Sheltering down under (o.., p.1
Sheltering Down Under
(For Grahame Giles)
Copyright 2010 by Charlie Canning
Cover photo: © 2012 Charlie Canning. All rights reserved.
I am writing this in a field bomb shelter from the Maralinga rocket range in South Australia. Maralinga (and nearby Emu Field) was the site of nine nuclear tests conducted by the British in the 1950s. The Americans had Nevada, the French had the South Pacific, and the British had Australia.
This bomb shelter is of the trailer variety. Except for the porthole windows, the four-inch gauge steel on the ceilings and walls, and the remnants of an elaborate electrical system, the trailer might be mistaken for something you’d see on a construction site. It doesn’t have wheels, so it’s fairly permanent. Yet it can be carted away on the back of a flatbed truck just like a mobile home. It’s a portable bomb shelter. No one knows exactly how the bomb shelter ended up in Willunga. Grahame tells me that it has been outside his shearing shed since the 1970s. Grahame and his mates call it “the kipsie” and use it for their coffee breaks.
The first nuclear test on the continent of Australia was conducted in 1953. This was a busy year for the field test of nuclear weapons. The Korean War was escalating and no one had any idea how China and the Soviet Union might react. All sorts of scenarios were being played out. Some of these involved the use of tactical nuclear weapons. But the picture wasn’t clear. The Allies needed more data.
Of course, it could be argued that the Allies already had enough data. Two atomic bombs had been dropped on large numbers of people living in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The damage inflicted had been monstrous. The bombs worked. They had been tested and they worked.
But there were two problems with the data available from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first was that there had been no monitoring equipment on the ground and no one to report the results. In early August 1945, Japan was still a sovereign country at war with the United States. It wasn’t possible to install sophisticated equipment at the sites before the bombs were dropped. The only friendlies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were Allied POWs who didn’t know that they were about to be incinerated. After Japan surrendered, the U.S. sent teams of personnel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to survey the damage. Although the cities were still smoldering three weeks after the bombs had been dropped, precious recording time had been lost.
The second problem with data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that the bombs hadn’t been used tactically. They were trump cards played at the end of a long, bitter war when the United States was the only player holding trump. But times had changed by 1953. Now the Soviet Union had the bomb. The game was going to have to be played differently from now on and the Allies needed fresh data.
Some of the nuclear tests conducted in the United States in 1953 were undertaken to assess the viability of using nuclear weapons while U.S. troops were on the ground. Incredible as this may sound, the tests involved the use of live subjects in close proximity to the blasts. Fortunately, some of these men are still alive to talk about their experience. Here’s an eyewitness account written by a retired school teacher and former Marine who took part in one of the tests:
In April 1953 thousands of 2nd Bat. 3rd Division Marines were trucked to the Mojave Desert in Nevada where a 23 kiloton atomic bomb waited on a 300 foot steel tower. We were addressed by a scientist and an officer from a stage. They told us that ten seconds after the atomic blast we were to climb out of our trenches and then walk into and under the atomic inferno. We were told that the trenches were less then two miles from ground zero, every man would be given a film badge and every thirty a Geiger counter. We were told that after we crossed the glass floor at ground zero and walked five miles the other side, trucks would be waiting to take us to hot showers and all new dungarees, boots, helmets, rifles and even underwear would be issued us. The officer and scientist got in their car and left. We were then told that only six film badges had arrived and they would go to officers. Only six Geiger counters had also arrived. We hunched down in our trenches through a very cold black night. At 4:30 am the count down started. The light went out at 386,000 miles a second burning everything for 100 miles not in a trench to charcoal. The wind went out at 1000 miles an hour creating a vacuum and returned at 500 miles an hour, the trench rolled like a row boat in a hurricane. This all happened in ten seconds. Following orders we climbed out of our trenches and walked into and under the atomic inferno, across the glass floor at ground zero and to five miles the other side. At the trucks we were told that no showers or new clean dungarees, boots, helmets, rifles or underwear were available but they handed us brooms to brush off the hot radioactive sand from our shoulders. We then went to Korea but that’s another adventure story.
Since the 1950s, things have become much more circumspect. Eyewitness accounts are hard to come by. Information and disinformation is parceled out on a “need-to-know” basis and statements and suppositions can be neither confirmed nor denied. But life is short and memory is long.
In 1983, I was teaching English and history on board a U.S. Navy ship in the Western Pacific as part of the Navy’s PACE (Program for Afloat College Education) Program. We were supposed to go to Australia then to visit Sydney, Adelaide, and Perth but the Ayatollah changed all that when he threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz. Our Australian port calls were cancelled and we headed for the Bay of Bengal. There we joined an aircraft carrier battle group. We spent the next fifty days going round and round, waiting for something to happen. Fortunately, nothing did. Since we were a supply ship, we busied ourselves ferrying supplies to the aircraft carrier and to the other ships.
One day, there was talk that two of the crates that we had taken on board contained nuclear weapons. It was one of those rumors that you heard at sea that you didn’t know whether to believe or not to believe. I remember thinking that it was possible but unlikely. We were a supply ship, not a frigate or a destroyer. Then something happened to change my mind. I was down in the hold talking to one of my students when an officer came by. The sailor asked the officer if there were nukes in the crates. The officer said, “That information is on a need-to-know basis and you don’t need to know.” After that, two sailors stood watch over the crates until they were off-loaded.
