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A tale of a close encounter


JMG

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Reading the comments on a post from facebook recently, about life changing or death defying events in one’s life, I was reminded of a group of people who may have never known how close they came to being obliterated from this earth near the island of Bokoluo, on the Enewetak Atoll in April of 1978. This event happened while I was serving on a six-month temporary duty assignment while in the U.S. Army. The assignment was part of a large project to clean up radioactive debris left over from atomic tests that had been performed on the atoll during the fifties and sixties, so that the original inhabitants of the atoll might reclaim it as home.

 

One of the first jobs that the squad I was assigned to performed, was the demolition of one of the atomic test bunkers that had housed the camera equipment for filming one of the major nuclear detonations on the atoll. The project required two separate operations to break down the bunker into manageable sized materials, and used between three to four tons of explosives for the two ops. The first charge that was set to break the bunker used in excess of five thousand pounds of TNT and shape-charges, and was reported as being the largest detonation of explosives on the atoll since the atomic tests had ended. I remember that we were all pretty stoked at the thought of getting to watch this one go off, but the day that we triggered the charge for it turned out to be one of the longest days we experienced as a team while stationed there.

 

As this first operation had taken many days to set up, it was decided to set up the trigger for it in the morning after everything had been double checked. While my squad leader was setting the det cap for the charge, I noticed that he had only set a single cap at the end of the time fuse and I called him on it. He basically told me to screw off and that it wasn’t going to be a problem. Regulation generally requires a double cap to insure detonation, and I walked away from him shaking my head. At this point we loaded up on the LARC (Lighter, Amphibious Resupply, Cargo vehicle) and set out for the safety limit, estimated at approximately one and a half miles into the lagoon, after having triggering the time charge. There always was a sense of slow motion in our jobs on the Atoll, and riding on the LARCs was the king of slow.

 

For those that are not familiar with this particular vehicle, it was at the time, one of the only transports available to the Army that could transition from ocean to land, over reefs and through surf, to deliver heavy equipment and personnel to their required operation sites. The LARC had a sixty-ton cargo capacity, and was powered by four diesel engines that drove either four ten-foot-tall tires on land, or twin screws while in the water. The Atomic clean-up project at Enewetak may have been the last major deployment for this type of vehicle prior to its decommission from service.

 

On reaching our safe limit within the allotted time frame, we began waiting out the rest of the time set for safety margin, and immediately noticed another LARC crossing the chain of islands, heading in the direction of our ground zero. OK now, someone really screwed the pooch here with scheduling and communications for what turned out to be a sight-seeing tour for a group of local dignitaries. Que the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Our LARC crew spent the next hour plus, frantically attempting to contact and warn the crew of the other LARC of the imminent danger they faced, but all attempts from our crew as well as base camp communications failed. Anyone out there that might be familiar with the amount of noise those vehicles made will probably not be surprised at this. The clock was ticking down and we all now believed that we were watching dead men riding into hell. As it turns out, the other crew arrived within close proximity of our ground zero almost exactly at the estimated time for detonation.

 

Waiting became a bit excruciating, and I am sure the blood pressure of those in charge was not at a healthy level. Needless to say, nothing happened, and time crawled slowly on, like the LARC that we all watched crawling off and away along the reefs on out of the danger area. We, however, were bound to now wait out the time for the safety margin of a failed detonation, and then move back to the island and investigate the reason for the failure.

 

Sometime early afternoon we arrived back at the bunker to find that the single det cap that had been set, had simply failed. The time fuse had burned properly and the charge should have detonated, breaking that bunker and taking an unknown number of people with it. At this point I could not resist and commented to my squad leader; “Aren’t you glad you ignored me?”. I’ll bet you can guess what his response was.

 

A double cap was set on the kick charge and we set off back to the safety limit. Now late in the afternoon, we were treated to a rather impressive explosion, and mini mushroom cloud with a rather large smoke ring over it, culminating more than a week’s worth of effort on our part in setting it up, but still leaving us to travel back to the site for preliminary inspection and then back to our temporary camp on one of the other nearby islands, to end one of the longest days experienced while serving on that atoll. Even today, I still wonder if the locals taking that tour, and the crew of that other LARC, were ever informed of how close they came to the great beyond.

 

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Sunset, Lojwa, September 78

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One of my friends made the comment about the story: "When incompetence, laziness, and luck conspire to prevent a tragedy in spite of communications failures...". I thought it was an apt observation. Spot on actually.

 

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Atomic bomb crater. Aug, 78 White line across island is path made by a D7 or D8 bulldozer.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thinking back on this first project, the other crew and passengers weren't the only lucky ones during the process of destroying this bunker. While setting up the overall charge, myself and one other squad mate were tasked with setting up forty pound shape charges in a pattern that would split the massive base of the bunker. While opening up crates of shape charges we ran into one case of twenty-five pound charges with a date code of 1945 that had somehow found its way into the mix we had transported to the project area. This particular pack of three charges were all in a deteriorating state and were sweating nitroglycerine profusely. Couple this with the fact that we had transported in excess of twelve thousand pounds of miscellaneous explosives along with this and some other unstable materials on a large, noisy and vibration inducing transport out to the zone that we were working in, in one load, and, well, you get the picture...

 

We carefully re-attached the cover on that case and set it next to one of the other explosive charges that had been set and went back to work on the rest. If there had been any true accountability in that entire operation, those old materials would have never have made it past a check point of expiration where they should have been destroyed instead of being sent to us for use. We were not the only ones to have moved those crates, and I doubt the air crews who flew them into the atoll, or the ground crews who loaded or unloaded them were concerned with how they were handled, as military grade explosives are supposed to be designed to be safe to handle in a dormant state. It seems to me, looking back, that luck may have been the only thing that kept many of us alive while serving in the Army during that operation.

 

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Sunrise, Lojwa, August 1978.

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