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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

LEGACY

I prefer to think of this inhuman event in human terms. It was important not for when or why it was, because the “when” was mere connivance. M-hour was 7:15 A.M. local time, November 1st. But five hundred forty miles to the east at the same moment it was still October 31st - Halloween.

The difference was the imaginary International Date Line drawn on paper across the not really empty emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. The “why” is the simplest of the elements; because we could, because we had to, because we wanted to. So you see that ultimately the only important things about the event is the humans it happened to; the people who lost their homes, the man who was not there, and the man who died.
Humans arrived on “Aelon Kein Ad” (our islands) 4,000 years ago, and by their very presence on one of those atolls, Enewetak, they prove the perseverance of humanity. The nearest land is another atoll, Ujelang, 140 miles to the southwest.
It seems impossible but some how humans crossed all of that open ocean to reach this string of islands. And somehow, on an atoll barely ten feet above sea level and less than 200 yards across on its widest island, they survived for two millennia, enduring isolation, hurricanes and droughts.
And somehow they survived the arrival of the Spanish in 1528, the British in 1788 (who renamed their home “The Marshall” Islands), the Germans in 1885, and the Japanese in 1915.
And somehow they even survived the Americans, who bombarded their island and invaded it in February of 1944 (Operation Catchpole). Over three hundred Americans and two thousand six hundred Japanese died for possession of the islands of Enewetak. But how many of the people who actually lived on the islands were killed in the battle was not recorded. In December of 1947 the 141 of those who had survived were taken away from their island and transported to Ujelang. It would be, the Americans assured them, a mere three year sojourn. Two fission bombs were exploded on Bikini Atoll in 1946, and three at Enewetak in 1948.
Meanwhile a people who had lived on three islands around Enewetak lagoon, were now crowded into a single village on a single island. Food was sometimes so short that coconuts, which were supposed to have been sold for copra, were instead eaten for survival. Government assistance struggled to fill the gaps.
Epidemics of polio and measles and rats plagued the village. As one woman told an ethnographer, “In those days, the wailing across the village was constant.” And always there was the paradise lost, an Eden that looked more perfect as memories of it faded. What could have been worth all that was taken from these people? It was the dream of one man more than any other. Edward Teller was an Hungarian born genius who was despised by most of his fellow scientists. In 1950 he had aided and abetted the humiliation of his mentor, Robert Oppenheimer, by slyly suggesting that “Oppie”, who had overseen the invention and construction of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki fission bombs, could no longer be trusted with state secrets. Because of Teller’s testimony Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance and branded a traitor.
But Oppemheimer’s actual crime seems to have been that he simply believed that Teller was over selling his design for a hydrogen fusion bomb.
Most scientists familiar with the subject agreed with Oppenheimer, including Stanislaw Ulam, a Polish-American mathematician, who in 1950 completed calculations that proved the design championed by Teller would never work. However Ulam did suggest there was a way “The Super” bomb could be made to work.
Exactly what Ulam suggested is still classified. But Teller seized on Ulam's suggestion and pushed for the design to be tested. But Teller
did not journey to Enewetak to supervise the construction of the device he had championed for six years because he “did not feel comfortable” at the test site, surrounded by his peers. Instead, on that Halloween night, Teller monitored events on a seismograph in the basement of the University of California at Berkley.Meanwhile, on the tiny island of Elugelab, part of the atoll of Enewetak, the United States built an explosive device based on the “Teller-Ulam Concept”.
It was not a bomb, as it was not a practical weapon. Nicknamed “The Sausage”, it stood 20 feet tall, was 22 feet long, built of several 5 foot wide cylinders. It weighed a total of 140,000 pounds, not counting the 24,000 pound refrigeration plant used to chill the heavy hydrogen down to minus 417 degrees Fahernhiet in order to keep it liquid. Officially the device was nicknamed "Mike", and it was serviced by Joint Task Force 132, with 9,350 military and 2,300 civilian personnel. Eniwetok had never been so crowed. Precisely at 7:14:59.4 AM on the morning of November 1, 1952 (19 hours October 31, GMT time) Operation Ivy ignited MIKE by remote control from a ship 30 miles away.
