August 19, 2013

1946. Bill Downs Covers the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Tests

Operation Crossroads
The letter sent from Bikini Atoll by Bill Downs to his wife Rosalind on the day of the nuclear tests
In 1946, Bill Downs reported on the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests known as Operation Crossroads. He was the sole correspondent to accompany the crew of an observation plane which flew directly behind the bomber. It was the plum assignment (PDF, page 7). The rest of the press corps covered the tests from the USS Appalachian.

The decision to send Downs, a radio reporter for CBS, was met with protest from the major news wire agencies, the United Press, the Associated Press, and the International News Service. Since the report was to be the first bulletin to the press, they insisted that a neutral party be given the assignment.

Here is an account from the USS Appalachian. From Denise M. Rompilla's From Hiroshima to the Hydrogen Bomb: American Artists Witness the Birth of the Atomic Age, pp. 167-168:
"'How does it feel to be on your way to a catastrophe?' mused Norman Cousins, in a column he filed for the Saturday Evening Review en route to Bikini. Aboard the USS Appalachian, nicknamed 'the Big Apple,' the correspondents were growing used to the 'grotesque unreality' of participating in a mission in which they themselves were eager guinea pigs. To his readers at home, Cousins recounted the details of the mob conferences that the correspondents crowded into a tiny stateroom to attend. At one, a geologist spoke unblinkingly about the remote possibility of planetary extinction from the atom bomb tests. If the world did manage to pull through unscathed, stories of concussions from the blast and blindness from the light of the explosion were drummed into their heads to take appropriate safety precautions.
"Because of these lessons which forced them to confront their own mortality with unsettling frequency, the passengers turned to macabre humor for relief, starting up their own newspaper, the Daily Blast (published from 'Guinea Pig Bay'), composed their own theme song (dedicated to Join Task Force Press Officer Captain Fitzhugh Lee, and on one of the last evenings before reaching Bikini, held an elaborate banquet, which featured 'Plutonium Pie' for dessert...However, during the six week journey the correspondents spent the majority of their hours in the tropical heat with no news and nothing to write about. The lack of mobility in the crowd, their confinement for such a long stretch of time, and the complete impartiality in which they were doled out the news, resulted in stories in which most of them 'wrote their heads off' about something most of which was already known, and the rest Top Secret. 
"On July 1, 1946, when the moment of the explosion finally came, Crawford was positioned on the deck of the Appalachian at a distance of 18 miles from the perimeter of the target fleet. The members of the press were spread out on deckchairs, dressed like beachcombers, many clothed in the wild prints of the Hawaiian shirts they had picked up on their stopover in Honolulu, with typewriters and notepads on their laps and military-issued goggles on their foreheads. Crawford was one of a handful to refuse the protective gear and look at the explosion directly as he crouched behind the starboard rail—but as his son remarked on the circumspect nature of his father, he watched the test with one eye closed 'just in case.' 
In the end, the goggles were totally unnecessary—at the radius of the observation fleet, the sound and the light of the explosion had dropped off exponentially. As the salmon colored cloud snaked its way into the stratosphere, some of the servicemen threw off their goggles and grabbed their cameras instead—as one veteran noted 'when the first Bomb exploded, you heard more camera clicks before the sound of the explosion arrived to our ears.' Bill Downs [from the observation plane], the first reporter to speak on the global hookup after the static died down, remarked with noticeable disappointment 'there was no tidal wave, the plane did not receive any shock, I can't see any damage below. Observers on the Appalachian noted that Bikini's palms were still visible, gently swaying in the breeze...'"
In 1952, during an appearance on Edward R. Murrow's television program See It Now, Downs reflected on the nuclear tests at Enewetak Atoll, famously saying "This seems to me to be more a day for a searching of the human soul, perhaps, than for any kind of scientific celebration." The full clip is below: