A View from Bikini Atoll, 1946
Jason McDonald, History
At the beginning of the atomic age, the United States Navy was anxious to show that naval warfare still had relevance. Desperate to prove that their ships could survive atomic attack, the U.S. armed forces gathered a fleet that included obsolete battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, surrendered German and Japanese warships and numerous auxiliary and amphibious vessels, to use as targets for nuclear explosions at Bikini Atoll, 2,500 miles south-southwest of Pearl Harbor, in July 1946.
Watching the tests from eleven and one tenth miles away, was Lloyd W. Perkins, Grace Church School Class of 1943. “It was a beautiful orange-pinkish-purplish color,” Perkins wrote home after the first test on June 30, 1946. “The actual flash was like a rapid sun rising, a ball of fire which changed into multicolored cotton clouds which reached for the heaven. At the ultimate point of ascension, it looked like a cone of spun sugar cotton sold at county fairs and the like. It was a skyscraper of built up clouds.”
In 1939, Lloyd Perkins’ family had moved from Texas to Bayonne, New Jersey. “Walter Russell Bowie was Rector of Grace when Mr. Ernest Mitchell, our magnificent Choir Master, gave me the opportunity of a lifetime,” Perkins recalls, “to attend Grace [Church] School and to sing in Grace’s beautiful choir.” Perkins would sing duets with the bus driver to entertain passengers between Bayonne and Manhattan. “My family supported me by giving me 50 cents a day for a round-trip on the Hudson Country Bus Line from Bayonne to New York City, by myself.”
While Perkins enjoyed his time at Grace, the Great Depression and World War II stretched the means of many in his community. Perkins remembered the charity of Grace Church to those affected by the Depression. “Times were tough. Men were fired from their jobs, along with the young women who were put out on the streets, and placed by Bowie in the choristers’ former dormitory.”
Perkins fondly remembers the sermons of Bowie and Louis Weatherby Pitt. “I watched Pitt’s entire family support his ministry, sitting each Sunday, and other days, on the front rows,” Perkins recalls. Thinking of his years at Grace Church School, the friends he made there and the inspirational teachers, Perkins says, “I’ve never met any alumnus or alumna of Grace who didn’t appreciate this tolerant, God-loving, teaching school.”
Too young to see combat in World War II, he nevertheless entered the Army Air Corps in 1945, after two years at Westfield High School in New Jersey. In cadet flight training when the war ended, Perkins took the opportunity to join the enlisted staff of a top-secret operation rather than accepting an honorable discharge, which carried the risk of being drafted to serve with the army of occupation in Germany and Japan. He joined the Army communication crew for the Navy’s command ship for the Bikini mission, USS Mount McKinley, under the command of Admiral William H. P. Blandy, who named the atom bomb tests “Operation Crossroads.” Blandy told his men, “sea power, air power, and perhaps humanity itself are at the crossroads.” Perkins never met Blandy, but he did meet Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal on the command ship a number of times. He also met President Truman in Washington while he was assisting with preparations for the tests. Perkins knew it was top secret but said, “I was not fully aware of the nature of these tests at the time I volunteered. But I had been assured I would serve aboard the flagship, the headquarters of the entire operation. Frankly, I didn’t believe so many admirals and generals would expose themselves to an unknown and dangerous device without belief in their own survival.”
In the early days of atomic weapons, the bombs were hand-made and difficult and dangerous to construct. The Bikini bombs were the same type dropped on Nagasaki. The bomb intended for use on Bikini was nicknamed the “Demon Core” after twice killing nuclear assembly technicians. The next two bombs had to be substituted for Operation Crossroads because the “Demon Core” was too hot to handle safely. Perkins tracked the bombs, codenamed “pumpkins” because of their spherical shape. Perkins recalls, “I received, logged, and delivered all communication delivered to J-4 logistics [coordinating the materials required for the tests], including where the ‘pumpkins’ were located. I signed a promise not to reveal any of my duties or actions regarding the bomb for ten years.”
The tests were publicly announced and interest was worldwide. Even at the time, the tests were controversial. Manhattan Project scientists argued against the tests, and many were excluded as a result. Operation Crossroads was therefore a military test. All of Bikini’s native Marshallese inhabitants were removed, with the promise they would return when the island was free of radioactivity. Truman’s cabinet worried that public testing of an atomic bomb would encourage the Soviets to develop their own bomb; they did so in 1949. When Navy officers complained that the ships would be crewed in an actual attack, and the crew would enhance ship survivability, Admiral Blandy ordered 200 pigs, 60 guinea pigs, 204 goats, 5,000 rats, 200 mice, and sacks of grains containing insects to be dispersed among the ships of the target fleet. That caused animal rights activists to complain.
Perkins had a front-row seat to the first test, codenamed Able, on June 30, 1946. He later wrote his parents, “I spent the morning putting tape on my goggles; that is, over the holes which allowed the light to penetrate the inside (red tape). I was given some eight power field glasses by Master Sergeant Chandler for my own personal use; so, armed with the special goggles and field glasses, I was a better equipped person for observation than most of the personnel and officers aboard the ‘Mac’ [USS Mount McKinley].”
Perkins told his parents, “We didn't know for sure just how effective our glasses would be against the glare and there was a division of opinion as to whether we ought to look directly at the detonation, even with the glasses. Then we heard the electrifying voice of the bombardier, ‘Bombs Away, Bombs Away, Bombs Away!’ We all braced ourselves on the deck.”
