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Former sailor recalls 1954 atomic bomb detonation

By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Tribune | Published: August 9, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) -- As the world reflects on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tom South knows firsthand the horrific destructive power of nuclear weapons.

On March 1, 1954, he was a seaman aboard the seaplane tender USS Curtiss. Anchored about 20 miles from Eniwetok Atoll in the western Pacific Ocean where Castle Bravo, a 15-megaton thermonuclear device, was detonated, South and his crewmates witnessed an explosion 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to the U.S. government.

It was at the time the most powerful weapon ever, surpassed later only by the Soviet Tsar Bomba, and would spew lethal radiation across the globe, sickening many and angering the Japanese, who revealed the secret test to the world.

"Having had a personal experience with the devastation you see from a distance as we saw aboard ship, it is almost unimaginable what it would be at ground zero," says South, now 81 and living in Tampa. "Obviously, those at ground zero are vaporized instantly. Those that died that way have no feeling, but you have to have some concern and feeling for those who didn't die and suffered over the years. When you see the devastation caused physically to some of these people you realized how horrific that device is in wartime."

South was assigned to the Curtiss on April 1, 1953. As a 20-year-old, low-ranking member of the supply department, he wasn't privy to command decisions. It was only through scuttlebutt that he got a sense of what was to transpire as the ship, damaged at Pearl Harbor and repaired in time to serve during World War II, steamed toward the Marshall Islands less than a year later.

"I wasn't included in any briefing or other kind of knowledge of what was going on," he says. "I do know one thing. The ship was fitted out with what looked like sprinklers. The purpose is that once we got underway after the blast, these sprinklers would wash away any kind of fallout."

Despite that, South says that at the time, nobody on board seemed concerned about being exposed to radioactive fallout. But the Navy had arranged other precautions as well.

A good number of the 300 or so sailors had been selected to observe the explosion. Some, who were ordered to watch the initial blast, were issued special protective goggles. Men like himself were given different instructions.

Shortly before the explosion, South took a position on a deck on the ship's port, or left side, where he was ordered to sit down, turn away from the water, put his knees to his chest and cross his arms over his eyes.

When Castle Bravo was detonated, South says he saw a tremendous flash.

"You could literally see the light, in spite of the fact you had eyes covered," he says.

At that point, South and the others were ordered to stand up and watch the billowing mushroom cloud, which rapidly reached a height of 5 miles, according to government records.

"Within seconds, you actually were seeing this boiling mass in an orange-yellow ball shape," says South. "As the cloud was forming and growing ever higher -- all of that fairly visible -- I think everybody was pretty much amazed."

A short while later, "you could see this series of ripples coming in on the water's surface toward the ship," South says. "That was the blast pressure and the sound. When it reached the ship, it sounded like a shotgun had gone off in my ear."

For the crew of the Curtiss, the fascination quickly dissipated. A short while after the blast, everyone went back to business, and the ship got underway.

But the explosion, about twice as strong as expected, wreaked havoc.

Castle Bravo spewed radioactive fallout around the world and gravely sickened nearby inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, according to the National Security Archives at George Washington University. Nearly 250 islanders were evacuated, as well as 28 American military personnel on a nearby island.

Nearly two dozen Japanese fishermen also were contaminated, "which made the test known to the world and roiled U.S-Japanese relations," according to the archives. "While the U.S. government claimed at the time that a shift in the wind spread the fallout far from the test site, a recent U.S. government report demonstrates that it was the volcanic nature of the explosion that dumped the fallout nearby."

The adverse health effects for inhabitants of Rangelop Atoll, 110 miles away from the test site, were severe. Some islands remained uninhabitable for years.

Just nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed 135,000, injured about 64,000 and created lifelong health issues for survivors, "this radiological calamity had a significant impact on world opinion," according to the archives. The test "helped spark the movement for a nuclear test moratorium which ultimately led to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty."

Over the years, many of the men aboard the Curtiss, as well as other ships, suffered the effects of exposure to radiation, says Bud Norris, a Curtiss crew member from 1951 to 1955 who ran the ship's memorial association until it was disbanded a few years back.

Norris, now 83 and living in Missouri, was the ship's radiation monitor. He used a Geiger counter to measure radiation levels.

"I didn't find at the time real high readings," he says. "But I got some pretty high readings later. I know we had to scrub down the ship very hard when we got back form the islands, because of the radiation. A lot of ships got hit bad."

Unlike some other crews, those on board the Curtiss didn't need to be evacuated immediately, Norris says, adding that he doesn't remember South, nor does South remember him. But over the years, crew members contracted cancer and some families experienced birth defects.

"We had a lot of people that I believe were affected by the radiation," Norris says. "Some had leukemia, some had lung cancer, but trying to prove it came from the radiation is another thing. The government hardly listens to most of them."

Still, the fight continues, Norris says, through an organization called the National Association of Atomic Veterans.

Tom South, still active in veterans issues, says he has been fortunate. In good health, not only has he been free from problems associated with Castle Bravo, he hasn't suffered from his exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam.

"I am very blessed," South says.

He left the Navy in 1955 and joined the Air Force, where he became a member of the Office of Special Investigations. After 12 years, he enlisted in the Army, joining the Criminal Investigation Command, where he spent another four years before retiring. And then he became a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, where he spent the next 18 years, including 14 in Tampa.

On the anniversary of the only two times an atomic weapon was used in combat, South says he has "moved on from being emotionally involved, if I ever was really emotionally involved," in the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But the destructive power of thermonuclear weapons, something he saw with his own eyes, is something he can never forget.

"I have come to realize since then that when you have that personal connection with visualizing the enormity of this thing firsthand, and then you see the injuries and ailments that people have, I think you get a better, or different, appreciation than you would have if you never had a view of the actual explosion."

haltman@tampatrib.com

(c) 2015 the Tampa Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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