Pictures of young handsome men with buzzcuts and cheerful smiles posing for unit photographs in 1962 are tough to look at, the men involved in the Dominic series of A-tests, lining the rails of the U.S.S. Sioux, standing under the wings of the B-57b samplers.  There are the crews of the Neptune long range reconnaissance planes (the guys shown above).  Only one of these men is still alive; many of them died from fast-moving cancers. And then there are the MPs that walked their beats on the beaches. Some men lived, perhaps, because they worksite was inside heavily built buildings, other men died who took a short cut across the radioactive taxiway to get to the beach. Or caught a couple fish in the slightly radioactive lagoon. Others died who took part in barefoot races on the beach, where plutonium fragments were mixed in the sand. And then there were the  Underwater Search and Detection Teams that went scrounging in the surf for all the radioactive junk that was washing up on the beaches of Johnston Atoll for days after STARFISH.  Many of them have  got bad news from their doctors.  Some 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.  I don’t think the United States has ever reached out to their atomic veterans and counted heads and counted casualties. Send  them an official letter warning them to check into their local VA hospitals.  


The first set of atomic tests following World War II, the Army dropped two bombs on the Navy. The army and the air force brass thought that the U.S. fleet was going to be vulnerable to an atomic bomb blast, so they assembled a makeshift fleet of left-over WWII warships at Eniwetok atoll, and dropped two Hiroshima-type bombs on them. Damage was minor on the first blast, but the second bomb was detonated underwater and the whole fleet was rendered radioactive by the storm surge.  Afterwards, a high-ranking Navy admiral had all his boys out on the decks of their ships scrubbing the decks and bulkheads with soap and water. The Army Colonel who was the safety officer knew something about radiation, and told him the cleanup should be halted, the ships had to be scuttled, and many of his men were going to be sick from their needless exposure.  The Admiral didn’t believe him until the Colonel showed him a picture of this tiny fish that had been in the lagoon. A fish turned into a light bulb because the gamma radiation had turned the calcium in his shell radioactive.

         We don’t know to this day how many air force and Navy personnel perished getting readings for the scientists during the atomic tests around Johnston Island.  People who got it the worst were generally Army men decontaminating planes, crews of ships that were uncomfortably close to detonations,  air force and Navy pilots, MPs and SPs.  They gave almost everyone dosimeters, but when the operation was over, they were stored in the un-air conditioned structures in the Nevada test site.[1] If following an A-test the readings were too high, they would say that the dosimeters were defective. 

[1] Interview with Michael Thomas




The United States needed a place to test out an idea they had at Livermore Laboratories, and Johnston Island was the only U.S. territory in the Pacific area that was isolated enough to do high altitude testing at night. In those days the co-father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller and his project,Livermore Laboratories had punch with the Joint Chiefs, their star was ascendant, and they had gotten many contracts for weapons development that might have formerly gone to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Livermore was the new kid on the block selling themselves to American presidents. The idea came from a young charismatic Italian physicist, Nicholas Christofilos, who worked for Edward Teller. 

    Christofilos’s idea looked to cold warriors in the Pentagon to be the answer to offset the newfound strength of the Soviet Union.  The Soviets had the Sputnik up there flying overhead, they had big solid fuel boosters that could loft megaton strength warheads to U.S. targets; they were developing new satellites.  Livermore Labs told Eisenhower that they might have a secret weapon that would enable the U.S. to knock down Soviet satellites, and intercept and destroy incoming Soviet ICBMs.  We would blast their warheads when they passed through the Van Allen Belt, a natural magnetic band around the earth.


 “If we could detonate a megaton range bomb inside the Van Allen Belt, it might flood the belt with a lethal flood of X-rays and neutrons that could destroy computer memories, render solar panels useless, and destroy incoming Soviet missiles and their spy satellites in low orbits.”


   A conference held at Livermore labs from February 10th to the 21st, 1958, asked that some small shots be fired to establish the feasibility of the idea.  This was to be become Project Argus.”[1]  In April 1958, we exploded three high altitude 1.7 kiloton blasts near the South Pole. Later, a presidential scientific commission headed by James Killian studied the data. Washington decided to make it a top priority project to test out the idea on a bigger scale by detonating a warhead in the megaton range in near-space.

   Testing Christofilos’ concept added two shots to the already crowded HARDTACK 1 series of atomic tests going on in the Pacific. The specifics of the two tests would involve arming two Redstone IRBM missiles with two big 3.8 megaton W-39 warheads, and fire them from a new launcher on Johnston Island. By detonating them inside the Van Allen belt, its magnetic field would bottle up the radiation and ratchet up its intensity and duration.

   TEAK and ORANGE would be high altitude affairs, very powerful, and were going to be fired at nighttime, when there was more danger to people’s eyesight.  More than three thousand people were living in the Marshall Islands area. Concerns were being raised that the flash would damage people’s retinas. There was no guarantee that natives would turn their heads away at the right time. Reverberations were continuing to be felt about radiation damage to islanders from earlier tests. Lewis Strauss opposed firing the rockets off of Bikini because of fears that the flash from the nighttime detonation might blind people who were living on nearby atolls. He finally agreed to approve the high-altitude tests on the condition that the launch point be moved to the more remote site at Johnston Island.

