Atomic vet recalls 1946 bomb tests — and aftermath
Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 10:58 pm
By FRANK MUNGER
The Knoxville News Sentinel
CLINTON (AP) — When Ray Beatty turned 17 in July 1945, he was ready to go to war. He’d been ready for a while.
His older brother, a B-24 pilot, was shot down on his fifth mission over Hamburg, Germany, and spent nine months in a German POW camp. A favorite cousin had been a prisoner for most of the war after being captured by the Japanese at Corregidor.
The redheaded teenager was boiling for revenge. With the nod and signature of his father, he dropped out of Clinton High School and enlisted in the Navy.
“I had a lot of motivation,” Beatty said. “I wanted to kill Japs and Krauts.”
But he was too late for World War II. By the time he was inducted and trained, it was 1946 and the war was over. Instead of going to war, Beatty went to the Marshall Islands. There he met up with an adversary that was neither Japanese nor German but would hound him for life — radiation.
He was part of Operation Crossroads, the U.S. military’s first postwar experiment with nuclear weapons. The fourth and fifth atomic detonations in history, test shots Able and Baker, took place at Bikini Atoll in the summer of 1946.
Now 80 years old, the Clinton resident remembers it well.
All told, 42,000 people participated in Operation Crossroads, with about 37,000 of them Navy personnel.
The USS Saratoga, one of the nation’s first aircraft carriers, had been battered by kamikaze hits in the latter stages of the war, but it was patched up at the Bremerton, Wash., shipyard and ready for a final mission.
Four or five days later, the Saratoga made its first stop at Pearl Harbor.
“We turned in all our dress clothes, the Navy blues, and all the dress white pants,” Beatty said.
The sailors were given field clothes, probably Marine castoffs, and that probably was an early sign that the mission was going to be dirty duty. During the voyage from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands, Beatty and the other enlisted men learned about the bomb tests.
“They told us at some point. I’m not sure when it was. In the Navy, you can’t keep secrets. They get out,” he said. “We knew what we were going to be doing.”
The size of the military operation became more apparent as dozens of ships started gathering at Bikini Atoll and making preparations over a couple of weeks.
Young sailors swam in the warm ocean water before the tests and spent time on Bikini Island, where there were coconut trees to climb, abandoned war planes to check out, and beer to drink. The natives already had been relocated to other islands in the region.
Pretty soon things would get serious.
On July 1, as he stood on deck of a troop ship 10 miles from ground zero — or “water zero” in this case — Beatty and other unlisted men were told not to look at the Able explosion. Unlike the top brass, the crewmen didn’t have the protective goggles to look directly at the blast, but they looked anyway.
“I wasn’t about to miss that thing,” he said. “It was the awfulest thing I ever saw.”
Beatty had grown up in the backyard of Oak Ridge, one of the wartime sites where the A-bomb was developed. He had gotten glimpses of the super-secret project while working part time for the post office during high school. But he didn’t know any more about nuclear weapons than anybody else.
The stated purpose of Operation Crossroads was to test the effects of nuclear weapons on Navy warships and equipment and material. Beatty and others believe an unstated goal was to test the effects on military personnel. In order to keep their funding, defense agencies had an interest in making it all look manageable.
More than 90 ships were assembled in the target area around Bikini Lagoon, fully armed and equipped, just as they would be at time of war. The biggest of the target ships was the Saratoga.
Not everything went according to plan with Able. The B-29 pilot and crew missed their target by 1,500-2,000 feet.
Some of the target ships that figured to be sunk actually survived and were deemed not too hot for habitation. Beatty and other crew members reboarded the Saratoga within hours of the Able test and — after putting out several small fires on the flight deck — assumed their normal duties.
If there was a concern about radioactive contamination, it wasn’t conveyed to the crew, Beatty said.
“I think they just let us go in wearing our normal field clothes,” he said, “because we knew that night we’d be eating food that was on ship and we’d be drinking water that we’d picked up out of the lagoon.”
Beatty remembers wondering about hazards. But people didn’t know much about radiation, especially a country boy not yet 18.
“You just put it in the back of your mind. We got to do this, so let’s do it, and the Navy will take care of us. It was still a wartime philosophy.”
Reboarding the Saratoga probably was his first encounter with a radioactive environment, Beatty said, but it wasn’t his last.
As the Baker test neared, Beatty was transferred from the Saratoga to the USS Rockwall.
Beatty volunteered — or was volunteered — for a work party that went aboard the USS Independence, another of the target ships in the large lagoon, to help salvage ammunition and explosives that survived the Able explosion.
Again, Beatty suspects he entered a radiation zone with no protection beyond his clothing.
After some flux in the schedule, Baker took place July 25, 1946.
The atomic device had been placed in an underwater position beneath a vessel in the target fleet, and there was no chance of this explosion going astray.
