A Christmas Island Tale

Dedicated to the Memory of Jack Livingston (1921-2007) and all the other ‘Rocket-Men’ of the Pacific

Jack Livingston told me about Christmas Island.  He’d been there in the 1960s with Holmes &

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Narver preparing the abandoned island for the scientists, engineers and technicians who would run the atmospheric nuclear tests that were part of Operation Dominic.  It was the late 1980s when Jack told me his tale.  He was sitting in his office on Johnston Island and I had wandered in from down the hall to see him.  Before we venture to Christmas Island, there are some things you ought to know about Jack.

Jack managed ‘real property’ on Johnston Atoll and did so in accordance with the Air Force regulations on such things.  Holmes & Narver, the company we both worked for, was a Department of Energy, DOE, Management and Operating Contractor, but on Johnston Island, we worked for the Air Force.  Of course, an on-island DOE Contracting Officer Technical Representative made certain the contract

Mike Boat

Mike Boat

boundaries were maintained.  I was in Jack’s office because a rule change that expanded the definition of real property was being met with some resistance.  Jack was not happy.  He kept track of all real property on 3X5 ruled index cards and his space looked like a rogue library card catalogue.  If, however, you needed a 40-year old propeller for a Mike Boat, Jack could produce one in no time from one of the many places he squirreled away inventory.

Jack had his back to me as I walked into his office.  He was in uniform; an Aloha shirt-out-and a pair of Bermuda shorts, brown shoes, white socks.  Our offices were inside an old, windowless, steel building.  The mish mash of ages and types of fluorescent lights coupled with the smell of ancient paper in a humid environment provided a unique ambience.  Jack growled at me about having to keep track of chairs on an island.  He was old then, mid to late 60s, wizened and bent with curly gray hair and a yellowed complexion from too many bouts with his liver.  His face bore deep furrows born of 40 years of curing in the tropical sun.  I suggested we procure an automated property management system like the government wanted us to do.  He turned then, and I braced for the onslaught.  The old curmudgeon was smiling but there was an edge in his voice as he commanded me, “sit”.  I sat, struggling to remember I was supposed to be the boss and in charge.  Jack advised me that he and a small team had prepared, inventoried and cataloged Christmas Island for nuclear testing in a very short time period without so much as a telephone and certainly no damn computers.

The Christmas Island of Jack’s narrative is Kiritimati (kee-rees-mass) Island according to the local language.  Formerly part of the Gilbert Island chain, Christmas Island is now

Christmas Island is a Pacific island nation that consists of 33 atolls straddling the equator and the International Date Line. (Image courtesy CIA World Factbook.)

Christmas Island is a Pacific island nation that consists of 33 atolls straddling the equator and the International Date Line. (Image courtesy CIA World Factbook.)

incorporated into the Kiribati nation, which gained independence from Britain in 1979.  Very close to the equator, Christmas Island is hot and humid all year long.  Kiribati is an island nation that of 33 far-flung atolls straddling the equator and the International Date Line. The islands extend about 2,400 mi (3,900 km) from west to east and about 1,300 mi (2,100 km) from north to south. Their combined land area is roughly 310 square mi (810 square km). Christmas Island occupies 248 of that area, making it the largest land area of any atoll in the world according to the CIA World Factbook.[1]  The famous Captain Cook discovered Christmas Island just weeks before he discovered Hawaii during his notorious ‘irrational’ phase “…Proceeding north, they discovered the Pacific’s largest atoll, Christmas Island (today’s Kiritimati), where they celebrated Christmas and Cook observed an eclipse of the sun. After stocking up on over a ton of green turtles, the ships departed on January 2, 1778….”[2]   To avoid confusion, be aware that there is another Christmas Island, an Australian protectorate, close to Jakarta.

Today about 5,000 people call Christmas Island home, but when Jack journeyed to the

Life Magazine Cover 20 July 1962

Life Magazine Cover 20 July 1962

location as part of a Holmes & Narver team from Johnston Atoll to support Operation Dominic, it was an abandoned British base.  Operation Dominic was born when, in 1961, the old Soviet Union unleashed fifty atmospheric tests dramatically breaking the moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing.  The Soviets were upset, or so they said, with France’s Pacific testing.   The U.S. woke up, fumbled about, and finally put together its official response, Operation Dominic.  According to Defense Nuclear Agency’s 1983 report, “…DOMINIC I was an atmospheric nuclear weapons test series conducted in the Pacific Ocean area in 1962. It included 5 high-altitude shots at Johnston Island, 29 airdrop airburst events near Johnston and Christmas Islands, one Polaris-launched airburst in the Christmas Island area, and one underwater test in the Pacific Ocean off the United States West Coast….”[3]

 

Of course, the American people needed an explanation as to why the country suddenly went nuke crazy and Life Magazine helped manage the public perception of Operation Dominic

BOMB TESTS: THIS MUST BE DONE

From Life Magazine, 1962.

Reluctantly-forced by the bleak hostility of Russian negotiators and the competitive pressure of Russian tests-the U.S. five days ago fired nuclear bombs in the atmosphere of the Pacific. After three years of trying to get the Soviets to agree to an effective arms inspection and control system, the U.S. found itself in the position of having to test again or losing its nuclear lead. Our tests centered on British-owned Christmas Island, just north of the equator, and our own Johnston Island, 700 miles southwest of Honolulu, 100 planes and 40 ships had three main jobs to do. Although they would work in deep secrecy, their efforts would most probably enter on tasks like those shown in the drawing below.

