The heavy cruiser USS Fall River (CA-131) was the Target Vessel Control Ship at Operation Crossroads, the first post-war atomic bomb tests at Bikini in the Marshall Islands in July 1946. The Fall River was responsible for positioning the 95 target vessels in the Bikini Lagoon for the Able and Baker bomb blasts, the first from the air and the second from underwater. From January to August 1946, William L. McGee, U.S. Navy, served aboard the Fall River and witnessed the two blasts from a distance of about 10-to-15 feet.
Though not measured at the time, today there is no doubt the Fall River and the men aboard her were subjected to high dosages of ionizing radiation, later the cause of terminal cancers for the men and the early demise of the once mighty heavy cruiser.
Timeline of the Short Life of the USS Fall River (CA-131)
9 Jul – Ordered
12 Apr – Keel laid down. Builder is New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, New Jersey.
13 Aug – Launched. Sponsored by Mrs. Alexander C. Murray, wife of the mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts.
1 Jul – Commissioned with Captain David S. Crawford, USN, in command.
8 Aug-27 Sep – Shakedown cruise, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
21-29 Oct – Navy Day celebrations in Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts.
29 Oct-10 Jan – Atlantic Fleet Operational Development Force, Norfolk, Virginia.
1946 – Operation Crossroads, Bikini, Marshall Islands, for Post-War Atomic Bomb Tests
31 Jan – New assignment with First Division Cruisers, Pacific Fleet. Departs Hampton Roads, Virginia for Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and Operation Crossroads, the first postwar atomic bomb tests.
5-8 Feb – Visits Panama Canal Zone.
9-16 Feb – Departs Panama Canal Zone for San Pedro Bay and Port of Los Angeles.
16 Feb-6 Mar – San Pedro Bay, Port of Los Angeles. Undergoes alterations to serve as flagship.
6-12 Mar – Departs San Pedro Bay for Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii.
12 Mar-21 May – Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. Undergoes numerous training exercises and maneuvers at sea and in port. Embarked RAdm F. G. Fahrion, USN, Commander Naval Task Group 1.2.
21-27 May – Departs Pearl Harbor for Bikini.
27 May-31 Jul – Arrives at the Bikini Atoll for Operation Crossroads. Fall River is Target Vessel Control Ship, under the command of RAdm F. G. Fahrion, USN. The Fall River is in charge of positioning the target vessels in the Bikini Lagoon for Test Able from the air on 1 Jul, and Test Baker from underwater on 25 Jul.
Aug – After Operation Crossroads, the Fall River remains in the Marshall Islands for post-tests evaluation and clean-up.
9 Sept – Departs the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands for Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. Drops off RAdm F. G. Fahrion, now promoted to Commander, Advance Echelon, Joint Task Force One.
26 Sept – Departs Pearl Harbor for San Pedro, California.
5–22 Oct – Undergoes tender repairs in San Pedro.
22-29 Oct – Navy Day celebrations, Portland, Oregon. According to local media, the Fall River is the biggest ship to enter the city’s harbor. She holds open house for three days and an estimated 15,000 persons tour the decks, creating long lines on the dock. There is no talk about the ship’s possible contamination.
Dec – Decontamination operations in the Long Beach-San Pedro area. Includes dry-docking to scrape the ship’s bottom.
12 Jan-17 Jun – Extensive tour of Far East as Flagship of Cruiser Division I. Receives the Navy Occupation Service Medal, Asia, for the periods 12 Jan-17 Apr 1947 and 27 Apr-17 Jun 1947. Receives the China Service Medal for the period 18-26 Apr 1947.
17 Jun – Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington, for overhaul.
31 Oct – Decommissioned, placed in reserve at the Puget Sound Navy Yard.
The Fall River comes close to having a second career as a Guided Missile Cruiser (CG). However the Columbia (CA-74), scheduled for decommissioning in fiscal 1959, was substituted for the Fall River because it is less expensive to convert a decommissioning ship than to bring a mothballed ship out of reserve.
19 Feb – The Fall River is struck from the Naval Register. Although the Fall River was positioned 10 miles or more from the target ships and the Able and Baker atomic blasts at Operation Crossroads, she took on so much radiation and was still so “hot,” it is decided to send her to the shipwrecker’s yard.
28 Aug – The Fall River is sold for scrap to Zidell Explorations Corp., Portland, Oregon. However, 200 tons of Armor Plate are put to use at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, Illinois.
In her short life, the USS Fall River (CA-131) participated in one of the most important events of the twentieth century – the dawning of the nuclear age
All that remains today of the once mighty heavy cruiser is the prow section of the bow, on display at Battleship Cove, Fall River, Mass.
Timeline from Operation Crossroads, Lest We Forget! An Eyewitness Account, Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests 1946 by William L. McGee with Sandra V. McGee.
Available in Paperback & eBook
Sources: USS Fall River (CA-131) “Command History”; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. II.