The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground

The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground

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by Michael Harris

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A real-life version of Catch-22–the searing and subversively funny memoir of a young army draftee’s experiences during the H-Bomb tests of the 1950s

In late 1955, twenty-two-year-old army private Michael Harris “earned” an assignment to Eniwetok Atoll, ground zero of U.S. Joint Task Force Seven’s Pacific Proving Ground. There, on a

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A real-life version of Catch-22–the searing and subversively funny memoir of a young army draftee’s experiences during the H-Bomb tests of the 1950s

In late 1955, twenty-two-year-old army private Michael Harris “earned” an assignment to Eniwetok Atoll, ground zero of U.S. Joint Task Force Seven’s Pacific Proving Ground. There, on a desolate stretch of the South Pacific, Harris was part of a grand experiment called Operation Redwing. The biggest and baddest of America’s atmospheric nuclear weapons test regimes, Redwing was one of those strange Cold War phenomena that mixed saber rattling with mad science–while overlooking the cataclysmic human, geopolitical, and ecological effects. But mostly, it just messed with guys’ heads. . . .
Meet the members of Harris’s new nuclear family:

·Major Maxwell, who put safety first, second and third–except when he didn't
·Berko, the wisecracking Brooklyn Dodgers fan who was forced to cope with the H-bomb and his mother’s cookies
·Tony, who thought military spit and polish plus uncompromising willpower made him an exception
·Carl Duncan, who clung to his girlfriend's photos and a dangerous secret
·Major Vanish who did just that

With The Atomic Times, Harris welcomes readers into the company of the brave men of Operation Redwing, where the local lexicon of f-words included such gems as “fallout” and “fireball.” As Harris tells it, daily life at ground zero could have been scripted by a committee comprising Franz Kafka, Sergeant Bilko, Hubert Selby, and Joseph Heller–all working within the constraints of the peacetime army’s unofficial modus operandi, “Hurry up and wait.”

When not playing radioactive guinea pig, Harris’s jobs included editing the base’s daily newspaper, cheekily named The Atomic Times, whose logo was a mushroom cloud and whose motto was “All the News That Fits, We Print.” In a distinctive narrative voice, Harris describes his h-bomb year with unforgettable imagery and insight into how isolation and isotopes change men for better and for worse.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Dr. Kissinger - Henry Kissinger
"A gripping memoir leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment. A tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier."
Senator Schumer - Senator Charles Schumer Senator Charles Schumer
"Harris has seamlessly presented a colorful cast of characters, and a shockingly honest depiction of his experience. The effect is at once deeply personal and politically profound." --Senator Charles Schumer
Publisher's Weekly - Publisher's Weekly Publisher's Weekly
"Harris uses a chatty, dead-pan voice that highlights the horrifying absurdity of life on the island: the use of Geiger counters to monitor scrambled eggs' radiation level, three-eyed fish swimming in the lagoon, corroded, permanently open windows that fail to keep out the radioactive fall-out and men whose toenails glow in the dark. An entertaining read in the bloodline of Catch-22, Harris achieves the oddest of victories: a funny, optimistic story about the H-bomb." --Publisher's Weekly
Booklist - Booklist Booklist
"Harris' frank and disturbing descriptions of the criminally irresponsible proceedings on Eniwetok, and the physical and mental pain he and others endured, constitute shocking additions to atomic history. Amazingly enough, given his ordeal, Harris remains healthy." --Booklist
member of the Council on Foreign Relations - John G. Stoessinger winner of the Bancroft Prize for Inernational Affairs
"One of the best books I've ever read, combining elements of Catch 22 and Dr. Strangelove in a memoir both hilarious and tragic. A 'must' read, destined to become a classic." --John G. Stoessinger, Ph.D. (Harvard), winner of the Bancroft Prize for Inernational Affairs, member of the Council on Foreign Relations

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.83(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.99(d)

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“There’s a woman behind every tree!”—that’s what American soldiers were told in the 1950s before they left the States for Eniwetok.

Some men expected that exotic, erotic native women would provide them with the wild sex they had been looking forward to ever since adolescence. A few of them did not find out the truth until their plane landed and they looked out the window.

What they saw was a landscape stripped bare. After World War II the United States relocated all the local inhabitants to another island, and the army engineers leveled this one with bulldozers. They destroyed the foliage, cut down every plant, shrub and bush, and turned a lush tropical forest into a concrete slab.

One look around the airport made it obvious.

There were no trees.

The newcomers stared at a barren wasteland, and in August 1955, I was one of them. I had graduated from Brown University in June 1954, and that August the army drafted me for a twenty-four-month tour of duty. I was in the States during the first year and about to spend the second at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Pacific Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands.

At twenty-two, I was younger and angrier than I realized and just as cynical. I had won first prize in the Worst Childhood Competition (I was the only judge) and had concluded before I became a teenager that everything was always worse than people said it was going to be. I had no reason to believe that would be any different in a place where the United States tested hydrogen bombs.

