Bikini on Baker Day
Posted by Richard Conniff on July 25, 2016
By Richard Conniff
Carl O. Dunbar, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in the 1940s, wasn’t the sort of person you would immediately imagine as an eyewitness to one of the epochal events of the twentieth century. He was a paleontologist, specializing in little known marine invertebrates called fusilines, which vanished from the Earth, along with most other life forms, in the Great Permian Extinction of 252 million years ago.
So I was surprised during the research for my book House of Lost Worlds, about the Peabody’s colorful history, when a researcher at the University of Kansas sent me the painstakingly photographed pages of a journal kept by Dunbar 70 years ago this summer, during his time as part of a scientific delegation invited to witness Operation Crossroads, the first atom bomb tests of the post-World War II era, on Bikini Atoll in the mid-Pacific. (Dunbar, a Kansas native, had left the journal and associated papers to the university archives, where they were largely forgotten.)
The Pacific had figured in my research, up to that point, mainly because one of the Peabody’s founding scientists, James Dwight Dana, had served as naturalist on the 1838-42 U.S. Exploring Expedition around the world. Dana saw the Pacific islands much as they were when they first entered Western lore, as places of incredible beauty and occasional terror, both due in part to the underlying volcanoes. He wrote about climbing the volcanoes, and also about gathering corals by “floating slowly along in a canoe,” studying the reefs through the clear water and pointing out specimens for his hired divers to retrieve. In the “Feejee” Islands, he did his collecting among people he regarded as “a cruel, treacherous race of cannibals.” But they were “kindly disposed towards us,” he wrote, adding, “A white man, they say, tastes bitter.”
This work led Dana to a theory about the origin of Pacific atolls with their peculiar, idyllic lagoons: Coral reefs had built up in a ring around volcanic islands, which later subsided. He was no doubt dismayed on arriving in Australia in November 1839 to find a brief notice that Charles Darwin had just proposed the identical theory. Dana generously remarked that Darwin’s work “threw a flood of light over the subject, and called forth feelings of peculiar satisfaction, and of gratefulness to Mr. Darwin.” The two men later corresponded at length, each playing the part of the gentleman scientist.
Dunbar’s colleagues in the summer of 1946 were also gentlemen scientists, 22 of them altogether, invited not just from the United States, but from Russia, China, and other nations to see for themselves the appalling power unleashed just eleven months earlier on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S.S. Panamint, a Navy amphibious force command ship, carried them from San Francisco, and the atmosphere was remarkably casual, even high-spirited, as the scientific delegation made its way more than 4000 miles across the Pacific. At various stops en route, the military welcomed the group with an open bar and tours of recent battle sites. (Only the summer before, Panamint itself had faced repeated torpedo and Kamikaze attacks as flagship for the invasion of Okinawa.) The scientific delegation would not be performing any studies; they were there only “for the witnessing of this impressive experiment,” as Vice Admiral William H. P. “Spike” Blandy, commanding officer of the task force, advised them. The actual science was being undertaken by the military.
Dunbar’s journal thus reads like a prolonged Pacific vacation–up to day of the atom bomb blast itself. “The sky is largely overcast today and there is only a light breeze,” he wrote, early in the voyage. “It is warm enough to be comfortable on deck in shorts.” To pass the time, the scientists gave lectures each afternoon: “Today Dr. Galstoff spoke on the biochemistry of the sea, and Trask spoke on the article that claimed we were in imminent danger of destruction by the atomic bomb. He did a good of debunking it. Movies are shown on the after deck each night at 20:00.”
Bikini, roughly midway between Hawaii and the Philippines, was just the sort of Pacific atoll Dana had theorized about, a ring of coral limestone and sand islands, encircling a 229.4-square mile lagoon—roughly the size of municipal Chicago. Bikini’s 167 residents had agreed to relocate elsewhere in the Marshall Islands, under the false impression that this was to be a temporary arrangement. (The American public was apparently also deceived. The New York Times headlined its story “The Strange People from Bikini,” with a subhead noting that “they love one another and the Americans who took their home.”)
