A Voyage to Bikini

Sitting in my super-cooled room in the Distinguished Visitors Quarters (DVQ) in Kwajalein, I

Kwajalein Atoll

Kwajalein Atoll

found myself questioning my sanity. At the prompting of the Marshall Islands program manager, who was known to have a bizarre sense of humor, we decided it would be good for me and DOE’s Contracting Officer Technical Representative (COTR) to accompany the program team on the ship to deploy the Livermore scientists and their equipment to Bikini Atoll. After all, it couldn’t hurt to learn how the field operation worked.

Get up, dress up and show up. My body, still weary from the Honolulu to Kwajalein flight, took direction very, very slowly but it did take direction.  As I walked out the double doors (one of which is always locked) of the DVQ that early morning, my glasses fogged up and I felt as though I had been slugged by the heat. The beauty of the Marshall Islands is that weather forecasts are simple. At that latitude, the air temperatures are 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit (24-7; 365), the humidity is 85% to 90%, and the water temperature is 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless there’s a typhoon, the only variable is whether the water is staying in the air or falling in drops on your body. If there is a typhoon, then it is also windy and the seas are high.

The walk to the ship’s berth was short. The area was bathed in the yellow light of work lamps and it was a hive of activity. I dropped on the closest unobtrusive flat spot and watched in pride as the program team assembled then loaded a large number of containers, a beaten up old pick-up, a back hoe, two brand new chest freezers, as well as an assortment of food, supplies, and instruments of all shapes and sizes. One of the members of the program team was a diminutive woman with flowing strawberry red hair. Married to one of the other team members, I knew her to be smart and competent. What I saw on the dock that early morning was a dynamo. I have seen a 6’4”, 300 pound longshoreman swinging a baseball bat less effective than she was at the dawn of the day.

We were scheduled to leave with the tide at 10:00 A.M. that morning. As I wandered up, they offered coffee in the galley and I jumped at the chance for a cup. The ship was 180 feet in length. The bridge was forward and stowage aft on a long flat deck. Over coffee I learned that our august vessel was an old tender. Purchased by DOE in the late 1980s following her last assignment, the Challenger disaster, she served as a critical link in the Marshall Island program logistics chain. The smaller containers had been converted into air conditioned quarters to house the scientists by the program team.

Well before ten hundred hours cargo, scientists, and ‘distinguished visitors’ were stowed. We assembled to meet our Captain in the galley. The Captain’s briefing covered simple-housekeeping; where the heads were located and water conservation requirements. We were also given the obligatory safety briefing. Clearly, the Captain had briefed managers and scientists before. He used single syllable words in short declarative sentences. Next we met the cook. Cook had worked for the program twelve years and he never gotten over being sea sick. Thanks to him, we knew where to find the best food in the Pacific and the AB pills or Dramamine patches to make it through the nauseating adjustment from land to ship. As we sailed out of Kwajalein Atoll that morning, I remember thinking how big the Pacific really was and the ship that looked so large at dawn, seemed very small now.

After playing with the ship’s sextant for an hour, I was about as sick as a person can be. The

Using a sextant at sea can make a land-lubber deathly ill. I'll testify to that.

Using a sextant at sea can make a land-lubber deathly ill. I’ll testify to that.

perennially seasick cook fed me cookies and AB pills. Trundling off to the cabin I shared with DOE’s COTR, I was dismayed to learn that rank had been pulled. I slept on the top bunk. Actually the AB pills lived up to their reputation and I became general cargo on the top bunk. I imagined I could hear our grumpy Captain and seasick Cook humming ‘just the way, aha, aha, I like it’.

I woke with a start to the deafening sound of silence, unbuckled my restraint and fell from the top bunk. The COTR was already dressed and just leaving our quarters. I threw clothes on and followed. Seems we’d been through a storm (boy do I LOVE AB pills) and the waves washed over the ship. The engine room had been swamped. The crew was working to restart the engines so we could stop playing cork in the Pacific.

It was the middle of a moonless night and the sky was ablaze with starlight. It was awe inspiring.  I didn’t tarry long staring at the stars, however. Locating the now busy project team, I asked for a damage report. Seems that both freezers were damaged and the cargo had shifted. About then, a muffled yell came sailing along on the breeze. My quizzical look prompted the tumbled tale of the load shifting and blocking one of the scientists from leaving his container quarters.  The scientist couldn’t be released until the program team figured out how to undo the mess and he was mad; really, really mad.  We finally got his door propped open far enough to relieve his claustrophobia but his rage was in full bloom. He was finally pacified with booze. Whatever works! I was amused by his colleagues. They spent their time figuring out how long it would take the container to sink based on various conditions.

By mid-morning the ship’s engines were back in business, the Captain resumed his “I hate

The elegant Manta Ray

The elegant Manta Ray

everyone position”, the scientist had been rescued but refused to leave his container, and the cook was seasick. The COTR and I ate a great meal, watched the gentle 10 foot swells of the blue, blue Pacific lift and lower the ship; up and down, up and down. We quickly downed another dose of AB pills and became general cargo once more.

This pattern repeated for a couple of days. The program crew worked and we managers were safely stowed in our quarters out of harm’s way. My next solid recollection is the breathtaking beauty of Bikini Atoll as it grew from a speck on the horizon to a verdant lost

Sunset over lagoon at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia.

Sunset over lagoon at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia.

paradise. The ship finally entered the Bikini Atoll Lagoon on the late afternoon’s rising tide. The old girl was anchored just off of Bikini Island and the next morning the crew and cargo would go ashore. That night we enjoyed a wonderful meal prepared by the seasick Cook. Dinner was followed by a glass of wine on deck listening to tales spun by the Captain, the scientists and, of course, the war stories of the program team. While we talked and laughed, the lights attracted giant rays that performed an intricate feeding ballet of incredible beauty.

I will always love the Pacific.

  • ElCubanoLibre

    Wonderful autobiographical writing! Kind of a mix of Evelyn Waugh, George Kennan, and Ayn Rand, all deftly synthesized but made original by your always-accepting heart and ever-exploring mind. Thank you, Solidus, for sharing your life and wisdom with us. Keep ‘em coming!

    • solidus

      Thank you for your kind words, El Cubano Libre! Cowboys and the Collective coming later today.

  • Richard L. Williams

    Did they have a rad meter handy? I think we nuked Bikini at least 25 times in the ’50′s.

    • Solidus1

      Our job was too support the scientific programs out of LLNL to complete the environmental remediation on Bikini. It was an interesting effort. There were two tests in Operation Crossroads, Albe and Baker, and twenty one additional shots over the atmospheric test time-frame (1946-1962). The Marshall Islands Program also included Eniwetok and several other areas.