Johnston Island, 1962


                                      Mike Kirby, with  contributions from Pacific nuclear veterans.







Go to Google Earth and type in “Johnston Atoll,” and you’ll take a long rapid trip out over the Pacific. You’re about half way to New Zealand and seven hundred-odd miles south-southwest of Hawaii when the Google eye in the sky stops and focuses in on this odd-looking island. Not really an atoll, although its landmass, like many atolls, is perched on top of a prehistoric undersea mount. An old volcano whose rim barely breaks through the ocean’s surface. Johnston Island today is much bigger than when it was discovered, but is vacant and barren, flat as a billiard table, marked with the shadows where more than 300 buildings once stood. Some ordinance igloos remain behind, their doors welded shut. The main island is man-made and looks like an aircraft carrier. White “xs” tell air traffic not to land on its 9,000 foot runway.   Three other smaller islands lie also within the shelter of a slender reef. There’s nothing on Johnston Island today. Visits to it require a special permit from the Department of Interior, and they are pretty fussy about who they let in.




On September 2, 1796 the Brig SALLY out of Boston discovered it by running aground on a shoal some 717 nautical miles WSW of Honolulu. The Captain surveyed his surroundings. There was a roughly circular reef some eight miles across. Inside its shelter lay two sandbars. Captain 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 14th, 1807, when Captain Charles James Johnston, of the British frigate CORNWALLIS, visited the island. The island bears his name. The description of Johnston Island in the log of the CORNWALLIS was brief, and the British didn’t claim it either.




There was just the reef with waves breaking over it, a shallow lagoon and the two sandbars. But centuries of birds nesting there had built up deep deposits of guano, a highly prized fertilizer. When the United States passed the Guano Act that entitled U.S. citizens the right to seize islands by seeking mining rights, U.S. companies laid claim to the island by planting the U. S. flag.  The island was stripped 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 of the bigger sand bar was pared down to 14 feet by 1923, when a ship belonging to a U.S. 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.  They also found out that it was overrun by a species of louse.




Dr. Wetmore, head of the U.S. expedition, notes:


 “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








World War Two brought shore guns and several brief attacks by Japanese submarines. Continual dredging added to the island year after year, deepened and enlarged shipping channels, and created landing areas for seaplanes.  Eventually the island was big enough to land B-29s and C-47s on. An underground hospital and an underground bunker were constructed.  During the remainder of the war, American submarines and seaplanes used the island as a refueling base; it was an idyllic little military outpost until the late fifties. Something out of a Broadway musical with the chorus singing plaintively  “What ain’t we got? We ain’t got goyls.”   


   Veterans of the early days (pre 1962) post stories on Johnston Atoll websites of an outpost where you sometimes worked three days and had four days off. Ideal weather. Sun almost every day. Swim in the lagoon, spearfish, drink at the EM club. A very sleepy place, primarily used as an airstrip to resupply the Coast Guard Fortran station on neighboring Sand Island, whose powerful transmitters provided navigational fixes to ships and commercial aviation before the days of satellite systems. Hawaiian personnel who were rotated in and out did the housekeeping. 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 flights coming in dare disaster landing on a stubby runway that began and ended at the seawall.


   In 1958 this tiny island  (198 acres) became the subject of a high-level meeting in the Pentagon. Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, met with a big group of military and civilian administrators to lay out new rules for U.S. atomic testing. There would be no more atomic testing in Bikini and Eniwetok.  The activities of the Pacific missile range had worn out their welcome with the United Nations and President Eisenhower.  Fallout had become a potent political issue. There would be atomic testing on Johnston Atoll instead. No more putting natives of the Marshall Islands in harms way. The natives now had lawyers and advocates at the United Nations.




Now the victims would be American boys trapped on Johnston Island in July 1962 during Operation Fishbowl.










After World War Two, the United States needed a remote area with accessible ports and land for installations to test atomic weapons. Nevada was too close to populated areas in the U.S. for the big new hydrogen bombs. In 1946 U.S. officials obtained the consent of the chief of Bikini island in the Marshall Islands to relocate his people elsewhere. The United States subsequently conducted two nuclear weapon tests at Bikini in July 1946. In 1947 the United Nations designated the United States as administrator of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which included Eniwetok.   The trust agreement permitted the U.S. to close off the Marshall Islands for security reasons.


