Operation Hardtack

In 1939 scientists successfully created the possibility of a nuclear chair reaction when they accomplished the splitting of atoms of uranium by bombarding them with neutrons. What followed was the creation of the Manhattan Project under President Franklin Roosevelt that had the goal of producing an atomic bomb. On 16 July 1945 close to Alamogordo, New Mexico the first test explosion of the atomic bomb occurred. Twenty one days later the United States used the bomb militarily by dropping it from a B-29 bomber on Hiroshima, Japan and three days later on Nagasaki.

In July of 1946 the United States began atomic testing at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. In the spring of 1948 the U.S. tested three weapons at the Atomic Proving Grounds at Eniwetok. One of those bombs had six times the power than the one dropped on Nagasaki.

On 3 March 1946 USS ORLECK joined with Task Force 7 and participated in those tests. Thereafter, she continued on patrol in the area until March 30. (At the printing of this document the writer has not received any information from the crew or officers regarding the ORLECK’s involvement in the 1948 testing.)

Ten years after the first tests in the Marshalls the USS ORLECK found itself again participating in atmospheric and underwater nuclear explosion tests. These tests which were given names such as; “Test Yucca” (April 28), “Test Cactus” (March 6), “Test Butternut” (May 12), “Test Koa” (May 13) and “Test Wahoo” (May 16) occurred between 28 April 1958 and 18 August 1958. There were a total of thirty four detonations during the 1958 period. ORLECK provided security support and performed weather observations during six of those tests at Eniwetok.

What follows will be the words of a couple of men who served during the 1958 tests.

Raymond C. Powell reflected: “She was home for 4 years. From her decks I witnessed an A-Bomb explosion, beautiful skies and thunderous storms. Best of all, I met some friends who have stayed with me all my life. An 8×10 of the ORLECK sits in my den”. These words describe the highlights of his 4 year tour of duty in ORLECK. What stands out in his mind covers the range from man made violence, to the beauty of the outdoors, to the violence of nature and the friendships he developed. The best was the human friendship he experienced and still does.

Norman Waldron had some recollections from those atomic bomb testing days. “In 1958 we spent 2 or 3 months at the Eniwetok Atoll Atomic Proving Grounds and I witnessed the bombs going off. Only about 5 people actually got to see the explosion. I was one of them since I was the captain’s phone talker. They supplied us with special glasses and it was totally black but when the bomb went off it was like the brightest sunshine. You could feel the heat wave and shock wave pass through the ship. We were 10 miles away and it seemed like just at the end of a football field. It was overwhelming. Some of the old ships (not manned) that were close enough went down. It was just like the entire ocean was being sucked into a hole and before you knew it all came back exploding into the air in a mushroom cloud.”

Doc Powell as Raymond was known because of his medic work, described in some detail his Operation HARDTACK experience that will also give us a picture of what happened during those three months.

“Sometime in ’58 the ORLECK and sister ships sailed south out of Pearl Harbor. Destination was the Atomic Proving Grounds that were the Marshall Isles. Before we entered those waters, our dog tags were replaced by another metal tag from which radiation readings would be taken upon leaving these waters.

The Marshalls were atolls (coral reefs). I think the largest being Bikini in the North and Eniwetok in the south. We dropped anchor in the Lagoon at Eniwetok. The Lagoon was very clear and smooth as glass. Eniwetok and a half moon of smaller atolls swung off to the south at a distance of maybe 2-3 miles. Eniwetok itself was small enough to walk around and held a palm grove and a lot of mangrove with a cleared area for recreation. All we had were movies, beer and baseball. Of course there was swimming and I had scuba gear. I could walk out to the reef in about 5 feet of water, duck down and go through a hole in the reef. On the ocean side was a drop of about 10 feet to a floor of pure white sugar sand and a view of crystal clear water and thousands of tropical multicolored fish. Just like swimming in a fishbowl. Now with the exception of an old freighter with instruments on board that sat almost over the blast, we were the closest ship, about 10 miles off. Those of us who were stationed topside were told to face away from the underwater blast for so many seconds. Then we could turn and look. Even facing away, when the bomb went off, it was like looking at the whole world through a piece of red cellophane. As you turned toward the blast, it looked as if an invisible vacuum cleaner was sucking up the ocean then at a certain altitude the water started to fall away and the mushroom began to form. Now by the time this sucker was in full bloom, you could fall over backward trying to see the top. A definite statement about putting away atomic weapons. I will never forget it as long as I live. When the sonic boom hit us, it was as though a giant sledge hammer hit the side of the ship. We stayed in these waters for 3 months.”

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