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The fire and the fury

A survivor recovered from a target ship during the 1946 Bikini Atoll tests is given a blood transfusion by researchers assessing the effects of the blast

A mushroom cloud develops over Bikini Atoll and ships below after Operation Crossroads’ atomic detonation in July 1946

It was already pretty weird to see a pig swimming in the South Pacific. And for the sailors who found her in the lagoon, it was all the more surreal considering they’d just obliterated the lagoon with a nuclear bomb.

Unlike the ultra-secret Manhattan Project, the US military had been bragging about Operation Crossroads for months. Held in July 1946, at a cost of $100 million ($1.2 billion today), Crossroads was the biggest science experiment in history up until then – although “experiment” implies a level of refinement somewhat lacking here. The navy basically planned to drop an atomic bomb onto a fleet of 90 ships and just see what the hell happened. Crossroads nevertheless required 42,000 sailors to coordinate, plus 25,000 radiation detectors and 1.5 million feet of videotape – half the world’s supply then – to gather data. The setting was the Bikini Atoll, a ring of coral islands 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. Paradise.

The navy had captured several of the target ships from Germany and Japan the previous year, including the hated Nagato, the command ship for the raid on Pearl Harbor. Controversially, the dummy fleet also included American ships that had fought in important campaigns, like the USS New York and USS Pennsylvania. After a public outcry, Congress stepped in and limited the number of American ships to 33, but the fleet of battleships, dreadnoughts and submarines in the Bikini lagoon would still have constituted the fifth-largest navy in the world.

“The navy agreed not to use dogs, but did import 5,000 rats, 204 goats and 200 pigs, among other creatures”

More controversy erupted in the spring of 1946. First, the US military evicted all 167 native Bikinians from the islands and relocated them. The islands’ military governor had the chutzpah to call them lucky, comparing them to the Israelites being freed from bondage in Egypt and led into the promised land. (One guess who Moses was…)

Second, in keeping with the biblical motif, the navy brought an ark’s worth of animals to Bikini and distributed them among the target ships, to test the biological effects of atomic bombs. After this was announced, several thousand angry letters poured into US government offices. Ninety people even volunteered to take the animals’ places, including the writer EB White and a prisoner in San Quentin who said he wanted to do society some good for a change. The navy agreed not to use dogs, but did import 5,000 rats, 204 goats and 200 pigs, among other creatures.

A survivor recovered from a target ship during the 1946 Bikini Atoll tests is given a blood transfusion by researchers assessing the effects of the blast

To make the experiment more realistic, scientists dressed the larger animals in military uniforms the day before the test and cut their hair to human length. Pigs were chosen because they have organs that resemble human beings’, while several of the goats had undergone conditioning to make them prone to psychotic breakdowns; this would supposedly help determine the psychological effects of nuclear war.

The grand experiment began at 9am on 1st July 1946. A few minutes beforehand, thousands of sailors began lining the decks of the support ships outside Bikini lagoon. Officers ordered them not to look at the blast, but of course everyone did; the savvier ones watched with one eye closed, just in case. A joke making the rounds that morning had it that if the bomb obliterated Bikini, they could always change the name to Nothing Atoll. Still, most men were nervous: in the 11 months since Nagasaki, no atomic weapons had been detonated, and the Bomb had acquired an almost supernatural aura in the public imagination.

Sailors’ stomachs knotted as a B-29 bomber, Dave’s Dream, appeared overhead. In its belly lay the nuke, which the flyboys had christened “Gilda”, after bombshell Rita Hayworth’s role in a recent flick. (Officially, the bomb test was known as Able, for A.) The bomb target, the USS Nevada, sat 3.5 miles from the Bikini shore, wedged in among a half-dozen other ships. The navy had painted Nevada hazard orange to make it easy to spot. The bombers missed anyway. Gilda detonated 520 feet over the water, as she was supposed to, but fell 650 yards northwest of Nevada, near an aircraft carrier.

