Shooting down a Star


Before Dominic I fired its final high altitude nuclear shot, Kingfish, on  November 1st at 62 miles of altitude, The Air Force had plans to use the two launch sites for a top secret mission. It was so top secret it didn't even have a name.  The Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) was the lead agency. They planned to significantly expand the mission of the Air Force Defense Command.  Up until then the AFDC was mainly running the line of radars in the far north nicknamed the Dewline and Nike Hercules anti-aircraft batteries.  Now with the data from Starfish Prime that showed the deadly effect of the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)  the Secretary of the Air Force persuaded President Kennedy to fund a crash program on Johnston Island to develop an anti- missile and satellite inspection program. The Air Force was worried about the Soviet being able to strike the U.S. from space using its heavy-duty booster rockets.


More Thors would be ordered, an initial 25 million funding would be provided, and launch areas one and two would be used for a so-called Anti-Satellite program (ASAT). The Sandia National Laboratory was contracted to build an interception vehicle that included a warhead detonation system

 and telemetry receiving system. An excellent study of the program (Shooting down a Star) has been done by Lt. Col. Clayton K.S. Chun.[1]



The Air Force rocketed ahead with Program 437 even though not everyone in the national security community believed in its usefulness or feasibility. The CIA's position was the same in 1963 as it had been in 1957: No foreign

country's satellites posed a major space threat. President John F. Kennedy did not share the CIA's opinion and directed (Secretary of Defense Robert)McNamara to develop an ASAT system at the "earliest practicable time."


Neither launch site had been fully decontaminated, and they had been battered and scorched in at least nine shots. Program 437 would keep the sites in business.  Two  nuclear armed Thors were held on alert on the sites, ready (most of the time) to fire. Vandenberg AFB would be the support and training facility for the Johnston Island facility. The Air Force airlifted Thor boosters, crews, nuclear weapons, and support equipment to Johnston Island as needed. Program 437 was basically a launch area with a high altitude nuclear response capability looking for a mission and never really finding one that fit the national defense needs. Its position limited what satellites could be targeted. Covering polar orbits were out. The first test launch was a dud, but the test launches gradually improved their reliability and the Thors improved their accuracy at targeting orbital vehicles in test launches with U.S. satellites.  The Air Force  equipped one of the Thors with a high definition camera in the re-entry body.  A hypothetical suspicious satellite could have its picture taken, the pictures analysed, and if the satellite was up to some kind of mischief, it would be shot down by the second Thor. With the Thor having a five mile kill radius, it wouldn’t have to be that accurate, but a test launch to take a photograph of a Soviet satellite on 6 April 1966 was vetoed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the grounds that a launch might be interpreted by the Russians as a “nuclear attack on its space assets.”[2] There were about eighteen launches before the program was finally shut down in 1970, three years earlier than the Air Force wanted. I think there were people in the government  uneasy at letting the Air Force having nuclear weapons on rockets in a remote facility where a firing could inadvertently set off world war three if it was interpreted as a nuclear attack on a Soviet satellite. 


The lack of any real sign that the Soviets were developing space weapons, the age and limited availability of the Thors, and the location and limitations of the launch area doomed the program.  One of their own program 437 commanders pointed out that Soviet submarines were patrolling around the island only ten miles out to sea during test launches. The remote facility was indefensible.  Another Air Force spokesman cast doubt on his own program by telling a congressional budget committee that the facility was really not fully operational, and was meant to “prove out the concept.” Finally, the missiles were in the open and too close to the sea in an area battered by hurricanes.



 The program was kept secret from the public until during the 1964 election season, Barry Goldwater accused President Lyndon Johnson of being soft on defense  against ICBMs, and LBJ talked about the program in generalities. After Vietnam heated up, Program 437's status as a DOD "top priority" project was lost forever. Money, manpower, and other resources were shifted to Vietnam. Program 437 was but one among many projects crippled when the priority of the U.S. went from fighting a hypothetical war in space to a real hot war on the ground.


Heat, humidity and and salt-water spray took its toll on the launch sites. The nuclear warheads were removed and stored in the storage igloos on island, and then finally after the program was hit with drastic cutbacks,  the  whole program was terminated as of June 30,1973.  Washington wasn't  willing to wait that long, and shut down Johnston Island and 437 on October 1970, leaving the launch areas and guidance gear with only a caretaker staff. 


 [1] Shooting Down a "Star" Chun


Program 437, the US Nuclear

ASAT System and Present-Day

Copycat Killers

[2]  Clayton Chun



On 19 August 1972  Hurricane Celeste destroyed the launch facilities and the guidance computer. Even before the cyclone struck, the launch areas were showing signs of wear and tear.  The paint they had put on the concrete and the steel structures chipped away, and where bare metal showed, it could be a plutonium alloy created in the fireball that had enveloped the revetments. The longest-lived isotope of plutonium is Plutonium- 244, with a half-life of 80.8 million years, plutonium-242, with a half-life of 373,300 years, and plutonium-239, with a half-life of 24,110 years It oxidized easily, it saturated in coral areas and produced tiny particles that looked like coral. It became dust on people’s shoes and would be very dangerous if you breathed it in when they were launching rockets.  The air was salty, the ocean was right next door, and the metal structures rusted. There was evidently no thought of shutting down the launch areas and doing a thorough decontamination as long as keeping those Thors on alert had high priority with the Pentagon.

