The ‘Baker’ explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, was a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25, 1946. The site was used as a ship graveyard and nuclear testing ground until 1958. Liberal’s J.D. Cox was there when the final tests were conducted. Courtesy photo
Liberal’s J.D. Cox watches atomic test in 1958
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
After a massive earthquake ripped a hole open on the sea floor 150 miles long and 50 miles wide that caused devastating earthquakes and a tsunami, the Japanese have been fighting to get containment on four nuclear reactors used for making electricity.
The fear is that radiation, or even a nuclear explosion, could occur.
Few people alive today have witnessed an atomic explosion. Liberal’s J.D. Cox is one that did.
Between 1946 and 1958, a total of 23 atomic bombs were detonated on Bikini Island during military tests, and Cox was a radioman third class for the USS Boxer.
When Cox joined the military with several of his buddies from Liberal, he requested a sea-going tugboat in Alaska but instead was sent to Death Valley, Calif. There, he applied for a submarine but was placed on an aircraft carrier, the USS Boxer.
The Boxer patrolled the Pacific as an anti-submarine vessel, but in 1958 the ship and crew were reassigned to Operation Hardtack, a nuclear testing mission at Bikini Atoll.
The ship was sent to Long Beach to receive security gear, but Cox didn’t know why.
They went to San Diego and picked up 2,200 people including a large contingent of scientists, and headed out to sea.
“We were basically a floating hotel for scientists,” Cox recalled.
After sailing through a typhoon to reach Hawaii, the USS Boxer headed toward the Bikini atoll with the mission of detonating a nuclear device and recording data from the blast.
As a radioman, Cox sent necessary communications to other naval ships, all coded and scrambled.
When he was allowed to come up on deck, he remembered the blast and its devastation.
“On the big blast, we were told to count to 20 and then we could look,” he said. “But they counted to 100, and when they let us look it was like we were looking into the sun, we were that close to it.”
Cox said the Boxer was about 50 to 75 miles off the coast, and when the blast occurred, the first thing he remembered was the feeling of being in a vacuum.
“You couldn’t hear it at first because it was like being in a vacuum,” he said. “The noise later was terrific. It moved our ship sideways. We were broadside. Amazing how it could move that size of a ship, we were that close.”
The next thing to hit the ship was a searing heat.
“The heat came to us, probably two minutes or a minute and a half after the blast,” he said. “The heat off that blast created a steam heat. We looked around and steam was coming off our shirts. I didn’t realize how tremendously it changed the temperature. It was 80 to 90 degrees, we were wearing shorts, and all of a sudden steam was coming off our shirts.”
Cox looked up in the sky and he saw it — the mushroom cloud.
“It was cloud on top of cloud on top of cloud,” he said.
And almost instantly, the explosion caused a rainstorm, but the rain was loaded with radioactive material.
“It rained on us as soon as that blast hit,” Cox said. “We had a sprinkler system set up on the ship, and we got under way and got the hell out of there, because it was raining the radiation on us. We were washing everything down, trying to get rid of it. The sprinklers were running on the ship. We were signaling the other ships to get out of there.”
According to Cox, when they later took a swim, they noticed something very different.
“Anything growing in the water was dead,” he said. “I don’t know how far out, but it died.”
Cox knew several sailors that later developed cancer, some quickly, others over a long period of time.
So far, the island has yet to be released for inhabitation more than 50 years after the last atomic blast. While radiation levels are close to normal, growing food on the island is still considered a hazard.
It is that fear of long-term devastation to the land that Cox believes people fear about a possible explosion in Japan or from a rogue nation.
“With these radicals, you never know, you turn them loose with something like that, they don’t know what they are messing with,” he said. “That’s why the U.S. is such a watchdog on that. They don’t realize how devastating it is. Not just the blast, but the surrounding area. That’s why they are scared of these radicals getting atomic bombs, it dirties that area for years.”
Even though nuclear weapons are a danger, Cox said that using nuclear energy for electrical generation is good.
“There’s always the chance they will explode,” he said. “They are doing the best they can by putting water to it and trying to kill it. It is a bad deal, but they are on top of it and doing the best they can. The way the plants are built, they are protected and built well.”
Cox believed that his diet, which is heavy on fruits and vegetables, has kept him healthy over the years and helped counteract any radiation exposure he had 53 years ago.
But a searing heat followed by a toxic rain after watching a nuclear bomb explode will be something he will never forget and, hopefully, never have to see again.