The equivalent of 50 million pounds of TNT exploded in Gilda’s bosom. The cyclopean sailors saw a flash of light and felt a warm flush on their cheeks; it took the roar two full minutes to reach them. The animals on the ships had less warning. The bomb vaporised everything nearby and sent a shock wave rocketing outward at 10,000 miles per hour. Many of the animals died from the concussive force, and five vessels within a thousand yards of the “zeropoint” started sinking. Every last animal aboard those ships was trapped and drowned in the wreckage. Except one.

Pig 311 – named for the numbered tag on her ear – had been dressed in a uniform and locked in the officer’s head (toilet) aboard the Japanese cruiser Sagawa, 420 yards from the zeropoint. After the blast, it looked as if a giant had crushed Sagawa under his boot heel; the blast tore a hole in Sagawa’s side as well, and she began sinking. Somehow, though, amid the destruction, the toilet door popped open. And Pig 311 somehow got stripped naked and avoided being skewered as she scrambled through the wreckage and plunged into the lagoon. A patrol boat sent in to gawk at the damage the next morning (fallout, schmallout) found her frothing up the water, piggy-paddling for shore. She was six months old, mostly white with black patches, and weighed 50lb.

Despite the miraculous rescue, veterinarians took 311 for a goner.

During the Baker explosion of 25th July 1946, a condensation plume is captured briefly enveloping the narrower mushroom cloud within

She started losing weight and her hair fell out. More ominously, her blood-cell counts dropped, since radiation kills the bone marrow responsible for making new blood cells. Based on the symptoms in other exposed animals, her stomach and brain likely started to swell, and her liver likely started to atrophy – radiation sickness at its most acute. But somehow over the next few weeks she stabilised. Her hair grew back and her cell counts levelled off, then began to climb. Pretty soon she began gaining weight, and other vital signs sprang back, too. Before long she looked normal again.

The military, naturally, delighted in her recovery. Officials were eager to downplay the threat of nuclear weapons, and as soon as Pig 311 looked fat and happy again, they began promoting her as a folk hero – the little piggy who defied the big bad bomb. And the public bought the story hook, line and stinker. Life magazine ran a photo spread, and a syndicated columnist declared her “a symbol of mind over matter and of pork over both”. She soon landed a prized pen in the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where visitors from across the country lined up to see her. Some pig.

“Within ten milliseconds, the centre of the lagoon lit up like a diamond, and three million cubic feet of water vaporised into steam”

The Pig 311 propaganda (pro-pig-anda?) had one overriding purpose – to reassure the public about the safety of nuclear weapons. To a remarkable degree, it worked. True, when we look back on the nuclear age nowadays, we can’t help but think of radioactive milk and children diving under desks. But America’s national nuclear freak-out didn’t start right away. In the 1940s and early 1950s, people were just as likely to pooh-pooh nuclear weapons, even chuckle over them. Rather than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they might think of Operation Crossroads and Pig 311. Because really, if a pig could survive an A-bomb, how bad could it be?

This complacency dovetailed nicely with the US government’s goal of testing as many nuclear weapons as possible, as quickly as it could.The military managed to squeeze in 200 tests over the next two decades, and we’re still living with the consequences today: even 60 years later, we’re still inhaling some of the radioactive atoms these bombs gave birth to.

Incredibly, the US military originally wanted to vaporise a few of the Galápagos Islands with the Crossroads bombs. They finally settled on Bikini despite the limited space, fragile ecosystem and unpredictable winds there.

The Gilda/Able test on 1st July was the fourth atomic bomb blast in history; the fifth occurred three weeks later, in the Baker test on 25th July. The Baker bomb, dubbed Helen of Bikini, lacked much predetonation drama: instead of being dropped from a plane, it exploded 90 feet underwater, to mimic a sneak attack on a fleet. But the postdetonation special effects more than made up for it. Within ten milliseconds, the centre of the lagoon lit up like a diamond, refulgent with light, and three million cubic feet of water vaporised into steam. In addition, two million gallons of water went whooshing upward in the biggest fountain the world had ever seen, 2,000 feet across and 6,000 feet tall. Nine ships sank immediately, killing more pigs and goats and rats. The surviving fleet was drenched in what one study called a “witch’s brew” of radioactive water.

