Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands Preliminary H-bomb Igniter Tests

Eniwetok Atoll is nearly the northern most atoll in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Group lying about 300 miles north of the equator. It is a coral mound 20 miles in diameter with sandspits dividing it into about 28 small islands with the 5000 foot deep Pacific Ocean around it. The center of the atoll is all water with a maximum depth of 150 feet. The ocean tides between the islands feed fresh sea water in an out of the lagoon twice a day. Eniwetok Island is the largest of the sandspits being approximately 600 yards wide and 2 miles long.

Operation Greenhouse to test H-bomb igniters was manned by the US Air Force, Task Force 6, with the Atomic Energry Commission setting up the tests. General Elwood Quesada, famous commander of the 9th Tactical Air Force in Europe during World War II was the Operation Greenhouse 4 star Commanding General. The program began in the spring of 1950 and was completed the next spring of 1951. All in all 11 A-bomb igniters were lit and tested. A-bomb yields varied between 50,000 and 250,000 pounds of equivalent TNT explosive.

I arrived at Eniwetok during June 1950. My triple assignments were:

1. Radiological Officer in-charge of the main instrumented flight test aircraft. I was also copilot of the C-54, (A Douglas DC-4), aircraft with every radiological instrument aboard imaginable plus a half dozen extremely high speed 35 millimeter cameras. Almost all instrumentation and cameras were manned by AEC engineers and technicians.

2. Aide-de-camp to General Quesada when he was at Eniwetok. The General flew into Eniwetok for all the tests and then returned to Washington after each test was completed. The General was a delightful gentleman to work for. We became friends and flew together into and out of the half dozen little landing strips around the atoll quite frequently.

3. Stinson Sentinel L-5 and Convair L-13 aircraft pilot with the Liaison Flight detachment of about 10 pilots who ferried construction crews and AEC personnel around the half dozen little airstrips on different islands on the atoll. The islands with landing strips were: Eniwetok Island 5000 foot runway, Perry Island 800 foot strip, Bijiri Island 400 feet, Runit Island 500 foot strip, Engebi Island 1000 foot strip and Elugelab Island approximately 300 foot strip.

We started out flying old WW II Stinson L-5 two place aircraft, but 3 months later received about a dozen brand new Convair L-13 aircraft. This was the best liaison aircraft ever built. It could almost hover like a helicopter, carry 4 people and still get easily in and out of a 300 foot airstrip.

Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, visited Eniwetok. Our tests were to determine exactly what was the best A-bomb configuration to light an H-bomb. Lighting an H-bomb is not a simple or easy task. Only through multiple tests could the Atomic Energy Commission's H-bomb scientists and engineers determine the best configuration.

So what does one do with his spare time out in the middle of nowhere? I snorkeled and spear fished at the officers' beach club every afternoon from 5:00 to 6:00 pm. We had a different old movie every evening in the outdoor theater. I shot craps at the officers' club evenings till I won $3000. which was enough to buy a new Ford convertible when I got home. After winning the $3000. I quit gambling for life! I practiced learning to play Rimsky Korsakov's Sheheherazde Suite on the piano at the officers' club. After a year's practice I could play it. I took a correspondence school course on "Reinforced Concrete Construction" which was certainly an important subject in the field of Radiological Defense.

The Base Operations Officer was a good friend, an ex-Pan American pilot and was Captain of the DC-4 nuclear instrumented DC-4 that I flew with as copilot and as the Radiological Officer. He checked me out in the local Douglas C-47/DC-3 as Captain. This was a real thrill for a single engine fighter pilot. I used to take the local Liaison pilots up for a ride in the evening around the atoll which we all knew too well. The DC-3 twin engine transport was lots easier to fly than an L-5 liaison aircraft landing on a 300 foot strip like Elugelab Island with a tail wind.

Each nuclear test was scheduled an hour before dawn. This meant getting up at about 2:00 am to preflight our C-54 four engine instrumentation aircraft and equipment. We took off about 4:00 am and set up an orbit 3 to 5 miles away from ground zero depending upon the size of the shot. All A-bombs were on steel towers. Just before bomb ignition we donned VERY dark protective glasses. The following graphic is what a BIG one looks like from 5000 feet altitude. The shock wave moving at the speed sound condenses the air as it approaches. You can see it coming in the photo below. Everything better be bolted down firmly when it arrives.

About a minute after ignition the typical nuclear mushroom cloud starts rising as illustrated in the small graphic above.

As I mentioned, all of our test shots were scheduled an hour before dawn. The graphic below illustrates one of our 250 kiloton tests which put the fear of God into everyone watchiing it.

Did I enjoy myone year stay on Eniwetok? Yes and no. Yes. it is fun to be on the cutting edge of technology. No, leaving a newly married bride at home is no fun at all.

A year later on the Eniwetok Atoll Island of Elugelab, the first true H-bomb was lit. It was named "Ivy Mike." The graphics below illustrates what an approximately 10.4 megaton H-bomb looks like.

The detonation of Ivy Mike completely obliterated Elugelab, leaving an underwater crater a mile wide and 200 ft deep in the atoll where an island had once been. Mike created a fireball 3 miles wide; the "mushroom" cloud rose to 57,000 ft in 90 seconds, and topped out in 5 minutes at 135,000 ft - the top of the stratosphere- with a stem eight miles across. The cloud eventually spread to 1000 miles wide, with a stem 30 miles across. 80 million tons of pulverized coral and soil were lifted into the air by the blast. With the prevailing westerly winds, most all the fallout was well to the east of Eniwetok into the vacant Pacific Ocean.

On returning to the United States in the spring of 1951 I was immediately assigned to the Tactical Air Command Headquarters, Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, "Radiological Defense School" as Supervisor and Instructor and was later promoted to Captain USAF.