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. Continue reading

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 http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=12515

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

Cowboys and the Collective

Cowboy, whether the term is used in admiration or derision, brings to mind a ruggedCowboy throwing lasso individualist doing ‘his own thing’, as in the idealistic memories of the Old West. Collective, on the other hand, consists of individuals, or groups of individuals, with different skills banding together to achieve one or more objectives as in a bee hive.  America’s greatness, in my opinion, derives from cowboys working within a framework of good policy. The Cold War (1947-1991) radically changed American Policy (Foreign, Domestic and Military) but it wasn’t without several rounds of fisticuffs amongst the cowboys.

Setting the table for this discussion is an excerpt from Norman Podhoretz’s 2012 article Is America Exceptional? [1]

“…First of all, unlike all other nations past or present, this one accepted as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. What this meant was that its Founders aimed to create a society in which, for the first time in the history of the world, the individual’s fate would be determined not by who his father was, but by his own freely chosen pursuit of his own ambitions. In other words, America was to be something new under the sun: a society in which hereditary status and class distinctions would be erased, leaving individuals free to act and to be judged on their merits alone. There remained, of course, the two atavistic contradictions of slavery and the position of women; but so intolerable did these contradictions ultimately prove that they had to be resolved—even if, as in the case of the former, it took the bloodiest war the nation has ever fought….”

Cowboys and collectives came into sharp focus during the late 1980s with my assignment to

Johnston Atoll

Johnston Atoll

Johnston Atoll to support the base command through the Department of Energy (DOE) Management and Operating (M&O) contract. My job was to manage the technical operations; air field, marine operations, engineering, construction, water and electrical production and distribution, wastewater, petroleum, oil and lubricants, the RCRA Part B facility, and other duties as assigned. Johnston Atoll was a beehive of activity but certainly not a collective. Bear in mind that this atoll has three islands, the largest of which, Johnston Island, is ½-mile wide and a mile long.

The Air Force hosted the base and provided an Air Force Colonel as the base commander; he spoke with the authority of a one star general. The Army was constructing the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS), the U.S. Army’s first chemical munitions disposal facility. The Army provided a Colonel to oversee this important project. In the event of a

Chemical munitions awaiting disposal at JACADS

Chemical munitions awaiting disposal at JACADS

chemical incident, the colonel spoke with the authority of a two star general and took over the island until someone with more rank actually arrived from Honolulu.

The Coast Guard ran the Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) station, that was the precursor to the Global Positioning System (GPS) and they didn’t appear to report to anyone but they kept an account with DOE so the M&O contract provided support to them. Several military and other contractors showed up from time-to-time to perform tasks like cleaning up plutonium or building gymnasiums. NOAA had a station there and also did not appear to report to anyone but was supported through the DOE M&O contract.

The LORAN station on Johnston Atoll c.1963

The LORAN station on Johnston Atoll c.1963

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service person was there to take care of the birds and fish. The military and contractor personnel could be seriously disciplined if they killed a bird but the wildlife guy did it all the time. While I was there, a banded bird destroyed a jet engine during a landing of an Air Micronesia flight en route to Kwajalein and Majuro. The wildlife guy and the pilot almost came to blows over the incident and we, the DOE M&O contractor, had to feed, house and shelter about 60 people as well as several pigs and chickens for a couple of days in a

Wildlife sanctuary on Johnston Atoll

Wildlife sanctuary on Johnston Atoll

very confined space (we were, after all, a closed base that did little, if any, secret squirrel stuff) so a new engine could be flown in and mounted. When the Pacific Missile Range lit up for a mission, those people walked in and did their thing without so much as a by-your-leave. The turf battles on Johnston Island were awesome as a spectator sport. They also gave rise to my question, ‘How can this be happening?’ It made no sense at the time.

The answer to my question can be found in the history of Harry Truman, James Forrestal and

SecDef James Forrestal

SecDef James Forrestal

the frame work of policy or lack thereof to enter the Cold War. Harry Truman became President upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April of 1945. By 1947, most of President Roosevelt’s cabinet and appointees were gone. One notable exception was James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal came from the ‘private’ sector. His father owned a construction company and he cut his teeth at Dillon, Read and Company, an investment banking house where he became a partner in 1923. He never finished college but he had a flair for management and administration and an excellent reputation. In 1940, Roosevelt tapped Forrestal to become his special assistant and later that year nominated him for the first Under Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal assumed the Secretary of Navy role in 1944 upon the death of Knox following a heart attack. Forrestal’s reputation as a highly capable administrator and manager continued to grow.