Despite the drenching, the navy tried to salvage these remaining ships as well as save any animals on them. How? By sending in thousands of sailors to wash the decks. A good scrubbing with lye, the admirals figured, and a fresh coat of paint should take care of any pesky radioactivity. When this plan failed – the onboard Geiger counters kept chattering away – the admirals were shocked. Could plutonium really withstand whitewash? Eventually, the navy admitted defeat and abandoned or sold for scrap 60 of the 90 ships. Even more worrisome, after removing the animals, the navy noticed an increasing number of health problems among them: they suffered the same fatigue and weight loss and low blood-cell counts as Pig 311 but never improved.

“Early trials focused on one question: how well the average American home would stand up to a megaton nuclear blast. Not very well, it turns out”

For the most part the public remained in the dark about these long-term problems. Most reporters had left Bikini immediately after the bombs exploded, and they’d generally downplayed the threat of atomic weapons in the dispatches they filed. As mentioned, nuclear bombs had obtained almost mythological powers in people’s minds since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In early 1946 military scientists actually had to put out statements reassuring the public that despite rumours to the contrary, the Bikini tests would not “destroy gravity” or “blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole”. So when Gilda and Helen failed to usher in the apocalypse – and in fact left several ships afloat in the lagoon – reporters scoffed. They began to dismiss atomic bombs, mocking them as “distinctly overrated”. Few did any follow-up reporting or considered the possibility that the real danger might be invisible.

In taking this stand, reporters were also telling the public what the public longed to hear. Call it cowardice, call it human nature, but after several million deaths and 44 months of inch-by-inch warfare on two continents – and then another year of hysterical stories about the Bomb on top of that – most people just wanted to get on with their lives, not keep fretting. The anticlimax at Bikini even gave them permission to laugh a little. People threw parties with angel-food cakes shaped like mushroom clouds. Nightclubs boasted of their “anatomic bomb” dancers. And French designers, naturellement, released a two-piece swimsuit every bit as compact and dangerous, they winked, as the weapons at Bikini.

This apathy enabled the United States government to keep testing bombs – a programme that accelerated after the Soviet Union detonated its first nuke in 1949. American test sites ranged almost from sea to shining sea, as far northwest as the Aleutian Islands and as far southeast as Mississippi. Most tests took place in Nevada.

Many of these early trials focused on one question: how well the average American home would stand up to a megaton nuclear blast. Not very well, it turns out. To run these tests scientists erected rows of houses and storefronts in the Nevada desert, which they cheerily named Survival City. Each house was stocked with furniture and food, as well as mannequins doing everyday, nuclear-family things like sleeping in bed, playing with Baby, or entertaining friends with drinks and records.

It was pretty clear from the get-go that nothing much would survive in Survival City. Whenever bombs went off, buildings within a few hundred yards of the zeropoint crumbled into ash. Homes farther afield might remain standing, but most of the dummies inside were burned and splintered; a few mannequin children got decapitated. With determined optimism, however, military scientists announced that things hadn’t been so bad. They even dug a few iceboxes out of the rubble and cooked up the frozen strawberries, chicken pot pies and French fries inside for a focus group, to show how people could expect to live in the Bomb’s aftermath. The diners declared the meal delectable.

A test car awaits an atomic blast during a nuclear weapons test in the Nevada desert, 17th March 1953

In the Nevada tests lifelike situations were recreated using mannequins to simulate a nuclear attack on American soil

Health officials, too, fed plenty of tripe to the public. One doctor suggested that far from harming the body, radioactivity actually “stimulates the spermatocytes”. He added that “plutonium, next to alcohol, is probably one of the better things in life” and claimed that he used it in his tooth powder. A Harvard psychologist declared that the biggest threat humanity would face after a nuclear attack wasn’t, say, millions of deaths or the collapse of civilisation, but too much unmarried sex among the survivors.

