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Hydrogen Bomb Days
by James Ward Lee

If Attorney General John Ashcraft reads this, as I am sure he will, I may find myself incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, Texas, keeping company with ex-governor Edwin Edwards of Louisiana. That is, if I am lucky. If I am unlucky, I may serve my time at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Naval Brig. Since the offence I am about to confess took place in the United States Navy, I am not sure whether I will be tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, sometimes called "the Rocks and Shoals," or just in a federal courthouse under the United States Criminal Code. What I am confessing is probably a serious federal crime. I am sure I have betrayed military secrets in talking about "the Hydrogen Bomb." About fifty years ago, I signed a paper saying I would never talk or write or otherwise communicate with anyone about my Atomic Bomb and Hydrogen Bomb experiences. Now I am about to tell all.

Chances are that nobody reading this has ever seen an atomic bomb or hydrogen bomb go off. I have seen lots of them. Well, not exactly lots, but one atomic bomb and seven hydrogen bombs. All this activity was half a century ago on a series of atolls in the far Pacific Ocean. Now it is time to reveal atomic secrets and blow the lid off these nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Actually, I don't really know any more about atomic energy than I do about love. In fact, I know less than anybody who has ever learned how to make a bomb on the Internet. But I was there and saw some stuff, and it is what I saw that is so deeply secret.

In 1951, my destroyer, the USS Radford DDE 446, was assigned to go to the Marshall Islands to participate in the bomb tests. For four months we patrolled around Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls to see that no Russian sloops or Chinese junks or Peruvian frigates crept around these atolls where we were going to fire off some WMDs. We trained hard and listened to many lectures. We learned that it was dangerous to swim in the barracuda-infested waters, that exposure to the South Pacific sun might cause cancer, that tempers can flare in the hotter latitudes. Oh, and there was some slight danger from radiation and fallout dust. Nothing serious, but we were supposed to wash off the ship with salt water from the same seas that had just been nuked. At least we had no dangerous natives. They had all been spirited away. All we had were male soldiers and sailors and airmen and atomic energy workers and probably some Russian spies. The closest woman was six hundred miles away, so we didn't get to see all those venereal disease movies we saw in boot camp.

Some of the troops were dangerous. Once, on shore patrol a thirty-four-year-old signalman named Old Folks Bream and I manned the docks at the end of liberty call on Eniwetok Island. As the drunks stumbled back or were carried by MPs and shore patrolmen, Old Folks and I stacked the drunks like cordwood while we waited for their launches to come and take them back to the ships anchored in the middle of the atoll. Just calm, common, nautical, passed out drunks. As their launches pulled alongside the dock, Old Folks took their feet and I took their arms and we passed them down to the coxswain of the boat. Just normal sailor stuff. An Air Force general saw the piles of drunks Old Folks and I were stacking up on the docks and assumed a disaster. He reported to our captain that a riot had occurred on the docks, but when we were called in to explain, Old Folks said, in his whiskey and Lucky Strikes voice, "Captain, I have seen blood running in the docks in Tsingtao, China. This wasn't nothing." The captain, a serious drunk himself, said, "All right, men, don't let this happen again."

He didn't say what Old Folks and I were not to let happen again, but we didn't--at least until the Air Force general had flown to the safety of Hickam Field in Hawaii and things had become normal again. Everyone else on the island knew how liberty worked in a hot climate. How important cold beer was and the occasional gin and tonic. And how a dozen or so gin and tonics will loosen the inhibitions when it is 100 degrees at eventide.

Really hot climates are not conducive to walking in beauty. One day as I was about to take the watch as petty officer of the deck, I saw some stretcher bearers hauling a bloody sailor down the gangway headed for the island hospital. The victim was a gunner's mate named Acevez, a bad news pachuco from L. A. Acevez was covered with blood, and I stood in wonder as he was put aboard the ship's lifeboat and taken away. The guy I was to relieve on the watch danced from foot to foot as he unstrapped the .45 Colt automatic from his waist and passed it to me. I signed the log and instantly became PO of the watch. Dog Lathrop, the guy I relieved, said, "Acevez slapped old Smith around and Smith put a knife in his back right at the backbone and then just walked around that bad-ass Messican."

Smith was a wormy little ship's serviceman seaman from Harlan County, Kentucky, who worked in the laundry. He weighed about 120 pounds and talked with a backcountry accent. Only us southern boys knew what Harlan County meant. If you showed up in Harlan without a knife, they made you rent one. Harlan County was coal-mining country and Saturday-night killing country. We knew better than to mess with a Kentucky redneck, but Acevez was a tough from L. A. He was so tough his arms hung out from his body when he walked. He had tattoos on his fingers that spelled out something in Spanish that could probably be translated as "shock and awe." Or worse.

I never did find out why Acevez made the mistake of slapping Smith. Before Dog could tell me, the officer of the deck turned to me and said, "Go down to the fantail compartment and arrest Smith."

"Arrest Smith, Sir?"

