NEWSWEEK: JULY 1, 1946
Breath-Holding Before a Blast-Could It Split the Earth?
July 1, 1946 - ONE MAN FEARED GRAVITY would be destroyed and everything would fall up. Another prophesied that when the atomic bomb went off at Bikini, all the water in all the oceans would be turned to gas, automatically dropping ships to the bottom. Another thought the Operation Crossroads bomb would blow a hole in the bottom of the Bikini lagoon and let all the water in the sea run out.
Earthquakes and tidal waves were commonly expected, and in Portland, Ore., a taxi driver was stoically awaiting a painful fate from huge radioactive waves which would "peel his skin like a banana." People went to fortune tellers to ask: "Where can I be safe?" A Man from Penns Creek, Pa., wrote President Truman: "Supposing everyone and everything were destroyed excepting, say, yourself. After all, no one really knows. What a responsibility. P.S. suppose even you went along."
July 1 was the date set, and it was growing closer.
All the apprehensions were not barroom bombast. The religious dug up scriptural quotations:
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea, and the third part of the sea became blood. And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed. Revelations 8:8, 9.
ONE WORLD, BROKEN?
Those latter-day prophets, the scientists, had Cassandras among them. H.S. Uhler, professor emeritus of physics at Yale University, feared that the underwater bomb would blast a crack in the ocean floor. Water rushing into the crevasse might come in contact with molten rock, he wrote, setting off explosions that would create waves a mile or more high moving at high speeds. Uhler further warned that the explosions might upset the gyroscopic balance of the world, setting off earthquakes and catastrophic shudderings of this "sorely stricken human carousel."
In San Francisco newspapers nearly panicked the crews of three Bikini-bound press and observer ships. They headlined a warning from Anatol J. Schneiderov, "seismologist" at Johns Hopkins University, that the explosion would swamp every ship and leave no survivors. Hopkins authorities promptly announced that Schneiderov was only a student and "of Soviet origin," and that his views were not those of the university.
Despite the outcries, the Navy and Army plowed ahead with their $100,000,000 experiment, batting down the fears as fast as they arose. But what Vice Admiral W.H.P. (Spike) Blandy had to promise was dire enough-winds of 1,000 miles an hour (though of short range), temperatures of 100,000,000 Fahrenheit which might fuse or vaporize the target ships' steel plate, and radioactivity making masses of air and water lethal and rendering the vessels uninhabitable for two or three days.
In the Bikini lagoon last week, the 77 target ships swung at anchor in tight circular formation. At the center was the "Scarlet Fever"-the orange-painted battleship Nevada which will be the aiming point for the B-29 dropping the Nagasaki-type bomb.
On the atoll, officers' and enlisted men's clubs had arisen among the twelve 75-foot steel towers bearing cameras and recording instruments. In the lagoon floated two hospital ships whose personnel were trained to handle radiation casualties. Some 550 scientists and technicians rechecked their instruments. Photographers prepared specialized equipment which will take 1,000,000 pictures in the first 30 seconds of the explosion.
At Kwajalein B-29 crews dropped practice concrete "pumpkins" to sharpen their eyes for Queen Day (this Monday's rehearsal with a dummy bomb) and Able Day (the actual drop). More conscious of the tropical heat than the history they were making, the 42,000 GI's and sailors sweated, worked, and griped about going home and the lack of women.
JUST IN CASE
In Congress the resolution authorizing use of 33 combatant ships for the test was finally approved. But actually the legislation was needed for only six ships-the carrier Independence and five submarines-since the other combatant target ships have been "decommissioned," permitting the Navy to dispose of them as it likes.
Congressional interest has waned. Though the Navy provided billets for 60 legislators, only twelve congressmen in addition to the four members of the President's evaluation commission-Sens. Carl Hatch and Leverett Saltonstall, and Reps. Chet Holifield and Walter G. Andrews-are actually going.
But whether the congressmen stayed behind to work on the legislative logjam or to mend their political fences, they shared the vague uneasiness and apprehension felt by their constituents. All the worriers were not crackpots or alarmists.
Many could feel a secret tug of sympathy for the uneasy inhabitants of the low flat plain fronting the Pacific at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas. Los Angeles knew that most scientists had ridiculed the possibility of a tidal wave. Nevertheless thousands of Angelenos had already made their plans. On Sunday, June 30, when a small mass of plutonium is scheduled to explode 4,000 miles away across the international date line, they will be picnicking up in the mountains- just in case.
