Monday, February 22, 2010

A Nuclear Veteran Remembers

In 1956, I was at Bikini in the Marshal Islands for the H-Bomb tests. It haunted me for years. In 1983, The Day After, a film for TV, caused me to write of my experience. I sent copies to the UN, to the Kremlin, to the White House, and to my legislators. Barbara Boxer read it on the floor of the House on Hiroshima Day, 1984. Sadly, the message is still needed, the situation worsening even when some of the, then, major players are no more.

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THERE MUST BE NO "DAY"
by
Stephen M. Osborn

Where does one begin, in responding to The Day After? For me, it can have many beginnings. I remember, as a seven or eight year old boy, looking with awe at the Bikini battered ships at the Bremerton Navy Yard. Then, I grew up in the cold war rhetoric of the late- forties and fifties.

In 1956, as a young navy man, I was at the thermonuclear tests at Bikini, code named Operation Redwing. The first bomb exploded was, we were told, a twenty megaton plus thermonuclear device, to be detonated at an altitude of twenty thousand feet. Our observation point was to be aboard ship at a distance of thirty miles from ground zero. That is a long way; about as far as the doctor was from Kansas City when the first bomb went off in the movie [The Day After, 1983, TV]. It is not far enough.

Most of the crew was ranged on deck, wearing blast goggles and facing aft, away from the blast. I was not on deck as there were not enough goggles to go around. Instead, I picked a spot in a passageway, about thirty feet forward of a light well. Any light coming in would have to come from the direction away from the blast, down about a twenty foot well, then penetrate the passageway. I had my back to the well. During the final countdown, I wrapped both arms across my eyes, one over the other. I could hear the voice on the ship's intercom; 5...4...3...2...1...ZERO.

Suddenly, I could see light, right through my arms! The heat was intense, as though I had my back to an opened furnace door. The silence was deafening. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably a few seconds, the light began to fade. As it grew dark, I eased one arm away from the other and the light was back, but again fading. When it was gone, I moved my other arm. The light through my clenched eyelids was painful, but it continued to fade and I gradually opened my eyes and began backing toward the light well. As the light continued to decrease, it finally got to the point where I could squint up the light well at the sky. The light was brilliant, the sky an intense blue. I climbed out of the well and peeked forward around the shelter of the conning tower, directly at the cloud and the, now fading, fireball.

My first impression was of a weird beauty. The cloud was sharply defined, like a thunderhead, and had a fluorescent, amethyst colored glow, which tinged toward a dark red. It is impossible to communicate the scale of the cloud. We were thirty miles away, yet the feeling was similar to when one stands beneath a huge redwood, watching the trunk taper away above you, to be surmounted by a crown of spreading branches far overhead. At thirty miles, it was as though we were right at the base of the cloud looking up, rather than out, at it.

We stood there in silence, looking at the cloud and quietly commenting on the colors. On the right side, close to the cloud, we could see two bright, stationary lights. They were visible for a short while, then they faded.

Over two minutes had passed, then the voice on the intercom began the countdown for the shock wave. 5...4...3...2...1...Zero. The pressure wave at that distance was not violent; there was an increase of about one atmosphere, enough to make your ears pop; the sound was a long low rumble lasting about thirty seconds.

The sun began to rise, lighting the outside of the cloud and overpowering the internal glow. The cloud was identifiable for much of the day, with the. top being slowly torn to rags by the jet stream.

We steamed back to the atoll, rather sobered by the experience. We were quite curious about the mysterious lights we saw beside the cloud. About a week or so after the shot, I was speaking to one of the scientists that had been aboard. He said they also had been puzzled by the appearance of the lights. They finally concluded that what we saw were two bright stars, essentially as we would have seen them from outer space. Apparently, the heat of the explosion was so great that it literally burned away the atmosphere around the fireball. As soon as the temperature dropped sufficiently, the air collapsed back around the envelope, the starlight was attenuated and they disappeared.

We spent, if memory serves, about six months at Bikini. Every so often, we would steam out for a shot. Frequently, we would go out, muster on deck in the pre-dawn, the countdown would proceed, then, "The shot for today has been canceled," and we would steam back to the anchorage to try again the next morning. This might go on for ten days or more before they would finally set it off..

Once, the wind shifted after a shot and we were battened below in the stifling heat while the ship tried to run from under the fallout. Personnel that had to go topside were decontaminated and their clothes were taken for disposal. After a couple of days, we headed for Kwajalein, some four hundred miles away, until it was "safe" to return to the atoll.

