By Thomas D. Segel Tomsegel@joimail.com

When we read the tales of western lore, it is the humble Wigwam, which protected those inside from cold, rain, snow and wind. Inside the Wigwam all were safe.

Aboard the U.S.S. Tawasa the scientist tasked with filming the event did not feel safe. He panicked. Seeing a massive tidal wave nearing the ship he dove through the open hatch, breaking two ribs and his shoulder when he landed in the passageway.

The shock of the initial explosion smashed into the vessel, breaking pipes, hydraulic lines, and twisting the propeller shaft. The fire pump was torn loose from its retaining straps; a smaller fire pump was torn loose and damaged equipment, including that used for fire control. The ship was tossed about wildly and then was completely submerged by the surge. Slowly floundering to the surface, what was left of a 30,000-foot towline served to hold the ship steady, saving it from complete disaster. The scene, in various forms, was repeated over and over again that afternoon on May 14, 1955.

The initial devastation and the horrors of the aftermath were the result of the only deep-water atomic test performed by any nation. The test was conducted 500 miles southwest of San Diego, California and impacted 6,700 military service personnel, 120 civilian scientists and a fleet of 30 vessels. This was Operation Wigwam and it provided no safety for anyone involved.

It was only a matter of seconds following the detonation when the ocean seemed to explode. The surface at point zero became a boiling white circle, which spread outward for two miles. Radioactive seawater, spray and mist leaped upward until there was a column of water 3,500 feet high above the surrounding ships. Then a fireball broke the surface and became a two-mile circle of bright light.

There were repeated shock waves, which slammed into the circle of ocean craft, assembled for the test. The fleet was tossed and battered. Some were submerged in a tidal surge that reached 800 feet above their main masts. A giant wave 1,200 feet high rolled in the direction of the ships. From that giant wave a spray of atomic mist enveloped every ship and every observer of the blast. The spray was later described in official government reports as “an insidious hazard, which turned into an invisible radioactive aerosol.”

The deep-water test was designed to test the vulnerability of submarines to deep-water nuclear weapons and the feasibility of using depth bombs in combat. Used in this test was a B-7 (Mk-90) Betty, a 31 kiloton depth bomb, suspended by a 2,000 foot cable from a barge. The weight of the bomb alone was 8,250 pounds. A six-mile towline connected the fleet tug Tawasa and the barge. Suspended from the bomb line at various depths were three “Squaws” or sub-scale submarine-like pressure hulls each equipped with instruments and cameras.

Ships conducting the test were positioned five miles from the barge. Two ships, the USS George Eastman and the USS Granville S. Hall were equipped with shielding and stationed downwind of the blast zone. Nearly all personnel were issued film badges to measure radiation exposure. But, no protective gear was provided.

R.J. Ritter was a crewmember on the USS Tawasa and is now a retired marine engineer. His research into Operation Wigwam and its aftermath has been extensive. It was made particularly difficult because everyone involved was required to sing a 25 year non disclosure and secrecy agreement, which if violated would have brought about serious incarceration. He claims that even today, most of the Operation Wigwam survivors are not speaking out about their involvement in the test.

According to Ritter, “The planner’s major concerns were focused on the scientific and military results of the test. Any concerns for the possible hazards facing thousands of men involved first hand and stationed at the blast site, seemed at the time to be secondary in nature. In fact, the Navy was more concerned about their original proposal to stage a much larger operation. But, that event had to be scaled down because of a somewhat restricted budget. Ritter's research found that the radiation standards set for the operation allowed exposure ten times the amount of radiation considered, at that time, to be safe for the public.

Dosimeters, those film badges worn by all personnel, were subject to unacceptable errors in accuracy and did not even measure ionizing radiation particles, which due to the mist created by the atomic explosion, were ingested and inhaled by those subjected to its fallout. The ionizing radiation has since proven to be the most harmful to personnel, years after exposure.

Following the blast floating debris was scattered over a five-mile radius. Weapons were used to sink anything afloat. That which could not be sunk to the floor of the ocean was taken aboard ships for transfer back to shore. The submarine hulls, surface barges support platforms and other items felt important to the test were selectively retrieved and transported to San Diego.

Those Navy personnel with deck duties, crewmembers, boson mates and those with special assignments were sent to their tasks with minimal protection. Divers were sent deep into the radioactive waters. Pilots were ordered to fly into the atomic clouds. They were all exposed to secondary radiation.

The complete devastation of Operation Wigwam may never be known. Due to signed secrecy agreements, high security classifications placed on government documents and even the removal of comments from military records showing individual participation in Operation Wigwam, the public remains uninformed. It may never be known how many became very ill, how many had lives of increased suffering or how many died because of the government’s failure to provide radiation protection and even health care to those how participated in the test.

As for the scientific evaluations of Operation Wigwam, they have now been released under the Freedom of Information Act.

  • Scientists revealed that largely because of adverse weather conditions, fully 70 percent of the experiments were failures.
  • The Wigwam detonation produced sufficient airborne contamination activity to have given radiation doses many times above the tolerance level of those military and civilian personnel exposed to the hot seawater fallout, and to the radioactive contaminated monitoring equipment.
  • Airborne monitors stationed at San Diego measured a higher level of radioactivity over that city within four days of the blast. The radioactivity ranged from ten to twenty times the normal background levels for the next nine days.
  • The frightening base surge tidal wave, created by the blast was characterized as an insidious hazard that turned into an invisible radioactive mist lingering for several days.

It has now been more than 49 years since Operation Wigwam and it was but one of 1066 United States sponsored atomic detonations participated in by the military personnel of this country. Those participants from all the uniformed services have still not been recognized as casualties of the “Cold War” and the Congress has still not passed legislation to give them unlimited medical assistance in the same manner as we treat all others who were wounded in action.

As R.J. Ritter said at the end of his research paper, “The Atomic Veterans also stood in harms way, but unlike the bullet wound that will heal and not effect one¹s future health, ionizing radiation is forever, and will continue to break down body processes over a period of 20 to 40 years, after the fact.”

So, Operation Wigwam provided safety for none and covered all who participated with a blanket of illness and death. Still, little is done by our government to offer relief. As Ritter concludes, “Time does not favor the side of Atomic Veterans, but only favors the side of the Congress of the United States of America.”