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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nuclear Testing

With a few more dicey episodes along the way, we completed the flight loads program early in 1955, then our “004” was selected by the Air Force to be the test effects B-52 in one of the nuclear weapons test series being conducted at Bikini and Eniwetok atolls.  It would be “Operation Redwing” in 1956.

The airplane would be flown by an Air Force crew and maintained by mechanics from Wright Field, both trained by Boeing in Seattle.  Boeing contracted to furnish the test planning, position calculation (as close to the thermos-nuclear blasts as possible without destroying the airplane), data recording and transcription, and the final test reports.
By that time, I have been promoted to first-line supervision and was offered the position of Flight Test Operations Supervisor on the Operation Redwing team that would go to Eniwetok for the duration of the test program (four months).  We had to provide personal histories going all the way back to birth with no gaps.  During the weeks that the investigation took, my mother got letters from relatives in the Missouri Ozark that questioned, “Is Conrad in some sort of trouble?  FBI agents were here asking all sorts of questions about him and the family!”  I could tell no one, even my wife, where I was going or what I would be doing.  I could only say that it was for a high security clearance for an important job.
[Considering the tenor of the times, it is not surprising that my father’s family and neighbors wondered about what was going on with him.  Wikipedia lists the years of the Red Scare as being from 1947 to 1957.  I would say that it lasted longer than that, or maybe it was just that I was afraid longer than that.  My father’s security clearance assured that we have a private phoneline.]
Con's coffee mug from both Eniwetok operations

The stories of those nuclear weapons tests in Operation Redwing and, two years later in Operation Hardtack when I went back again with another B-52, could be a complete book.  For this summary let it suffice to simply record that our participation was a complete success and we obtained data on every test shot in which we participated.  There were about two dozen ranging in size from the Hiroshima atomic bomb to thermo-nuclear (hydrogen) bombs with yields in the multi-megaton range.
That four-month isolation on Eniwetok atoll was the first of many long absences from my little family and the new house we had bought in the Lake Hills area of Bellevue.  Shirley was not very self-sufficient.  She resented my absences although she was proud that I had considerable amounts of overtime that I was paid.  That and my increasing salary allowed for purchase of a second car, new furniture, and a color TV.
We had many happy times when I was home, but the long absences and the world travel in which I became involved in the 1960s had an adverse effect on little Stephanie also.  Year later when something came up about events in her school life and developing years that I had miss she cried out in an anguished voice, “But Daddy, you were never there!”  That memory remains painful.
I feel in my later years that perhaps one problem in my ill-advised first marriage and my performance as a father may have been that I was selfish in pursuing the adventurous career in which I was so supremely happy.  I seldom “took my work home with me”, but I was eager to get to work every day for thirty years.  I was never happier than when—travel authorization, passport, and airline tickets in hand—I left SeaTac Airport for some foreign lands.
[I have a collection of letters, postcards, and dolls that are testament to how much my father was gone from my childhood.]

I went back to Eniwetok again in 1958 for Operation Hardtack.  This time we instrumented a B-52B, 6591, that we christened “Tommy’s Tigator” (the pilot was Major Tom Sumner, USAF).  We painted a snarling green-striped tiger on the nose of “591”.  (When there is time for more detail and anecdotes from these operations I will tell you what a “tigator” is.) [I was enough enamored of the Tigator when I saw my father paint it on Major Sumner’s helmet that I had my father paint one on my lunch box. I was a standout at Phantom Lake Elementary.] 
For Operation Hartack I went to Eniwetok as overall Flight Test Supervisor at first, then took over as Boeing base manager when my boss, Jim Webber was called back to Seattle for another program.  We participated in and witnessed another eighteen or twenty nuclear explosions and once more turned in a perfect record in obtaining our data.  On one test our precisely controlled position at Time Zero was so close that the shock wave caved in the bomb bay doors and blew off the ECM radome on the bell of the airplane.  That was close enough!  On another some high clouds reflected enough heat from the immense fireball that the paint was burned off one side of the airplane.  We got great structural and temperature data and the B-52 came off with an excellent record that it could deliver the largest thermos-nuclear weapons and survive.
During one Operation Hartack test, we on the ground witnessed the detonation of a five-megaton weapon only twenty-two miles away across the Eniwetok lagoon.  It was indescribable—rather like peering into an open door of Hell and I came away an advocate of banning all nuclear weapons in the world.
[It was around this time that I became convinced that I was not going to live to adulthood.  Because of his experience on Eniwetok, my father thought it was good for the family to be prepared for a possible nuclear war.  He did not build a bomb shelter, but he was concerned about the fact that he considered Boeing and Seattle to be a USSR target.  My mother was instructed to keep a quarter of a tank of gas in the car at all times.  If there was a warning of a possible nuclear strike, I was to walked to the crosswalk at the bottom of the school yard.  She would then drive the two of us to my grandparents’ beach house in Seaview, WA where he believed the off-shore wind would blow fallout away from the coast.  Once when we were visiting my mother’s sister and her family in Vancouver, WA we children were sent to bed because the parents were going to watch a TV program on thermo-nuclear war.  A typical youngster told that I could NOT watch something on TV, that was exactly what I wanted to do.  I crept to the bedroom door where I could see the television and watched a program that led me to believe that the grown-ups were probably going to have a war that would kill us all, if not in an initial blast, then with fallout.  Shortly after that experience my mother drove me by the construction site for Sammamish High School and gaily said, “There’s where you will go to high school.”  Right, I thought.  There’s something that will never happen.  Imagine my surprise when I got to my junior year of high school that it seemed that I was going to have to be an adult afterall.]

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