All the while, though, unsettling news was circulating about the longer-term and more insidious effects of nuclear weapons. Fast-acting cancers such as leukaemia were already decimating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even Pig 311, although living high on the hog at the National Zoo, turned out to be sterile. She also ballooned to 600lb and died in 1950 at age four and a half, markedly young for a pig. Maybe radiation wasn’t one of the good things in life.

“Sheer inertia allowed nuclear tests to continue for a spell, but by the late 1950s American citizens began protesting en masse”

Worse, a scary new word entered the national vocabulary in the early 1950s: fallout. Most radioactive fallout from US weapons testing settled in the Nevada desert, and the government monitored it carefully there. But the government had no national detection programme at first, because scientists didn’t realise that mushroom clouds could carry fallout high into the atmosphere, where winds dispersed it widely. In fact, the first people to realise just how far fallout spreads were employees of the Eastman Kodak Company, who discovered that some of the packing material they used for shipping was radioactive. It was made of recycled corn husks from southwest Indiana, and it was discharging at high enough rates to ruin whole crates of film.

Fallout clouds consisted of several types of particles. The clouds themselves were sometimes tinted red at first from all the nitrogen oxide gases that formed in the heat of nuclear blasts. But the really dangerous stuff was invisible: lone, rogue, radioactive atoms that appeared when plutonium split into fragments, everything from antimony-125 to zirconium-97. Plutonium fission also released neutrons, which stuck fast to otherwise friendly molecules like N2 and turned them radioactive. These radioactive species then migrated thousands of miles in high-altitude air currents, either settling out on their own or getting snagged by rainstorms and turning unsuspecting cities – Albany, New York, or Minot, North Dakota – into nuclear hotspots. Counterintuitively, driving rains were actually less dangerous, since they produced more runoff and washed radioactivity away; mists, meanwhile, allowed radioactive bits to linger.

The world had never known a threat quite like fallout. One writer at the time commented about the anguish of staring at every passing cloud and wondering what dangers it might hold. “No weather report since the one given to Noah,” he said, “has carried such foreboding for the human race.”

More than any other danger, fallout shook people out of their complacency about nuclear weapons. By the early 1960s, radioactive atoms (from both Soviet and American tests) had seeded every last square inch on Earth; even penguins in Antarctica had been exposed. People were especially horrified to learn that fallout hit growing children hardest. One fission product, strontium-90, tended to settle onto breadbasket states in the Midwest, where plants sucked it up into their roots. It then began travelling up the food chain when cows ate contaminated grass. Because strontium sits below calcium on the periodic table, it behaves similarly in chemical reactions. Strontium-90 therefore ended up concentrated in calcium-rich milk – which then got concentrated further in children’s bones and teeth when they drank it. One nuclear scientist who had worked at Oak Ridge and then moved to Utah, downwind of Nevada, lamented that his two children had absorbed more radioactivity from a few years out West than he had in 18 years of fission research.

Even ardent patriots, even hawks who considered the Soviet Union the biggest threat to freedom and apple pie the world had ever seen, weren’t exactly pro-putting-radioactivity-into-children’s-teeth. Sheer inertia allowed nuclear tests to continue for a spell, but by the late 1950s American citizens began protesting en masse. The activist group SANE ran ads that read “No contamination without representation”, and within a year of its founding in 1957, SANE had 25,000 members. Detailed studies of weather patterns soon bolstered their case, since scientists now realised just how quickly pollutants could spread throughout the atmosphere.

Pop culture weighed in as well, with Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk and Godzilla – each the victim of a nuclear accident – debuting during this era. The various protests culminated in the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain signing a treaty to stop all atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963. (China continued until 1974, France until 1980.) And while this might seem like ancient history – JFK signed the test-ban treaty, after all – we’re still dealing with the fallout of that fallout today.

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