bikini, I had met with two men every evening for prayer in my cabin. ( Morena and I recently had dinner with one of them, Ken Nelson in Pasadena. He is retiring and going to the Philippines as a missionary in his late sixties.) They had a special burden for the safety of the ship and crew and prayed about it with great fervency every time we got together. After three or four days it got a little personal. Didn’t they have confidence in me as captain to handle any situation which arose? Looking back I am tremendously glad for their prayers which probably prompted my action to call on the SOPA.
While eating lunch the Commander asked me some penetrating questions:
What kind of radioactive monitoring instruments do you have on board?
What kind of protective clothing do you have for your crew?
Do you have special wash down equipment?
How fast will the ship go?
After hearing my answers he said, "Captain, I am sworn to secrecy as to the reason but if I were in your place I would get your ship underway and head east at top speed"
I told him that I couldn't do that without orders from my Operational Commander in Pearl Harbor. He responded , "There isn't time. I'll issue you orders by radio for you to return to Pearl Harbor immediately." I rushed back to the ship and gave orders to prepare to get underway and within a half hour we were underway at top speed headed back to Pearl Harbor with the same cargo we had brought out.
By daybreak we were 200 miles east of Bikini. The sea was extremely rough and I was up most of the night. About 6:00 AM I decided to go down to my cabin for a nap. I told the officer of the deck to notify me of anything unusual. About 6:30 the Officer of the Deck's messenger knocked on my door. He said the OOD requested I come to the bridge. It had faded by now but he told me all the bridge personnel had seen an extremely brilliant light to the west. I checked the quartermaster's log for the exact time. Along side the 06:30 entry he had drawn a mushroom symbol for an atomic explosion.
About 5:30 PM a Navy plane began circling us and tried to send a message with his searchlight. But there were so many clouds the message couldn't be read. I had the communication officer contact the pilot by searchlight and gave him a radio frequency on which to send his message. The message was that we were not to get within 400 miles of Bikini. It was a good warning but not too much help. We were still about 325 miles from Bikini and increasing the distance at top speed.
At 0400 the next morning we received a radio message to proceed to a safer area identified by latitude and longitude. Due to our early departure from Bikini, we were already almost there.
The Atomic Energy personnel had calculated that the yield of the bomb could scatter radioactive material downwind at least four hundred miles. But the yield was almost perfect. (To the best of my knowledge, another "H" bomb has not been tested since. There has been no need since the formula used was near perfect.) The danger zone was increased from 400 miles to 1400 miles. Natives from islands as far south as Rongelap were evacuated and taken to the Army hospital at Honolulu.
We had a conventional Geiger Counter to measure radioactivity on board. A few hours after the explosion we checked the ship but did not detect any unusual amount of radioactivity. Our return voyage was routine except for the unusually rough sea and a lot of seasickness.
At Pearl Harbor we were ordered to tie up at the Hickam Air Force base and discharge our well traveled fuel.
Shortly after docking I received a phone call from my Operational Commander on the staff of Commander Service Force, Pacific. He said he had received word from the Atomic Energy Commission that the PATAPSCO may have been contaminated by radioactive fall out. Not knowing about the test he asked, "Why would they think that?"
I replied, "Commander if you saw the sun rise in the west instead of the east, what would you think? He responded , "I don't think we should talk about this over an insecure telephone." I went to his office and gave a full report. In the meantime we had resumed normal routine. Those having families went home at night, we did shopping, and the crew sent their laundry ashore.
After discharging our fuel we moved to our regular berth at "How" docks. In the meantime Commander Service Force had arranged for Navy Yard technicians to monitor the ship for radioactivity. They showed up wearing protective clothing and carrying their instruments. A brisk wind was blowing across the ship from seaward. They turned on their instruments while still on the pier. As soon as they saw the radio-active reading of the wind it was so high they ducked behind shelter on the pier for a few minutes and then got in their vehicle and sped off to safety. We had been living with that dosage for more than a week.
The ship was heavily contaminated. We had been subjected to more than 30 times an acceptable level of radiation. At that time the allowable radiation lifetime exposure was equal to that of the luminous radium dial on a wristwatch which was .625 roentgens. It was estimated we were exposed to 20 roentgens. We were ordered off the ship immediately and were segregated in the Navy Shipyard. No one was allowed to leave until we each produced a gallon of urine to be flown to a laboratory in California. (I learned later that passengers were bumped from the plane in order to carry our urine.)
The ship was towed to the Navy Yard for a three week washdown with hot water and Tide by Navy Yard personnel.
We underwent complete physical examinations. They showed that we all had below normal white blood count, some severely low, and abnormal red blood count. This showed our bodies were responding as the increased red cells were manufacturing new white blood cells.
I had some of the packages of returned laundry checked for radioactivity. They were highly radioactive. I feared we had contaminated all of the laundry's customers. We ended up by putting all of our clothing including shoes in steel barrels and filling them with concrete. They were then taken to sea and dumped into 100 fathoms of water.
I took a Geiger counter home to check for radioactivity. There was a radio active trail every where I had walked as well as in the car I had driven.
