A Small Brass Box
"We have Little Boy and Big Boy here," a Los Alamos museum greeter explained this last June. "You can touch them and tap them. One has all its operative systems still in it except for the fissionable material." Her small smile followed.
I felt a chill but proceeded to the first exhibit. The pictures in this exhibit bore the faces of key people who had been engaged in the terrible race between the United States and Germany to develop an atomic bomb. Ironically, most of the scientists photographed in the display had come from Germany. Two life-size statues of these leaders were stationed at the end of the display. My chill persisted.
In the case of the next exhibit lay a small brass box, smaller than a cigarette box imprinted with numbers. "All the scientists and workmen here at Los Alamos and at all nine universities involved wore these radiation monitors," a small descriptive panel explained. "Their level of exposure to radiation needed to be tracked."
My chill reminded me that I had worn one of these monitors at Bikini.
The United States succeeded in winning the race for the atomic bomb, and by 1946 had built five bombs. Bomb #1 had been successfully exploded at Alamagordo at Trinity Site in New Mexico. Bomb #2 had leveled Hiroshima. Bomb #3 had demolished Nagasaki. One hundred forty thousand dead in each of those Japanese cities.
Both the European and the Pacific wars were over as I was finishing my year in Navy Electronic Schools in April, 1946; by this time I had been promoted to Second Class Petty Officer and was looking forward to returning home. The commanding officer of the Naval Pier base in Chicago called me into his office and explained the system of discharging sixteen and a half million men and women in the Armed Forces.
"Discharging involves a point system: the longer you have been in the service, the more dangerous your assignments were— these considerations all produce 'points.' The higher your point totals, the sooner you are discharged.
"You have no points," he said to me. "In fact, you have minus points since we have sent you to school for a year." At this point he smiled and said, "I have an offer for you. If you will volunteer for this program, you will be guaranteed your discharge in time to go to college in October." He did not explain the program.
Soon thereafter. Bikini Atoll sparkled around me: the intense sun, the sea, the palm trees, and its pristine white sand beaches—a jarring contrast to the ominous and surreal long rows of black battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines—empty, anchored, swaying, ugly warships from many of the warring navies—American, British, French, Japanese, and German—staring at that lovely palm-lined bay. Here, in paradise, the apparition of these monsters held in line and waiting, chilled me.
The officer of the day interrupted my observations and my chills. "Who can type?" None of us answered, each musing on what volunteering had already accomplished for us. "Who can type?" the officer asked again. Still no one answered.
"I will pull your service records," he explained, "and if I find you can type, you will be busted one rank and sent back to the United States on the slowest tug pulling the biggest battleship."
I was assigned to be the typist and aide to a civilian electrical engineer who happened to be from Seattle. He had been given the functional rank of Commodore, just below Admiral, with his own officer's gig—naval language for a fancy officer's yacht.
The crew on this yacht transported this lowly petty officer to every United States' ship of the line where my role was to assess the damage after each upcoming atomic bomb blast of Bombs #4 and #5, conveniently left over from the war.
The plan was to drop Bomb #4 on the center of the array of warships, the battleship Nevada. Bomb #5 was to be anchored under the battleship Arkansas, detonated under water.
None of the warships had power. They had all been towed to Bikini as relics on their last mission, some captured from our enemies. The exploration of the ships led me deep inside, with just my flashlight for company, testing their fire-control systems. I also had to climb their masts to the power units at the top.
Enjoying the view from the top of the mast of the heavy cruiser Pensacola, I realized I was a hundred feet from the water and that the huge ship was rolling from side to side in a forty degree arc. Akin to riding on a ferris wheel at the top of the arc, I had a stunning view of the entire armada, at the center of which lay the battleship Nevada, recently painted a bright orange, a color chosen, I was told, to assist the Air Force bombing crew in finding this immense ship.
The day of the air drop, our ship was anchored twelve miles away. I had been given a small brass box, a monitor that I was to wear every day until the Bikini test had been completed. I had also been issued a pair of dark goggles to watch the atomic explosion. These goggles enabled me to look directly at the sun and toward the presumed direction of the blast.
The countdown began. Suddenly, the light flew up at us, followed by immense pressure and heat waves. Then the unearthly and terrible sound, more ominous than thunder, a growling crescendo of the earth's pain itself—a heat that chilled me with its cold terror.
Fresh naval ships arrived to reanchor the remaining, free-floating damaged ships, cleaning them for many days with sandblasting before we could reboard them to assess their damage.
I was taken by "my" gig to revisit and assess the damage of all the United States' ships still anchored there, exiting and reentering the gig by way of a special hatch. Each time I returned, I was greeted by geiger counters, and my monitor was taken for examination—all of this to measure my exposure to radiation.
The underwater blast using Big Boy under the Arkansas, now awaited. Our ship again left for our mile-twelve position and Bomb #5 was detonated. Again the cycle of reanchoring and cleaning the ships and reassessing the damage.
After this last bombing, I boarded the Pensacola, descending between decks crushed by the blast, with only two or three feet of crawl space. I could not reach the equipment so returned on deck where, after great difficulty, I opened a hatch only to be showered with rusty water. I knew I had to leave immediately.
I returned to my ship and the special hatch where the geiger counters again monitored my clothes and my body. I was hot, very hot, even without my clothes; the counters pointing at my naked body were off the pin. I showered and showered and scrubbed and scrubbed. Ninety minutes later, the geiger counter could now measure the radiation. "You have had enough exposure to radiation and you are not to go out again," the officer in charge commanded.
In a few weeks the Bikini tests were over. I did not come home in a slow tug. I was flown out and enrolled at the University of Washington that fall only two days late. The Navy had kept their promise.
That June day in Los Alamos as I pondered that little brass box, the fifty-five years since I had left Bikini and my own brass box behind had vanished, and I was once again on that officer's gig as his aide.
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Richard Layton has attended NSCC for six years, taking humanities, writing, and social science courses as a senior Access student. A 77-year-old retired Professor Emeritus in the Family Medicine Department at the University of Washington Medical School, his entire career in medicine involved taking care of disadvantaged people, first in rural Grandview, Washington, and later in the inner city of Seattle, teaching medical students and family practice residents.