          In the late sixties the island emptied out and the Johnston Island population dwindled to about 90 plus people, but then the island was needed once again. In July 1969, a scandal broke out in Okinawa when it got out that the United States was storing a vast amount of chemical weapons there without informing the locals.  A Major decided that he wanted to repaint containers of poison gas a different color, and the maintenance crew sandblasted them prior to repainting.  A small leak happened, 23 military people got slightly sick, but only one man needed to be held at the hospital. There was an international furor that lead to the Pentagon deciding they needed a new home for all their chemical munitions Where in the world could the U.S. store all their Agent Orange left over from the Vietnam War?  Okinawa didn’t want it, Nevada or Oklahoma or Hawaii didn’t want it. As an unincorporated territory governed by the Air Force and Army, the island had no political representation. Johnston Island’s military governor wanted it. First came the Agent Orange, thousands of barrels of it, some of them leaking.  Then came all of our stocks of old nerve gas from Germany.  Plans were laid to build a state of the art incineration plant on the new land being created. There needed to be more infrastructure on the island, a gym complex, a three hole golf course, barracks and many other buildings.  Johnston Island acquired a new mission, storing and eventually disposing of all kinds of chemical arms such as mustard and nerve gas.   A large bunker was built for nerve gas storage, rabbits were raised to be guinea pigs.  Put them in the space at nighttime, if they were alive in the morning, the space was okay to work in.  More dredging added more area to the island and enabled them to lengthen the runway and make it possible for bigger planes to land there. Soldiers, sailors and civilian employees would picnic on contaminated beaches, sweep up dusty floors, and be involved in construction projects that dynamited and dredged contaminated coral. After Bluegill Prime, tons of radioactive debris was bulldozed into the lagoon, then later on, it was scooped back up and used for fill. A large section of the new land created after 1963 was radioactive.[1]  There didn’t seem any quality thinking being done, just a lot of different projects operating independently.

         In 1980, eighteen years after the last nuclear event on Johnston Island, the island was still heavily contaminated; particularly launch areas "A" and "B" and patches of lower level contamination around the mess hall, swimming pool, and tennis courts.  Bluegill Prime contamination extended over the lagoon to the west-northwest[2].  Over the years, 450 barrels of radioactive debris had been dumped in the sea near the island.  And today if a retired veteran who worked on the island during the seventies finds that he has come down with a fast-moving cancer, he won’t be eligible for the U.S. Radiation Exposure Compensation Fund (RICA). The veteran must have been exposed between 1945 and 1962. The testing stopped in 1962, but the contamination on Johnston Island was never really cleaned up until the late 1980s.




In 1974 the Air Force did a more extensive FIDLER study of radiation on the island. They found 65 hot spots outside the fenced-in area to the northeast,[3] 74 hot spots in launch area two and the living areas of the island, and 23 hot spots in Sand Island.  They “excised” those spots and put the materials into storage.  From June 1975 to March 1980, a total of 500 more spots were found, most of which were found in the Redstone launch pad area.[4]  As a result of these radiological surveys, the packed coral field between the inactive taxiway and the runway was closed off to personnel.  This area, lying between the living areas and the working area (the “Red Hat” munitions storage) might have been heavily used by personnel during the intervening 8 years. The first map is of the growth of the island over the years. 

Figure 7 shows the contaminated areas of the main island. I have taken the study and broken down the data to show a closeup of the areas that have more contamination than others, and a map of the "hot spots" on Sand Island.  Click here to go to this section. The westernmost three lines of quadrants were lagoon in 1962. This is the Plutonium field as measured by EG and G in their 1980 Study. The real cleanup started in 1984.  The highly contaminated structures in launch area one and two were cut up and transported to the AEC test area in Nevada.  When I read the report and the comments of the island administrators, I sense that the Army administrators seemed to view this study as one more piece of annoyance from the EPA and Albuquerque, who forced them to expand the Radiation Control Area and fence off more of the island.  The Thors and the atomic testing era was ancient history to the island military administrators, who were now building a state of the art facility on the island to dispose of chemical weapons. In 1985 the JACADs  facility (the army’s chemical weapons  demilitarization project) went on line.

The Defense Nuclear Agency commissioned a report by Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in March 1988.  Fifteen years of wear and tear, and the  salt laden atmosphere had taken a toll on the facility. The site had been hit by  two hurricanes, Celeste (in 1972) and Keli (in 1974)


The study states:


“During the years the facility remained in use, missile launches and the harsh ocean atmosphere chipped and degraded the paint used to fix the contamination in place. In addition to routine maintenance of the facility, radiological safety procedures required frequent collection of the paint chips and repainting of the surfaces to ensure that the contamination remained fixed. When the site was decommissioned  and the majority of the missile  components were removed, general maintenance at the site was discontinued, necessitating an increase in the radiological maintenance of the facility. By 1980, there had been significant deterioration of the metal structures at the launch site. Concerns were raised that a strong typhoon might destroy the facility and redistribute  the contamination to uncontrolled areas. …”Most of the contamination was fixed to the steel revetments , the doors of the moveable shelter building, and the launch pad. It consisted mainly of plutonium isotopes  and americium impurity typically present with plutonium.”


Most of the report covered the procedures that the government used to dismantle the buildings on the site and transport the cut-up buildings and barrels of waste, and transport the plutonium-contaminated waste to the United States, which was done very, very, quietly.