But I had a larger problem. I was Commanding Officer of a US Navy ship flying a commission pennant but was not allowed aboard the ship. Navy ship commanders are required to keep a 24 hour log, take powder magazine temperatures daily, rotate the propellers every 24 hours, etc..But because of the secrecy blanket over the bomb test, I could not put anything in writing. I could see trouble ahead. At the next inspection of the ship the records would be blank and I could be court marshaled for not having required tests and inspections made. If the powder magazine gets too hot from the sun it has to be cooled with a fire hose. The overheated ammunition might explode.
I called on the Pacific Fleet Public Relations Officer, Captain William Lederer, co-author of the best seller, THE UGLY AMERICAN. He could see my problem and I think itched professionally to get a press scoop. The answer was to release information to the public so the operation could be declassified from its secretive nature.
He prepared the following press release, checked it with me, and got it out in time to hit the east coast newspaper head lines the next morning.
"THE NAVY TANKER PATAPSCO RECEIVED SLIGHT AND NOT DANGEROUS ACTIVE CONTAMINATION BY RADIOACTIVE FALLOUT DURING TESTS IN THE ENIWETOK-BIKINI AREA.
AS AN EXTREME PRECAUTION, THE SHIP WAS BROUGHT BACK TO THE PEARL HARBOR NAVAL SHIPYARD FOR CHECKING AND COMPLETE DECONTAMINATION.
NO PERSONNEL RECEIVED SUFFICIENT RADIATION TO BE IN ANY WAY HARMFUL.
ALTHOUGH IT HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED THAT NO APPARENT POSSIBILITY OF INJURY TO CREW MEMBERS EXISTS, ALL MEMBERS OF THE CREW WERE REMOVED FROM THE SHIP AND GIVEN THOROUGH MEDICAL EXAMINATIONS AS AN EXTRA SAFETY MEASURE..
THIS EXAMINATION GAVE NO EVIDENCE OF ANY HARMFUL EFFECTS FROM THE SLIGHT EXPOSURE.
THE TANKER DISPLACES 4200 TONS AND IS COMMANDED BY LT. JAMES W. DOWNING, NEWARK, MO, WHO IS NOW RESIDING AT 1160 BENNION ST. IN HONOLULU, T.H.
THE PATAPSCO CARRIED SIX OFFICERS AND 86 MEN AND WAS OPERATING IN SUPPORT OF THE TASK FORCE CONDUCTING THE TESTS (JOINT TASK FORCE 7 COMMANDED BY MAJ. GEN. PERCY W. CLARKSON.
LT. DOWNING , REACHED BY TELEPHONE AT HIS HOME , SAID HE COULD ADD NOTHING TO THE RELEASE FOR SECURITY REASONS WITHOUT PERMISSION. THE NAVY SAID NO PERMISSION WAS IN SIGHT."
I had received a phone call at home from the Associated Press wanting background information. I told the reporter I could not give him an interview without a Navy Public Information Officer present.
The next morning The Honolulu Advertiser had a double banner headline, RADIOACTIVE TANKER HERE. The afternoon paper also headlined the event with a picture of the PATAPSCO on the front page. Back home the Quincy, Illinois Herald Whig had my picture on the front page. The Edina Sentinel also made it a front page story along with family background and history.
All was not well back at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Biggs, Commander Service Force and also my boss tried to contact the Commander in Chief presumably to discuss damage control in case the President's threat to have some heads roll if any one of the military services released any information about the "H" bomb test.
Admiral Biggs was told , Admiral Stump, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, was (working) on the PATAPSCO thing. (In the Navy we have an axiom, Any communication which can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.)
Admiral Biggs interpreted the message to mean that Admiral Stump was physically on the PATAPSCO. He and his aide were chauffeured down to the PATAPSCO. As I met him he asked me, "Where is Admiral Stump?"
A little frustrated he returned to his office.
I began to get letters from people I had not seen for 10 years. I suspect that several million
pictures of the USS PATAPSCO were published on the front pages of US and other national
Apparently the press release breech was settled at higher levels. At least I heard no more about it. A few weeks later I was interviewed in San Francisco by a Navy psychologist. He wanted to know the state of mind of our crew after having been cooped up with a high dose of radioactivity for several days. I told him that the publicity every man got in his home town newspapers counteracted any depression they felt.
About the radio activity. The heaviest concentrations were in the waterways and where the most sea water had cascaded over the superstructure. According to the report I received the explosion left a hole five miles wide and one mile deep where the test sight had been.
My theory, which I gave the investigators, was that the explosion drew billions of cubic tons of radio active coral sand into the atmosphere which in turn was caught in the jet stream and covered the Pacific Ocean between Bikini and Hawaii and probably beyond.. As we plowed through the ocean we were contaminated by the radio-active coral sand in the water.
At any rate after about three weeks of wash down the ship was clean enough to reboard and we continued our conventional tasks. We were supposed to have complete physical and dental exams every six months for five years. After the first half dozen exams no negative results surfaced so we relegated the experience to history.
In the late 1970's the Department of Defense made a nation wide effort to locate military personnel who had been exposed to excessive radio activity. I was called to Washington, D.C. in 1978 to follow up my written report of the adventure. I was informed that information I had about the test was no longer classified. I was provided with material and medical forms for getting a thorough physical examination. I have not heard anything further since.
All rights reserved
James W. Downing
2650 Stoneridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Ph/fax 719 598 1461
E mail firstname.lastname@example.org
May be reproduced for entertainment
or educational purposes but not for
Copyright ©2000-2020 James W. Downing and USSWestVirginia.org. All rights reserved.