July 22, 2016

1946. The Bomb Detonates Over Bikini Atoll

"The Greatest Explosive Charge Ever Contrived by Man"
"A mushroom cloud forms after the first nuclear test off Bikini Atoll in July 1946" (source)
From The Kansas City Times, July 1, 1946, by Frank Bartholomew:
Observers are Relieved When B-29 Carrying Bomb Is Air-Borne
Black Glasses Keep Reporters From Seeing Flash of Explosion
Eyewitness Describes Upward Course of Cloud—Target Fleet is Obscured
(Representing Combined U.S. Press)
Aboard B-29 Observation Plane Over Bikini, July 1 (Monday) (AP)—I saw an airplane with a deadly cargo waiting poised on a ramp paralleling the airstrip at Kwajalein at dawn today.

In front of it, a rubber-tired tractor waited, motor running, to ease the bomb carrier and its sensitive cargo down the incline and into position for the takeoff.

Our press radio observation plane, twin of the bomb carrier, taxied to the head of the runway at 5:15 a.m.

Riflemen Guard Plane

Maj. Woodrow P. Swancutt's bomber, 100 feet to our right, was guarded by four riflemen. At the side of the ramp, toward our plane, stood a fire engine with emergency equipment.

Original plans, calling for us to take off seven minutes after the bomb carrier, and to follow it to the target, were changed at the last minute. Our plane was ordered off first, so the method would be provided to report to the world any misadventure to the atomic bomb, the bomb carrier, and to Kwajalein if "Dave's Dream" crashed in taking off.

Back of the bomb carrier, as we sped past on our own take-off, was a fenced rectangle behind which the atom bomb had reposed until yesterday noon, when it was transferred to the bombing plane.

It appeared to be a wooden fence about ten feet high covered with tar paper and topped with strands of barbed wire.

At each corner were two electric lights, with lights on top of the fence, and red warning lights on post extensions above. The lights were dimming in the brilliant yellow tropical sunrise as we thundered past in our take-off.

Fire Engines Line Runway

Lining each side of the runway was vehicular fire equipment of every sort. Fire, we had been told in repeated briefings, was the primary hazard to the bomb which would not explode from the crash alone.

From the expressions on the faces of the fire fighters observed as we eased up in the taxi strip, they took their assignments seriously.

We took off directly into the spectacular sunrise. The sun itself was coming up behind a thunderhead from which long yellow streamers of light radiated across the horizon. A rainbow arched over Kwajalein behind us.

We had an anxious minute or two on the intercom until word came from our radio man that the plane carrying the bomb was safely in the air, eighteen minutes behind us.

Now we are heading for Bikini.

Fifty feet ahead of me, toward the nose of the plane, the head and shoulders of William Downs, radio broadcaster, extend into the astral dome of the aircraft. He has an unobstructed view in all directions, superior to the view from the nose of the plane, which offers visibility in three directions only.

I am high in a revolving seat in the central fire control dome where, in combat operations, sits the spotter for all other gun positions in the aircraft. My seat swings in a full circle. My head and shoulders are eighteen inches above the top of the aircraft, protected by the plastic dome. I have a telephone headset connected with all other positions in the plane.

Dispatch Out by Teletype

At my feet and to the left I face astern is a radio teletype, from which this dispatch is sent through automatic relays aboard the U.S.S. Appalachian and on Guam to San Francisco.

At my feet on the opposite side of the plane sits John Carlisle, elected by all the special correspondents to write the featured story of the bomb drop for pooled distribution. He has access to the left and right gun blisters. His typewriter is mounted on a wooden box.

We all wear parachutes over Mae West life preservers, a bulky combination to handle in connection with portable typewriters, earphones, and the midnight-black goggles which have been issued as a protection against both radiation and glare at the moment of detonation. So dense are these glasses that the sun is barely discernible through them.

It is 6:50 a.m. and we are over our orbit point at Bikini. The sky seems entirely clear over the atoll, with cloud banks obligingly rolled back on all sides.

At 7:10 we swing over the doomed fleet, seventy-three vessels quietly awaiting fury from the sky. The sturdy old Nevada stands out clearly in the bullseye. There is no movement of ships or small boats—no sign of life in the lagoon. Apparently evacuation has been completed and the ships await their fate alone.

We will continue to circle the target until the bomber is ready for its practice run some time after 8 o'clock.

I asked Bill Downs on the intercom system how the panorama below looks from his position.

Fleet Like Sitting Ducks

"Looks like a good morning for shooting ducks—that's what they look like down there," he replies.

I tap Carlisle on the top of his Detroit baseball cap with my right foot and ask him the same question. He writes it out and passes this note up:

"The Bikini target ships, especially those proud old warriors the Nevada, Pennsylvania, Independence, and Arkansas, looked ominously lonely from 7,000 feet. At eight miles away, they seemed like a small boy's toy fleet. As they awaited the atomic bomb over the Bikini, you had a momentary feeling of pity for them. There was such an ominous peacefulness and quietness in Bikini before the atomic storm."

