The Forgotten Island of Johnston Atoll
In 1995 the U.S. government declassified a set of military documents which outlined the real story behind a series of failed high-altitude nuclear tests and atmospheric air drops during 1962 on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific called Johnston Island.
Barely a mile long this island is permanent record of the nuclear age as it became the hub for coordinating and launching Thor and Redstone nuclear rockets into the brilliant blue skies above the Pacific.
“The smaller the area the bigger the MAN to live therein”
– Handbook given to new U.S. military arrivals on Johnson Atoll in 1955.
The watermark of this testing period occurred during 1962 as part of Operation Dominic which comprised over 30 nuclear detonations in the Pacific. They were a direct response to the Soviet Union who had broken an earlier moratorium and conducted atmospheric nuclear explosions to test U.S. resolve during the Cold War.
Vintage film reels released by the U.S. military during the 1960s describe Operation Dominic as the most successful nuclear military ever conducted. In reality, it reflected the excesses of a paranoiac era whose radioactive dust slowly killed off some of their best airmen and ground personnel.
A series of failed tests on Johnston Atoll and the surrounding “danger zone” waters were played down by the Joint Task Force who at one time directed the detonations from an old World War II Bunker on the island. These failures or operational glitches caught ground and air crew by surprise and resulted in long term radioactive poisoning.
“It was an episode that our Government would just as soon forget,” said Michael Thomas, a senior technician who flew with the famous “Blue Sharks” patrol squadron based out of the Atoll during the tests.
“But the long term consequences for those of us who participated would be difficult, costly, and painful. It wasn’t until 1995 that the Secretary of Defense William Perry acquitted us of our promise of silence on the subject; we could finally discuss it and seek necessary medical care resultant from the experience.”
This stoic silence on the part of these brave soldiers in service of their country reveals the absolute secrecy surrounding these tests which was played out on this forgotten atoll in the mid-pacific.
The Blue Sharks who particpated in the 1962 tests suffered an 85% casualty rate from various radiogenic diseases. In fact, Michael Thomas and only two others have survived their exposure to radiation.
The tests on Johnston Island were given striking code names like: Bluegill, Starfish, Starfish Prime, and Bluegill Prime.
Their failures were nothing short of spectacular, as described by Thomas:
Bluegill Prime, July 24, blew up on the pad, the 1.4 megaton warhead was destroyed by the safety officer to prevent a nuclear holocaust, but it spit plutonium over most of the western part of the Island including the first 300 feet of the runway, the launch area, the parking area, the swimming pool, cafeteria, and the latrine…for chrissake!
“Three Shark aircrews were trapped on the ground along with their 30 or so ground support. Within 25 years most of them would be dead including Captain Leonard, squadron leader, who passed away in 1990 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma – direct result of radiation exposure from Bluegill Prime.”
Dale K. Olson aboard the U.S.S. John S. McCain, DL-3 remembers the night, “I got a real sick feeling knowing that there was a fully active A-bomb on the rocket. It gave a new meaning to ‘Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass good-bye.
At the time the U.S. government labelled this disaster a “one of a kind missile misadventure” caused by a sticking fuel valve. Another failed launched was apparently caused by a internal missile guidance malfunction.
“The weapon development effort was completely successful in its primary test objectives and yielded important new weapons affects information,” said the U.S. film reel released later by the Joint Task Force.
The Most Ancient of Atolls
Johnston Island is one of the most isolated atolls on the planet and is the result of 70 million years of volcanic eruptions, limestone capping and reef growth. Consisting of four coral islands, it was discovered by accident in 1807 by Captain Charles Johnston of HMS Cornwallis.
A decade or two later the Kingdom of Hawaii, roughly 800 miles away, attempted to claim ownership — unsuccessfully.
For many years it remained undisturbed by the gentle occupation of the U.S. government who considered it an unincorporated territory.
This lonely island in the middle of nowhere was a rich bird sanctuary and recognized as such by President Coolidge in 1926 when he placed it under the control of the Department of Agriculture.
But the looming spectre of war with Germany sealed its fate when President Roosevelt gave control to U.S. navy for an air station.
From this point on the island would become a magnet for the tools and products of “war” as it suffered aerial bombings from Japanese fighter planes during World War II and would later become a pivot point for just about every nuclear, chemical and rocket testing program the U.S military could come up with.
Dawn of the Nuclear Age
The nuclear age began at 5.30 a.m on 16 July 1945 when a brilliant fireball lit up the lilac skies just before sunrise in Alamagorda, New Mexico. Several of the observers standing back of the shelter to watch the lighting effects were knocked flat by the blast which had been code name “Trinity”.
Dr Oppenheimer, in charge of the Manhattan Project felt a heavy burden lift off his shoulders as his Russian colleague Dr. Kistiakowsky threw his arms around him in an ecstatic victory embrace. They had done it!
By 1949 Russia followed suite with their own detonation. A terrible race had began which accelerated when the U.S. triggered the “thermonuclear age” in 1952 as it exploded its a plutonium warhead over Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific.