                                                     Dome storing radioactive waste on Runit


Honest John warhead loaded with Sarin



Chapter 11 

Project 112 and SHAD




      On the east end of Johnston island was a small Nissen hut that was the home of SHAD on Johnston Island. It was one of the creepiest of all the projects that took place there over the years. SHAD stands for Shipboard Hazard and Defense. It’s the way that Army helps the Navy. Heavy-handed but well-meaning.  It has similarities to General Billy Mitchell’s operation in 1921 when he proved that Army Air Force bombers can sink Navy battleships. Of course, the  exercise was done by bombing an undefended battleship dead in the water with no damage control people aboard to limit flooding. And then there were the two atomic tests on all the naval vessels in CROSSROADS.         

      SHAD was yet another top secret project that was chosen for Johnston Island because of its extreme isolation. Sites for SHAD included Eniwetok, Eglin AFB in Florida, Newfoundland, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal Zone and Hawaii. It was an acronym for Shipboard Hazard and Defense and was an offshoot of Project 112, a secret venture in developing and testing biological warfare administered out of Fort Douglas and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.  Initially sponsored by President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara in the closing days of the Kennedy administration, Lyndon Johnston gave the final go ahead for the projects in January of 1965. There was concern in Washington that U.S. Navy forces were poorly equipped to defend themselves against biological warfare attacks.


The sprawling project was headquartered at the Deseret Test Center at Fort Douglas in Utah. Two buildings and about 200 people supervising about 5900 people around the world doing all kinds of CBR tests. Biological studies were conducted on the island as early as 1964, when a new virus was discovered in ticks that infested the nests of a migratory bird of the common noddy terns. It would be called “The Johnston Island Virus”.[1] A small lab building was built on the east end of the island, downwind of the main living areas.

In 1965 a small flotilla of ships arrived, the attack transport USS Granville S. Hall accompanied by five Army tugs. The tugs were only marginally seaworthy and pitched and yawed in ocean swells.  The Granville Hall was a WWII era Liberty ship that was evidently radioactive from having been involved in a number of atomic tests in the fifties. Two levels of hazards for its crew. Evidently the Granville Hall, a laboratory support ship, set off radiation alarms whenever it entered Honolulu harbor. In one A-test it had been rigged up with remote control steering and after an A-blast, was sailed into a fallout area.

 SHAD was top secret, because it involved experimenting with biological warfare compounds, including nerve gases and potent poisons like SARIN. The commander of the flotilla of tugs based at Johnston Atoll was Lieutenant Jack Alderson, who later would become a critic of the operation after he and his men began to develop common symptoms.  Like Mike Thomas he took the initiative of contacting his men, and later would approach politicians to ask them to file legislation to free his men from their security oaths that prevented them from talking to the VA and their doctors about their physical problems.

About 50 plus tests were held in the Pacific that we know about.  The SHAD project on Johnston Atoll was code-named “Shady Grove.”  The official test subjects were Rhesus monkeys, stored in cages on the open decks. The tugs had been modified for the testing by including a small laboratory space and an airlock in each.  Before the test, the crews went below and sealed up the hatches. The tugs parked themselves in a long row; they were the “targets” for an A-6 that buzzed them at low altitude, spraying them with a yellow aerosol mist.  Below decks during the tests, Alderson said that he could smell the chemicals. The tugs weren’t airtight, and the men weren’t wearing protective clothing. To the Navy, the sailors were classified “conductors” of tests, and were not informed of what precautions they should have taken. As it turned out, the men should have worn nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protective gear and been debriefed on their exposure and any symptoms. The odd part of Shady Grove was that the crews were also not wearing any devices to measure their exposure, and there were no post-test medical examinations. The people in Utah thought that the simulant (BG) and the pathogens Coxiella Burneii (OU), and Pasteurella tularensis (UL) were harmless. Alderson said that the crews could smell the chemical agent (BG), Bacillus globigii. BG was used to simulate biological warfare agents because it was then considered a contaminant with little health consequence to humans. However, the compound was militarized by experimentation at Fort Dietrick, and its exact characteristics and effects are uncertain. It is now considered a pathogen that causes certain kind of infections for humans, especially people whose health is compromised. 


Coxiella Burneii causes Q fever and Pasteurella tularensis causes tularemia. Tularemia is a rare infectious disease that typically attacks the skin, eyes, lymph nodes and lungs. Tularemia — also called rabbit fever or deer fly fever — is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. The disease affects mammals, especially rodents, rabbits and hares, although it can also infect birds, sheep, and domestic animals, such as dogs, cats and hamsters.

I think that Utah knew that these agents might make unprotected people sick too. I think that the main aim of the test was to find out if the A4D could successfully deliver the aerosols and make the animals penned up on deck sick. They wanted to make sure pilots had good training on laying down aerosol agents, and that the chemicals would not dissipate and loose their killing potential. The monkeys went back to the laboratory ship for testing, the sailors cleaned up their ships. Life went on. Probably no one in the chain of command in Utah thought that the sailors below decks would get sick because they assumed that they would be wearing protective gear and would be given protective vaccines against Rocky Mountain fever and Tularemia. Alderson talked to someone at the proving grounds that was shocked that they were not wearing protective clothing.   Just because you send out memos on how things are supposed to be done doesn’t mean that that untrained people and their supervisors thousands of miles away will carry them out correctly.

 Often no one gets told anything because everything is top secret. Dangerous aerosols are used, but somehow the protective gear is not provided and the vaccines weren’t given to everyone, and the people up in Fort Douglas and Dugway back and fill and hide things away in their files. 

