Chemical Stew: Nerve Agent Brew

Author: Solidus

“Fear of death has been the greatest ally of tyranny past and present.” Sidney Hook

The Greenpeace invasion of Johnston Island came during the golden hour, shortly after the sun rose bringing the gift of light with just the right hardness for perfect photography. The Greenpeace team was sailing to French Polynesia. The ship stopped by the island just long enough to drop a small boat in the water, come ashore, and take some good shots of Greenpeace protestors holding signs expressing the party line on the JACADS plant. JACADS is an acronym for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System. Johnston Island is in the North Pacific Ocean about 717 nm southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, about one-third of the way from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands.  The report I received in Honolulu said the ‘protest’ lasted maybe a half an hour.

Strange that the destruction of nerve agents like GB, VX and mustard gas should stir protests. Greenpeace, and many others, did not like incineration, the technology being used at JACADS. But, then again, it seemed that any technology that was offered to destroy the agents was hated by some protest group or other. Incineration, cryo-fracturing, they all worked and they all had drawbacks. By the end of its operation, the JACADS plant had removed over 2,000 tons of nerve agents and that is a very good thing. Nerve agents create the illusion that nuclear bombs aren’t so bad after all.

Mankind appears to be committed to eternal cycles of partial self-destruction through global and local war. Back in the day, hominids used rocks and sticks to do each other in. We’ve graduated to nuclear weapons and moved on smartly to chemical concoctions. While we humans can and have fought over everything from romantic rivalries to resources, the big wars break out when power brokers manipulate opposing ideas and ideals held by two or more populations. Beware the purveyor of noble ideas. As soon as I hear the evangelizing of noble ideas to the exclusion of other points-of-view, I become very afraid.  While past preachers of noble ideas, like communism, democracy, Christianity, and Islam, sat safely on the sidelines, millions fought and died. Make no mistake they still do.

Fighting wars requires bigger and better rocks and sticks. Chemical weapons came about because conventional bombs and nuclear weapons are messy.  They are excellent at killing people both quickly and slowly but everything in the blast radius is also blown to bits. Wouldn’t it be sweet if the people could just go away while preserving all that lovely investment in infrastructure? Make it so! And we, the scientists, engineers, and technicians, made it so.

Of the three classes of chemical weapons, GB, VX, and mustard gas, destroyed in the JACADS plant, only mustard gas came from WWI.  While mustard gas was first weaponized and used in war during WWI, it was actually developed during the 1800s. Chlorine was also used during WWI but the big killer, by a two to one margin, was mustard gas. Introduced to the battle field in 1917, the German Army used the nearly odorless, lethal Mustard Gas, Yperite, to great advantage.  The gas required twelve hours to take effect and only a small amount of the Yperite was required for each artillery shell. Once in the soil, mustard gas reduces in potency but remains active for several years. Decades after testing mustard gas in Australia some prisoners were sent onto the test site to grub and clear. They experienced blistering from the residual undisturbed mustard gas in dirt.

Death from exposure to mustard gas requires several weeks of pain and suffering. Vera Brittain was a nurse during WWI. Her autobiography, Testament of Youth [1] describes some of the horror: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.”

VX is a super-pesticide and a horrific weapon. A tiny drop, an amount less than can be held on the head of a pin, of this colorless and odorless liquid is lethal. Cyanide gas and potassium cyanide become pikers next to VX, which is over 20 times more deadly. VX is a sticky, heavy liquid/gas that once dispersed snakes its deadly way just above ground level. Once it gets on a surface, it is very tough to get off. If the weather conditions are cool and humid, VX will quickly degrade at a rate similar to the evaporation of water. If the weather is hot and humid, however, VX lasts much longer and evaporates at the rate of motor oil. I think the best place to be during a VX event is Seattle, Washington during the depths of winter.

VX works like any other pesticide. A person may be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, or breathing it in. The degree to which any person may be affected depends on the amount and time of exposure. Clothing can release VX for about 30 minutes after contact with VX vapor, which can lead to exposure of other people. Of course, since it clings to surfaces, using a pencil or sitting at a desk, even many hours after an attack, can expose and spread the agent further. Since VX breaks down slowly in the body, it can have a cumulative effect. According to the CDC[2]: “All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.” The good news, if there is such a thing for nerve agents, is a person exposed to a deadly dose of VX will lose consciousness quickly before horror of the effects of the convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure are experienced. The other piece of good news is that, if the victim isn’t killed, they will probably recover completely.

The British came up with the VX killer brew in the early 1950s. While VX gas is one of the most dangerous chemicals ever created, it presented tactical challenges. It is a double edge sword. The same wind used to disperse the agent can suddenly change and blow the chemical back on the aggressors. It is also difficult to use in the field because VX needs to be ‘fresh’. The ‘freshness’ challenge, however, drove the development of binary weapons, where the last ingredient is added as the weapon is in the air on its way to a target. The last issue is strategic. If a country decides to unleash VX against another, the recipient country is likely to morph into a raging monster and launch everything it has, including nuclear, weapons at the aggressor. Hum-mm, thank goodness for sobering thoughts.