This blast was 500 times more powerful than the Trinity detonation in New Mexico four years prior.
By 1993 the U.S. alone had carried out 1,030 nuclear weapons tests all over the world including Johnston Island. England, China and others would follow.
If this was not enough, the onset of the Korean and Vietnam wars would also make this one-time bird sanctuary a dumping ground for just about every chemical agent produced by man, including Agent Orange and other nerve gas agents collected from the Eastern Bloc.
By the late 1960s the island was home to 300 military personnel and 1000 civilian contractors who sole job was to reach “zero defect” levels for the nuclear and chemical weaponry stored and tested on the island.
It was only in 1981 that the tide turned and the Army began planning for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS). In 1986 construction began on the world’s first full-scale facility built to destroy chemical weapons.
Radioactive debris and soils were scraped and dumped in a 25 acre landfill, along with residue from Agent Orange containers returned from Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War.
This process would take 20 years to complete and even now contamination has not been completely eliminated.
This dismantling process was a complex exercise requiring a broad range of engineers, scientists and programmers.
The island was not only subjected to the horror of human technology; it also had to cope with hurricanes and the continual threat of ‘perceived’ tsunamis.
In the early 1990s approaching hurricanes shut down all facilities and forced the evacuation of more than 1000 soldiers and supporting civilian staff to Hawaii.
When a hurricane did hit in 1994 the JACADS production facility went offline for 70 days as water and power supplies were compromised.
It Looked Like An Aircraft Carrier…
Throughout this tumultuous period from the 1930s to present day, the runway – almost as big as the island – sustained the ebb and flow of military personnel and technology.
“We flew into JI on a DC 6 and when we approached the Island it looked like a large air craft carrier from several thousand feet up,” said Leo Richardson, fresh out of boot camp in June 1946.
“One day while driving the follow-me jeep I drove from one end of the air strip to the other and found it to be 1.10 miles long,” he recalled.
The few feet of coral just before the start of the runway would heat up in the mid-day sun releasing thermal updrafts that created hidden turbulence for B-57 pilots as they came into land.
Soldiers reported instances where B-57s wobbled so much the tips of the wings would hit the coral waters with dangerous results.
“The pilot pushed his throttles forward and the jet passed over our heads and sprayed us with fuel from the ruptured tip tank. Fortunately for everyone involved it did not catch fire. He went around again and landed safely on his second attempt, “ said Bill Knoop, a 18 year old X-Ray Technician, stationed there in 1955.
Leo Richardson remembers happy days on the island: “Johnston Island was wonderful duty, easy and exciting. A few officers had their wives and children with them and I recall the Christmas of 1946 we made up a sailor for Santa Claus and flew him out without the kids knowing it, and then back when they were gathered to watch the SNJ deliver Santa Claus. What a day!
The Coral Reefs And Their Treasures
The four small islands of Johnston Atoll are home to over 200 species of fish, 32 species of coral, and 20 species of native and migratory birds. The climate is flawless in terms of offering consistent, hot, balmy Pacific summer days and much time was spent catching 6-8 foot “sand sharks” that swam in the waters around the coral heads.
Soldiers used the valuable shark jaws to gain the upper hand in trading that took place on the island in the 1960s. They were extremely sought after.
Alert! Japanese Tsunami Imminent!
In the summer of 1968, there was an earthquake near Japan, and military personnel braced themselves for a possible tsunami that was expected to hit the atoll several hours later.
Richard Tower, a USAF captain working as the Safety Officer on the Thor missile program, describes the tension:
“We expected the wave to be five hundred mile per hour and 50 feet high. There was considerable concern since the island was so small and with minimal elevation above sea level. I guess no one on the island realized then that a tsunami will form a wave only when it hits a continental shelf; we never saw a ripple.
The Most Feared Termite On Earth
Johnson Atoll was also home to the most feared termite on earth, the Formosan, which eats 6 times faster then a typical termite. These termites survived the nuclear age along with mice, scorpions, roaches and big ants.
Since no natural fresh water is available on the island, all fresh water is made by reverse osmosis by drawing water up from the aquifer. Any substance that might contaminate the aquifer can’t be used on the island.
But in 1995 the mighty Formosan met its match when Ms Shelby Magnuson-Hawkins arrived on the island as the new Lead Pest Control Specialist from Raytheon Services Nevada (RSN).
She had a difficult job in light of the restrictions relating to pesticide use on the island which affect the Red Blood Cell Cholinesterase (RBC-ChE) baseline for humans stationed on the atoll.
Not intimidated by the reputation of the Formosan, she divided the island into 3 sections and within each she would treat a particular building. This would kill any termite in the wood and any insect living in and around the building.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Glaubach, Director of Military Operations, was astounded by the results: Within 4 months the island was virtually pest free and the top brass who had been coming back and forth to the island had never seen results like this.
It was so successful they persuaded her to apply for a patent which was awarded in 2001.