Illustration from Life Magazine

Illustration from Life Magazine

First we want to proof-test the weapons we have developed since our last atmospheric shots in 1958-for example, we have never fixed a warhead on one of our ballistic missiles. The current series will shoot the works, lobbing some warheads from planes (foreground), rocketing others from Johnston Island (left rear) and sending up a Polaris missile from the submerged submarine Ethan Allen (rear). We will also try out smaller warheads in our stockpile, such as the ship-launched antisubmarine rocket in the right foreground.

Second, we want to improve the efficiency of our weapons. Efficient bombs have more violence with less weight and allow a given missile or bomber to carry more destructive force. We will try out new kinds of bombs and new concepts of them from balloons over Christmas Island, measuring their efficiency with high-flying “sniffer” aircraft and with sensitive instruments on the islands and on barges anchored at sea.

Third, we want to find out the effect in atmospheric explosion has on such diverse things as missile sites, radar detection, radio communication and the functioning of delicate machinery. The Russians focused much of their test series last fall on this, and we in turn must know how seriously nuclear blasts may upset our defenses – or our enemies’. Also we will shoot warheads and packages of electronics equipment of Johnston Island to find out what happens to them when other warheads go off nearby-helping us decide whether we should spend billions of dollars trying to build an anti-missile missile.

Most of the series’ shots will go off far in the sky to minimize fallout; the radiation they produce should be much less than that for the last Russian tests. Our series is expected to go on for two or three months, during which 25 to 30 bombs will be set off. But the U.S. has made it very clear that we will terminate tests tomorrow if the Russians will do the same-and at last agree to a practicable way to keep anyone from cheating.[4]  

Jack and forty nine other workers from Johnston Atoll left for Christmas Island in the middle

Christmas Island Airport  during the early days.

Christmas Island Airport during the early days.

of February, 1962.  Their mission was to reactivate the Main Camp and within two weeks there were more than 800 American servicemen and civilians on the island.  Numbers rose rapidly, until by the time of the first “shot” on 25th April there were 3,500 British and American personnel on the island.[5]  Jack returned to Johnston Island, 1,200 miles to the northwest, in June 1962 to support the Fishbowl series of Operation Dominic.  Jack talked of laying thousands of feet for line as salt water sprinklers to keep the sea birds from flying only to see them boiled.  He was on Johnston Island on July 9th (July 8th on Christmas Island) when Starfish Prime exceeded expectations and lit up Honolulu with its aurora 900 miles away.nuke_blast_hadvertiser The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) also damaged a microwave link, set off alarms, and darkened 300 streetlights.  Verbal tribal custom has it that one could read the newspaper by the light of Starfish Prime. It was reported that the midnight high-altitude explosion there was clearly visible on Christmas Island.

Jack Livingston along with the other members of the team had, without the benefit of a satellite phone or computer, put an island together for a complex series of nuclear tests.  By June, 1964 it was all over and Christmas Island was once again closed down.  According to the CIA World Factbook  “…Copra and fish now represent the bulk of production and exports. The economy has fluctuated widely in recent years. Economic development is constrained by a shortage of skilled workers, weak infrastructure, and remoteness from international markets. Tourism provides more than one-fifth of GDP….” It is still hot and humid on Christmas Island, I lost track of Jack, and the nuclear age a fading memory.

[Author’s Note: Rest in Peace, Jack. Obit from the Honolulu Advertiser

JACK EDWARD LIVINGSTON, 86, of Hale’iwa, formerly of ‘Ewa Beach, died Aug. 15, 2007. Born in Iowa. Retired Holmes and Narver government contracting chief of material control. Survived by daughters, Sherry Lee Mallot, Stephanie Lynne Chirrick, Barbara Jean Cuillier and Janice Anne Watson; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren. Committal service and burial 11 a.m. Monday at Hawai’i State Veterans Cemetery. No flowers. Casual attire. Arrangements by Hosoi Garden Mortuary. ]



[1] The Central Intelligence Agency; The World Factbook; Kiribati; https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kr.html

[3] Defense Nuclear Agency; 1 February 1983;  DNA 604OF; Technical Report; OPERATION DOMINIC I-1962; http://www.dtra.mil/documents/ntpr/historical/1962%20-%20DNA%206040F%20-%20Operation%20DOMINIC%20I%20-%201962.pdf

[4] Life Magazine; 20 July 1962; Eerie Spectacle in Pacific Sky

12 thoughts on “A Christmas Island Tale

  1. An amazing story of what was accomplished before the advent of Telstar satellites which ushered in space-age communications and widespread use of high speed computers.

  2. Great story and I find it interesting that you describe Jack as “already old, in his mid to late sixties.” Got a good chuckle there.

    • I am there, Walter! Which is why I was laughing as I wrote it. I imagine young engineers just assume I am ancient now. In fact, when I pass a mirror the old woman who looks out at me always catches me by surprise.

    • Your grandfather was a special kind of guy! He taught me a great deal and served this country well; with great sacrifice. He could be cantankerous and did not suffer fools well. I am honored to have known him.

  3. Aloha,
    Yes we are all dying. I am still alive and still trying to get my country to
    provide equity for those that served the nuclear testing and continue to
    be denied.
    Does anyone remember PMR at Johnston and can recall if they
    supported the DOE testing.

    TERRY, yes I got cancer.

  4. Aloha,

    Terry here, yes we are old and passing. There are stories out there
    that America prefers we forget, sorry, I took a bullet and worked on
    that island Johnston. I will continue to seek fairness and equity
    for the few left. I know of the deception, denial, exclusion and
    shams my country did and still does. DAMN!

    I worked the range 6 years and than moved onto moon exploration
    for NASA.

    Take care to all that remember.

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