GB, also called Sarin, is another super-pesticide that was actually developed in Germany in 1938 for use as a bug killer. Where VX is very viscous, GB is highly volatile but it kills in a similar fashion. GB’s good news is that its volatility means it does not hang around very long after an attack, VX, on the other hand, clings to surfaces and, depending upon weather conditions, may be toxic for days. Sarin (GB) was used twice in Japan recently by a terrorist group. Sarin was released in 1994, in a neighborhood, and again in 1995, in a subway.  Like VX, GB has no color or odor. Unlike VX, GB could be released into the water supply adding another dimension to its tactical uses. Strategically, GB carries the same liability as VX. Isn’t it nice to know we are just big insects in the game of geo-politics?

People are, in general, terrified of nuclear war. Pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the negative images of children picking flowers engraved forever on adjoining walls, haunt us. Moving films allowed people to witness the awe and power released during nuclear and thermonuclear events. Because of extensive multi-media coverage, the hue and cry of outrage and the demand to ban ‘nukes’ echoed around the world. Not so with chemical agents and nerve agent brews, yet this class of weapon is at least as dastardly and its use at least as dishonorable. We say little about the people who coughed their lungs out and died as a result of mustard gas or convulsed to death in their own waste. Chemical agents will not feel real until, like the nuclear story, the populace can view the event or the aftermath. For the most part, the population is shielded from actually seeing the horror of chemical weapons by the government and a news media unwilling to deal with the righteous indignation that would follow. There are some pictures[3] but mostly chemical agent effects are masked in medical jargon and descriptive narrative.

As a Johnston Atoll newbie, I went through the indoctrination on nerve agents. My mask was fitted and calibrated using iso amyl acetate, a chemical that releases a pungent banana fragrance. Lists of symptoms were discussed during movies showing doctors rescuing exposed chimpanzees. Two syringes were provided. Each needle was to be plunged deep into my thigh, one following another at some interval of time, in the event I experienced more than two or three symptoms. The atropine and anti-convulsing potion in the syringe bought time in the event the nerve agents escaped containment. Silly me! The mask, the syringes filled with atropine and an anti-convulsing medication were, primarily, a placebo. Oh yes, what of those chimpanzees brought back from death? They required an atropine injection directly into the heart, which is what a human would also require to survive even a little while.

One day, several young MPs ran through the Johnston Island community shouting that there had been a release. People ran for their masks and kits and showed up in mass at the JOC frightened half to death, they were waiting to be told what to do next. It wasn’t an exercise but it also wasn’t true. As I looked into many waiting eyes that day, I realized that of the three choices to make—sheep, sheepdog, or wolf—I was a sheepdog and even if the sheep turned on me I would always do my level best to replace fear with knowledge and mind the herd.


Afterthought: Following the receipt of different versions of the same question what follows is the rest of the MP story. There were false positives on several sensors that day. A SGT. asked this particular MP detail to find and notify the commander. Out of breath and worried, the MPS hit the mess hall about noon looking for the COL based on everyone’s knowledge of his habits and the time of day. Unfortunately, the COL wasn’t in the mess hall and they told anyone who would listen why it was urgent. Their description of ‘why’ was incorrect and they were yelling. There had not been a leak, it was a sensor malfunction. It was a major error of youthful exuberance. The MPs kept right on trucking and right on with the same story. Everyone responsible was, as you might imagine, disciplined. I never did find out whether or not the first communication error was was the failure of the SGT to get the story straight or with the kids’ listening ability. In any event, everyone, involved or not, was retrained on the art of delivering a message to one’s commanding officer.

[1] Vera Brittain; Testament of Youth; 1933;   Testament of Youth (Penguin Classics)

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Facts About VX;

[3] BBC news; Fourth death sentence for ‘Chemical Ali; 17 January 2010;

Lolo: The Last Cat on Johnston Island

“A man said to the universe,
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘Excellent,’ replied the universe, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to take care of my cats.” 
 ― Henry N. Beard, Poetry for Cats: The Definitive Anthology of Distinguished Feline Verse

Lolo, which means crazy in Hawaiian, was a black, gray, and white banded, pumpkin-headed tom when I first met him in the late 1980s. Despite his advanced age, Lolo still prowled the spaces between the apartments with a regal air of ownership. Lolo was the last holdover from a time when families and pets were welcome on Johnston Atoll. The last dog had died some years before. Lolo was crotchety and fiercely independent except when an island resident needed an uplifting spirit to sit and talk to. No one knew how many tears he felt on his fur, screams of agony or anger he listened to, or how many secrets he carried. Lolo never talked.