   Our bomb technology was in its infancy. The country had a couple big pumpkin bombs, but we wanted the engineering and the science 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 for use in Europe, put on the nose of IRBMs, and deployed as battlefield weapons. There was a tremendous push to develop a hydrogen bomb.  “The Super”  The design for the first hydrogen bomb was created by Physicists Edward Teller and Stan Ullam.


   Secrecy shrouded the island when atomic testing arrived at Johnston Island. Agreements had  to be signed. When the soldiers and sailors came home from that place they called “the Rock”, they could not talk about what they had done there. Years later they couldn’t even talk to VA doctors about their duties when they came down with radiogenic diseases.  Some times thirty or forty years would go by before their stories showed up on the Internet. 








My research on the island’s atomic era history was aided by a  book [1] written by Physicist William Ogle about the atomic testing they did as part of DOMINIC I. Over 9100 military and civilian employees worked under Ogle on Johnston and Christmas islands during this exercise. His book was part of the archives of the AEC’s Nevada Test Site, and you used to be able to read it on the Internet until a year ago, when the Department of Energy cut the public links to the manuscript.


   Ogle was a key player in our atomic weapons program. He was there at the beginning of the atomic age with the Trinity explosion in New Mexico; he was there when Dominic 1 was shut down and his co-director was relieved of command. He played many roles for the AEC over the years between 1946 and the 1970s. He was  staff scientist and test director and co-director of DOMINIC I. He was in and out of the oval office many times, serving under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. For many years he commuted from Kirkland AFB in Albuquerque to San Francisco to Honolulu to Eniwetok and a short airstrip the testing crews knew as “Fred”. Nearby Parry Island was his command center. The Pacific Proving Grounds was his home away from home.










I've often said that I never met a fission bomb I didn't like, but the thermonuclear explosions were another story.  No one who has ever witnessed an atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb, would ever want to see one used, it's that powerful of an experience. I remember watching hydrogen bomb tests where I suddenly thought to myself, ‘We're standing way too close to the blast, even though the island we were standing on was than 20 miles from the point of detonation.                                                                                                      Nuclear weapons  scientist  Bob Brownlee [2]




George Mace was part of his crew. He manned a communications station on "Fred" an islet at Eniwetok atoll that had been turned into an airstrip. He remembers how it was, having to go outside on the beach when the hydrogen bomb detonations happened.  






George Mace




   “The day before a nuclear shot they would anchor our water tower down with cables and trucks.  For most of the detonations at Eniwetok all personnel would be assembled on the lagoon side of the island, sitting with our backs to the blast, heads on our knees and our arms over our eyes.  The officers had welder’s goggles and could watch the whole show. Only after the fireball died down could we turn and look at the cloud rising. I did learn to respect (Fear) the tremendous power displayed by each detonation. A few seconds after detonation you would see this tremendous flash and then a wave of heat would feel like the sun coming up on your back. The largest shot I ever witnessed was code named OAK on 29 June 1958 and the heat on my back got to the point of becoming uncomfortable. In fact it started to burn my skin right through my shirt. Once the fireball had subsided I turned around to see the water column rising into the sky and forming the familiar mushroom cloud.


      Then high winds hit me within minutes or seconds. It's hard to put a time frame on it though because time really stands still when you see something like that. This was all very scary of course but it was also really beautiful. There are so many colors to it, especially in a Pacific island setting; there's the aqua green water and a brilliant red residue from the fireball, and then the luminous white mushroom cloud going up into a clear blue sky. It's awe- inspiring and my first emotion was pure amazement.


      Only years later did I find out that the OAK detonation[3] was a nine megaton hydrogen bomb detonated on a landing craft, about 15 miles from my island. We sandbagged the island beforehand, because it was only seven feet above sea level. When OAK detonated, there was this wink of light that I sensed through my closed eyes and arms, just like a flashbulb going off inside my head.  And when I turned to see the column of water rising out of the lagoon, it was so tremendous that no one spoke. You could hear the sound waves bouncing off the islands, one after another. Boom! Boom!, as it came down the atoll chain. When the sound wave hit Eniwetok, the whole island shook and a hot wind blew our baseball caps off, but within seconds the wind reversed and sucked in toward the bomb. The column was surrounded by ragged haloes of white shock waves, which produced an electrical field. I actually experienced an electrical field passing through me; my arm hair stood up and there was a cracking sensation all through me that was as much felt as heard. I had felt the same effect when in the field of a high- powered radio antenna. There was also a metallic taste in my mouth, like when chewing gum foil touches a tooth filling. And that mushroom cloud just continued to build and grow until it had risen about sixty or seventy thousand feet into the air and covered the entire atoll. This terrifying, magnificent thing shadowed all a circle of islands about fifteen miles in diameter.