“It seemed like that bomb would never go off, and we were very nervous at this stage of' the operation. Many questions raced through our minds. Is it a dud? Just as I decided to take a look, a tremendous flash occurred … and smoke covered the entire target area so that one could not see any of the ships. An immense cloud started rolling into the heavens.” The bomb drifted in flight and detonated over attack transport USS Gilliam, which sank immediately, and nine other ships sank within twenty-hours. Perkins wrote his parents, “the Sakawa (Japanese Cruiser) is entirely sunk. The Independence (aircraft carrier) was leveled, her superstructure entirely taken off and she was burning all night. The Saratoga (aircraft carrier) was hit but suffered only a small fire when her deck caught fire, as she was on the end of the array and far from the central area of the array. The Pennsylvania (battlewagon) has her whole side caved and her guns twisted. One destroyer capsized. The Nevada was burning but aside from being a little scorched, and a few of her superstructure ornaments being distorted, she's still afloat. Several APA's (transports) were distorted but not wholly sunk. I don't know how many landing craft were sunk but I'm sure it would be safe to say three, at least. That Sakawa was really something. The bomb must have landed almost directly on top of her, as she looks like half of her was vaporized (that is, while she stayed afloat).” Nevada survived the Able test, and was still afloat after Baker. Thirty-five percent of the test animals died; a pig that broke loose was found swimming in the lagoon and was taken back to the National Zoo in Washington.
A month later, Perkins was still on USS Mount McKinley for the second test, codenamed Baker. This test suspended the bomb, nicknamed “Helen of Bikini” underwater, ninety feet beneath landing craft USS LSM-60. A spectacular mushroom cloud composed of seawater created iconic photos of an atomic blast on July 25, 1946. The stern of battleship USS Arkansas scooped out a dark gash in the mushroom cloud, leading some observers to believe the battleship was lifted vertically straight up out of the water. LSM-60 disintegrated and was never seen again; not even parts were found. Perkins wrote his parents, “Drones (radio controlled planes) are on the job. They penetrate the massive, thick, white cloud of the appearance of steam. It is several minutes before she drifts away, but still investigation of damage is dangerous due to the tremendous radio-activity…the battleship Arkansas is missing! There’s an oil slick where she was formerly. The aircraft carrier Saratoga is sinking…slowly, slowly she slips down to her Bikini grave. Finally only her island shows above the watery horizon, and part of her landing deck. The number, three, on her flight deck is visible, then even this disappears. Soon “The Grand Old Lady” has disappeared in the sea that had seven times previously been said to have claimed her in Japanese communiques. These two ships are the only major battlers of Uncle Sam’s Navy which are sunk, other minor ships have sunk but none have the importance of the Arkansas and Saratoga.”
The Baker test revealed that the environmental concerns of the Manhattan Project scientists were accurate. No matter how they tried, Operation Crossroads personnel could not decontaminate the target fleet. The vessels were so radioactive that all the pigs and most of the rats aboard died, many waiting days in agony as the ships were too dangerous for humans to board. Many that survived Able and Baker, were towed back to Pearl Harbor but still couldn’t be cleaned up. They were sunk as targets. Bikini remains uninhabited today, except for the occasional sport diver; it is too radioactive for permanent settlement. The wreck of Independence was located in deep water in 2016; the hulk is still radioactive.
Lloyd Perkins was only on duty for eighteen months before discharge in November 1946. He entered the University of Texas, in Austin, in 1950, on the state of Texas GI Bill. He graduated law school there in 1953. He continued his education with a Masters in Taxation and Estate Planning at Southern Methodist University in 1974.
Perkins joined the law firm of Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, Bates, and Jaworski in Houston, but soon was appointed Assistant United States Attorney for Eastern Texas in 1959, and was appointed a state judge by Governor Dolph Briscoe in the seventies.
He came to question the need for Operation Crossroads. He argues, “This year, 2017, is the seventy-first anniversary of Crossroads. We were and are so very ignorant of the awesome danger of radiation. One can’t see it or feel it. Bikini Atoll has been called a medically impossible place for human beings to live and enjoy life (seventy-one years of total destruction).”
He goes on to ask, “Would an ordinary prudent president or admiral order the conduction of an ‘Operation Crossroads’ right after firing three atomic bombs in New Mexico, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki without thorough examination (over a reasonable length of time) of the effects of both damage and radiation and decontamination, the then available instruments of control and decontamination, exposing the 156 natives of Bikini Atoll and 40,000 American service persons to long term illness and suffering?” Perkins and two other men are the only ones of his 32-man logistics detachment still alive seventy-one years later.
Perkins credits Grace with preparing him for a vibrant and exciting life. “[Becoming a judge] is due to the training I got at Grace.” Grace instilled a lifelong interest in education. Perkins and his wife have been married for sixty-six years. Their five children each hold at least two degrees; some have three. He says, “Grace was wonderful to me. It gave me so much. I can never repay all that I received from there. The education I received [at Grace] helped me in World War II, the Army Air Corps, Southern Methodist University, University of Texas Law School, and Dedman School of Law. [Grace helped me to] become a senior district Judge. It was worth commuting by bus from Bayonne, NJ to New York every day.”