   Meanwhile, President Dwight Eisenhower was thinking about his legacy. Did he want to leave his nation in the midst of an arms race, or did he want to try for disarmament? Having James Killian as his science advisor freed him to do some fresh thinking. So it was that in 1958, he stunned the nuclear arms establishment by saying that the U.S. would declare a unilateral halt in atomic testing.  He would make a number of initiatives to try to get serious talks going with Russia on a comprehensive test ban.  The alphabet soup of agencies and groups and corporations building and testing atomic weapons were worried.

   In anticipation of the President’s moratorium, budgets were slashed for the testing program in the Pacific. Equipment was moved to Albuquerque, and the uncompleted launch site at Bikini was demolished. At the Pacific Proving Grounds they had had a vast area of sea and rights to two atolls with diameters of from 18 to 20 miles. The utility of the atolls were damaged by radiation, but these were the days when ocean dumping was the way to handle a lot of problems.  It was a bitter pill to loose the Proving Grounds for atomic testing. But orders were orders and a crash effort was mounted to build a missile launcher on a congested area on the east end of Johnston Island. Close to the launcher were barracks and the mess hall for air force personnel, the Military Air Transfer Service (MATS) depot, and the Coast Guard base on Sand Island.

   Soon there would be more launchers on the other end of the island firing nuclear-armed rockets almost straight up over people’s heads. Because they were using older rockets with a limited range, high altitude shots with the Redstone and Thor were of necessity fired nearly straight up and their projected detonation points were almost directly over the island. The Redstone was a modification of the German V-2, a short-range ballistic missile that deeply scarred London and Antwerp during WW11. Werner Von Braun, the V-2 scientist, came over to Johnston Island to personally supervise preparation.

   What would happen if one of these rockets would explode on the pad or go off on an unexpected tangent?  The congested layout on the island made decent stand-off distances impossible.  When the testing program came to Johnston Island in 1958 it was a real escalation of hazards to the people involved in atomic testing.  

   General Alfred Starbird didn’t want to test on tiny Johnston Island but he reluctantly followed orders.  Weapons ended up being detonated almost directly over an island full of American servicemen and civilian technicians living in frame houses and Quonset huts. (See map, page 28) Steel girders had to be used to reinforce the ceilings of trailers used for monitoring because Thor firings would be followed up with a volley of small rockets flying through the atomic blast field looking for data from the explosion.  When they had done their measurements, the rockets would then fall back to earth. There was no certainty where they would end up, maybe onto your roof. 




   The Johnston Island detonations would be on the tail end of Hardtack 1, which was setting a frenetic pace for Task Force 7.3.  Between April 28 and August 18 of 1958 they conducted 35 tests, or a test about every three days, most of them done in the Eniwetok area.  Everything was on a rush-rush basis, since the Department of Defense had a whole arsenal of new weapons to get tested before the freeze set in.   The TEAK and ORANGE shots on Johnston Island were the last shots before the moratorium, and were designed to show Washington what kind of potential the Mark 39 weapon had for killing enemy satellites, fouling up enemy communication and destroying incoming ICBMs when detonated inside the Van Allen belt.

   TEAK was fired on August 1, 1958: 3.6 megatons.  The warhead was supposed to detonate about six miles south of the island, but due to a programming failure it burst directly over the island at the desired elevation, it made the island the effective ground zero. This brought the explosion 2,000 feet (approximately 2/5ths of a mile) nearer than intended to the launch site control and analysis crews. It was close enough and intense enough to temporarily blind 6 people standing outside the control shelter. Anyone looking directly towards the detonation would have received retinal burns to the eyes at ground zero.

[1] Ogle, page 100


 The “Shrimp” was a real monster. It weighed more than ten tons and resembled a big hot water heater built into a very temporary building built into a reef near the islet of Ramu on the atoll of Bikini.  There was some uncertainty on how big a blast it would be. When it came time to test it, it was decided that Eniwetok wouldn't do. The atoll was only twelve miles in diameter and by now it was pretty well beat up. A land of broken palm trees, smashed up buildings, radioactive craters, and a huge network of firing and monitoring cables.  Nearby Bikini atoll was bigger, almost 20 miles in diameter, and had two unused islands in its chain. They made the shot island  Ramu, where the building holding the device was buried. The control island was Enyu, where a fortress-like bunker housed the shot team. They thought the twenty mile  distance between the two islands  was enough to keep the shot party safe.  


It wasn't.   Having the control room in an underground bunker with three-thick foot walls didn’t insulate the eight men in the firing party from the shock of the detonation.  Bernie O’Keefe was there.  He was one of the founders of the big engineering firm Edgerton, Germshausen and Grier (EG & G) that would become one of the principle contractors to the AEC for technical assistance.  He said a few minutes after the trigger signal went out, the big building floated around as if it was on “a bowl of jelly.[1]” For a second he thought that the firing bunker and the island had been knocked off its perch and maybe they had ended up down in the ocean bottom somewhere.  It had been badly shaken, but was still where it was before the test.  Outside their shelter the reading was 40 Roentgens and rising.  They fled inside when the readings began rising. If they had been trapped outside, all they could take of that radiation was eight minutes worth.   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.  Further out to sea a small Japanese trawler was working unnoticed.  When they returned to port, the crew of the Lucky Dragon were all sick.  One died.  Radiation fallout had become a worldwide issue; it was now affecting Australia, Japan and the United States.   


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