July 1, 2017 – Seventy-one years to the day after the Test Able atomic bomb test at the Bikini Atoll, former USS Fall River shipmates Bill McGee and Paul Dowling reconnected by telephone, thanks to Paul Dowling’s daughter, Paula. “My dad was at Operation CROSSROADS in 1946,” wrote Paula in an email to Bill in May. “Many years later, he had a ballcap embroidered with the USS Fall River on it, hoping, when he traveled, another shipmate might see his cap and they would reconnect. When I found your book Operation Crossroads – Lest We Forget! on Amazon, I knew I wanted a copy for my dad – signed by you.”
Paula and I exchanged emails, and set up a phone call for the two atomic veterans on July 1, the 71st anniversary date of Test Able.
Flashback to 1 July 1946, 0859 Bikini time. Gunner’s Mates Paul Dowling and Bill McGee knelt on the deck of the heavy cruiser, USS Fall River (CA-131), faced away from the 95 target vessels strategically positioned in the Bikini Lagoon, closed their eyes tightly, covered their eyes with bended arm against their faces, and awaited the explosion of a 23 kiloton TNT atomic bomb to be released from a Superfortress B-29 flying above the target fleet. This was the first postwar atomic bomb test, code-named Test Able. The world awaited anxiously by their radios. No one knew what to expect.
Paul Dowling was a Fourth Division trigger man for the 5″-38, fast firing guns. “The Fall River was about ten miles from the blast and I remember feeling the heat of the explosion,” recalled Mr. Dowling, who believes he may have spotted himself in a photo on page 61 of the book…the photo of Fall River shipmates observing the gigantic cloud from Test Able after the order “Carry on” was announced over the loudspeaker.
Bill McGee was in the Sixth Division, responsible for manning the 40-mm antiaircraft guns. Bill recalled, “Even though my eyes were covered and my back was to the blast, I still saw a flash of light. I’ve wondered if my macular degeneration later in life was caused by exposure to radiation, but no doctor has ever wanted to discuss it.”
Today, the number of Operation Crossroads atomic veterans is dwindling, but their bond of having a front row seat at one of the world’s most significant events remains as strong as ever.
And the irony is not lost on these atomic vets from 71 years ago that nuclear weapons are still in the headlines today.