To commemorate the occasion, a special series of posts will present highlights from Bill McGee’s naval memoir, Operation Crossroads – Lest We Forget! An Eyewitness Account, Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests 1946. Added to his accounts, will be archival footage and radio broadcasts from the test site.
Come aboard the heavy cruiser USS Fall River as atomic veteran and naval historian William L. McGee provides his eyewitness account of the dawning of the nuclear age.
Europe Here I Come: January 1946
When the war ended in August/September 1945, I still had thirteen months left to serve on my four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy. My discharge would be 30 September 1946, when I turned twenty-one. My XO (Executive Officer) asked me if I had a preference for postwar duty. “Yes, sir,” I said. “After three years in the hot and humid Pacific, I would like to request duty in the Atlantic Fleet.” I had never been to Europe and envisioned visiting European ports.
On 22 January 1946, I received the news I was hoping for: orders to report for duty aboard the USS Fall River (CA-131), a fairly new heavy cruiser attached to the Atlantic Fleet. She was moored at the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. I was going to Europe.
Two days later, a fellow Gunner’s Mate in the Sixth Division told me something I didn’t want to hear. Scuttlebutt was the Fall River may be heading to the Pacific. Back to the Pacific? That was the last place I wanted to go. My shipmate said scuttlebutt was right maybe 50 percent of the time. What an optimist, I thought.
Scuttlebutt was the Fall River may play a part in the first postwar atomic bomb tests at a remote location in the Marshall Islands. I knew something about these tests from recent stories in the news. In fact, the day I reported aboard the Fall River, Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy, USN, announced the postwar atomic bomb tests before a Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy. Blandy would be the Commander of Joint Task Force One. The location would be the remote Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The code name: Operation Crossroads.
In Blandy’s words: In the face of this new knowledge, these recently discovered truths concerning the atom, so suddenly thrust upon an already chaotic world, not only warfare but civilization itself literally stands at the Crossroads. Hence the name of this Operation. —Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy, USN, Commander, Joint Task Force One, Operation Crossroads
In the days that followed Blandy’s announcement, there was a flurry of activity aboard the Fall River. Men coming and going. Supplies being uploaded. As far as scuttlebutt was concerned, the Fall River was still headed to Europe.
Then, on 31 January, the skipper received new orders: the Fall River was transferred to the Pacific Fleet and would head out shortly to the Marshall Islands and the Bikini Atoll.
My hopes for European duty were dashed.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I would bear witness to one of the most important events of the twentieth century – the dawning of the nuclear age.
Excerpted from Operation Crossroads, Lest We Forget! An Eyewitness Account, Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests 1946 by William L. McGee with Sandra V. McGee. Sign up for Sandra’s Occasional Newsletter to receive all the posts in your inbox.