Jack Livingston, an even older island resident, was Lolo’s caregiver. Jack told tales of the days of nuclear rockets, knew how all the old cabling trenches had been used, and managed the island’s real property on 3X5 index cards. He was a holdover from Operation Fishbowl. While Jack could locate a propeller manufactured in 1942 is some remote corner of a warehouse, Lolo kept many from going ‘rock happy’ (a type of claustrophobia that develops as a result of being confined to an island). He consoled those who had lost wives and husbands through divorce and kept more than one person from slipping off the wagon and back into the bottle. When the tears came, Lolo was there. He was adored. Board Certified, chemically trained, medical doctors tended his every ailment and his favorite fish, caught fresh, was delivered daily.

Animals were used extensively during the Cold War (1947-1991) as they have been throughout the history of war. As in wars past, animals were tools in a toolkit during this war; biological programs for intelligence gathering, delivery systems for weapons, personal protective devices, and remote sensing platforms. People can readily summon to mind memories and tales of valiant dogs of war; but dogs are just the tip of an iceberg. Pigeons were used extensively in WWII but the celebrity pigeon during the Cold War was Leaping Lena. She carried a message from behind the Iron Curtain to Radio Free Europe in the mid- 1950s. [1] Dogs, cats, gerbils, and rats along with dolphins, orcas, and other marine animals all gave their bodies and behaviors to the Cold War technology, strategy, and missions.

The lesser known animal heroes of the Cold War are the companion animals that helped the warriors make it through the long days and nights. In southern Nevada, at the test site, pets were made of ring tailed cats in the tunnels at Rainier Mesa. In the abandoned facilities and spaces tucked into the cracks atop the mesas, empty tins of dog and cat food along with 1950’s pin-up calendars featuring Lana turner and others along with abandoned log pages created an illusion that the inhabitant was out for a walk. Only the layers of dust and grime spoke to the length of the abandonment. On the Tonopah Test Range, horses continue to gather where, in the past, they had been fed; hoping that one day the food will appear again. In the Pacific an old dog kept workers company on Bikini Atoll. Mice were tamed and teased with a rubber band tacked to the floor and encased with a Kraft caramel on the Central Arizona Project during the midnight shift. Everywhere I traveled, from Ghana and Australia to Chile and Guam, workers kept animals that were free to come and go. The animals chose to stay on more or less equal footing; a symbiotic relationship.

The annals of history are replete with similar stories hidden behind commas and semicolons. These animals and their humans deserve more than that. They leaned on each other and gave each other the gift of dignity.

One day, after losing a diver in the Johnston Atoll lagoon, I sat in my apartment shaken at the speed with which an aortic aneurism took a vibrant soul. Lolo showed up at my door for the first and only time during my tenure. Upon entry he jumped on the arm of the chair and purred. I sat on the chair lost in thought and stroking his fur. He was just there. The pain of the loss faded to other questions of responsibility as the hours passed and Lolo left. I don’t know why he came that day but I do know he helped me see.

To all the Cold War critters who helped the warriors welcome yet another sunrise, I salute you. Thank you for your service.

The Rise of the Minuteman

The year of 1962 found me sitting in a house in Great Falls, Montana; a teenager mulling

 Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range, Great Falls, MT

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range, Great Falls, MT

over the transfer into yet another school and wondering if I could get credit for that Washington state history course I’d taken. Probably not. I would have to take a course on Montana’s history. That January in 1962, while the Cuban Missile crisis storm was rising, I was busy hating Great Falls’ sub-zero temperatures pushed farther down the Fahrenheit scale by a wild wind that blew in directly from the Artic. Great Falls was wheat lands country and there was nothing between the Artic and Great Falls; it was all flat. My family traveled a great deal. We had lived in Chile for a number of years and through most of the northern tier of states from Washington to Minnesota. We weren’t rich. Upon his return from WWII’s Pacific theater, my Dad gave up his dreams of college and settled into the business of making a living for his family by working construction as an electrical superintendent. We were in Great Falls because he had a job supporting the construction of the Minuteman missile sites.

My sister’s poodle is responsible for my first exposure to the Cold War (1947-1991) infrastructure. When the poodle had puppies, my dachshund was not supportive of the

Minuteman ICBM

Minuteman ICBM

poodle or the puppies and that got us both unceremoniously ejected from the house and into my father’s workplace. We would rise at 4:00 am, grab a bite to eat, make lunches, and head to the local general aviation airport where we boarded a plane and took off into the Montana farmland around Great Falls. The sites we visited were each in a slightly different stage of construction and all were being readied to accept the Minuteman ICBMs that were being manufactured elsewhere. I discovered that each silo was three stories deep and, in the event of a launch, a huge concrete slab that covered it would be blown clear. One of the sites we visited was a control site. The big cables I saw at the smaller sites ran to a series of manned control centers deep underground.  It was all very impressive other than it was out in the middle of nowhere. Later I learned so much more.