 When years later, veterans developed symptoms, they went to the VA, but there was no mention of SHAD in their service records, no records of injections allegedly given to them. The doctors would shrug and say they could do nothing, and the VA lawyers would remind them of the secrecy oaths they had signed.   Just like the veterans of the Dominic 1 atomic testing, attempts made to have their diseases termed “service connected” went nowhere. Only in 2011 were participants released from their secrecy oaths, and then only to the extent that it pertained to their medical care.  

The year before Project 112 and SHAD were cancelled in 1969, a larger and much more hazardous bioweapons test was held in July of 1968 at Johnston Atoll.  Very few people were stationed on the island at the time.  A Phantom jet sprayed a powder at low altitude over the island, while a fleet of ships stood by upwind. A long line of barges were moored offshore, The barge furthest out to sea was fifty miles out. Hundreds of cages of Rhesus monkeys were on deck. According to Dr. George B. Johnson, a biologist and author of a college textbook, The Living World, the powder may have been a weaponized form of anthrax. This illustration was from that volume.




Even the monkeys fifty miles downwind were affected.  They were brought back to their lab on Johnston Island for evaluation, and many of them died.


After forty-odd years, study of the GAO (Government Accounting Office, congressional hearings and a VA studies, the Department of Defense has still not declassified much information about the project.  They could find no records pertaining to who participated in the land trials. Keeping it secret so many years later how much of the aerosol penetrated the WW II vintage tugs is absurd.  Almost all of the tugs have been scrapped.  The VA mounted no legal efforts to force disclosure.  The only reason to keep this information secret is to spare the government embarrassment. After congressional hearings where the defense department came under scathing criticism, it was decided that the government would study the program’s impact on participants. In 20016 The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a study that found no difference in the death rate between SHAD participants and non-participants.  This was not an arms-length study, however.   The NAS gets 85% of its funding from the federal government, and agencies that dependent on federal funding seldom bite the hands of those agencies who feed it. 


In  2009, there was an obituary in the Vietnam Veterans of America newsletter for Larry Pilkerton, one of the technical staff of SHAD and a safety officer who participated in Shady Grove. It was written by Jack Alderson, Lt Commander (retired) 


“After returning from the test called Shady Grove, Larry was sent to Hawaii’s Big Island as part of a land test. He told me that he was loading bomblets with nerve and biological agents. The next thing he knew was when he woke up back in Oahu at Tripler Army Hospital.

When we heard that he had been injured, a couple of the crew went to see him. However, they were denied entry by a Marine stationed outside his room. The next time we were in port we were informed he had died and that his family had shipped back to the mainland. Everyone on the staff thought that he was dead, including those who worked closely with him.

      It came as a great shock then when I received an e-mail from him in March 2006. He had read one of these columns in The VVA Veteran (on SHAD, mak). In talking with him and his wife, Doreen, he told me that he had been shipped to Oaknoll Naval Hospital and placed in the psychiatric ward. He was told that he had a prior mental illness and his security clearance was revoked. His medical records had no indication he was part of the SHAD staff. Rather than going back to being a regular hospital orderly, he preferred to leave the Navy and restart his life as a civilian.


The Project SHAD Technical Staff members were carefully selected and all had final secret security clearances and, periodically, interim top secret. This means that background investigations had been performed. Why had this not come up with evidence of his prior mental illnesses? Why were his medical records devoid of PSTS information?


Agent Orange Committee chair Buzz Sawyer noted, “Larry died on February 13 (of 2009,ed). Many of us feel his demise was related to the latent effects of his exposure to chemical and biological weapons on the Big Island in 1966. Because of the classified nature of his work, he died without establishing service connection to his illness or survivor benefits for his widow. The VA would only consider his prior mental illness.”


Larry filled bomblets with Sarin.  One little bottle after another. There were hundreds of them packed into the Honest John warhead.  You could not imagine a more dangerous job.  Sarin is a form of nerve gas invented by that infamous German corporation IG Farben during World War Two. Never used before the German surrender, the stocks were shipped to the United States. It kills people quickly, it paralyzes their breathing, it was first used in a major campaign by Iraq in its war with Iran between 1980 and 1988, it killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.     

[1] U.S. admits secret tests on unwary sailors,Nerve agents, bacteria sprayed on ships in 1960s

Hartford Courant, October 23, 2001|By Mark Pazniokas and Thomas D. Williams


[2] http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2007/Long-Term-Health-Effects-of-Participation-in-Project-SHAD-Shipboard-Hazard-and-Defense/BACILLUSGLOBIGII.pdf

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3064580/



Lab Rats, Project SHAD    http://www.apfn.org/apfn/shad.htm


[1] http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2007/Long-Term-Health-Effects-of-Participation-in-Project-SHAD-Shipboard-Hazard-and-Defense/BACILLUSGLOBIGII.pdf

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3064580/


The Cleanup begins

Take another trip on Google Earth and you'll see the Dome on Runit.  Perhaps some day space travellers will come along and find it and wonder at what kind of civilization it was that bottled up all this virulent poison here so close to sea level.  You can get there by clicking “Dome, Runit, Marshall Islands.” A  great concrete dome that seals in an old crater and holds 110 thousand cubic yards of radioactive waste. The island stripped bare of buildings.  A few palm trees and native vegetation only starting to return.  The Marshall Islands were recently featured in a television program as probably the area most threatened by global warming.  And here we are storing, in an unlined crater, unfissioned plutonium, and a lot of it. There is no program in place for monitoring leakage from the Runit Dome[1]