With the islanders gone, the Navy anchored a fleet of captured and war surplus vessels in the lagoon. The ambition, as an aid to the Secretary of the Navy said at the time, was to “test the ability of ships to withstand the forces generated by the atomic bomb,” and also counter “loose talk to the effect that the fleet is obsolete in the face of this new weapon.” At the
center was the battleship U.S.S. Nevada, painted red, except for the forward gun turret, which was white, indicating the bull’s-eye. Other target ships radiated out from there like spokes, to a distance of two miles. Roughly 10,000 measuring devices and cameras
positioned in and around the fleet would assess the ability of the ships and other military equipment–the Army trucks, tanks, ammunition, gun mounts, and radar gear arrayed on the decks–to withstand nuclear attack. Rats, mice, guinea pigs, goats, and pigs were on board to test the effects of radiation.
The first bomb was dropped from a B-29 on July 1, dubbed Able Day, before the scientific delegation arrived. It was underwhelming, with the bomb falling short of its targets and sinking only five ships. The radiation quickly dispersed into the stratosphere. The second bomb was to be exploded underwater in the middle of the fleet on July 25, dubbed Baker Day, or “Boom Day,” in some of the documents provided to the scientific delegation. The military’s radiation safety unit had warned that Baker was liable to contaminate the lagoon and send a radioactive rainstorm down on any target ships that survived the blast, rendering them “dangerous for an indeterminable time afterward.” But officers generally ignored these warnings.
On Baker Day, Dunbar took up a position on the fire control deck of the Panamint, 80 feet above sea level, and 10 or 12 miles upwind from the target area. He braced his elbows on the rail and held his binoculars to his eyes as the loudspeaker called out warnings at 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute. “My field of vision covered the center of the target area including the [aircraft carrier] Saratoga at the left, and the Nevada at the right,” he wrote. The explosion came at 8:35 a.m., on schedule. The flash and fireball reported on previous blasts happened underwater, out of sight.
“At the instant of explosion I was looking through the binoculars with my focus exactly on the spot where the burst occurred,” Dunbar wrote. “The first sign of disturbance was a white dome-like bulge from which immediately burst a geyser-like jet about half a mile in diameter that shot upward to a height of a mile or a mile and a half expanding slightly into a cauliflower at the top.” It looked, another observer remarked, as if “the world was standing on end, with the sea pouring down through a hole in the sky to the universe beyond.”
After 10 seconds, tons of water, sand, and matériel flung up into the sky “collapsed back into the lagoon,” Jonathan M. Weisgall, an attorney for the Bikini Islanders, wrote in his 1994 book Operation Crossroads, “creating a gigantic curtain of mist and spray that moved outward at more than 60 miles an hour and soon engulfed almost all of the target ships.”
To Dunbar, it looked like a “ring of cloud rolling out and upward, like a smoke ring, and expanding rapidly, with a very violent, turbulent, rotary motion. It spread until, for a fleeting moment, I was ready to duck, fearing that it might roll clear out and envelop us.” Vibrations from the blast temporarily disabled the engines of Panamint. When the target area cleared, nine ships, including the 29,000-ton battleship U.S.S. Alabama, had disappeared. “The speed with which the whole thing took place leaves you gasping,” Dunbar wrote. “The violence of the forces is simply beyond human conception.”
The invisible threat of radioactive contamination was also seemingly beyond conception for the U.S. Navy. Officers took what one member of the radiation safety unit later characterized as “a ‘hairy-chested’ approach to the matter with a disdain for the unseen hazard.” Just 90 minutes after the blast, Dunbar wrote, “we began steaming in toward the target area, coming up to within about 1 mile of the reef and 4 or 5 miles of the center of the target area.” Navy crews began working around the target vessels at noon. At 5 p.m. Panamint anchored in the lagoon, though the center of the area was “still ‘hot’ with radioactivity,” Dunbar noted, adding, “Rumor went around that the area of radioactivity was spreading and that we might have to move out of the lagoon before morning.” An observer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was happy to advise his fellow scientists that there were no dead fish floating and that, “a few minutes after the explosion terns were flying over the island apparently unconcerned with what happened in the lagoon.”
The deadly consequences of the blast became evident only after most of the observers had headed home, when Navy seamen without protective gear began trying to decontaminate the surviving ships with anything they could lay their hands on–saltwater, soap, coconut shells, sand, ground coffee, air compressors, and old-fashioned scrubbing. A pile of sand on one such ship, “gave off a reading of 200 roentgens per day” twenty days after the blast, Weisgall wrote, “meaning that a person lingering over a ‘hot spot’ like this would reach his daily tolerance limit in just 45 seconds.” A Joint Chiefs of Staff evaluation later characterized the contaminated target ships as “radioactive stoves,” capable of burning “all living things aboard them with invisible and painless but deadly radiation.”