The rise of the 1960s Minuteman ICBMs was the logical outcome of three major technological developments in the 1950s. The advances combined with the realization that, while many countries wanted to be protected from the former Soviet Union, few were lining up to have a nuclear arsenal on their soil. Inertial guidance system developments provided for increased ICBM accuracy.  The former Soviet Union and the rest of the allies split the science baby at the end of the WWII hostilities. The WWII Nazi V-2 rocket guidance technology was a spoil of war. Werner Von Braun, a leader in the Nazi rocket program, and about 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles joined the U.S. science community. The other major inertial guidance system players were Caltech and NASA JPL. The inertial guidance system enabled a missile to hit its target and the first piece of the three piece puzzle was in place.

The second piece of the puzzle was the development of Edward Teller’s concept of thermonuclear weapons which gave much more bang for the nuclear buck. Ivy Mike,

Ivy Mike

Ivy Mike

detonated on Eniwetok Atoll in late 1952, was the first test of the concept. The view of the Operation Ivy’s beautiful turquoise blue, crystal clear water in the craters contrasting with the dark blue Pacific waters were the first thing I saw when I flew into Eniwetok  in the early 1990s. Thermonuclear weapons are staged weapons. A little fission device is detonated to add heat, compress and trigger the second stage hydrogen fusion device. This tactic provides for much more explosive power, or yield.

The final piece of the Minuteman puzzle was the development of powerful booster engines for multistage rockets, greatly increasing their size and range. Three missile workhorses were developed. The Titan and Atlas missiles had to be fueled just before launch, which

Atlas-5 rocket equipped with an RD-180 engine

Atlas-5 rocket equipped with an RD-180 engine

made them inconvenient for ICBM use and they went on to become stars in the NASA space programs. The Minuteman I and II, which went into the field in 1962, used solid fuels stored within the missile that could lift up to three warheads, each with the destructive power of a megaton or greater. At this point the U.S. could deliver big bombs with good accuracy anywhere in the northern hemisphere, or the world for that matter, in less time than it takes for a nice hot bath.

As the technology was advancing at breakneck speed, the political arena caught fire. In Smart Rocks, Brilliant Pebbles, and all that Political Jazz, we discussed Eisenhower’s fight to defend the country from bombers dropping bombs on the countryside and his aha moment when it was realized that the threat would come from the direction of missiles. Lack of much solid intelligence from the former Soviet Union left the door wide open to build disaster scenarios on what THEY might be doing. The lobby for missile manufacturers and other defense contractors went into overdrive and the Air force hammered the fear home.

As the 1960 election approached, Eisenhower’s adherence to tight fiscal policies came under attack.  Eisenhower was a proponent of little debt as was illustrated in his funding strategy for the Interstate Highway system, discussed in Ribbons: The Interstate Highway System. During the elections the ‘missile gap’ allegations between the Soviets and the U.S. reached fever pitch and the cause for the ‘gap’ was laid directly at the feet of the Eisenhower administration’s fiscal policies. In November 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), the future presidential candidate, initiated the ‘missile gap’ charge when he claimed that the Eisenhower administration placed fiscal policy ahead of national security. As a result, he said, the nation faced “a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known.”[1]

Eisenhower wasn’t worried about a ‘missile gap’. The veil of secrecy prevented President Eisenhower from disclosing the U-2 photographic evidence that confirmed the lack of a ‘gap’. The secrecy code sword cuts both ways and the well-earned lack of trust in the government allows fear games and manipulation. Shortly after the 1960 presidential election ‘missile gap’ discussions were muted. They flared again in February 1961 when Secretary of Defense McNamara stated that there was no missile gap during a press briefing. The next big surge of fear mongering arrived when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in April 1962. As a teenager, I will attest to the fact I was terrified along with millions of others.

Patriotic farmers from across America’s breadbasket gave up two or more acres of their land to the federal government for the deployment of 1,000 ICBMs to protect us from the Soviet menace. Thousands worked on the construction, thousands were employed to manufacture the missiles and their parts, and thousands more worked to support the installations. Many have tried but failed to tally the total cost of our ICBM defense but it runs to the trillions of dollars.

Did it work? Many say yes. We didn’t have a nuclear war, did we? Others say no and we placed millions of innocent civilians in harm’s way.  I am a proponent of military strength as a deterrent.  I also respectfully disagree that there is such a thing as ‘innocent civilians’ during a war. Historical cycles tend to support those positions. Weak countries are overrun and citizens, by virtue of their status, are responsible for their governments’ actions. How we got strong is another matter. Rather than a discussion with the American people coupled with disclosure of evidence, the federal government opts for lies, secrecy and manipulation.