Fortunately, my misery years ended by college—I even volunteered then to hand back my Award. Finally I was happy, mainly because of my girlfriend Nancy. Partly because I had learned how to erase large chunks of the first fifteen years of my life. I had not yet discovered that suppressing memories was only a temporary solution and not an effective method of coming to terms with the past.

But in August 1955, it was the present I was coming to terms with—a year with Joint Task Force Seven, the official name of my new unit. Along with the other men on my plane, I was going to “provide support” for Operation Redwing, code name for the upcoming test series. The starting date was still classified—and not yet known to me.

I watched an MP corporal step aboard wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt and khaki shorts, in striking contrast to our own standard, full-length uniforms.

“Welcome to Eniwetok,” he said. “I hope you’ve had a pleasant trip. When I read your name off the manifest, answer ‘Here’ and leave the aircraft. There will be no talking. Gather to the right of the plane and follow me in single file to the briefing room. Don’t talk to each other. Don’t talk to the people outside. Don’t walk under the wing of the plane. When you enter the briefing room, take a seat. Don’t crowd the doorway.”

He was short and thin and a bit prissy. Nothing imposing about his appearance, but we were all nervous—this was a new place and we didn’t know what to expect.

He read our names off the manifest and obediently we answered “Here” and left the plane. I looked around and saw water, water everywhere—the South Pacific visible on three sides. This was a depressing flatland, and a sign provided us with that information in case we hadn’t noticed: welcome to eniwetok. elevation 12 feet.

There were a dozen of us, and once we were all on the ground, the corporal led his flock of numb sheep to the briefing room. On the way, we observed a bedraggled bunch of men of assorted shapes and sizes standing at the edge of the runway. The ones he had warned us not to talk to. They were deeply tanned and wearing khaki shorts like the MP, but the upper half of their wardrobe consisted of brightly colored, garishly patterned Hawaiian sport shirts. Which I assumed (correctly) was the off-duty uniform.

At first all they did was stare at us. I felt I was inside a zoo showcasing exotic species, though I wasn’t sure if they were the animals or if we were. Then they shouted: “White meat! White meat! Some more white meat!”

Eniwetok’s version of the Welcome Wagon.

The reception committee, of course, was not referring to our pale skin—and their preposterous attempt to frighten us almost made me laugh. But at least one member of our group took the implied threat seriously. Jason Underwood, a high school dropout from Mississippi, turned whiter. He was still recovering from his first glimpse out the window—he had actually expected to see the overgrown jungle that soldiers had described to him in the States. Now he stared at the ground and off into space, anywhere but at the men in aloha shirts.

That was a cue for the veterans, who now focused only on him. They rewarded Jason Underwood with his own personal rendition of “White meat!” I thought his knees were going to give way.

This time, three of the chanters broke away from their buddies and stood apart. I watched their faces slowly change: Their mouths curved down and their eyes—once playful—turned mean. They were no longer amusing themselves. They looked angry, and in a way I had never seen before. To my surprise, I thought they were hungry for crazy trouble, an unwholesome trio without rules, but at the same time I chastised myself for being too dramatic.

Then the ominous threesome delivered another encore of “White meat,” and I observed a slight trickle of drool head southward to the chin of one. Dressed in vivid shirts and howling in unison, there was something unhuman about them. They were not individuals anymore—they had mutated into a single untamed creature of the wild.

As we entered the briefing room, Jason Underwood was visibly shaken and shaking. And even I was a bit unnerved.

The briefing room was small and bare. Plain wooden benches in the center of the room. Tables on both sides of the door, an MP standing at attention behind each one. Empty walls except for two photographs—of the army and air force commanding officers—and a sign printed in inch-high letters: this is a security post! all work being done on this post is classified information. what you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, leave it here.

A warning. The first of many.

The same tiny MP corporal waited at the front of the room and looked even smaller standing next to a gorilla-size captain—silent, rigid, unanimated. He would remain that way throughout the briefing, with only one apparent function—guarding the midget beside him.

The corporal began: “This is a security post! Let me tell you what that means. You are not allowed to talk about the type of construction going on here. The kind of work being done. The number of men stationed here. The number of planes that arrive or leave in any given week. The names of important visitors or if there are important visitors. That information is classified and not to be discussed.”

“Security post” was another way of saying H-bomb test site, and most of us already knew we would not be allowed to leave our new home for even a single day before our twelve months were over.

I had grown up on another island, Manhattan, but this one was much smaller, less than a square mile in size. Not a spot for claustrophobes.

We all paid careful attention—the corporal was suddenly very much in charge. His voice was deeper, an intimidating baritone, and his brisk, no-shit manner ordered us to follow his rules. Or else.

“The following items are contraband and not permitted here without official authorization. Cameras. Drugs. Narcotics. Liquor. Signaling devices. Optical equipment. Film. Weapons of any kind. If you have any of these items in your possession, it would be wise of you to tell us before we examine your luggage.”

The corporal zoomed in on one man at a time, stared for a few seconds, made his point, then shifted his eyes to someone else. Slow, deliberate, dramatic. Authority written all over his face. He had transformed himself: He was no longer small and, like a cartoon character, continued to grow larger and larger with every sentence.