Between 1948 and l958, we detonated 42 atmospheric nuclear tests on or near the surface of Eniwetok. By 1971, thirteen years after the last nuclear test on the island, two military test programs were still going at Eniwetok.  There was a U.S. Air Force space research program, and the Defense Nuclear Agency's Pacific Cratering Experiment (PACE). They were barred from doing any more nuclear testing in the atmosphere, but the Defense Nuclear Agency still had rights to do other types of experiments under the 1946 trusteeship agreement. The objective of PACE  was to simulate on Runit the effects of an atomic bomb detonation using 500 tons of normal high explosives. Six tons of TNT were actually detonated and 190 holes had been drilled into reefs and the island for explosives; and 86 trenches dug in different parts of the atoll. The island had already been badly damaged by all the previous atomic detonations, and all the natives had been evacuated. There had been eleven A-tests on the island of Runit alone.  In June 1971, the AEC made a decision to terminate use of Enewetak as a test range and return the island to the islanders.  Not a great gift, considering the condition it was in.

What triggered this shutdown was when the islanders protested the PACE project they found residue from the Quince test, which was described as a fizzle, but actually was a safety test of the W-54,  probably  the tiniest warhead we ever manufactured. They wanted to find out if the unarmed football size warhead would explode in a fire or explosion. The W-54 was designed for the Davey Crockett missile and was small enough to be fired from a recoiless rifle mounted on a Jeep.  The HE in the implosion sphere was detonated in a one-point explosion that shattered the sphere scattering plutonium over a large portion of the island. 


 The natives of the island, wanting to come back one day, and upset by the prospect of our exploding large quantities of dynamite on their island, filed a protest against the PACE project, and the senior AEC representative on the committee investigating, Roger Ray, recommended immediate quarantine of Runit. The contractors were “to cease all operations thereon and not remove any vehicles, equipment, or materials until adequate decontamination procedures could be established.”


They found a mess on Eniwetok. When they evacuated the island in 1958, our nuclear testing program may have thought they would be back some day for more testing, because they never cleaned up behind themselves.   On the isle they had named Hedren, unfinished memos lay on the desks in some buildings. Landing craft sat rusting where they had been pulled from the water. “Everywhere, nature in the form of impenetrable brush, termite burrows, rot, and rust was reclaiming the atoll from the ruins of an advanced technology.”

“Nuclear testing had left its unmistakable mark on the atoll. The preliminary radiological survey found potentially significant radiation hazards on the islands of Bokombako (Belle), Enjebi (Janet), Aomon (Sally), and Runit (Yvonne) .  Robert Ray's recommendation was intended primarily to prevent “further aggravation through dispersion, of something they termed an already difficult contamination problem." [2] 

      No one had linked Eniwetok to Johnston Island in public until Robert Ray said that the plutonium particles they were finding on Runit were very similar to the particles they were finding on Johnston Island. These were tiny fragments of beryllium, stainless steel and other metals alloyed with plutonium and other actinides. The CPM ratings sometimes ran in the millions. There was a reporter at the meeting. The cat was out of the bag, an advocate for the decontamination of Eniwetak about heard it, the information travelled to a concerned legislator stateside, and eventually leaked to a ex-Marine working as an investigative journalist for a Chicago paper.  The military had clamped down on release of any information on the state of Johnston Island, but this round-about route eventually got the information out to Mike Thomas and many atomic veterans.

         It was strong action that this AEC scientist recommended.  Shut down a DNA project?   On the threshold of letting natives reclaim the island as their own, the PACER experimentation might  recontaminate it. The harm the plutonium could do natives was limited unless they were digging up the ground to restart farming.  Drilling holes in the reefs and detonating TNT would have resulted in throwing tons of contaminated earth up into the air to drift with the prevailing winds. The planning of PACE was done at Livermore Labs.  It shows a cavalier indifference to environmental concerns. In response to the AEC's recommendation, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Test Center (SM1TEC) put the quarantine into effect on 22 May 1972.  The quarantine irked the DNA. Since the quarantine stopped PACE operations on Runit, DNA asked the AEC Nevada Operations Office (AEC-NV) for additional data on the nature of the hazard which might then allow completion of PACE.”  On 30 June 1972, DNA and AEC representatives met and agreed that an additional survey should be made to determine whether the hazard was really serious enough to enforce a quarantine.  It was. The particles that they found at Johnston Atoll and Runit were similar.  Extraordinarily deadly.  The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory sent the DOE a report on four samples from Johnston Island.


                         Metal Nugget:        Counts per minute per milliliter:  322 million CPM

                      5 grams of coral: Counts per Minute /per milliliter: 2.29 million CPM

                      Bunker A coral: (presumably coral from a bunker where debris was solved) Counts per

                      minute per milliliter:  1.03 million CPM   

                       LE 1 Pad Coral      Counts per minute per milliliter:  2950 CPM


         It turned out that the natives of Eniwetok, unlike the servicemen of Johnston Island, had some rights. They had a council, there was some United Nations oversight, they had, most importantly, a lawyer.  On 22 May 1972, the District Court in Honolulu ruled that the plaintiffs were entitled to an injunction because the government had failed to file an adequate impact analysis, and therefore, PACE activities, including core drilling and seismic surveys at Enewetak, were prohibited.  The court said that people living in the Trust Territories had all the rights that U.S. citizens had, and they interpreted the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, broadly, as applying to all U.S. territories.  The Pentagon in June 1973 called off the PACE tests.

