Atomic bomb tests witness knows what fire and fury really is
By JEAN KOZUBOWSKI | The Salina Journal, Kan. | Published: September 22, 2017
LINDSBORG, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — Jim Attleson, of Lindsborg, watched an atomic bomb being dropped from a B36 airplane while he was 8 miles away on the USS Carpenter in late 1952 in the Marshall Islands. He had turned 20 that October.
Days later, he watched the first U.S. test of a hydrogen bomb from 40 miles away.
The sailors were told to go to the far side of the ship, kneel down, shut their eyes and cover their faces with their arms. The officers were given eye protection.
Even from 40 miles away, Attleson said, with his eyes closed and covered, he saw a blinding flash of light like a laser through his arms. The shock wave, he said, was "like someone set off a cannon alongside your ear."
There was not much comparison between the two bombs, Attleson said. He compared them to a BB gun and a 105 mm howitzer.
"It was not five, not 10, not 50 times, but the H-bomb was 500 times bigger than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Attleson said.
Attleson thinks dropping atomic bombs on Japan was the right thing to do because it saved millions of lives.
But he hopes it never has to happen again.
"We're in a hell of a lot of trouble if they do (drop more atomic bombs)," Attleson said. "You wonder, the havoc that could be wreaked dropping that on a civilian population."
He's following news reports that North Korea has developed a hydrogen bomb and missiles to carry it. Hydrogen bombs not only are more powerful than other bombs, they can be small enough to fit on a missile.
Experts think the H-bomb North Korea tested Sept. 3 was at least 140 kilotons, seven to eight times more powerful than the ones dropped on Japan.
President Donald Trump's rhetoric promising "fire and fury" for North Korea worries him.
"He doesn't know what fire and fury is," Attleson said.
Attleson has seen it firsthand.
Operation Ivy was the code name of the thermonuclear weapon program. There were two tests at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands. The first H-bomb, which Attleson saw detonated, was nicknamed Mike, for "megaton." It was a 10.4 megatons, with a two-stage device using a fission bomb, like an atomic bomb, as the primary stage. The second stage was liquid deuterium fusion fuel.
A-bombs use fission – splitting atoms – for energy. H-bombs use fission to fuel fusion – joining atomic nuclei – to release more energy. Fusion is what keeps the sun burning. H-bombs are properly called thermonuclear because of the high temperatures necessary for fusion.
Mike destroyed one of the islands, Elugelab, leaving a crater 164 feet deep and 6,240 feet across.
Much of the atoll was covered with radiation after the test, and the USS Carpenter had to be decontaminated before it could go back to its home port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Attleson said.
"It was an amazing experience, seeing what I saw," Attleson said.
Attleson was 17 when he graduated from high school in his hometown of New Hampton, Iowa. Two months later, he and a buddy joined the U.S. Navy.
A brother 10 years older had fought in the Navy in World War II. A brother 10 years younger than Jim would be in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
After boot camp, Attleson went to sonar school for six months and volunteered for submarine duty. He was on his way to school for integrated sonar when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 and he was abruptly reassigned to the Carpenter, code named Pirate for Operation Ivy, a new ship commissioned in 1949.
After leaving the Navy in May 1953, Attleson married his girlfriend, Dolores, and worked at Rocky Flats in Colorado.
"After seven years, I decided working with people was a lot more interesting than working with machines," he said.
Attleson ran an insurance company for a while, then moved to Lindsborg in 1970. He directed planned giving programs at Bethany College in Lindsborg, what was then St. Francis Boys Home and OCCK in Salina, among others. He retired from OCCK in 1994. Dolores died in 2010, after 55 years and 10 days of marriage. He'll turn 86 next month.
In 2012, Attleson was the first Korean War veteran from central Kansas to go on an honor flight to Washington, D.C., something of which he's especially proud.
Attleson has given several programs and talks over the years about what he saw while in the service, and people have borrowed much of his memorabilia and photographs, including a scrapbook of his Navy years. Not all of it has been returned, and the scrapbook was mistakenly sold at the senior center's garage sale.
If anyone has the scrapbook, it would mean a great deal to have the contents returned, he said.
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