“Because this place is isolated, that does not mean you can talk freely. While you are here, you will at no time discuss among yourselves the classified work you are doing. You will not discuss anything you see of an unusual nature such as new construction, unless you are doing so in an official capacity. You will at no time divulge classified information to any person on this island unless you are revealing it on a ‘need to know’ basis. Remember those words. ‘Need to know.’ If you hear a security discussion taking place among the men here, report this immediately to the provost marshal or the security officer. We cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining secrecy.”

Isolated? It would have been hard to find a spot more remote, the very reason Eniwetok was chosen for H-bombs. So far away from the heavily populated areas of the world that it was considered ideal for nuclear experiments. We believed back then (incorrectly, as it turned out) that it would be impossible to damage the rest of the planet from there. Today we know better.

There was another reason Eniwetok was a popular choice for ground zero. The consensus was it would be easy to do without if anything went wrong. This was a place the world could afford to lose. A feeling, I would discover soon, shared by the military men who lived there.

“Mail censorship is self-imposed. Write home about the weather, about the movie you saw last night. Tell them what you ate for dinner. But don’t say anything about the work going on at Eniwetok.

“You will be given a security examination to make certain you understand thoroughly what is expected of you. In order to remain on this post, you will have to answer all the questions correctly. No one leaves Eniwetok before he has been here twelve months, so you will be briefed and briefed again until you successfully pass the test.

“When I call off your name, you will step forward with your luggage and go to one of the MPs beside a table. He will examine your belongings to make certain there is no contraband in your possession. I tell you again, if you have brought any with you, I would suggest you tell the MP before he begins. After your belongings have been inspected, you will take your luggage with you and wait in front of the side door. Do not crowd the doorway. At that time you may again talk.”

When the corporal finished, there was silence in the room. No sound except for names being called and White Meat scrambling to the tables for inspection.

When we went outside again, we were careful not to crowd the doorway. Finally we were allowed to speak.

Nobody did.

364 TO GO


We left the airport and “processed.” First, we were required to take the security exam consisting of a true-or-false questionnaire.

“Classified information is only given out on ‘a need to know’ basis.”

True or false.

“Eniwetok is not a security post.”

True or false.

“A camera is a contraband item.”

True or false.

Did everyone pass and move on to the medical exam?


Inside the front door of the dispensary was a desk with a sign on top, report here, and an arrow pointing to a clerk sitting in a chair reading an old newspaper. He asked his questions without looking up.


“Michael Harris.”

“First name?”


He wrote down Michael Michaelharris. I didn’t correct his mistake.

“Serial number?”

I told him.



“Length of time here?”

“One day.”

“If I had a year to go, I’d hang myself. Have a seat.”

There were no seats.

The medical exam. Urine. Blood. Strip from the waist up for a stethoscope. A few knee jerks.

Everyone passed. True or false?

Next, new uniforms. Hundreds of unfolded khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirts in unmarked sizes were tossed haphazardly into large bins inside a musty room. The drill was to guess the right size and grab. Hold them up and keep them if they looked like they were going to fit. No one, including me, bothered to try them on.

Custom tailoring, Eniwetok style.

Our next destination: the chaplain’s office. We walked through the door and watched him, seated in his chair with his head tilted back, holding a box of Chiclets above his open mouth and pouring them inside. When he had the desired number (I counted four), he sat upright and chewed while we stood around him in a semicircle. His jaw moved for a good ten seconds before he finally addressed us. “So what do you think about your new home?” he asked, looking at no one in particular.

The chaplain was in his late forties. Face tanned and leathery from the sun. Crew cut (white hair) so short he looked almost bald. He waited for an answer restlessly and, when he didn’t get one, zeroed in on Jason Underwood. Still in shock from his first view of the island and the “White meat” crew.

Jason Underwood: lanky frame, large mole on his right cheek, long brown hair, blank eyes. His discomfort seemed to increase—if that was possible—when the chaplain singled him out. He shifted from one foot to the other and replied faintly, “It’s okay, I guess. It’s not very big.”

The chaplain took a chewing break. He stuck his fingers above his tongue and between his teeth, removed the wad and parked it behind his right ear. He was ready to respond.

“The world is as big as your soul, young man,” he replied in a deep booming voice particularly suitable for his profession. “The world can’t be small if you’re close to God. The smallness is inside you.”

Jason Underwood blinked his eyes in confusion. “Yes, sir.”

“What’s your name?” the chaplain asked.

“Jason Underwood, sir.”

“And what is your denomination?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your religion!”

“Protestant, sir.”

“Protestant doesn’t mean a thing to me,” the chaplain answered with irritation. “Are you Baptist? Methodist? Episcopalian?”

“Episcopalian, sir.”

“When was the last time you went to church?”

“A while ago.”

“A while ago? What does that mean! A week? A month? Six months? A year?”

Jason Underwood’s legs were shaking. “Er, uh, a year, sir.”

“Aren’t you aware of your responsibilities to God?”

“Yes, sir.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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