Personally, I resented the fear I felt as a kid. I was manipulated and that makes me feel stupid. As soon as I gained a broader world view from within and without the U.S., I began to question, read, and apply the principles of skepticism to everything that emanates from the federal government and its minions. Whenever the government wants something-oil, resources, and so on-they drop a big rock in the population bathtub and, just before everyone drowns, they provide ‘the answer’. Predictably, the tactic is becoming more and more acute, the dropped rock is getting bigger and the bathtub more crowded. Now, the bathtub population is being assaulted with a mind-numbing economic strategy. Individuals within the bathtub population can hardly breathe, let alone think. The next rock dropped in the tub will drown many, I think.

The teenager I was in 1961 was definitely going to be a medical doctor. Instead, I became an engineer and the decades rocketed by at close to the speed of light. The twine of my life was bound around the core of the Cold War (1947-1991) and, although I am sliding into home all used up, I had a great ride. Ideas are the most powerful force in the universe so just keep thinking.

Hafa Adai Crossroads of the Pacific

Hafa adai is Chamorro for ‘hello’ and the first words I heard as I stepped into the terminal at Guam International in Agana, Guam in late 1997.  I was on the island to explore local partnering potentials for a Base Operating Support (BOS) contract that was expected to be awarded sometime around the turn of the century. The 1997 study submitted to Congress to consolidate base operations and transfer about 2,300 military and civilian jobs to a private contractor was the result of a commercial activities study to compare costs between government and private sector providers. The size of the potential contract definitely had the big contractors’ attention.  The retired generals, astronauts, and high-ranking former government officials who inhabit the upper echelons of defense contractors’ ivory towers were working their political contacts in Washington, D.C. We foot soldiers were exploring the local possibilities. There is a great deal of money involved in the acquisition of one of the big BOS contracts and, once everybody teams up for the kill, the doors of each contractor team’s business development groups receive cipher locks and become war rooms. It was fun and exciting to be part of the effort and Guam’s strategic role in the U.S. military historical context fascinated me.

As the Western most territory of the United States, Guam is a vital strategic asset in the Pacific. It is located about 3,300 miles West of Hawaii, 1,500 miles east of the Philippines and 1,550 miles south of Japan. Part of the Marianas Archipelago, Guam, looks like an island but is actually the exposed top of a submerged 38,000-foot mountain, which is the union of two volcanoes. In area it is about 212 square miles or about three times the size of Washington, D.C.  Guam is a U.S. territory and the people of the island are U.S. citizens. During the Cold War (1947-1991), the U.S. had many more formal arrangements with foreign governments to base our military. Now, most of these islands and island nations want the U.S. gone. Since there are no new islands in East Asia, that leaves increasing the U.S. capability on Guam as a key step to effectively withdrawing from bases where the U.S. is no longer welcome. A brand new BOS contract in a growing military environment is a terrific opportunity for any major contractor with the ability to bankroll the acquisition and start-up. The military industrial complex had representatives nosing around Guam for years before the competition was announced and I was one of many ‘boots on the ground’. In 2000, the seven and a half year contract was finally awarded. At that time, the base contract amount was estimated at about $329 million, which beat the estimate given in the commercial activities study.

Guam has a down side as a strategic asset. It is subject to typhoons. During my stay on Guam, I got up close and personal with Super-typhoon Paka. When it hit Guam, the winds were measured at 145 miles per hour before the anemometer broke. I was on the 7th floor of the hotel listening to the next building scream as it twisted in the wind when the French doors in my room blew out. During half-time when the eye was passing over, I decided to go down to the lobby. I came close to not being able to get back into my room as the second eye wall closed in. The building all stood the test and communications and power were never lost. In the aftermath the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross swooped in to ‘help’. They consumed every available supply, vehicle, and room on the island to set up their offices and fill in their forms. In the meantime, the real help came from within. The people set up food preparation in the parks and most of us spent time volunteering with serving food, cleaning-up and rebuilding. FEMA and the Red Cross did an excellent job of filling in their forms and consuming what precious little material was left on the island, though.

Prior to WWI, ships using the great-circle route[1] to the west used Guam as a coal stop. Guam was a logistics hub for the Allies during WWII and is, on occasion, referred to as “the Supermarket of the Pacific”. Most recently, during the Cold War (1947-1991), Guam was the “Crossroads of the Pacific” because it was one of the first Polaris missile support bases, home to Air Force B-52s, and a critical Defense/State Department communications/intelligence link. During Viet Nam, Guam also became a base for the minesweepers that worked to clear Haiphong Harbor at the end of hostilities. In 1969, President Nixon pushed a doctrine self-defense for the U.S.’s Asian Allies and Guam’s role and and its important physical infrastructure declined. In 1993, the former Air Station in Agana was closed under the 1993 Base Reutilization and Closure Act (BRAC) and about 1800 acres were turned over to Guam for redevelopment.

