A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Operation Crossroads: Meeting the Bomb at Close Quarters
By Matin Zuberi *
The United States conducted the first nuclear test series after World War II in July 1946. It was appropriately named Operation Crossroads. Mankind was indeed at the crossroadsone road leading to international control of atomic energy and the other to a frightening nuclear arms race. Operation Crossroads was the bright idea of Lewis Strauss, an aide to Secretary of Navy James Forrestal, and later Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission. Perhaps more than any weapon in the past, the atomic bomb threatened instant absolescence of the Navy itself. The American Navys immediate reaction to Hiroshima had been to find out the impact of the new weapon on future naval forces. It bitterly resented the Air Force monopoly on the means of delivery of these weapons and desperately wanted a role for itself in their future use. Advocates for air power, however, challenged the view that ships could survive atomic bombing. Strauss, therefore, recommended that the American Navy should test the ability of ships to withstand the forces generated by the atomic bomb in order to scotch loose talk to the effect that the fleet is obsolete in the face of this new weapon. Such talk, Strauss wrote, would militate against appropriations to preserve a postwar Navy. 1
Faced with shrinking budgets, the American Navy and Army Air Force (the Air Force had not yet become a separate service) were jockeying for position to stake out a secure place in the nuclear sweepstakes. The Air Force was interested in testing the atomic bombing of enemy ships. Senator McMahon suggested on August 25, 1945, testing the bomb against the surviving Japanese naval vessels. General Arnold asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to arrange for a number of Japanese ships as targets for atomic weapons. The Joint Chiefs promptly instituted staff planning for the proposed bombing and on January 10, 1946, President Truman approved the plan. 2 It would be Air Force General Curtis LeMays second atomic-bombing command after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Manhattan Project wanted to test an advanced version of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in May 1946, but the test was postponed because of the impending negotiations at the United Nations. 3
The decision to conduct nuclear tests was announced in December 1945 and immediately became a subject of public debate. Many civilians, including Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, pointed out the incongruity of the fact that the United States was proposing a plan at the United Nations for the abolition of atomic weapons while simultaneously proceeding with nuclear tests in preparation for a nuclear war. At the Cabinet meeting on March 22, 1946, there was a spirited debate about the proposed tests. Secretary of State James Byrnes and Henry Wallace worried about the international consequences of nuclear testing. Byrnes wondered why the tests were necessary in the first place and feared that the United States would be made to appear as the atomic dictator. Truman, however, wanted the tests held; he stressed that $100 million dollars would be wasted if they were cancelled. 4
The Bikini Atoll, a semi-circular chain of some 30 land dots located in the Marshall Islands region of Micronesia, was chosen as the test site. As for the 167 local inhabitants, it was decided to relocate them else- where. Comparing these people to the children of Israel whom God had saved from their enemy and would lead to the Promised Land, American Military Governor Commodore Ben Wyatt asked: Would you be willing to sacrifice your island for the welfare of all men? Left with no choice, the local chief, Juda Kessibuki, whose vestments consisted of a somewhat tattered white shirt, innocently responded: If the United States government and the scientists of the world want to use our island and atoll for furthering development, which with Gods blessing will result in kindness and benefit to all mankind, my people will be pleased to go elsewhere. They left their ancestral homeland on March 7 with the promise of return after the completion of the nuclear tests. 5
Lore Kessibuki, one of the inhabitants of Bikini, composed a song, which has become their anthem to this day:
No longer can I stay; its true.
No longer can I live in peace and harmony
And rest on my sleeping mat and pillow.
No longer can I stay in my island;
I must leave all the things there,
The thought overwhelms me and leaves me helpless,
My spirit has to travel, far away, lost
Until it is caught in a great current.