Mike exploded with the force of 10. 4 million tons of TNT and sent 10 million tons of seawater and coral rocketing out of the lagoon. Waves 80 feet high raced outward for three miles.
Within 90 seconds the fireball had reached 57,000 feet, and the mushroom cloud would eventually become 100 miles wide. The island of Elubelab simply evaporated, leaving behind a crater 6,240 feet wide and 164 feet deep. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/32912172@N00/2924242774/)
One hour and forty minutes after MIKE was ignited, four F-84 fighters (Pebble Red Flight) flew into the stem of the mushroom cloud at 42,000 feet to gather data on radiation levels. Each pilot wore a heavy lead lined “gown” for added protection against the radiation threat.
Red one, flown by Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Meroney, and his wingman Red Two, entered the cloud first. Maroney afterward reported that his cockpit was instantly bathed in a deep red glow. His “rad indicator” hit the peg – maxim readings.
Worse, the rate indicator, which show how quickly radiation was being accumulated, “went around like the sweep second hand of a watch.” Col. Meroney immediately instructed Red Two to follow him, executed a 90 degree turn and flew back out of the cloud. Red three and flour were next to enter, and Meroney warned them not to go too far into the cloud. Very quickly Red Three returned, but at first there was no contact from Red Four, flown by Lt. Jimmy Priestly Robinson. Then Robinson reappeared, at 20,000 feet. He reported that his autopilot had put him into a spin, and that his compass was out. He asked to be vectored to a B29 refueling tanker, but then reported that he had picked up the radio beacon from Enwetok air station, and was going to land there. He popped out of the overcast at 5,000 feet, out of fuel and said he intended to bail out. But he never did. A helicopter reported that Robinson piloted into the lagoon about 3 ½ miles from the end of the runway at Enewetok. Robinson’s tail hit first. The plane skipped 1-300 yards and then slammed into the water nose first and flipped over onto its back. It quickly sank in 175 feet of water, leaving an oil slick, a flight glove and some maps to mark the grave. The accident report suggested that the lead line apron may have prevented Robinson from getting out of the plane. Edward Teller claimed he was burdened with the title “Father of the Hydrogen bomb”. Yet he was drawn his whole life to “bomb” science, championing the idea of using hydrogen bombs to build a harbor in Alaska and crushing petrolium out of Canadian oil sands. Later he was one of the primary salesmen who sold the “Star Wars” concept to Ronald Reagan. Teller died in September of 2003, a controversal figure to the end. The people of Eniwetok finally appealed to the United Nations. An embarrassed American government then began, in the 1970’s, to scoop up the radioactive soil left from the dozens of nuclear bombs exploded on their island. This was then transported by truck to the Northern most island in the atoll, mixed with Portland cement and poured into one of the blast craters until it formed a mound some 25 feet high. This was then covered with an 18 inch cap of clean concrete. In 1980 the island was declared safe for human habitation again. A recent visitor to the atoll reported after climbing the protective dome, that “Cracks riddle the surface, many water-stained at the edges and crumbling. Some… are so large, birds have laid eggs in them.” Although told that divers reached the wreckage of his F-84, the widow and children of Lt. Jimmy Robinson have never received his body or been told what happened to it. They have not been told if he or his plane was even recovered from the Eniwetok lagoon. All details were covered by the phrase, "National Security".
It wasn’t until fifty years later that the Department of Defense allowed the family to hold a memorial service for Jimmy in Arlington National Cemetery, complete with an empty, flag draped coffin. His daughter, Rebecca “Becky” Miller works for a Veterans organization but has been told that officially her father was not a casualty of the cold war. As a web site notes, "In reality, Jimmy Robinson remains lost because his own government …has chosen to abandon him.” And that is, largely, the legacy of nuclear weapons.

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