"Right. He put a knife in Acevez and cut him bad. He may not live."

"Sir, what am I supposed to do when I get Smith?"

"Arrest him and take him to the wardroom to be questioned."

My first thought was to throw myself over the side and swim for it in the barracuda-infested waters. My second thought was to fall to my knees and beg to be relieved as PO of the watch. My third was to throw up and make a dash for sickbay. My fourth thought was a question, what would Randolph Scott do? Randy would have gone after Smith with his right arm crooked above his six-gun. I didn't have a six-gun. I had a 1911 model Colt .45 that I had never loaded or shot. I wasn't even sure how it worked. We had to wear them on watch, but we were not trusted to learn how to work them. If the commies came, we were probably supposed to throw the gun at them and run.

I dragged my slow feet toward the stern of the ship. I was pretty sure Smith would knife me the way he had Acevez, but this was 1952 and I had my duty. As my mother used to say, "I didn't know whether to shit or go blind."

As I got to the hatch leading down into the compartment, I could see that it was dark. Great! I climbed down the ladder, still not knowing what I was going to do. I looked around and saw nobody. That cinched it: Smith was lurking in the darkness with his bloody knife ready to sever my jugular vein (this was before carotid arteries).

I left the gun where it was in the holster.

I said, "Uh, Smith, er, come on." I sounded like Andy Devine, the old high-voiced sidekick from the Saturday westerns.


"Yeah, I'm coming."

I turned and climbed the ladder that led back on deck hoping Smith would not stab me until we got in the open air where I might be able to jump over the side before he cut me too badly.

Nothing happened, so I walked along in front of Smith all the way past the staring sailors, past the quaking officer of the deck, and into the wardroom. Smith and I sat down, not talking at all, waiting for some officer to come and do whatever he was going to do. The officer in question had spent a semester at the unaccredited Cumberland University Law School in Lebanon, Tennessee, and was our ship's legal authority. He had seen a lot of Boston Blackie movies and fell to questioning Smith in third-degree fashion. I sat silent. All Smith ever said was, "That Messican slapped me because his uniform weren't arned to suit him, so what could I do? I cut the sumbitch." The officer asked over and over and Smith said the same thing over and over.

Finally, the officer talked to the captain and it was decided that I was to take Smith back to the sail locker and "brig him up."

Here is the short version. Smith was court martialled, but the case was thrown out. When a real lawyer looked into it, he found that Smith had not been told that he could remain silent. But we knew it was not over. Everybody said that when Acevez recovered from his wounds, he would come back and fix Smith once and for all. A month or so later, Acevez returned and the ship's crew gathered around to ask how we was going to handle Smith. Acevez said, "I have had all of Smith that I want."

So we went back to WMDs. Actually, I never got to see but one hydrogen bomb. Mostly, they locked us up and made us watch on radar if we were near a set. But on the final shot, we all got to go on deck one morning before daylight and sit facing away from Bikini Atoll, a little over a hundred and eighty miles away. We were told to put our eyes in the crook of our elbows and close them tight. They stressed that the blast would blind us if we looked. Then they counted down from ten to zero. When the H-bomb went, I had the impression I could see my bones through my arm and closed eyes, but I know that is not true. I saw light. Serious light. After a few minutes, we heard the noise and felt the blast rock the ship, and we were told we could look. It was daylight. Not real daylight, but H-bomb daylight. It stayed that way until the sun came up minutes and minutes later. As it grew naturally light, the redness of the bomb faded and we watched the mushroom cloud climb for what seemed like all the rest of the morning.

This was on my second trip to the test site. We went first in 1952, and then, when I had transferred to another destroyer, the USS Renshaw (DDE 499), we were sent back for the second round. That was late 1953 into 1954. On the first trip, they fired off an insignificant A-bomb on a little island not twenty miles from where we were, but A-bombs are kid stuff. The H-bomb on that test dug a hole on some island big enough to hold a seventeen-story building. (I read that on the Internet, so I guess other people are breaking the silence.) All the test A-bomb did that time was vaporize the tiny island in Eniwetok Atoll. It had been on our radar, but after the blast, it was no longer there. On the second trip down, the Atomic Energy Commission fired off seven or eight H-bombs if I remember right. The first one got away from them and caused a lot of radiation. My ship had to go evacuate some natives off a little island. It was that bomb that caused the Japanese fishing ship, The Fortunate Dragon, to be radiated so badly that some of the fishermen died.

The other bombs in the second series were big blasts, but the AEC people must have had them under control, for nothing bad ever happened. I don't know how the radiation and fallout dust affected anyone else, but I don't have to sleep with a night-light nowadays.

H-bombs are probably good for you. I am still here fifty years later. I am not the only one, for some group in Oregon is made up of Operation Ivy survivors (Ivy was the official name of the 1952 tests). All this stuff is on the Internet now, but I did sign a paper saying I would keep mum. O.K. This is off my chest. I am ready for La Tuna or the FCI in Fort Worth or whatever that prison is in Big Spring.

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