         Once it was clear that the Department of Energy and the Defense Nuclear Agency had to mitigate the contamination, they were back arguing the case for disposal of the plutonium and other contaminated debris by ocean dumping. It was what they had always done.

“The basic argument was one commonly heard: compared to the amount of long-lived alpha contamination already dumped in the ocean, the amount from Enewetak would be insignificant. The DOE estimated there were only a few hundred grams of actual plutonium in all of the contaminated soil of Enewetak, and that at least a hundred kilograms of plutonium had already been dumped in the ocean from 1947 through 1974. In other words, the additional damage that might be done was negligible compared to the possible damage that had already been done.   The counterargument was also familiar: past damage probably cannot be undone, but any additional abuse to the system should be

stopped completely."[3]

The project committee vetoed ocean dumping. The Defense Nuclear Agency contained the debris in an unlined crater on Runit Island, and capped it with that cement dome. An eight year cleanup program was  started, involving thousands of  troops and civilians. A costly program. Read about it at



When Oak Ridge National Laboratory brought in their sampling equipment and started their study at Johnston Atoll, their first problem was finding a base line for background radiation.. [4]  “Weapons-grade TRUs (uranium,plutonium, and tritium) “are not naturally present in background in measurable quantities, but at Johnston Atoll are ubiquitous.”   Ubiquitous means everywhere, and weapons

 grade TRU means all the various atomic weights of bomb material, including thorium, uranium, and plutonium were part of the background radiation that troops and civilians were exposed to every day. There was the plutonium from the years of atomic testing. 



Then in 1972, the US Air Force brought about 25,000 55-gallon drums of the chemical, Herbicide Orange (HO) to Johnston Island that originated from Vietnam and was stored on Okinawa. During redrumming operations on Johnston Island about 250,000 pounds leaked onto the soil of the northwest corner of Johnston Island. The remaining stock of HO was eventually incinerated at sea in 1977 aboard the Dutch ship, Vulcanus. Before it got reconverted back to being a lowly tanker, the Vulcanus,( named after the Angel of Avarice), had incinerated over eight million litres of Agent Orange. 



[1] Frequency distribution, isotopic composition and

physical characterization of plutonium-bearing

particles from the Fig-Quince zone on Runit

Island, Enewetak Atoll T.F. Hamilton et al, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory April 15, 2009


[2] Untitled report (598 Pages, The Defense Nuclear Agency   On the cleanup of Runit Atoll, after its quarantine in May of l972


[3] ibid, page 






                              The End



I’d like to visit Johnston Island, but I’m not sure it can be arranged. I anticipate red tape. I called a woman in Seattle who controls access for the Department of Interior and told her I wanted to visit, and she didn’t call me back.  I anticipate prohibitive costs unless I can dragoon someone with a boat who would like to take a cruise in the Pacific and wouldn't mind getting locked up for trespassing when we finally got there.  But the last person I knew that tried to storm the Johnston Island danger zone during the sixties got thrown into jail.


        It would be a spooky entrancing kind of place. All the buildings are gone now except the chemical bunkers and the JOC, the five story administrative building on the east end of the island. It’s locked, although the old decontamination unit is open.  The Department of Interior people who look after the birds have keys, I think, in case a typhoon shows up and they need a safe place to hide out. A couple years ago the place was overrun with these yellow crazy ants. They are known as “tramp ants” because they can cross the high seas by burrowing into driftwood or stowing away in the holds of ships, and once they hit the beach their colonies go underground, emerging in great swarms after dark.  Their weapon is something vil-smelling like Formic acid.  Johnston is post-apocalyptic. The swimming pool has been filled in, the underground military hospital has been demolished, the 26 acre plutonium waste site on the north shore has been capped over. 


        Johnston Atoll was a lot of work for the poor bastards running bulldozers and dredgers. Four generations of  bare-chested hard drinking working boys from the Hawaiian islands and the Louisiana delta country, They started their work in 1936 and built four islands and dumped a lot of it back. Their great-grandsons didn’t finish their work until about the year 2000. After we made most of it radioactive, the air force had to make it safe enough to meet EPA standards so we could go off, tear all the buildings down and leave the whole shooting match to the birds and the poisonous ants.      The guys in radiation control went out, day after day, with their backpacks and their FIDLERs looking for trouble.   Mount Pluto grew inexorably in the seventies and eighties as the teams kept finding hot  spots, radioactive  areas that had to be excavated  and put behind fences on the north shore.  Machinery scavenged from stateside sand and gravel pits reduced rock-like deposits of coral to a gravel-like consistency and dumped it onto moving belts and loaded them into dump trucks and diesel shovels moving 100,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste around. There was a dark pile on the north end that was really hot, there was a great pile of ground-up concrete that once was the Redstone launch pad. The object of this new project was to separate out the 3 or 4 per cent of the waste that was actually dangerous actinides like Plutonium and Americinium or badly infected coral.  Most of Mount Pluto was turned into a gravelly residue that qualified as low-level atomic waste that the Environmental people would let you leave on the island in a landfill.    Then came building 657, the DNA’s final answer to regulatory trouble, a state of the art processing plant operated by a private outfit out of Albuqerque, Thermo NU Tech. I wouldn’t have wanted to work there, wrestling around hundreds of barrels of plutonium solution, but I bet the pay was good. Conveyer belts ran here and there,. There were gates and shaking screens and batteries of magnets to separate out the bits of metal that were more radioactive and sensitive radiation detectors called FIDLERS whose sensors were looking for the signature type of Gamma rays given off by Americinium, a short-lived isotope given off by Plutonium as it whiles away its million years of decay.  They washed the hot stuff and put their eau de plutonium in barrels and settling ponds.  For eight years, from 1990 to 1998 there was a continuous roar from the north shore of processing machinery, using techniques used for mining.  And while this was going on, the guys on the south side of the island were uncorking barrels of Agent Orange and mustard gas, having a drink or two in the Hawaiian-themed bar rooms, and counting the days until their tour was over and they could see their girls again.  They tore down the miniature golf course too and the radio station went off the air for keeps.





