On July 25, 1946, at 8:34 a.m., 95 unmanned warships floated idly atop the aqua-blue waters of the Bikini Atoll, a secluded lagoon at the far reaches of the South Pacific. These were the target ships.
Just beyond this flotilla, a ring of 150 support vessels, containing nearly 40,000 members of the United States Navy, created a perimeter line surrounding the group of vacant ships. A mix of submarines, battleships, aircraft carriers, drydocks, yard oilers, cruisers, destroyers, and high-powered dreadnaughts — these target ships were made up, primarily, of obsolete U.S. Navy ships and surrendered German and Japanese vessels.
Viewed from the air, the pattern in the lagoon resembled a giant school of fish idling in the crystal waters, except, in this case, each vessel’s attention seemed trained on a single amphibious assault ship, the LSM-60, anchored at the very center of the armada. And for good reason: suspended directly below this ship, at a silent depth of 90 feet, the American military had positioned an atomic bomb.
It was humid that July morning in 1946, but otherwise conditions were clear. The breeze was light, the water calm. It was for these temperate conditions, and of course for its utter remoteness, that the Navy had selected this section of the Marshall Islands as a prime nuclear test site.
High-powered cameras were trained on the target fleet that morning. Newspaper reporters stood with pads in hand on the decks of the perimeter ships. It would be the first atomic test open to the news media.
At 8:34 and 59-seconds, less than a year after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the U.S. detonated a plutonium device, which exploded with a yield of 23 kilotons, instantly vaporizing the ship from which it was suspended and destroying, either by its blast or through radioactive contamination, nearly every other ship in its vicinity. Dubbed “Helen of Bikini” by the men on the ground, the bomb was the first detonation of its kind in the post-war era.
EIGHT MONTHS earlier, on the streets of Neosho Falls, 17-year-old Clarence Henderson, decided, at the urging of his three friends — Austin Dennis, Leslie Weiland and Loy John West — to take a break from high school and enlist in the U.S. Navy. It was Thanksgiving of 1945. The four boys said their goodbyes to their families and boarded a train bound for the Naval Training Center in San Diego.
After a term in boot camp, the young men were sent in their separate directions. Henderson was first assigned to an attack transport, the USS Renville, before taking assignment on an amphibious force flagship called the USS Blue Ridge.
And it was aboard Blue Ridge, on the morning of July 25, that Henderson — who at that point lacked a high school diploma because his rural school pointed out that he hadn’t yet completed his coursework in U.S. History — became a first-hand witness to the detonation of America’s fifth nuclear weapon.
IT WAS CALLED Operation Crossroads. Its purpose was to test the effects of nuclear weapons on naval warships. The operation proved controversial from the start. On one side, a number of military and scientific advisors considered the test wasteful and impractical. The U.S., the world’s sole nuclear power at that time, had fewer than 10 weapons remaining in its stockpile, and it wasn’t clear that the data retrieved from exploding a near-replica of the fission bomb that had already been used in Nagasaki would justify the multimillion dollar expense.
But the most urgent concernts centered on the potential consequences that could follow from detonating a radioactive bomb underwater. The results, scientists warned, could be catastrophic. And they weren’t far off.
The immediate blast sank eight of the target ships and contaminated beyond rescue all of the others. Nearly all of the test animals on board the ships, pigs and rats mostly, perished. Native islanders, who were relocated during the runup to detonation, were forbidden from returning to their homes.
The mission quickly shifted from intelligence-gathering to clean-up. Glenn Seaborg, the long-serving chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, called Operation Crossroads “the world’s first nuclear disaster.”
“The ship that I was on was considered what they called a ‘down-winder,’” explained Henderson. “And what happened was that some of it actually drifted over us, you know.”
The commanding officers gave their men very little information about radiation hazards and made minimal efforts to monitor their exposure. “They didn’t really get into that stuff much,” recalled Henderson, who at 89 years old, upright and sharp of mind, seems to have escaped any effects of the blast. “At the time, I just figured we was far enough aways from it that it wouldn’t harm us — but a lot of guys did get radiation, I guess.”
In short order, Henderson and his company would leave Bikini and continue their voyage — to Nauru, to Kwajalein, to Guam, and then up through the Panama Canal, and around to Norfolk, Va., before eventually docking in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in New York, where Henderson would spend three weeks before eventually receiving his discharge. “When I got to New York City — well, you know, that’s a big place. But I found out that once you get a map of them subways, you can go anyplace up there. So I got around pretty good after that.”
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