By official and unofficial accounts, Baker was a lot messier than Able — spraying radioactive water across the Bikini lagoon and seriously contaminating all ships stationed there for the test. Several of them reeled and ultimately sank.
The second test in Operation Crossroads created a major radiation hazard. Some of the hottest vessels were sunk near Bikini Atoll or towed elsewhere for sea burial, according to Navy reports.
Support ships that moved into the lagoon after Baker became contaminated, too, and had to be cleaned up.
One day in late July or early August, Beatty was assigned to scrape scum from the Rockwall’s hull to help reduce the radioactivity.
After being lowered to the water in a dinghy with ropes on either end, he was given a short-handled hoe and told to get busy.
As the water level rose and fell each time another vessel passed, the little boat would bang against the Rockwall’s side. So would Beatty’s head and shoulders.
“There was crud and barnacles. Mostly it was like green algae you see in ponds, and I was bumping against the side and trying to keep it out of my mouth,” Beatty said. “I was scraping, and it was falling into the boat. I’m not sure I didn’t get some of that into my mouth and innards.”
Operation Crossroads came to a close around Aug. 10, but that didn’t mean the cleanup was over. For Beatty, it continued for months and thousands of nautical miles.
On Aug. 8, he and some of the other sailors on the Rockwall were transferred to the USS Appling for the ride back to the United States. Unfortunately, the Appling was another “radiologically suspect” ship because of its lengthy time near ground zero, drawing lagoon water into its operating systems.
One pay day, while playing craps with some sailors down in the hold, a buddy looked at him and said, “Beatty, your hair is falling out.”
Sure enough, he was shedding his bright-red hair.
“At that point, I knew something was wrong,” he said. “It came out a lot in my little brush. It finally got to where you could see the scalp all shiny.”
Eventually his hair grew back, but the memory stayed with him.
Official accounts aren’t readily available, but Beatty said the USS Appling was denied port — first at San Francisco and then at San Pedro, Calif., — because of concerns about the ship’s radioactivity.
“So we went back out in the ocean and stayed about two weeks and did everything we could think of (to get rid of contamination),” he said.
The Appling then was allowed to dock at San Pedro and later headed to the East Coast.
At the Naval Operating Base at Norfolk, Va., the ship was fully decontaminated, Beatty said. That meant dismantling the water intake and boiler operating system, he said.
“We had to take all those plates out and crawl in there and clean the mud drums. We wiped everything down. We used hundreds and hundreds of rags. My buddies would take them out. I don’t know what they did with them. Threw them overboard, probably.”
The wipe-down of the Appling, from Beatty’s perspective, concluded his participation in Operation Crossroads. On Nov. 12, 1947, he was discharged from the Navy following what Beatty termed “a very cursory physical examination.”
Ray Beatty has had a good life by almost any standard.
After returning from the Navy, he fell in love with Betty Fryer, and they’ve been married for 59 years, with three sons and a lot more to show for it.
He finished up high school, played football for a year at East Tennessee State University, and got a degree in transportation from the University of Tennessee.
He found out he had a knack for statistics, and that led to a successful, 33-year career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, including time as operations finance manager. He served 12 years on the Anderson County Court. Along the way, he accumulated more friends than freckles, and that’s a lot.
Even at 80, Beatty cares for an 18 1/2-acre farm outside Clinton. He built a fantastic stone chimney with his own hands, finished a deck this summer, and this month was climbing on a scaffold to paint the house.
He has, however, suffered illness and conditions that could be related to his radiation exposures — immune system deficiencies, peripheral neuropathy, respiratory problems and attacks of depression — and his doctors have suggested as much. He’s had two skin cancers in recent years and surgery for prostate cancer.
Truth is, Beatty doesn’t know how much radiation he received at Bikini or thereafter. Nobody does. That’s because he never received or wore any kind of radiation measurement device during Operation Crossroads.
Beatty honored his military commitment. He honored the oath of secrecy he took before participating in the atomic exercises.
He didn’t even tell his family until 50 years after the fact.
What bothers him, now that restrictions have been lifted, is the perceived lack of honesty in dealing with the radiation exposures. His exposure has been estimated and revised upward, but he calls it “just a guess.”
About 10 years ago, at the suggestion of a friend, he applied for disability compensation with the Department of Veterans Affairs. He’s now working on his fourth appeal. He would have given up long ago, except they made him angry with low estimates of his radiation exposure.
“There can be no question that these tests involved uncontrolled and totally unknown radiation exposures, along with complete absence of radiation monitors or safety instructions, protective gloves, masks or clothing, or other protective measures,” Beatty said in a written response to one of the denials.
“Your whole attempt to try to reconstruct and quantify my radioactive exposures, decades later, by individuals who have never been involved in the conditions or practices, defies not only all elementary science but also just plain common sense.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs did not return calls seeking comment.
Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com