The end of WWII hostilities signaled an escalation of the voices of the American people to reduce the military. After all, the only standing military authorized by The Constitution is the Navy, which made the people correct; the time was right to ramp down. The politicians were in a swivel chair moving between their constituents’ calls for cutting the military and their natural inclination to keep it in place. WWII had provided the politicians an eye-opening, new view of the world and their power in it. Why would they want to give up all that good stuff? Harry Truman’s predilection for balanced budgets, Forrestal’s predilection for tidying-up and making processes work, and Congress’s desire to keep the good stuff generated by the WWII came together to drive the chaos of Johnston Island in the 1980s and the world we live today.

Although Forrestal was against joining the branches of the military together, when Truman asked him to do so, he agreed, and did the job well.  Forrestal was prominent in developing the National Security Act of 1947 and the National Military Establishment (NME), which was to become the Department of Defense (DoD). Forrestal was, you see, conflicted. The

Forrestal, part Cowboy, part Borg

Forrestal, part Cowboy, part Borg

administrator in him wanted nice tidy processes but his cowboy cried for independence.  In this case the administrator won. Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson was Truman’s first choice to head the new unified NME but Patterson wanted to return to the private sector. In spite of his resistance to the armed forces unification, Truman’s second nod was to Forrestal because of his knowledge of Defense infrastructure and dedication to government administrative processes.  Forrestal accepted the challenge and, over the next several years, drove close coordination of defense and foreign policy as well as for the use of the National Security Council (NSC) as a facilitator.  By 1950, the rudimentary processes were in place.

In 1948, the Soviets became the unwitting foil that allowed the U.S. to solidify its huge departure from past military and foreign policy. The Soviet Union completed its network of satellite nations in Eastern Europe, seized control in Czechoslovakia and blockaded land routes from the western zones of Germany to Berlin, forcing the U.S. and its allies to begin the Berlin airlift to supply the city, which lasted more than 10 months until Moscow relented. At the same time, in 1948 and 1949, the world went a bit nuts: war broke out in the brand new country of Israel; Congress approved the Marshall Plan, providing economic aid for 16 European nations; the Senate adopted the Vandenberg Resolution, encouraging the administration to enter into collective defense arrangements and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was born; and in 1949, in China, the Communists’ final victory over the Nationalists ushered in the People’s Republic of China. Nothing in the world would ever be the same again.

Back on the home front, Forrestal was still trying to convince the branches of the military to work together and Truman was still dedicated to keeping budgets down. Budget food fights drove the branches of the military to entrench themselves by designing intricate missions and needs for each service. A good example is the Navy and the Air Force dispute over delivery of atomic weapons. Forrestal discussed this, among other agenda items, with the Joint Chiefs at the Naval War College in 1948. They decided that the Air Force would have interim operational control of atomic weapons, but that “each service, in the fields of its primary missions, must have exclusive responsibility for planning and programming and the necessary authority.”[2] For the Navy and Air Force, the Newport agreement meant that the Air Force should use any strategic bombing ability developed by the Navy, whatever that means. The result of this and similar budget food fights was the bedlam of the Johnston Island commands. Those of us with game cards could keep track of the command plays, those without would be lost.

Resistance to the collective is NOT futile.

Resistance to the collective is NOT futile.

As a nation, we remain conflicted about our role in the world. Either we look to the roots, The Constitution, for guidance or we wander into a wilderness using our machetes to make the trail as we go. At the moment we are lost. Our history goes unstudied by the vast majority of Americans even as it is criticized. There may be a clear vision of the U.S. role in the world around us but it is not a shared vision. Our national ‘will’ tracks our physics. It is relative. It is also dangerous to wander without order from one conflict to another. If the people, as individuals, will not grab the responsibility for our destiny, if we leave destiny in the hands of politicians, our nation will cease to be exceptional; we will become the collective. What a terrible loss to the world that would be.