When the seasons change and milestones on the calendar pass, the Marco Beach Boys and Girls have always found inspiration from the visitors and the islanders that surround us. With Easter Sunday and Passover in the rearview, and April leading into the month of May, the spring break crowds dissipate and make room for newcomers who cross the bridge to make a new life, a new home, and new friends.
With every passing day that marches toward May, the weather heats up and the humid air over the Everglades begins to rise and the summer rainy season begins. On one unforgettable late spring day, The Marco Beach Boys were standing on the beach with newcomer and new captain, Rick Nolan, watching a single vertical development cloud rising from the heart of the Everglades. The cloud appeared as a tall mushroom with a pronounced stem and perfectly formed rounded top. The fact that the mushroom cloud looked like something out of a nuclear attack war movie was why we were all together and staring as the cloud slowly expanded and grew larger.
“Well,” one of the Beach Boys announced, “There goes Miami. It looks like Castro has finally dropped a big one.”
We all chuckled until our new captain and Beach Boy that happened to be oldest member of our crew offered a statement none of us will ever forget. “I’ve seen the real thing,” Rick Nolan explained, and we all stopped in our tracks. “I was in the Navy and assigned to Operation Dominic. Operation Dominic was a series of 31 nuclear bomb tests exploded above ground in the atmosphere during 1962. The tests were near the equator at Christmas Island at a time when Russia was testing their own nuclear weapons also above ground.”
Rick paused as we all looked back to the mushroom cloud growing over the Everglades. “The atomic bombs were the little ones,” Rick continued, “The hydrogen bombs were much stronger. We even joked about the atomics. I remember one day we were transporting two atomic bombs aboard a landing craft when the boson’s mate made a point of telling everyone that he was going to remain on the far side of the ship because if the ‘little atomics’ accidently went off, he wanted to be nowhere near those firecrackers.”
With all the Beach Boys now spellbound, Rick related his experience during Operation Dominic. “Everything was well organized,” Rick recalled. “All navy personnel were rallied and ready each morning before dawn and waiting for the voice of Mahatma. Everywhere on Christmas Island, or Kiritimati as the natives called it, there were loudspeakers. There was nowhere on the island that the loud metallic announcements from Mahatma could not be heard. When the voice of Mahatma began, everybody listened because this was the voice that was counting down the moments until a nuclear explosion. The first explosion detonated was an atomic, or fission weapon as in the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan, but as Mahatma – the official announcer’s code name explained – the fusion or hydrogen weapons were going to be much stronger.”
“During one of the first hydrogen bomb tests, we were stationed on a 150-foot landing craft beached about nine miles from the blast sight when the metallic voice of Mahatma began.”
“This is Mahatma speaking.” Rick imitated the metallic loudspeaker. “We are five minutes away from blast time.”
“When the five-minute warning came, everyone was trained to pull up the collars on the naval issue dungaree shirts to cover exposed skin and to pull the sides of the white sailor caps down to cover the head. For eye protection, all personnel were issued thick cobalt goggles that looked like welding glasses, and everyone was warned to turn away from the blast. Everyone was also warned to have their mouths open so that when the concussion wave came the extreme pressure differential would not damage the ears.”
He continued “When Mahatma said ‘we are one minute away from blast time. Turn way from the blast,’ we were all getting worried.”
“As the minutes and seconds ticked away until detonation time, the sound of the airplane carrying the bomb could be heard flying overhead. Some of the tests were in the day but some were at night. On most occasions the navigational lights of the plane were visible, but for some of the weapon’s tests, the H-bomb was positioned on a raft out at sea and the plane was only stationed aloft for observation.”
“Because most of the navy personnel were stationed so close to the detonation site, we wore radiation dosimeters and film badges to detect radioactivity after the blast.”
When Mahatma said: “Turn away from the blast. The bomb has been released. We just stood there with our backs to the blast zone, but it was it was only a few seconds until the first effects of the explosion began. The first indication of detonation was a sudden warm flash of heat that could be felt on the back, the neck, and any part of the body that was turned toward the blast. This abrupt heat from the initial detonation was the white-hot first stage of the explosion that would blind anyone instantly, even with the goggles on, that was not turned away from the blast. During the first few seconds after detonation, everyone felt as if a giant sunlamp had been turned on, and then, traveling faster than the speed of sound, came the shock wave.”
“All personnel were consistently warned to have their mouths open during detonation so that pressure of the shock wave would not damage the ears. Everyone was also advised that it would be best not to swallow during the onset of the blast wave.”
“When the concussion wave came, it traveled with the speed of a sonic boom as the nuclear blast broke the sound barrier. During one particular very strong H-bomb test, there was a double boom that surprised everyone.”
“Always after the detonation blast, everyone waited until Mahatma spoke again.”
“This is Mahatma speaking. You may now turn and view the blast.”
“We were wearing our dark cobalt goggles when we turned toward the explosion, but the view was incredible.” Rick recalled and, in his voice, we could all hear the awe of the experience. “We could see the blast ring—sometimes more than one –coming out from the base of the explosion, and then the mushroom cloud climbing well above us. Those mushroom clouds rose to 60,000 feet, and when we watched, we were looking almost straight up.”
“On one occasion, one of the sailors had misplaced his safety goggles, so when Mahatma gave the ‘bombs away’ warning, he turned away from the blast, opened his mouth, and covered his eyes with his hands. When the heat flash came from behind him, he could see the bones in his fingers from the bright light and X-rays sent out from the blast.”
“The scariest test ever was when a plane was flying directly over our position and Mahatma said, ‘bombs away.’ We thought the plane was dropping the bomb right on top of us, but on that test, the bomb was on a raft out at sea. That time when Mahatma said: “Bombs away, turn away from the blast,” we looked at each other and didn’t know which way to face. We thought the bomb was going to explode right overhead. One of the guys looked over and said, ‘I don’t know which way to turn.’”
Throughout the H-bomb tests at Christmas Island, Rick Nolan and his fellow crewmembers of Operation Dominic checked their radiation dosimeters daily for overexposure to radioactivity. Remarkably enough, everyone on Nolan’s landing craft always registered in the safe zone.
There were 31 nuclear weapon detonations above the ground and in the atmosphere during Operation Dominic. Rick Nolan grew up in Nutley, New Jersey, joined the U.S. Navy, and experienced the atomic age up close and firsthand as he served during the hydrogen bomb tests in the central Pacific Ocean in 1962. In the 1990’s Rick moved to Marco Island and became a Marco Beach Boy.
Tom Williams is Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.