Significance: The Good That May Come From the Tests at Bikini
Last week found two members of Newsweek's Washington bureau-Ernest K. Lindley, chief and Samuel Shaffer-en route to Bikini to cover the atom-bomb test for which the world has been waiting since the project was announced last January. To assure its readers another vantage point besides the press ship from which Shaffer and most correspondents will observe, NEWSWEEK arranged for Lindley to board one of the carriers that will launch the radio-controlled "drone" planes over the target. The following column supplants the regular "Washington Tides" and details the strategy behind the test.
by Ernest K. Lindley
Kwajalein-In evaluating what you read and hear about the atom-bomb test, these are some of the points to keep in mind:
The test scheduled for about 6:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, June 30-if weather conditions are suitable-is the first of a series of three. It is to be an explosion in the air over a group of naval vessels and smaller craft. The second test, perhaps three weeks later, is to be an explosion a few feet below the surface in shallow water, the target being the same group of vessels, after replacements have been made. The third, tentatively planned for next year, is to be an explosion in deep open sea, perhaps 2,000 feet below the surface.
None of these tests is planned as a spectacle; none is intended to show the world what a powerful weapon the atom bomb is. None is intended for diplomatic or political effect. Compared with the ruins of Hiroshima or Nagasaki or of any other built-up area on which a bomb might be dropped, the visible destruction inflicted on a group of naval vessels, with a great deal of water between them, is not likely to be very spectacular.
None of these tests is designed primarily to yield what might be called strictly scientific data. Nevertheless, all of them will be of great interest to atomic scientists. Of the three previous atomic explosions, only one-the first test in New Mexico-could be carefully measured. The instrumentation for the Bikini tests is most elaborate. Some of the scientists insist, however, that the first two tests will, in most respects, only confirm what they can calculate from the data they already have. However, there is enough difference of opinion among them to suggest that the exact measurements obtained will be of inestimable value.
The primary purposes of the Bikini explosions are quite practical. The idea of holding them originated with the Navy last October. Three days later General Arnold, then commanding general of the Army Air Forces, made a similar proposal. Admiral King, then Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, immediately concurred. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a directive in January.
Admiral Blandy, former Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance [sic], had indirectly inspired the experiment by urging that the Navy set aside obsolete and captured ships for the testing of new weapons. He was given the command of Joint Task Force One. The choice was excellent. He has imagination as well as energy and organizing and administrative ability. Contrary to the insinuations of some of the scientists and a few zealots in the Army Air Forces, Blandy's objective is not to "save" the Navy, but to find all that can be learned about the effect of atom bombs on sips. Of this. I believe, everyone who has watched him organize the bomb tests is now convinced.
The primary practical purposes of the tests are to show:
1-How ships should be designed if they are to become targets for atom bombs or mines.
2-How they should be spaced, at sea and in port. The ships anchored in the lagoon at Bikini will be closer together than task forces usually move at sea.
3-How many operating bases and repair yards will be needed, and whether they should be dispersed and made smaller.
Here it should be emphasized that no one doubts that an atomic explosion directly over one or more ships would incapacitate if not completely destroy them. The question is at what distance the bomb will have effects of different kinds and degrees. If ships can be properly spaced at sea and in ports, they may become unprofitable targets for atom bombs.
The atom bomb, it should be remembered, destroys in several ways. The first is by air blast. The second is by intense heat, which might set fire to a ship's ammunition and fuel, in addition to affecting its crew and structure. The third is by radioactivity, which might disable men at a safe distance from blast and heat. The other possible causes of damages to ships are high waves and underwater shock and pressure.
The Bikini tests are set up to measure the effects of atomic explosions, not only on ships but on a wide variety of equipment and military ground weapons and on life itself. The tests on animals, at varying distance from the explosion, should be especially valuable, through their contribution to medical knowledge.
No one can say what will be in the long run the most important consequences of the Bikini tests. But it is well to remember they were ordered for very practical and rather limited purposes.
© Newsweek 1946
Story and photos copyright © Jack Niedenthal unless otherwise indicated.
Newsweek interview with Jack Niedenthal.
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