    There was talk of evacuating the islands because of concern about fallout, but it never occurred. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the water in the lagoon began to recede until the lagoon bottom lay exposed for about two hundred yards from shore. I could see sunken PT boats and equipment from WWII that was normally covered by fifteen or twenty feet of water. I really thought the earth had cracked and that the water was running into it.


    Finally, the water stopped receding and it just stood there like a wall for a minute. I thought of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, for it must have looked like this. Then it started coming back and I got a sick feeling, because here I was on this dinky little island, not very wide, and here comes what seemed like the whole ocean. The wave hit the island and sprayed up over the sandbags and all day long the water kept seesawing back and forth. Because of this agitation, the lagoon water turned an ugly milk chocolate brown and it started to rain very hard. At this point the effects of the bomb detonation took on an apocalyptic gloom.


     The lagoon water was off limits for swimming for three days, but the ironic part of it was that the lagoon was our source of drinking water, after it went through the desalinization plant, which didn't remove radiation from it. The mighty OAK had dug a crater 183 feet deep in the lagoon and 4,400 feet in diameter.









The "Welcome" Sign on Parry Island



Not far from FRED was PARRY, the headquarters island for the Pacific Test Range where George Ogle and General Starbird and other VIPs had their offices. In 1952, it would be the planning headquarters for detonating Ivy Mike, a 10-megaton blast using the first hydrogen device that used the Teller-Ulam design. For fuel it used liquid deuterium, which had to be kept at a very low temperature.   Its size and complexity meant it was not droppable, since it involved detonating a refrigeration plant. The blast would vaporize the island of Elugelab.. 


   Looking for more working room, the test range moved back to Bikini when it came time to test the final design of the “dry” lithium deuteride bomb in 1958. There were ten thousand men in the working party, and a whole fleet of ships. The device was supposed to be about seven megatons, but ended up being fifteen megatons.  They planted the huge device (wittily nicknamed “The Shrimp”) and its monitor cables in a building under the lagoon near the island of Namu. At about 7 AM the button was pushed and the island of Namu disappeared. Several minutes later the ground shock finally hit Enyu and the firing party.  


   Bernie O’Keefe [4]was one of the nine men in the firing chamber.  He said the big building floated around as if it was on “a bowl of jelly”. [5]  Outside their shelter the reading was 40 Roentgens and rising.  They went outside to verify the building hadn’t slipped its moorings, but then had to go back inside when the readings kept rising. Everything unprotected on the island was dying.  They had come to work without rad-safe clothing, and when helicopters were dispatched to rescue them, they had to tear up sheets for makeshift protection. Rongellap atoll was in the path of the fallout and the natives had to be evacuated. They were ill, but survived its short term impact.  Further out to sea a small Japanese trawler was working unnoticed.  When they returned to port, the crew of the Lucky Dragon was all sick.  One died.  Radiation fallout had become a worldwide issue.  Castle Bravo was a genuine disaster for our atomic testing program, and a wake-up call to the world.


[1] An account of the return to nuclear weapons testing by the United States,”      United States Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Offfice. William E. Ogle


[2]  The Atomic Bomb and American Society, Editors:Mariner and Piehler, page 277


[3] The Oak Device was a five megaton device that was developed into a 9 megaton warhead for the TITAN II, and also served as the basis for the Mark 53 strategic bomb.

[4] , He was one of the founders of one of the biggest private contractors working with the atomic testing business, Edgerton Germeshausen and Grier (EG & G),

[5] Nuclear Hostages, Bernard J. O’Keefe Houghton Mifflin Co. 1983



These are the men who flew the B-57Bs "Canberras" gathering samples from the radioactive clouds                                                                         over Johnston Island   after an H-test.