Good research on the Johnson Island tests story. I was there and learned a lot we weren't told such as the radioactive release on the Island. I suspected such when we were in there the next morning and watched some of the clean up activity. It was interesting to see the pictures of the blasts. We all had our cameras confiscated after a picture of the blast showed up in a Honolulu newspaper.
We were helped in keeping our planes flying through a very high priority in the supply system. I remember on one occasion a power inverter we needed was taken out of a Friendship capsule and flown into us from Cape Canaveral. It still took a team effort of all involved to keep the high operational performance.
Unfortunately, with the blasts going off in the middle of the night, hours passed before we had a chance to launch and search for all these rockets and missile pods. The pods were sealed and continued to float till we honed in on the radio signal, but I don't think we found any of the smaller rockets. I think they probably worked fine out on the Nevada desert but the Pacific Ocean was a lot less forgiving. I do remember flying for hours and looking till my eyes burned. I know if they were there we would have spotted them. Many times when we thought we had a positive mark all that was found when dropping down over it was a floating Dixie Cup thrown from one of the ships in the area.
The planes were all lined with brown Kraft paper to keep any radioactive dust from penetrating the crack and crevices. When a pod was found the radioactivity was measured as you hovered over the pod for pick up. The sea water provided some shielding as it floated only about 2" out of the water. The extra length of cable was used to keep some distance from this "hot cargo". When the pod broke water the measured level did go up. The planes flew to the island, hovered over mounds that had lead liners, and lower the pods into these protective areas. When you returned to the ship the paper was stripped from the plane and retained in a special secured area. We all carried film badges and dosimeters for measuring our personal intake. My film badges and dosimeter were burned up in a fire at the records center in St. Louis, so I don't know how much radioactivity I picked up. A recent check with a radiologist indicates that 10 year is a good rule of the thumb to use when looking for results to excess exposure. If nothing shows up during that period, you are probably in the clear.
When we got back to Johnson Island after the pad was rebuilt, we were on station for greater lengths of time and it was felt the troops needed a format to release some steam. Picnics for the ships company and HMM-364 were set up on the island complete with hot dogs and beer. The Johnson Island personnel had a nice little recreation area with a beach and boat and the parties were staged there.
I remember today how good that first beer tasted going down. It was hot, sunny, pure white sand, and a salty breeze blowing in your face. The water was so clear you could see down 60 feet to the ripples in the sand on the sea floor. When you dove under the water, it was like looking in a tropical fish tank. I remember thinking how expense they were and here there were millions everywhere. It was a mini paradise compared to that gray, steel, carrier. I will have to say the Iwo was better by a long shot than the Princeton in the layout of the living quarters and it was air-conditioned.
You only had 2 hours on the island for the picnic and we rotated the groups with the planes. The greatest effort expended by most of the participants was in the consumption of beer. The dedication of some of the party goers to this product made the crew chief's job a lot more difficult on the return trip. We had some of the troops so blasted it was difficult to keep them strapped in for the short trip and some required escorts to their racks or brig upon landing. Most all woke the next day with burning backs and heads.
Fishing was another activity used to pass the time. There were thousands of little razor teeth Trigger fish that would steal your bait, but occasionally you would catch something eatable. One day a large Tuna was caught and dispatched to the mess deck for cooking. When it came back to the squadron sleeping quarters, the whole fish was split down the middle and laid open on a large pan. People were a little tentative until they savored that first bite. It is still the best tasting Tuna I have ever had. The cooks had baked it to perfection. By the time I was making rounds on the 2400 to 0400 watch, there was nothing left on the pan but the bare bones. The word had gotten around and traffic was heavy through that squad bay.
You could see a lot of fish when flying around the fleet because the water was so clear. This was especially so for rays and sharks. The rays would swim in better formations than our flights swimming in threes and fours and the sharks were everywhere. All the garbage being thrown overboard was drawing sharks in from a wide range. I remember seeing packs of hundreds swimming between the ships. We had the metal shop fashion large hooks with barbs and took up catching them from the ship. When caught, they would be hauled aboard, bashed in the head with a fire ax, and thrown back in. This would draw more for catching. It was always pretty exciting having a big shark thrashing around on the anchor deck. Because of the sharks, all the flight crews carried one man rafts on their person when flying. At least it would get you out of the water and not look as tempting to the swimming animals. We had shark chaser in of "Mae West", but I had read sometimes it drew sharks instead of repelling them. I read every book on survival at sea that was in the ship's library.
During the Cuban missile crisis, there was concern for the carrier out there with only one destroyer to guard it. There were a number of Russian spy trawlers and subs in the area monitoring the test along with our ships and we would be pretty easy pickings in a shoot out. We were tucked into the Johnson Island cove to cover our backside and the McCain patrolled across the open sea in front of us until help came down from Pearl. When we left to go back to Santa Ana, we steamed at a real slow pace till the crisis was over. The military wanted us in position to head for the Panama Canal as reinforcement if needed. This was just what everyone wanted, we were going home as S-L-O-W as we could go.
(Click here for Cpl. Smith's memories of "A Good Battle Plan Also Applies to Softball")
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