Do we need to be in Asia? I think so. Let me count the ways.

  1. North Korea has nuclear capability and they have made certain the U.S. and the world is aware of that fact.
  2. We the People of the U.S., have turned to China to manufacture our goods. We need to be able to get those products back to us. China is not a comfortable ally; they are not our friends and would just as soon see the U.S. leave Asia entirely. Secretary of State, John Kerry, just cut a deal with China. China committed to use their influence with North Korea in exchange for the U.S. pulling back its missiles.
  3. Terrorism is here to stay. In 2002, the Bali attack killed 168 people, which brought focus on Indonesia’s terrorist cells. There are many terrorist cells in the Philippines and the U.S. no longer has bases there. Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the southern provinces of the Philippines are of concern and growing in sophistication.  They may well have or could soon have what they need to go ‘global’.
  4. Taiwan is always at risk. China would like that little country back. It would take about two weeks for a carrier strike group stationed on the West Coast, or a week from the Indian Ocean, and about the same length of time from Hawaii. If a carrier was deployed to Yokosuka, Japan or in port at Guam the transit time would be much reduced.
  5. Australia and New Zealand are two critical allies. Guam is a key base for strategic cooperation to support these outposts of western democracy in an increasingly hostile Asian world.

Somewhere between occupying 78% of the world and isolationism is the correct answer to where and how to strategically station our military forces. The Navy’s job is to keep the seas safe and open for commerce. Guam is an important component of the Navy’s capability to do its job. If North Korea or China or Russia goes crazy we need to have those boys in place to take care of the business of keeping us free. Hafa Adai.

[1] Great-circle navigation is the practice of navigating a vessel (such as a ship or aircraft) along a track that follows a great circle. A great circle track is the shortest distance between two points on the surface of a planetary body, assuming a perfect spherical model;

Cleaning the Fishbowl

Johnston Atoll is a grouping of four coral islands, two of which are man-made, that lie about

Johnston Atoll. The reef  was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

Johnston Atoll. The reef was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

750 nautical miles west of Hawaii. Johnston Island is the largest of the islands in the atoll and is shaped like a caricature of an aircraft carrier. It is about a mile long and, at the widest point, has a one half of a mile girth. Splitting the island lengthwise was an 11,000-foot runway. When I lived and worked on Johnston Island in the late 1980’s, about 1,400 other souls called it home. In 2004, after about seven decades of military use, most signs of human habitation, including the runway, were obliterated. Johnston Atoll is currently occupied by the occasional sunning Hawaiian Monk Seal, fourteen species of sea birds and five species of wintering shorebirds[1].

Agent Orange Barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1976

Agent Orange Barrels at Johnston Atoll circa 1976

Before its closure, Johnston Island was the stuff of environmentalists’ nightmares and environmental remediation scientists’ dreams. The atoll was contaminated with plutonium from nuclear warheads, it was also a RCRA Part B facility courtesy of Agent Orange from Vietnam, and it was the site of the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS) facility, which disposed of mustard gas, GB and VX nerve agents out of Europe from WWI and WWII. Additionally, there was the standard stuff of modern human habitation like weathered diesel, underground storage tanks filled with mystery fluids, and a broken sewer line that carried raw sewage directly into the ocean.

By the time I arrived on Johnston Atoll, the military was fully on board with environmental regulation. They had seen or heard of many fellow commanders losing rank and even sent

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

facilities named Leavenworth for failures to pay attention to environmental law. The military command staff of Johnston Atoll saluted smartly and made environmental concerns their very own. In fact, one of the construction projects was a brand new sewer plant. Once it was operational, however, a small problem was discovered; the rare Green Sea Turtle population markedly diminished. It seems the human waste encouraged the growth of algae that provided food for our turtles. Ah well, you can’t win them all. While I was challenged by all of the environmental hurdles, I was particularly intrigued by the plutonium contamination.

Little Johnston Atoll has a huge launch window and was used in the 1960s as the site of Operation Fishbowl, a series of high altitude atmospheric nuclear tests. In 1961, the former Soviet Union unleashed fifty atmospheric tests. The Soviets dramatically broke the moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing because they 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, a series of thirty-six atmospheric nuclear tests. Operation Fishbowl, which ended up being nine attempts, was a subset of Operation Dominic.The balance of Operation Dominic was conducted at Christmas Island.

Each nuclear test within a series has a name; it’s a budget and project convention. The original Operation Fishbowl series included Bluegill, Starfish, Checkmate, Kingfish and Tightrope. If a shot failed it was reattempted with ‘Prime’ added. The final tally for Operation Fishbowl on Johnston Atoll included Bluegill Prime, Bluegill Double Prime, Bluegill Triple Prime, and Starfish Prime. The test team had a spot of trouble with the Thor missiles. Operationally all tests were conducted at night and down range from Hawaii to minimize the risk of retinal damage. The poor bunnies in their cages didn’t fare so well. An old-timer on Johnston Atoll told me they tried to keep the sea birds from flying by dousing them with sea water and ended up with a large number of boiled birds in addition to blind bunnies.