At 8 o'clock we are steadily circling the target array in 16-mile-long swings.

When we cross Bikini island or the reef of the lagoon we pass over a broken overcast of white fluffy clouds. While we are over the lagoon itself and the target vessels it is usually wholly clear and sunny.

Of the seventy-two other aircraft which will be traversing various other orbits in the area we have so far seen only one—a navy torpedo bomber which passed us like an arrow.

At our elevation of 7,000 feet, we are seldom in any cloud formation.

We have moved eastward over the open ocean now and are flying above the ships of Joint Task Force One, including the command ship Appalachian which is receiving our radio broadcasts and press transmission. Feathery trails in the water astern indicate these vessels are all under way.

Watch a Practice Run

At 8:12 a.m. the intercom tells us the bombing plane now is over the target for the first practice run. We strain our eyes and catch a fleeting glimpse of flashing reflected light high in the sky. We are staying clear of the lagoon now.

The executioners are sighting their guns on the historic old Nevada, which has seventeen minutes to live—or is she stronger than the scientists have calculated?

On the intercom we hear a voice from far off: "Hello Broadway One, the target area is clear. The target area is clear."

We are flying in tight circles over the Task Force now.

The air is full of communications from the control ship to the bombing plane.

At 8:25 these communications terminate and the bombing tone is tested. It sounds like a shrill version of a busy signal on an automatic telephone. When started on the bombing run it will continue until the contact is broken by the dropping bomb itself unless the bombardier changes his mind at the last moment.

The scene below is a quiet pastel of blues and white. Deep blue sea, milder bluer sky, soft white clouds. An oddly peaceful backdrop for the greatest explosive charge ever contrived by man.

At 8:30 we hear "Broadway One" tell "Abraham" that he hopes to drop the atomic bomb in twenty minutes.

Then we hear:

"This is Broadway One announcing the actual bombing run."

Maj. Russel Ireland, in charge of our B-29, makes each of the seventeen men aboard inspect and tighten his parachute.

Puts on Black Glasses

A bell rings and we put on the black glasses. They are so black that we could see nothing at all through them. The flash of the atomic bomb exploding does not penetrate the glasses. Another bell rings in the plane and we take off the glasses.

A small, coffee-colored column is shooting up into the sky to the west.

We wait for the sound of the explosion. It does not come.

The roar of our four great engines drown it out. There is no shock wave, either; our plane has been maneuvered skillfully.

We grin at one another. Seventeen men in one airplane above the blast are still alive and kicking; we hope silently that those aboard the 70-odd aircraft in the area share our good luck.

Reassurance comes over the interphone:

"No casualties reported thus far."

The cloud now is spun out in eleven zigzag angles from the water up to an elevation of perhaps 40,000 feet.

We are crossing over the Bikini reef at 9:04 a.m. The base of the atomic cloud seems to cover all ships in the target array. We cannot tell yet what has happened to the vessels themselves.

At 9:06 the cloud is separating into two mushrooms superimposed on each other. The topmost is assuming a creamy yellow color. The bottom one is pure white.

We wheel in close again and I can see a score of the target array still afloat. None seems to be afire.

I cannot see the Nevada.

The great cloud, base and all, is moving westward across the lagoon.

At 9:13 a second cloud is seen forming perhaps a mile away from the base of the first. Whether it is from an exploding ship or an offshoot of the atomic blast we cannot yet tell.

The atomic cloud is thinning out, losing definite outline. It is now 9:16 a.m.—a quarter of an hour since the detonation.

The base of the cloud is being blown westward across the entrance of Bikini lagoon. The top of the cloud, however, seems to hover stationary either directly over the target fleet or perhaps move slowly in our direction to the east.

The vast column now is ragged and z-shape. The top mushroom is attached by a thin, tenuous fog-like connection to the lower column.

At 9:15 the base of the column seems to be boiling up with renewed vigor. We now are at the far end of our orbit off Bikini and cannot tell whether the turbulence is due to explosions or burning ships. Natural clouds are interposing. We turn back on our course toward Bikini once more at 9:21 a.m.

Drones Hover About Cloud

We now can see the drones hovering about the cloud. Whether they are mother ships awaiting their lost children or the pilot-less planes themselves we do not know.

I ask the plane's captain if he can identify any of the surviving ships. The answer comes on the intercom that he can see a bit of red up forward which appears to be the Nevada. "The explosion seems to have blown up most of the ship."

The atomic cloud still is the longest in the whole panorama of sea and island below us but no longer dominates. The natural clouds now, an hour after the atomic detonation, are of firmer outline and substance. However, the atomic cloud reaches out curiously like an octopus, with vague, dark tentacles everywhere against the eastern sky.

It is going to be an increasingly difficult job for the Task Force ships below and the aircraft flying with us to keep out from under those long, vague, angular extensions.

We are closer to the top of the cloud now than we have ever been, and are sheering away for an additional margin of safety, but we are bound for our Kwajalein base and many miles from the scene of the detonation.