When it comes to this kind of information, “need-to-know” is very much like that other caveat of military newspeak, “We can neither confirm nor deny.” “We can neither confirm nor deny that there are nuclear weapons on our ships” has often been used in the post-war era, most notably in New Zealand.
New Zealand is a country that categorically prohibits nuclear weapons within its borders including its territorial waters. This is a problem for the U.S. Navy because blanket prohibitions of things do not work well with “need-to-know” and “We can neither confirm nor deny.” The United States has a big navy with ships and submarines patrolling all of the world’s oceans. Some of these vessels are powered by nuclear reactors and/or carry nuclear weapons. Telling people which ships have nuclear capability and where those ships are at any given time is a security concern.
What New Zealand and others have suggested is that the U.S. dispatch its non-nuclear ships to countries that prohibit nuclear weapons and/or reactors within their borders. While possible, this takes “the shell-game” deterrent out of the equation and the U.S. has been loath to do this.
The anti-nuclear stance of Japan is another problem. Like New Zealand, Japan prohibits nuclear weapons within its borders and its territorial waters. In spite of this, the United States reached a secret agreement with Prime Minister Nakasone’s government whereby Japan would tacitly agree to the presence of nuclear weapons
As with nuclear bombs, nuclear power has been field tested on humans and found to be wanting. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Tokaimura proved that there is no such thing as safe nuclear energy. All the more surprising then that President Obama should be the one to signal the end of an unofficial thirty-year moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States. After Three Mile Island, many Americans no longer believed that nuclear energy was the safest, cleanest form of energy. The horrors of Chernobyl confirmed that far from being safe, nuclear energy could be nearly as terrifying as a nuclear weapon. Yet here was President Obama endorsing the construction of a new nuclear power plant in our very own Georgia.
The nuclear summit convened in Washington in 2009 was undoubtedly a good idea. But the disturbing thing was that far from being non-political it was pointedly so. Iran and North Korea were both excluded. Furthermore, Secretary of Defense Gates made the extraordinary statement that the United States would reserve the right to use nuclear weapons on any state (read Iran and North Korea) that refused to comply with the U.S. – led position on the development of nuclear technology.
Where did this come from? For those of us expecting a kinder, gentler foreign policy to go along with the Lincolnesque calls for national unity, the reemergence of John Foster Dulles and brinkmanship was surprising. The Cold War rhetoric of the 1950s may have worked (barely, judging from the Cuban Missile Crisis) with the Soviet Union, but that it will work fifty years later with such radically different mindsets as fundamentalist Iran and Kim Jong-il‘s North Korea is a huge gamble. Why is the United States willing to take such risks now?
The present situation of the United States calls to mind John Cheever’s short story “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” from 1961. A more urbane, lyrical, funny/sad take on the Cold War hasn’t been written. The Brigadier is a man whose fortunes are on the decline. Things at home and at work are not going well – he’s got two kids in college and bills to pay. Two things make life bearable: serial affairs with his neighbors’ wives and his bomb shelter. In the arms of a woman not his wife, he can momentarily forget his troubles. In a bomb shelter stocked with canned food and reading material to inspire optimism, he will be able to wait out the nuclear winter and re-emerge from the earth a new man, righteous and debt-free. Surely, any post-apocalyptic world will be kinder than this one.
Unfortunately for the Brigadier, his latest affair is going badly and the creditors are closing in. If only the Soviet Union would launch an ICBM. He could repair to his bomb shelter and start all over again. But the Russians won’t oblige. It is up to the United States to take the bull by the horns: “Bomb them!” “Throw a little nuclear hardware at them! Show them who’s boss!” the Brigadier shouts into his television set.
These days, the U.S. is an analogous position to the Brigadier. Our affairs are not going well and we are heavily in debt. Surely, any post-apocalyptic world will be better than this one.
A bomb shelter in the hills of South Australia may be as good a place as any to sit out the storm. For nearly fifty years, Australia has been largely nuclear free. The last atomic test on Australian soil was in 1963. Since 1960, there have only been three small research reactors built in Australia and only one of these is operational today. Though there are large deposits of uranium in the ground here, there are no nuclear power plants and no nuclear weapons. Recent proposals to allow other nations to dump nuclear waste in Australia have been met with vehement opposition.
For now, the sheep come in one door, the wool is clipped, and they go out another door. When they emerge from behind the bomb shelter they have been shorn clean. After shearing a couple hundred animals, Grahame and his neighbor Dean sit down in the “kipsie” for a cup of coffee and a meat pie. Nobody talks about the Maralinga nuclear tests or the Korean War. Instead, it is the weather, the sheep: the price of wool, mutton, and lamb. Still, when you’re looking up from your cup into a sun that beats down on a land with no ozone to protect it, you can be grateful that Oceania, at least, is nuclear free. If Australia and New Zealand stay the course, there will be no need for bomb shelters and Grahame will be able to keep the doors and the windows of the “kipsie” open when he sits down for his coffee break.
Sheltering Down Under (Oceania) by Charlie Canning / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on40 votes