Bluegill started the party when it went hot on June 2, 1962. Unfortunately, the launch team

The THOR rocket launched tests on Johnston Island

The THOR rocket launched tests on Johnston Island

couldn’t track it and the commander ordered the Thor missile and its warhead destroyed. Starfish came next on June 19th but was destroyed after about a minute when the Thor’s engine quit and the missile began to disintegrate. Some of the pieces fell on Johnston Island and in the lagoon. The debris was a bit contaminated with plutonium. On July 9th, Starfish Prime exceeded expectations and lit up Honolulu with it aurora 900 miles away. The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) also damaged a microwave link, set off alarms, and darkened 300 streetlights.

The major contamination of Johnston Atoll came from Bluegill Prime on the night on July 25th

Bluegill Prime Thor Burns Before RSO Explosion.

Bluegill Prime Thor Burns Before RSO Explosion.

when the Thor missile malfunctioned and had to be destroyed along with its warhead on the launch pad. According to the 1983 DNA 6040F Technical Report, the destruction of the warhead caused extensive radioactive contamination and the missile’s fuel explosion caused chemical contamination of the instrumentation cable vaults. While the launch pad was also seriously damaged, the program team got everything back together for the October 15th Bluegill Double Prime shot. Within a minute and a half the Thor missile was tumbling out of control and was ordered destroyed. The Checkmate shot made use of Sandia’s Strypi rocket and it went off without a hitch on October 19th. Bluegill Triple Prime lifted smartly on its Thor rocket, which finally worked. The Kingfish shot on November 1st was also successful but, of course, most everything about it is still classified. Tightrope, launched on a Nike-Hercules missile, was executed on November 3rd, 1962 and completed the Johnston Atoll Atmospheric test series. According to the same DNA Technical Report cited earlier: “At Johnston Island, there was an intense white flash. Even with high-density goggles, the burst was too bright to view, even for a few seconds. A distinct thermal pulse was also felt on the bare skin. A yellow-orange disc was formed, which transformed itself into a purple doughnut. A glowing purple cloud was faintly visible for a few minutes.”

Twenty–five years later, the final effort to clean the debris and contamination from Operation Fishbowl was about to start. According to the scientists plutonium oxide is not

Plutonium Natural plutonium-containing mineral-doesn’t look very dangerous, does it?

Plutonium Natural plutonium-containing mineral-doesn’t look very dangerous, does it?

soluble in the Johnston Atoll environment and it seemed to be contained. The first contractor I observed working in the Plutonium contaminated area was using commercial mining equipment. Plutonium oxide is very, very heavy compared to coral sands so the contractor brought in and built a concentrating table or shaking table that was designed for high capacity, efficient, and continuous separation of two or more materials of different specific gravities. The plutonium was then loaded into barrels for future disposal. I had expected to see a delicate, intricate scientific process and was delighted to learn that ‘simple’ worked very well.

In 1999, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Environmental Technology Section conducted an independent verification survey of the clean storage pile at the Johnston Atoll Plutonium Contaminated Soil Remediation Project and most of the island was found to be within acceptable EPA radiation limits.

In 2002, Cindy McGovern, public affairs specialist for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is oversaw the cleanup told a science writer for the Honolulu Advertiser that “The contaminated metal and concrete debris, and coral that did not meet the cleanup standard, were buried in the Radiological Control Area under a cap of clean coral soil that is a minimum of 2 feet thick”.[2] The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is DNA’s successor agency and also promised to monitor the site for five years.

Let’s see, the half-life of plutonium is what? Ah, yes, 24,000 years. I guess five years ought to do it and DTRA will be long gone before the sea wall crumbles. Someday, I’ll tell the story of Runit Dome, another DNA contaminated soils project, on Eniwetok Atoll.







[1] Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

[2] Feds want to bury Johnston Island’s radioactive matter; Honolulu Advertiser; March 3, 2002

Hurricanes, Rockets, and Dinosaurs

At Hickam AFB in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Department of Energy (DOE) Pacific Programs office was humming along fairly routinely between January and September 8th, 1992. The Marshall Islands program was doing well except for that little hiccup when the twenty-two, one kilo packages of brown heroin with a street value of several tens of millions of dollars washed ashore. The headquarters DOE person on Bikini used the radio telephone, which is one big Pacific party line, to call Washington to brag about his great adventure but he was a bit of an idiot. The DEA wanted us, the DOE contractor, to transport the drugs to Kwajalein, a closed military installation via the chartered Air Micronesia flight. It was a dumb plan.  A deal was finally struck with DEA and the drug issue was resolved without bloodshed.