Following one, either underwater or surface burst, the cleanup crews told of fish falling out of the coconut palms. The swimming float that had been anchored with huge concrete blocks in the lagoon was found floating at sea. Two of the blocks were found in the middle of the island.

The final shot of the series found us eighteen miles from ground zero. The heat was incredible; though this was a much smaller bomb, possibly a tactical warhead. The shockwave jolted the whole ship backwards several inches. It felt as though my whole body was struck by a sledge hammer. The sound was one sharp crack, as though a rifle or firecracker was fired off next to my ear.

After a few days spent dismantling the establishment on Nan Island, Bikini Atoll, we steamed for home.

In later years, I had nightmares of the bombs going off, where I would be standing, crying, realizing that some SOB had finally pushed the button and it was the end of all things. I would wake up covered with sweat, pulse racing and face wet with tears. Gradually, that dream receded, until I saw the rockets blasting out of their silos in The Day After. I was sitting with my arm around my son's shoulder. Suddenly, I began to shake and my eyes filled with tears. Each time another took off, it got worse. I knew what was going to happen, I had been there!

Since the program, it has been continually on my mind. Watching that reptilian Buckley, "Megadeath" Scowcroft and Kissinger sit there, speaking in Orwellian doublethink, explaining that more is less and death is peacekeeping, made me wonder how long these aging, frustrated cowboys are going to be allowed to determine how much youth and innocence is to die for this "ism" or that one, Weisel, Sagan, even McNamara, made sense. This is one fragile green and blue planet.

Buckley and company brought to mind the lectures we got from some Bircher neighbors, when taking our children trick-or-treating. We shouldn't trick-or-treat for UNICEF because UNICEF gave milk to "commie babies!"

There are no "commie babies" or "free world babies." There are just babies and children and youths and adults, all with their hopes and dreams. The man in the street in Moscow, London, Paris or Athens is no different from the one in New York or in Mill Valley. We are all frightened and we all simply wish to be left in peace. The Russian and the European may want it more, because they have been overrun by war at least twice this century. They know what war on the home front means, something no American has suffered on the mainland since the civil war.

Every man, woman and child on this planet must let his government and political leaders know that nuclear terror must cease. It is no longer a viable option, if it ever was. The odds of a mistake are far too great and there is no way to retrieve the error, once an attack/counter-attack has been launched.

By virtue of our alleged intelligence, we have assumed stewardship of this planet and all of the creatures upon it. We have shown great callousness and ignorance in the exploitation of earth's natural resources, the casual dumping of toxic wastes and the wholesale slaughter of entire species. With wisdom and patience, some of these blunders can be retrieved, but with the development of nuclear technology, we have met our destroyer, one way or the other, if we do not call a halt to it. We cannot dispose of spent fuel and refining waste in a safe manner. The cancer and birth deformation rate has risen enormously since we began using it, there is no defense against nuclear attack or terrorism and there have been few signs of sanity or good judgement among those entrusted to do our thinking for us. Papers discussing an acceptable number of megadeaths in a nuclear exchange are not of strategic value, they are obscene, a visible manifestation of insanity and immorality.

Mankind has always had a tendency for its technology to outstrip its moral growth, It is time we begin to slow down the technical race and begin to think, not of what is expedient, or will show the greatest short-term profit, but what will benefit the planet and ourselves in the long run. What kind of agriculture will leave the land fertile and productive for a thousand years and more? What processes can be used that will leave only biodegradable wastes? Does society's existence depend on an endless flow of gadgets and novelties, designed to fall apart almost immediately? Must everything be designed to wear out in two or three years? Is it possible to recycle our mineral resources rather than continually mining more and allowing worn out products to decay, or simply rust in storage? Can't we produce crops and see that they are distributed, rather than stored to rot? Why don't we make a major effort to harness and use wind and solar energy for power and make a greater effort to reduce energy needs?

Let us pledge to make a start by informing all world leaders that nuclear war is out. The people of this planet will take no more of fear and terror!

Then, with this as a starting point, let us, as stewards of a fragile .planet, begin the process of healing and growing, individually and as a species, to the point where all of this will seem an horrible, impossible nightmare. A lesson to be forever remembered, but never repeated. It is up to us.

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In the article, I made no mention of my bout with radiation poisoning. The fear I felt as my gums bled and my hair came out in clumps every time I combed it. I eventually recovered and, so far, have survived.


4 comments:

  1. Incredible. Moving. Nuclear weapons are truly disgusting. Lets hope they are never used.

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  2. That was beautifully written. Everyone on Earth should read this! Thanks.

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  3. Thank you, Norman. I guess the profits in nukes must be high. No matter how hard we try, they just keep making new ones.

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