Only then can I find peace. 6
An armada of 200 ships and 150 aircraft travelled to the test site to participate in what the New York Times described as the largest and most stupendous single set of experiments in history. New scientific instruments and special cameras were designed for the occasion. More than 10,000 instruments were placed on target and non-target ships, aircraft, and the islands around the Bikini Atoll. Some of the support vessels were transformed into floating laboratories. Carrying nearly half the worlds supply of films, about 500 photographers converged on Bikini to take one million pictures in the first few seconds of the first explosion. The Air Force alone was to take 9 million pictures. These elaborate publicity arrangements contrasted with the secrecy surrounding the Trinity test of July 16, 1945. 7 The Radiological Safety Section consisted of radiologists, physicists, doctors, and electronic experts. Prepared for the worst, they even had psychiatrists. This was an unparalleled opportunity to meet the Bomb at close quarters. 8
More than 42,000 military and scientific personnel gathered at the Bikini Atoll for the worlds first nuclear explosions after Nagasaki. It was a massive undertakingan extravaganza more exhaustively photographed and reported than any previous event in history. About 175 reporters from around the world, US Congressmen and Senators, James Forrestal, as well as foreign observers, were present to witness the dropping of three atomic devices, codenamed Able and Baker, and Charlie, on a guinea-pig fleet of 95 old Japanese, German, and American ships.
There was an intensive media build-up, which depicted the proposed tests as benign, circumscribed, and well-meaning. 9 The official history of the Los Alamos laboratory candidly reports that Operation Crossroads was not generally popular with the scientists. One of them described it as twenty percent science and eighty percent drama. 10 Lee A. DuBridge, President of California Institute of Technology, asked in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Suppose only two or three ships are sunkdo we then conclude that the Navy is still supreme as our first line of defence and we need not fear atomic warfare? Many atomic scientists were also worried about the political implications of the tests. They believed that the destruction inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not be repeated for the simple reason that ships are designed to withstand tremendous pressure of explosions. It was feared that the destruction of only a few target ships would disappoint the public, creating a false sense of security along the lines of Oh, the atomic bomb is not so terribleits just another big bomb.
Prominent Manhattan Project scientists steered clear of the extravaganza. James Conant, President of Harvard University, found a certain degree of incompatibility between the proposed tests and international control of atomic energy proposed in the Baruch Plan of the United Nations. Robert Oppenheimer did not think naval applications are the important ones to test. He questioned the appropriateness of a purely military test of atomic weapons at a time when our plans for effectively eliminating them from national armaments are in their earliest beginnings. The Baruch Plan was presented on the morning of June 12, 1946. A few hours later, the Senate started debate on Operation Crossroads. Senator Huffman denounced it as a dangerous Roman holiday in the Pacific and added that the only important impression these tests are going to give the world is that the United States is not done with war.
The animal kingdom was also represented at Bikini. An American ship brought 5,664 animals, (200 pigs, 200 mice, 60 guinea pigs, 204 goals, and 5,000 rats); they were to be placed on 22 target ships in positions similar to those of a human crew in battle. The hair of some goats was clipped to human length for proper exposure. Some of the pigs were dressed in standard Navy anti-flash suits and smeared with anti-flash lotion. The head of the Navys medical mission reassuringly declared, We want radiation-sick animals, but not radiation-dead animals. It was announced that the animals would be returned to Washington, where studies will be made until they die a natural death.