Johnston Atoll reminds me of the television series Lost, an island that is in another dimension.  No shipping lanes are anywhere close, no airlines land there, the island that was thousands of miles from everywhere else. The last mission of the island was operating the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACAD), a large incinerator facility built on the north shore. Construction began in l985, and finished in 1990.  Full scale operations did not start until August 1993.




The town of Johnston Island ( zip code 96558) grew explosively in those years.


JIs population grew from about 340


people to 1300. The day the last piece of ordinance was disabled or exploded or


burned or by other sophisticated means rendered harmless, and the moment the


last wisp of smoke vanished from the smokestacks, the powers that be


dismantled everything.  Blew up the smokestacks, and demolished all the


buildings. It took them six months or so. There’s just a brass plaque where the plant was. And now no one is


there. I understand Department of Interior people visit the island from time to 

time to count birds and try to keep on top of the poison ant infestation.




         Most of the 300 buildings on Johnston Island were built and demolished in 


almost the blink of an eye.  Modern dormitories, restaurants, office buildings and


labs built in the late eighties were demolished in 2003 and 2004. The air


force owned the island until around 2004, when they finished the demolition


work,  and just for fun put it under control of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.


The fish and the birds were for PR purposes and gave them an excuse to keep


people off the island. There are no longer armed guards patrolling the main


island. The high-security fences that surrounded everything — including


munition bunkers and chemical weapons disposal incinerators are gone. The


incinerator’s two red-and-white smokestacks no longer loom over the south


west end of the island. My dream would be a fairly resplendent monument that


would have all the names of the veterans and civilians that perished over the


years on Johnston Island.




        . This business about preserving the marine wildlife is just a cover story.  They don’t need people with geiger counters walking around the island, and paddling out into the lagoon.    There should be a monument on this little island in the center of the Pacific ocean to remember the veterans who have paid the ultimate cost of classifying all  the programs that were carried out on this island, and burying the ugly details in file rooms somewhere.










In 2005, the government put the island up for auction:



For Sale Johnston Island Property


Property Address: 717 nautical miles Southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii
Johnston Island, HI 96558
Type of the Property: LAND
Potential Usage: ecotourism, wildlife refuge

Sale Status:  Sale Method: Written Auction
Dimensions and Size of the Property:  Acres: 625.81
Comments:  Johnston Atoll consists of four small man-made islands enclosed in an egg-shaped reef approximately 21 miles in circumference. The wildlife refuge on the Atoll is a habitat for 32 species of coral, 300 species of fish, the endangered sea turtle and Hawaiian monk seal, and 20 species of migratory birds. Johnston, the main island, is 1000 yards long and 200 yards wide. The deed will contain use restrictions because the atoll was used by the Defense Department for storage of chemical munitions and as a missile test site in the 1950′s and 60′s. The island can be used as a residence or vacation getaway but it does not have utilities or a water supply.





Later they rethought that plan, and kept the property. I can just imagine being a buyer contracting with someone to do due diligence. The plutonium presence still has them spooked. It has been said that Johnston Atoll is the most-studied island in the world, and maybe that is true. But the studies have a certain point of view that comes with being paid for by the Department of Energy and its offshoots.  No study has ever been done of the impact of the place on the people who were stationed there during the sixties, seventies and eighties. How many dosimeters were given out but never collected?  How many lies have been told since that fatal press release put out by Joint Task Force Eight regarding Bluegill Prime? There hasn’t been any reaching out to the human beings who served their country on the island.  No phone calls from the VA and DASA and the large firms that hired civilians for the many projects.  No signs of any minimal kindness on the horizon, just the mantra of the federal government: DENY, DENY, TILL THEY DIE. Anyone that served on Johnston Island between 1962 and 1988 ought to get yearly checkups. Plutonium once ingested is in you for life. The study has never been done, however, is of  how the guys are doing, how the human beings are faring who cooked meals and stood watch and cleaned out structures on Johnston Island. The Coast Guard people are coming along who manned the transmitting and receiving gear on Sand Island in the halcyon years that the islands were its hottest, between 1962 and 1988. These guys need help.  I have been working on this project for about two years, and I keep hearing new names of people fighting lonely wars with the VA. The full toll of the atomic veterans who died of radiation-induced cancer in Pacific between 1945 and today is substantial.  The health of servicemen who served on Johnston Island between 1962 and 1988, before  some searches has never been done: Somewhere in the personnel records of Joint Task Force Eight are the names and home addresses of  thousands of men that should receive cautionary information. 




