Aboard the USS Fall River (CA-131), Hampton Roads, Virginia, 31 Jan 1946 – When the war ended in August 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, the day I turned twenty-one.
My XO (Executive Officer) asked if I had a preference for postwar duty. I said, “Yes, sir! After three years in the hot and humid Pacific, I would like to request duty in the Atlantic Fleet, sir!” I had never been to Europe and envisioned liberty in European ports.
On Tuesday, 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. Europe here I come!
On Thursday, 24 January, I reported aboard the Fall River and was shown to my quarters for the Sixth Division, Gunnery Department. Then a fellow Gunner’s Mate told me something I didn’t want to hear: scuttlebutt was the Fall River may be heading to the Pacific. Back to the Pacific? I thought. That was the last place I wanted to go. My shipmate said scuttlebutt was right maybe 50 percent of the time. What an optimist.
The day I reported aboard the Fall River, Vice Admiral W. H. P. Blandy, USN, had announced the plans for postwar atomic bomb testing before a Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy. After dropping the bomb in August 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the military wanted to test the bomb on warships and other vessels. Blandy would be the Commander of Joint Task Force One. The location would be Bikini, a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands. The code name: Operation CROSSROADS.
In the days that followed Blandy’s announcement, there was a flurry of activity aboard ship. Men coming and going. Supplies uploaded. But as far as my shipmates and I knew, the Fall River was still headed to Europe.
On Thursday, 31 January, the skipper received new orders: the Fall River was being transferred to the Pacific Fleet. Before the day was over, the Fall River was en route to the Pacific via the Panama Canal. My hopes for European duty were dashed.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I would participate in 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.