ave you ever wondered why the military gives harmless sounding nicknames to it operations? I've always suspected it's for two reasons: to lull the participants into a false sense of security ("Hey, guys, we get to go on Operation Benign Puppy!"); and to help the bean counters sort out the post-action statistics and costs ("Yes, Senator, we had 95% casualties on Operation Benign Puppy and the cost ran us 1.375 billion dollars)."
In the summer of 1962, we were ordered to participate in Operation Dominic (Hey, guys, we get to participate in Operation Dominic)! Dominic, a Pacific Ocean operation, involved nuclear weapons testing in the vicinity of British owned Christmas Island, for air dropped weapons, and U.S. owned Johnston Atoll for the ambitious, first-time-ever nuclear blast in the earth's outer atmosphere.
My ship was one of several assigned to the scientific element of the operation, which meant we were loaded with instrumented vans, arrayed with a variety of antennas, and directed to steam around beneath the nuclear burst. The nuclear weapon was to be carried aloft on a rocket launched from Johnston Atoll. As D-day and H-hour approached, the anxiety level aboard ship increased noticeably . The major danger, we were told, would not be from the nuclear explosion, but from the barrage of instrumented Nike missiles which would be launched to take readings on the detonation. The impact points for these missiles were unpredictable. (I shot a Nike in the air, and where it fell ) Heavy steel I-beams were stacked on top of the instrumented vans to minimize damage should one or more of these unguided missiles land on us. We un-instrumented people were on our own.
As launch time approached, the ship went to General Quarters (battle stations), which put me in the unprotected after gun tub. The uniform for guys about to witness e=mc squared up close and personal was: long sleeve khaki shirt, buttoned at the neck and wrists; steel helmet (not as reassuring as an I-beam, but what the heck); and 3.5 density goggles, which, during hours of darkness, rendered you completely sightless. The countdown for missile launch proceeded without a hitch and we watched the rocket with its lethal load (the physics package, as the euphemists have now dubbed it) ride its flame towards a destination above Johnston.
As the countdown for the burst was broadcast over the ship's speaker system, we were directed to don the goggles, close our eyes and direct our faces down and away from the impending burst. In spite of these measures, the light at detonation was as intense as a strobe and was seen 2500 miles away in Hawaii. Immediately after the detonation, with goggles removed, I saw a blood-red sky from horizon to horizon, with multiple yellow striations crisscrossing the night sky as small iron rods, which were released by the burst, aligned themselves with the magnetic lines of force around the earth. What an awesome physics lesson!
To my knowledge, Dominic had no casualties for the bean counters to summarize; the dollar costs, of course, were enormous. We "survivors" of the first and hopefully last outer atmosphere nuclear weapons test went on about our military business with no ill effects. Our medical records were flagged and for several years results of my annual physical received special scrutiny. The visual effects of that event are firmly imprinted on my mind even today, but when I try to recapture my thoughts as I gazed up into that blood red sky , the only thing I recall thinking was I wonder where those Nike missiles are...
Jean d'Isle is a retired naval officer living in Hawaii. During his military career he served in a number of overseas assignments, including Germany, England, Spain, Viet Nam and Puerto Rico. Following his retirement, he was an adjunct faculty member of Hawaii Pacific University and is currently under contract with the U.S. Navy at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor.
Jean's column, View From d'Isle, is a regular feature of VegSource On-Line Magazine.