Tale Of An Automation Engineer
David Draper arrived on Johnston Atoll in 1998 to take up the position of Control System Engineer under the JACADS umbrella, which formed part of the Salt Peace Treaty.
He arrived on a military jet looking forward to taking his career to a new level as he spent two years writing, coding and debugging a data acquisition system using VMS, SUN Solaris and Oracle databases.
These giant data warehouses collected digital and analog data from the chemical destabilization plant whose overriding purposes was to destroy GB/VX rockets, projectiles and mines.
“I feel in looove with the ocean during my time on the Atoll. My system reports landed on the desks of President Bush Sr and Gorbachev. It was top secret stuff,” said Draper.
“After I left and changed companies (ended up in Singapore for 6 months) I got a call in and the government asked me personally to look over 500,000 lines of Oracle code for the Y2k effort.”
Draper shuttled back and fourth between Johnston Atoll and Tooele, Utah reviewing endless lines of lines of code before making recommendations on re-writes, firmware, revisions. This was followed by extensive testing to ensure the Y2K transition went smoothly
Draper now works for WildBlue, which provides two-way broadband services via satellite to Rural America. Wildblue was recently acquired by ViaSat, operating out of Carlsbad. He still remembers his time on the island fondly.
The Nuclear Renaissance
The last atmospheric nuclear weapons test occurred on 16 October 1980 in China. As of July 2010, President Obama’s administration outlined a 20-year plan to reduce current stockpiles of nuclear warheads from 5,000 to around 3,200. The plan calls for an increase in spending on the complex that houses and maintain them.
However, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry has now become divorced from the civilian use of nuclear energy. At least according to Anne Lauvergeon, President of Areva, a French state-run nuclear power company, who claims there there is a renaissance underway which is making nuclear power a centerpiece in the battle to offer cheap international energy. Lauvergeon outlined this development in interview conducted by Charlie Rose.
“Nuclear Annie” as she is called said that while initial investment was costly it also provided 60 years of electricity at a very predictable cost.
“You don’t depend on other countries, and you have no CO2 emissions. But nuclear energy is not for everybody. You cannot build new nuclear plants in a country that is not stable, that is not managed with rationality.”
“20% of the U.S. energy requirements are sourced from nuclear energy and you have one of the oldest nuclear plants in the world which will go offline around 2030,” she said.
Meanwhile, China and India are not sitting idle — they are actively pursuing nuclear programs since they are offer cheap long-term energy.
“If we are not competitive in terms of energy, we are dead.”
Of course, as with Johnston Island, the threat of nuclear waste is the big red question mark hanging over nuclear power. The problem with the United States nuclear energy policy is there is no defined plan for dealing with nuclear waste from plants.
According to Lauvergeon, Avera recycles 96% of the waste emanating from a nuclear plant since only a very small amount of uranium is used to power the plant.
President Obama is currently reviewing the nuclear waste technology policy which was previously only allowed to be used in military applications. This policy was instituted by President Carter in the 1970s.
Johnston Atoll: Return to the birds
By May 2005, almost all of Johnston Island’s infrastructure had been removed, and all personnel had left the atoll, including refuge staff.
If your thinking of visiting the Atoll you may find it tough: Public entry to the islands is by special-use permit from the U.S. Airforce only and generally restricted to scientists and educationists.
U.S. Refuge staff occasionally visit the atoll to monitor the status of its wildlife. While previously most of the seabirds and shorebirds were found on Sand, Akua (North), and Hikina (East) islands, they have now colonized Johnston Island, taking advantage of the trees and shrubs left behind by its former human residents.
The refuge is managed primarily as a breeding ground for seabirds and a wintering grounds for shorebirds. Twelve species of seabirds, such as the great frigatebird and wedge-tailed shearwater, breed within the atoll.
The coral reefs continue to grow including the threatened green sea turtle and endangered Hawaiian monk seal. The staff manages year-round monitoring programs for 14 species of seabirds and 5 species of migratory shorebirds.
According to the Johnston Island National Wildlife Refuge several significant contaminant issues exist:
Closure of the chemical weapons disposal plant; dioxin (Agent Orange), which contaminates at least four acres of land and has migrated to the marine environment; plutonium from two abortive missile launches during high-altitude nuclear and missile testing in the 1950s and 1960s; and a subsurface plume of PCB-contaminated petroleum product.
Contaminants tracking involves monitoring seabirds, fishes, and marine invertebrates. Refuge personnel also monitor fish populations and threatened green sea turtles, which use the waters of Johnston Atoll as an important foraging location. Also, soil and sediment samples are used to establish the degree and extent of contamination.
Thus, this ancient atoll has a come a full circle and is no longer under the constant spectre of chemical and nuclear testing.
On January 6, 2009, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was established, which includes Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge within its boundaries.
The U.S. Airforce is now an absentee landlord for the island which is considered a national wildlife refuge just as it once was in 1926 under President Coolidge.
Johnston’s remoteness coupled with the difficulty to gain access mean it will continue to slip slowly out the public eye until the world is one day again threatened by winds of war.