Working ships also became contaminated when they began taking in seawater from the lagoon for their evaporators, condensers, and other systems, including the drinking water supply. An observer on one ship saw sailors using radioactive saltwater to rinse off meat racks. “The primary concern” of Operation Crossroads, Admiral Blandy had declared during planning “is to protect the lives of Americans in this and future generations.” Instead, Weisgall wrote, “the U.S. Navy managed to expose tens of thousands of men and more than 200 ships to radioactive contamination more than 2000 miles from decent port facilities without ever having attempted … to determine how—or whether—a ship could be decontaminated.” Glenn T. Seaborg, head of the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s, called it “the world’s first nuclear disaster.”
The “Baker Day” test was also a disaster in international politics. Under the United Nations “Baruch Plan,” proposed just a month earlier, the United States was offering to turn its atomic weapons over to an International Atomic Development Authority, provided other nations pledged not to develop such weapons and agreed to a system of inspections. The idea of staging the tests just at the moment “when our plans for effectively eliminating them from national armaments are in their earliest beginnings” seemed inappropriate to J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, which designed the bombs. The “only important impression these tests are going to give the world,” warned Sen. James Huffman of Ohio, “is that the United States is not done with war.” In fact, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had already developed “Pincher,” a top-secret plan to bomb 30 Soviet cities as a preventive measure. The “Baker Day” headline in the New York Times declared, “Atomic Bomb Sinks Battleships and Carrier; Four Submarines are Lost in Mounting Toll; Soviet Flatly Rejects Baruch Control Plan.” The Soviet Union staged the first atomic bomb test of its own just three years later, in 1949.
For Dunbar, the experience of witnessing the blast was overwhelming. His field notes are full of drawings of the cauliflower/mushroom cloud, as if in an attempt to comprehend what he had seen. His work with fusulines and the Great Permian Extinction had in some sense prepared him to think about the annihilation of life on Earth. Back home, he spoke about “a new order of horror and destructiveness” in the world. But horror has its own half-life. The testing program was already entering global culture in ways that trivialized it. A fashion designer in Paris registered the name “bikini” for a bathing suit because, “like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating.” For fashion writer Diana Vreeland the bikini was the “atom bomb of fashion.”
As the Cold War began, the military also minimized the catastrophic nature of the atomic bomb. “When not close enough to be killed,” a U.S. Army informational film advised in the 1950s, “the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.” Dunbar soon became an advocate for fallout shelters and other Civil Defense measures and lent his eyewitness authority to the “duck and cover” mythology that nuclear attack would be survivable. In a 1951 interview for a Connecticut radio show called “Yale Interprets the News,” he described going “aboard the worst damaged target vessels” and “swimming the beach within 3 miles of the point where the bomb had burst,” just two days after Baker Day.
“If an atom bomb burst over New Haven,” he continued, “3 or 4 square miles of the business district would likely be destroyed by the blast and ensuing fire. But our suburban homes in Westville, Woodbridge, Hamden, and North Haven would suffer no more than broken windows. Our families would be safe there and we could all stand by to help fight fires, rescue the wounded, and perform the thousand services that need to be done at once to save a stricken city. Each of us will have a task to do, and our common welfare will be jeopardized by everyone who yields to panic and tries to flee.” This was a brave London-in-the-Battle-of-Britain scenario. It was of course also hopelessly optimistic.
The testing program continued. Bikini Atoll was the site of more than 20 nuclear detonations over the next dozen years. A few Bikini islanders attempted to return home in the 1970s, only to be evacuated again on account of sharply elevated levels of radioactive materials in their bodies. The atoll is today inhabited only by a few caretakers and occasional visiting scientists.
It was no more than a small scientific footnote to the chaos of Baker Day. But in the aftermath, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher named Harry S. Ladd was curious to know if Pacific atolls had risen up and gotten their circular shape, as Darwin and Dana had theorized, on the periphery of old volcanoes. Deep drilling on Bikini and nearby Eniwetok Atoll from 1947 to 1952 eventually passed through 1200 meters and roughly 50 million years of limestone cap formed from shallow-water coral reef. Finally the drill bit broke through into basalt, the unmistakable remains of a volcano.
Ladd posted a sign next to the borehole bearing the only positive result of the entire episode: “Darwin was right!”
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth (Yale, 2016)