The tests at Bikini in July 1946 were the coming out party for the atom bomb. Operation Crossroads began just two weeks after the United States presented the so-called Baruch plan to control the Bomb: The U.S. would give up its weapons only after it was sure no one else had them (or any other “weapon adaptable to mass destruction”). The United States would have the veto-free right to punish anyone that it thought was cheating. Operation Crossroads demonstrated what the “condign punishments” administered by the U.S. might look like, as up close and personal as a bomb explosion would permit.
The U.S. Pacific fleet was there along with 42,000 armed forces personnel. There were US and foreign dignitaries and journalists to report on the proceedings. But it was no tropical picnic for the armed forces personnel. Col. Stafford Warren noted with dismay the “hairy-chested approach” of many naval officers to the “unseen hazard” of radiation. In that spirit, after the first test (Test Able), 18-year-old sailor, John Smitherman, and others were ordered to fight a fire on one of the target ships that were stationed in the lagoon to assess the effects of the bomb. Afterwards, to cool off, he (and others) jumped into Bikini lagoon; He did not know and no one told him hat the lagoon was intensively radioactive, especially due to activated sodium (sodium-24), a powerful beta-emitter. He died in 1983 of lymphatic system cancer, a signature cancer of such exposure. The Veterans Administration repeatedly denied his claims that his illness was connected to his service.
The second test, Test Baker, was a more generalized radiological disaster. The bomb was under a barge; the explosion sent a million tons of radioactive spray into the air. Smitherman experienced some of the fallout. The ships of the fleet were taken into Bikini lagoon; all were contaminated.
The risks of significant exposure were widespread, from sailors scrubbing decks to meat being washed with contaminated seawater. There were no instruments to measure plutonium in the field. Yet even decades later, in the early 1980s, the Defense Department claimed that internal exposure was insignificant.
A study, I did with David Albright on the radiological conditions at Bikini (initiated by my friend Bob Alvarez) was presented to the House Veterans Affairs Committee by Karl Z. Morgan, who was present at Operation Crossroads. He was one of the founders of the discipline of health physics — assessing the risks of radiation to health. The study was based on the documents from the archive of the Chief of Radiological Safety during the tests, Col. Stafford Warren. The documents were brought to Bob and by Anthony Guarisco, who was a veteran of the 1946 Bikini tests.
The report created quite a stir in part because the director of the Defense Nuclear Agency testified that he was not aware of the Stafford Warren documents. In effect, the government had come to its conclusions that Smitherman’s cancer, and those of so many other atomic veterans, were not related to their service without consulting the data of the chief of radiological safety at Bikini. Subsequently, in 1990, the US government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to compensate armed forces personnel who participated in atmospheric testing, among others (including uranium miners and certain “downwinders” who lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site).
Operation Crossroads tragically established a pattern of all nuclear weapon states harming their own people in the name of national security — and doing so without informed consent. In fact, General Groves, who oversaw the making of the bomb during the Manhattan Project was fearful of claims being filed by participants in the Bikini tests.
This tests was designated Baker denoting that it was the second in the series of 3 planned tests (but only two were carried out. The first being Able). It was the 3rd nuclear test ever conducted, and the 5th nuclear explosion in history.
Comment by neil lopez — October, 2016 @ 8:15 am
This is quite a good read since it’s history. Those nuclear tests are quite hard to believe since they can affect people and the surroundings. Good work in sharing these facts.
Comment by John — April, 2017 @ 6:15 am
Thanks for your work Dr. Makhijani. I realize that Operation CASTLE mooted the matter but is there any work on the levels of radioactive contamination of Bikini atoll in the years following Test Baker (and before CASTLE)?
In 1997, the VA denied a service-connected disability claim by a Coast Guard veteran with multiple myeloma. He claimed “that he was exposed to radiation when he serviced radioactive buoys while aboard the Coast Guard Cutter BASSWOOD in the vicinity of Eniwetok, Kwajalein and Bikini Islands between 1952 and 1953.”
The VA’s denial says: “Additional correspondence received from the Coast Guard in September 1993 demonstrated that, between April 1952 and October 1953, the BASSWOOD participated in several operations in the Marshall Islands. Specifically, between February and April 1953, the BASSWOOD conducted operations in the vicinity of Kwajalein Atoll, Eniwetok Atoll, and Majuro Island …
“In August 1996, the RO [i.e. the VA Regional Office] contacted the Coast Guard. In the following month, the Coast Guard responded that the ‘USCGC BASSWOOD (WAGL 388) did not service radioactive buoys in 1952 to 1953, due to the project not being started until 1961 and ending in 1966.’ ”
However, according to the 1954 partially declassified “History of Operation CASTLE” by Joint Task Force Seven, Major General P. W. Clarkson, United States Army, Commanding, at the Navy’s request “the USCGC BASSWOOD (WAGL-388) would mark Eniirikku Pass at Bikini with obstruction buoys; and … the BASSWOOD would conduct a survey of Bikini Atoll to determine the condition of any existing navigational aids. These tasks were accomplished during March, 1953.” The history gives no indication that radiation levels were monitored or any precautions taken to warn or protect the crew from the residue of Test Baker.
I’m just a layperson but I did serve on the Basswood when she was homeported in Guam and I can easily imagine that this veteran and his shipmates got a non-trivial amount of radiation exposure at Bikini during their work and off-time. I would be surprised if they didn’t spend some time on the beach, swim in the lagoon, and eat fish, crab, and coconuts during their stay there. There may also have been some exposure to ionizing radiation from Operation GREENHOUSE (1951). The veteran in question came onboard after that but if the ship was contaminated and not fully decontaminsted or went into the hot zone after April 1952 then he may have been exposed. None of this is discussed in the adverse ruling against the veteran. What do you think?
1. See https://www.va.gov/vetapp97/files1/9705845.txt
2. See “Radiation Dose Assessment for Personnel in USCGC BASSWOOD (WAGL 388), post-Operations GREENHOUSE (1951) and REDWING (1956),” a memorandum from D. Martinez, (Science Applications International Corp., McLean, VA) to Cdr. M. Ely, Defense Special Weapons Agency, September 20, 1996, as cited in Evaluation of Generic 3X Upper Bound Factor Used in Reconstructing External Gamma Dose to Military Participants at Atmospheric Nuclear Weapon Tests by David C. Kocher, (Fort Belvoir, VA: Defense Threat Reduction Agency, 2009)
Comment by Mox La Push — September, 2018 @ 3:24 am
My Uncle, a staff sergeant, was at the pacific tests. Lupus was his disease from it.
Comment by Stephen A. Verchinski — April, 2019 @ 1:12 pm