James Byrnes and his colleague Dean Acheson thought that failure to invite members of the Security Council to send observers to the tests would be considered as a signal that the United States did not want to cooperate with the UN efforts to establish international control of atomic energy. The New York Times in its editorial said, Making the test an open one would show that we consider this new weapon a matter of world responsibility, not just our own. The Washington Post observed that failure to invite foreign observers would fortify the worlds fear that we think of the atom as our peculiar property and mean to brandish it as a weapon for our peculiar interests. It was, therefore, decided to invite two observers from each member of the UN Atomic Energy CommissionAustralia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, and the Soviet Union. They were asked to sign a waiver stating that they would not make any claims against the host country for any injury from the tests. 11
The 22 observers sailed to Bikini in a ship described by one of them as a strange Noahs Ark to which each country had sent pairs of different species, but always of the same sex: military men, naval, ordnance, and intelligence experts; parliamentarians; academics; and scientists. 12 The Soviet Union sent two scientists, a nuclear physicist and an expert in mineral processing who was actually a KGB agent. Chung-Yao Chao, a physicist who later played an important role in Chinas nuclear weapons development, represented China in chaos. 13
The Navy-Air Force rivalry permeated the whole project. Syndicated columnists Joseph and Stewart Aslop charged that the ancient demon of inter-service rivalry has reared its head and that the tests represented another grim struggle between the Navy and Air Force. Angry letters by the thousands poured into the White House. Veterans and active servicemen protested the proposed destruction of the target ships. Protesters marched in Washington with placards saying Wrong Road to Peace and Bikini: Rehearsal for World War 3. Animal lovers in America and from abroad also lodged strong protests. Members of the Southern Dairy Goat Owners and Breeders Association declared, Good goats are scarcer than good Congressmen who should substitute for animals. A Conservative member was loudly cheered when he asked in the British House of Commons, Why choose innocent animals when there are so many guilty men available? Protests from dog lovers were so vociferous that they were excluded from the tests. 14
Journalists had led the general public to expect something between Doomsday and the Fourth of July celebration. In Paris, the mood was, Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we atomise. 15 A respected American journalist commented: This is a war game, the first of the atomic era war games. But in a situation in which we alone have the bomb, and are continuing to make it...It is a notice served on the world that we have the power and intend to be heeded. 16
The bomb now had a name, Gilda, after Rita Hayworths latest movie. Her picture in a low-cut gown was painted on the bombs casing. Rita Hayworths name still graces the Marshall Islands. The eastern end of Majuro Atol is called Rita. 17 The Able test was surely the most extensively covered of all the worlds nuclear explosions. The test was carried alive on radio. Around the world, reported Time magazine, ordinary men and women who would be the casualties in an atomic war, bent their heads and cupped their ears to their radio sets to catch this preview. 18 A correspondent reported that Vice Admiral Blandy, commander of the Bikini task force, was pacing the deck like an expectant mother. Of all the lousy metaphors!, exclaimed a listener in New York. This is a death watch, not a maternity ward! 19
The Able Day arrived on July 1, 1946. At 14 seconds before 9:00 a.m., a voice came over the radio, Listen world, this is Crossroads! Then it happened. The bomb, adorned with a picture of Rita Hayworth, exploded 518 feet above the lagoons surface. It was an airburst over an array of old ships and had a yield of 23 kilotons. For minutes the cloud stood solid and impressive, like some gigantic monument, over Bikini. Then finally the shearing of the winds at different altitudes began to tear it up into a weird zigzag pattern. 20 For a few seconds there was no sound at all on the radio. Representatives Edouard Izac complained, You could see very little, you could hear practically nothing and you could feel absolutely nothing. The Russian delegate to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, Professor Simon Alexandrov, shrugged his shoulders and, pointing to the mushroom cloud, muttered. Not so much. 21 The only visible results from the air were two ships sunk and one on its side, plus four more ships burning....Everyone had the feeling that something had gone wrong. 22
The bomb fell about two miles off target. This prompted some naval officers to suspect sabotage by the Air Force. A Harvard geologist said the explosion was just a sneeze in a windstorm. The Economist observed: Dressed in all the trappings of an exaggerated and somewhat frivolous publicity, the first Bikini atom bomb experiment has left rather the impression of a fireworks display which slightly misfired. 23 It was noted that even the Bikini palm trees stood unscathed. 24 There was much pooh-poohing of the bomb and a pilot growled. Well, it looks to me like the atom bomb is just about like the Army Air Forcehighly overrated. 25 The Able shot soothed the fears of the American people as much as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings had aroused them. Time magazine reassuringly observed that the Thing had grown a little less awful as a result of Bikini. Its apparently infinite power was finite after all. 26
The Navy was accused of having rigged the test in its favour. Forrestal described the test as tremendous, adding, the American Navy will continue to be the most efficient, the most modern and the most powerful in the world. While the Navy declared that only five ships sank, the Air Force pointed out that sixteen ships were completely eliminated from combat and twenty-five to thirty more were damaged. 27 Only about 10 percent of the test animals died instantly from the impact of the blast. Photographs showed one of the goats munching hay without interruption as the shock wave struck and the debris fell all around. The heroine of the test was a female rat, which gave birth to three baby rats; they were promptly named Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. By July 23, a quarter of the animals were dead, including the three baby rats. 28 Before July 1, the world stood in awe of the bomb; after the Able test, however, The bomb was a terrible but a finite weapon. 29
Baker Day was July 25, 1946. Two days before the test, Chief Juda flew to Bikini to witness it. Unlike the airburst of the Able shot, Baker was an underwater shot to test its effects on the hulls of 87 battleships and submerged submarines. 30 It also had a yield of 23 kilotons. Two hundred white rats and twenty pigs were placed in four ships near the bomb, which was called Helen of Bikini. The countdown, again broadcast on the radio, was described as the Voice of Abraham. It was actually the voice of British physicist Ernest W. Titterton who had participated in the Manhattan Project and was requested by the Americans to join Operation Crossroads.
What followed was a spectacle beyond imagination. The New York Times correspondent William Laurence wrote: For a time it looked as though a giant mountain had risen from the sea, as though we were watching the formation of a continent...and then it took the shape of a giant chain of mountains, covered with snow, glistening in the sun. Another journalist described the explosion as so fantastic, so mighty and so beyond belief that mens emotions burst from their throats in wild shouts. The Baker explosion unleashed the greatest waves ever known to humanity, greater than any natural waves with the possible exception of those produced by the 1883 explosion of the island of Krakatao. 31 According to Major General Nichols, Niagara Falls in reverse shot up over an area fully 2,200 feet in diameter, millions of tons of water rose about 5,000 feet and finally vapour and steam came out on top. As the tons of water came tumbling back into the lagoon, what appeared like a tremendous breaking wave broke out of the mass of water and advanced towards the next circle of target ships. Momentarily I thought, My God we have miscalculated the height of the wave, the alarmist may be right. It was not solid water, merely steam and spray. 32
Staggering quantities of radioactive materials fell on the Bikini lagoon. The animals received large doses of radioactivity. General Groves of the Manhattan Project had in the past testified to Congress that radiation poisoning was a very pleasant way to die. Now Admiral Blandy declared that radiation sickness is painless in its effects on animals and humans alike and that suffering among the animals as a whole was negligible. 33 Norman Cousins captured the general mood after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Able and Baker shots: After four bombs, the mystery dissolves into a pattern. By this time there is almost standardisation of catastrophe. 34
On the day of the Baker test, protestors were marching in New York with a stuffed goat bearing the sign, Today Me, Tomorrow You, Diplomacy by intimidation had its toll; the Russians rejected the Baruch Plan. The headline in The New York Times of July 25 summed up the extraordinary juxtaposition of a plan for international control of atomic energy with the display of nuclear thunder: Atomic Bomb Sinks Battleships and Carriers; Four Submarines are Lost in Mounting Toll; Soviet Flatly Rejects Baruch Control Plan. 35 As the official history of the Atomic Energy Commission itself admitted, Testing the bomb with one hand and seeking its control with the other was bound to lay the United States open to the charges of conducting atom diplomacy. The scientists lobby had seen this as soon as the tests were announced. 36
The third test, codenamed Charlie was to be a deep underwater shot. General Groves opposed it. Operation Crossroads, he pointed out, had delayed research and development work at the Los Alamos Laboratory. Even a single atomic bomb can be an extremely important factor in any military emergency, he added. It is imperative that nothing interferes with our concentration of effort on the atomic weapons stockpile which constitutes such an important element in our present national defence. 37 The Joint Chiefs of Staff also recommended cancellation of the Charlie shot. Groves had access to the vital information about the size of the American stockpile, which even President Truman did not have until 1947. The American nuclear stockpile in July 1946 contained only 7 weapons. By July 1947 and July 1948, it had grown to 13 and 50 respectively. 38
After the cancellation of the third shot, a reception was held in honour of Admiral Blandy. The next day, a photograph appeared in newspaper showing the Admiral and his wife cutting a huge cake topped by a mushroom cloud. Infuriated by the photographs, the Reverend A. Powell Davis of a Washington church thundered to an audience that included a judge of the Supreme Court. If I had the authority of a priest of the Middle Ages, I would call down the wrath of God upon such an obscenity. I would damn to hell these people of callous conscience, these traitors to humanity. 39
French couturier Louis Reard, inspired by the Able test, dropped his own bombshellthe bikini, smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world. 40 The complex psychological link between atomic destruction and Eros was established immediately after the Hiroshima bombing. 41 It is interesting to note that the gender of the atomic bomb has progressed from neuter (the gadget) to masculine (Fat Man and Little Boy) to feminine (Gilda and Helen) and back to neuter (the Bomb). 42
On, June 18, 1946, just four days after Baruch presented his plan, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued their secret war plan against the Soviet Union. Codenamed Pincher, it called for the atomic bombing of 30 Soviet cities, including Moscow, Leningrad, and Gorki. 43 The American Navy won a reprieve from Operation Crossroads. Summing up the main lesson from the tests, General Groves declared, At present the best defence against the atomic bomb is not to be there when it goes off. 44
The two explosions General Curtis LeMay had seen for the first time made a deep impression on him, which is reflected in his report:
Nuclear fear reached its peak in 1948 with the publication of David Bradleys No Place to Hide. Bradley was a member of the Radiological Safety Unit of Operation Crossroads. By the end of 1949, 250,000 copies had been sold. It has rightly been described as a last classic of nuclear weapons literature. 46 Bradley wrote: The Bikinians...are not the first, nor will they be the last, to be left homeless and impoverished by the inexorable Bomb. They have no choice in the matter, and very little understanding of it. But in this perhaps they are not so different from us. The tests had merely sketched the gross outlines that showed clearly the shadow of the colossus which looms behind tomorrow. 47 Runit Island was declared off limits for 240,000 years! This equals ten half-lives of plutonium. To give a perspective on this time scale, David Bradley points out, A quarter of a million years is 70 times farther away than the War of Troy; it is back in the second ice age before the advent of the Neanderthals. 48
The real story of Operation Crossroads was not the blast, heat and sunken ships but that of deadly, lingering, uncontrollable and invisible radiation. It can neither be seen, felt, tasted nor smelled. Only four days after the Baker shot, full-scale clean up operations were conducted aboard some of the target ships which were scrubbed down with soap and water in an attempt to decontaminate them. When this proved ineffective, the paint was sandblasted off the ships. Precious scientific equipment and laboratory animals also had to be retrieved from the surviving as well as sunk ships. Safety precautions were dismissed as cumbersome and time-consuming. 49 Jack Leavitt confesses that at no time did I or anyone working with methat is, naval personnelhave a Geiger counter, nor any other testing device to measure the danger of radiation. Frank Karasti, who boarded the destroyer Hughes a day after the Baker shot, adds. Out of the four hours we spent on her, two were spent vomiting and retching as we all became violently ill. George McNish says, We had scientists dressed like for outer space, with instruments like I had never seen. But when it came to diving or bringing up samples, all we had were skin and tanks. 50
Almost two years passed before the next series of nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands which had been designated as the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands on July 18, 1947. The United States as the administering authority promised to protect the health of its inhabitants. The Atomic Energy Commission had by then concluded that the dawn of a new day in which atomic energy would serve the cause of peace rather than the demands of national defence had to be postponed. 51 By September 1947, Task Force Seven, consisting of 10,000 men of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Pentagon, had been created under the command of General John E. Hull. The Eniwetok Atoll was chosen for Operation Sandstone. Located 300 miles from the naval base at Kwajalein, the atoll was described as a a sort of coral necklace of forty island beads....halfway between Hawali and the Philippines. 52 The 142 inhabitants of the islands were removed to a smaller and less desirable atoll. While Operation Crossroads was designed to measure the impact of atomic weapons on naval vessels, the primary purpose of Operation Sandstone was to study the weapons themselves and the improvements made in their design. Moreover, unlike the earlier test series, which attracted global media coverage, the new tests were shrouded in total secrecy.
While the Soviet Union challenged the Western powers over access to Berlin, three new composite levitated implosion devices were tested under Operation Sandstone. X-Ray, a 37 kiloton bomb was fired on April 15; Yoki with a yield of 49 kilotons and Zebra, an 18 kiloton bomb, were tested on May 1 and May 15, 1948, respectively. 53 An uninvited Soviet warship was standing 20 miles away from the atoll. Radiation-safety measures were again casual at best. 54 The tests were a stunning success resulting in substantial improvements in the efficiency of use of fissile material. 55 The most immediate effect of Sandstone was to make possible within the near future a 63 percent increase in the total number of bombs in the stockpile and a 75 percent increase in the yield of these bombs. The tests established that implosion of U-235 was more efficient than assembling it in a gun type weapon. Carson Mark, a weapon designer, noted that Sandstone marked the end of the day of the atomic device as a piece of complicated laboratory apparatus rather than a weapon. By this time, nuclear war plans Broiler, Frolic Halfmoon and Harrow were being prepared. 56
Significantly, the objection to the Charlie shot of Operation Crossroadsthat it would cause a dent in the American nuclear arsenalwas not considered relevant in the case of the Sandstone series. By May 1948, a greater number of fission devices were being produced. Moreover, unlike Operation Crossroads, when the international consequences of nuclear testing were openly discussed, Sandstone prompted no misgivings within the Truman Administration regarding the possible impact on US-Soviet relations. 57
The Bikini tests of 1946 have some unique features in the history of the nuclear age. They were the first tests in peace time, shortly after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and that too when the United States faced no nuclear threats. This is the only reported occasion in American nuclear history when misgivings regarding the needs as well as international repercussions of nuclear testing were expressed by senior members of the Cabinet. Moreover, respected scientists publicly doubted the military and scientific usefulness of the tests. Another important feature was the curious juxtaposition of the tests with the Baruch Plan for the international control of atomic energy. The presence of representatives of members of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, including those of the Soviet Union, at the test site symbolised the link between these two apparently contradictory strands in American nuclear policy. The global media coverage of Operation Crossroads, the presence of photographers from all over the world, and the fact that the explosions were broadcast live on radio around the world distinguished them from all other tests subsequently conducted. Public cynicism, articulated through posters and protest marches, was partly generated by the acuteness of inter-service rivalry permeating the test series. The Americans had not yet begun to love the Bomb. Animal lovers were enraged by the use of animals as guinea pigs. And the fate of the innocent inhabitants of Bikini is a painful chapter of this story. 58
Note 2: Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World 1939-45: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Vol. I (University Park: Penn State University, 1962) pp. 581588 Back.
Note 4: Lloyd J. Graybar, The 1946 Atomic Bomb Tests: Atomic Diplomacy or Bureaucratic Infighting? The Journal of American History, vol.72, no.4, March 1986, pp. 888907, at p. 89; Joseph I. Lieberman, The Scorpion and the Tarantula: The Struggle to Control Atomic Weapons, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970) pp.317318. Back.
Note 10: Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation: Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994) p.116. Weisgall has been legal counsel for the Bikinis since 1975. Back.
Note 16: Paul Boyer, By the Bombs Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) p.83. All kinds of dire consequences from the tests were publicly discussed. It was feared that a chain reaction might propagate in sea water which would wipe out all life on earth; that a crack might be opened up in the ocean floor allowing sea water to rush into the white-hot interior and produce subterranean explosions and earthquakes.. Strauss, n.1, pp. 209210. Back.
Note 50: Wasserman and Solomon, n.9, pp. 4246; Studs Teekel, The Good War, The Atlantic, July 1984, pp. 7275. Also see Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign, GI Guinea Pigs: How the Pentagon Exposed Our Troops to Dangers More Deadly Than War (New York: Wideview, 1980). Back.