The Johnston Atoll programs were back running smoothly after the hysteria of receiving bent tubing for the reverse osmosis plant repairs calmed down. Nothing compares to the feeling of impotent rage more than bad parts arriving for a critical system at the end of a 3,500 mile logistics chain. Fortunately for the Johnston Atoll inhabitants, the technical operational people who inhabit such remote, isolated locations can make anything, including water and electrical systems, run with nothing but guts and creativity.

The DOE Contracting Officer Technical Representative (COTR) and I had visited all of the DOE sites in the Hawaiian Islands; Haleakala on Maui, Mauna Loa on the big island, the Kauai Test Facility (KTF) on Kauai and, of course, the sites on Oahu. I wanted to fly out to French Frigate Shoals but it wasn’t in the cards. By the first of September, the budgets were well under way. The completion of the quarterly reports signaled the time of the mass exodus of staff from work to go fishing. There was a hurricane called Iniki wandering about the Pacific but, in the little WWII Quonset hut on the far side of the main Hickam runway we called home, all was in order. It didn’t stay that way very long.

Hurricane Iniki had stopped wobbling by September 8th and it was forecast to hit Oahu. By the morning of September 11th, we were believers. Work was called off on Oahu and Kauai. Once the office was cleared, I threw the backup computer tapes in my car and headed to Mililani, the central island community where I lived. Hurricane Iniki grazed Oahu and ran up the channel between Oahu and Kauai. Kauai took the full fury of Iniki, a Category 4 storm. KTF was completely cut-off. No planes would fly there, no boats could be rented, and we couldn’t call. In Honolulu, we worked off our worry by pushing the problem of getting to Kauai. Before mid-morning on September 12th, the phones began to ring and the lines were filled with worried people from all over the globe. The callers had many questions but we had not one answer.  We could only advise them that the SNL managers were smart, contractor staff was loaded with common sense and the facilities were strong. It would take two full days before we were proven right.

KTF dates its call-to-service back to 1962 and a policy level commitment to readiness to resume atmospheric testing. The old Soviet Union embarrassed the U.S. when, during a four month period in 1961, it broke a moratorium on atmospheric testing, blamed the French, and conducted a fifty test series in the atmosphere in four months. The Kennedy administration directed the nuclear test science community, the national nuclear laboratories; LLNL, LANL, and SNL, to respond with a light show of our very own. Because the infrastructure and brain trust had degraded, there was no way to immediately respond. There are times when there is a penalty for declaring victory and moving on without verification. The delayed U.S. nuclear response was Operation Domenic, a thirty-six shot Pacific Proving Ground series to ‘study’ nuclear effects, test new designs and sample the nuclear inventory’s reliability. The AEC (DOE’s predecessor) struck a deal with the Navy to use part of the Navy’s Barking Sands site to base Sandia’s new test facility, which is simply known as the Kauai Test Facility. KTF’s role was and is rockets. During the Cold War (1947-1991), KTF maintained its readiness posture and continued to research and develop non-nuclear components for the nuclear weapons research labs. KTF cites several achievements during this time including: the spinning Attitude Control System used in today’s Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) in the space station,  and major improvements in  radial and axial and V-Band separation joint development. The V-band systems have been widely used in the aerospace industry for securing a spacecraft inside a launch vehicle.[1]

KTF was retooling for its post-Cold War research role during my tenure in the Pacific in the early 1990s. DOE provided contractor support for constructing permanent facilities, and a new launch pad. Permanent facilities are a rarity at DOE test sites so it was a nice change of pace.  At that time, KTF was still assembling and launching the Strypi rocket it used during those first years in the 1960s. The Strypi rocket is a foundational plank in SNL’s research platform. Strypi is the name given the rocket in honor of its grabbing the proverbial tiger by the tale or so the story goes. The rocket works well in and out of the atmosphere.

The SNL staff was very protective of their contract workers and visiting KTF was like visiting relatives. The humor and food were always good. It was no surprise to discover that the entire lot of the KTF bunch, including families, rode out Iniki in the launch bunker. Further, while the Honolulu contingent was negotiating to buy a boat to go ‘rescue’ them and threatening the Navy to get what they needed to extract them, the KTF crew was having a party. Everyone was fine. One of the contractor employees lost their house, several other employees’ homes were damaged beyond repair and the island looked like dinosaurs had invaded but every human and their companion dogs, cats and chickens were okay. Houses can and were reconstructed with donated materials and volunteer labor.

The first signs of life from Kauai following Hurricane Iniki were rumors that Steven Spielberg was on-island filming for Jurassic Park. Instead of hunkering down at the resort, he and his film crew took advantage of Iniki, a one-of-a-kind storm that would even impress the dinosaurs.  Naturally, we were at the theater for its opening. DOE Pacific program support staff watched the movie over and over, memorizing the script; “God help us, we are in the hands of engineers.”






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.