                                                                                                                         May 5, 2014


Dear Mike,


There's not too many of us still alive.  We lost two more last year to cancers after long battles.  Several succumbed to radiogenic disease combinations such as digestive disorders, heart disease caused by radiation-related high blood pressure with high cholesterol.  Most all of us had many forms of skin cancer, eyesight failure  and cataracts, spinal degeneration, reproductive inefficiency, massive teeth loss due to nerve damage, and most all of us have dealt with various levels of what is now identified as PTSD...a struggle unto its own.  I'm dealing with retinal holes in both eyes threatening my eyesight overall.  Of my original flight crew there are only two of us still alive.  The other one suffers from aplastic anemia and has to undergo blood transfusion annually since his bone marrow got "scattered" by the plutonium, and doesn't do what it's supposed to do.  I have a lesser form of aplastic anemia.  I just can't give blood.  


It's possible more of us would be alive today if we had been told the extent of our radiation exposure, but the Bluegill Prime disaster was covered up by the Feds and only intense research by me and others not related to the Squadron (Dr. Oscar Rosen, Sister Rosalie Bertell) revealed how bad the exposure was from the 1.4 megaton warhead that was destroyed on the pad, spreading radiation over most of the Island.  The Island, you understand at the time was smaller than the infield of the Indianapolis Speedway.  So there was no place to "hide."  It wasn't until the Secretary of Defense Perry in1994 relieved us of our quiet (secrecy agreements signed in the 60s) so we could seek medical care.  Unfortunately by that time most of the Blue Sharks present during the mishap had perished.


Fortunately, however, I located a good number of the pilots who were there.  I found most of them were out of work and without medical care.  They were some of those who lost their jobs when Eastern and Pan Am bellied up after management used resources intended for retirement and medical benefits, money they used for some "deficit spending" needs.  (Long since then, the "Penn Central" Law was passed that prohibits companies from doing that.)  None of the pilots knew about certain laws that had been passed in their favor allowing them treatment in VA Hospitals (the patent law is PL100-321.)  But then there's that other little glitch you see;  nobody told the hospitals about us.  So initially when a few of them checked into their local VA facility they were denied care. Once I called the Veterans Service Manager at VA Orlando and gave him "what for" for turning one of our guys away.  When I myself checked in to VA Charleston (SC) to arrange medical care and follow up treatment, they knew absolutely nothing about the laws.  An administrator I spoke with was very upset about it.  She said, "Why don't we know about you guys?"  After that I started working with my elected officials to get the Hospitals brought up to speed.  Lindsay Graham (then Congressman) did a 4.0 job in that regard.


So, it's been a struggle over the years, especially when our own government turned its back on us from the get-go.  The hardest part in dealing with the experience was not being able to share it with anyone, not being able to talk about it because of its highly classified category.  And when you are "troubled" and sick and can't say anything, not even to those you love, the struggle becomes sometimes intolerable.  There's just so much a person can be expected to "internalize."  You just have to have faith that your Country will eventually try to make things right.


I guess those of us still alive are just too mean to die.


Michael Thomas 





An Account of the Return to Nuclear Weapons Testing, 1958-1961 William E. Ogle

United States Department of Energy, Nevada Operations Office


Independent Verification of the Clean Coral Storage Pile at the Johnston Atoll Plutonium Contaminated Soil, Remediation Project, Oak Ridge National Lab, September 2000


Rehabilitation of former Nuclear Test Sites at EMU and MARALINGA (AUSTRALIA)

Department of Education, Science, and Training, 2002, 2003


Radiological Survey of Johnston Atoll, EG & G, April to August 1980, Revision I


Operation Dominic I, 1962

Defense Nuclear Agency/Department of Defense

Technical Report, 732 pp


Characterization of Studies of Actinide Contamination on Johnston Atoll, S.F. Wolf et al

Argonne National Laboratory, 1994


Remediation of Transuranic Contaminated Coral Soil at Johnston Atoll using the Segmented Gate System.  Kathleeen S. Mooney et al.  TMA/Eberline Thermoanalytical Inc. 1992


Phase II Environmental Baseline Survey, Johnston Atoll Appendix B



An Ecological Assessment of Johnston Island, Phillip Lobel and Elizabeth Schriber,

Washington Group International, funded by JCAD, 2003


United States Nuclear Tests, July 1945 to 31 December 1992,  Norris & Cochran 1 February 1994, National Resources Defense Council    


Telstar 1, Dawn of a New Age, James Early http://www.smecc.org/james_early___



Consequences of Nuclear Testing in the Marshall Islands, a NRC study



Enviromental Remediation of  Radioactive Contamination, M. Ragheb 2/3/2013




Websites (A partial list)


Mark in the Pacific       



VP-6 Blue Shark Crews at Johnston Atoll During Nuclear Tests 1962 http://www.patronsix.com/html/vp-6_blue_sharks_nuclear_tests.html


Loran, Writings and Musings by Bill Taylor



The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity (CMA) - Johnston Island



Johnston Atoll: An Isolated Abandoned Airfield in the Pacific Ocean | Urban Ghosts |



Court Decision on PACE project on island of Runit, Eniwetak



Yellow crazy ant invasion: Some success on Johnston Atoll.



A Greenroad Success (ed:  good films on the testing process)



Locating  Plutonium Contamination on Johnston Island



Agent Orange Was Leaking In April 1972 On Johnston Island. Fw: In Memory, My Health, Our Day In Va Appeals Court - (VA Claims Research) Veterans Affairs Claims and Benefits Research - HadIt.com Veterans Forum



The Johnston Island Message Forum - A Bravenet.com Forum



The Forgotten Island of Johnston Atoll | Jason Stevens



Radiological Survey of Johnston Atoll. Dates of Survey: April-August 1980. Revision 1.



Johnston Atoll - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia