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The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the…

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

by Michael Harris

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I have conflicted feelings about this book. I expected a great deal more information than it contained. In fact, for almost the first half of the book there was very little information about the nuclear tests--it was sort of a non-fictional Catch-22--a memoir of the absurdities of the life of an enlisted man in the military, albeit a life spent on an island only a mile long (most of it consisting of the airstrip), with no trees and with MPs whose primary function appears to have been to make sure no homosexual activity took place.

Once the H-tests started happening, the information again was purely anecdotal, and again heavily weighted toward illustrating the absurdities of the military. However, many of the events described underscore the fact that authorities either knew very little about the effects of the tests that were being conducted, or else acted with callous disregard for human life and the environment. For example, the soldiers were informed that they must never look at an explosion, or risk being blinded. Initially, they were told that they were required to wear protective googles which would be provided. Then, they were told the googles were not going to be provided (and they didn't really need them anyway) because it was more important that the colonel have new furniture for his house (so as not to be embarrassed in front of the VIPs who would be observing the test). (Apparently the army could not provide both the goggles and the furniture in the time available before the test). In any event, all the VIPs and military brass had goggles and other protective clothing during the tests.

On another occasion, after being constantly told how careful the government was regarding weather patterns and the siting for the explosions so that there would never be any fallout on the island they were on, "mistakes were made", and shortly after a test, the PA system began repeatedly blaring for everyone to go indoors and shut the windows. Unfortunately, none of the windows would shut, as they were all rusted open. Also, the men were constantly told it was safe to swim in the lagoon, yet a piece of coral from the lagoon placed near a potted plant caused the plant to wither and die.

So, the book was an unusual memoir of a year in an unusual place during an unusual time. It just wasn't very factually informative. ( )
  arubabookwoman | Oct 20, 2015 |
Harris's memoir recounts the year in the mid-1950's he spent as an army private stationed on Ewinitok Island in the Pacific where the US was testing H-bombs. The book evokes "Catch-22" in its humorous descriptions of the nonsense of the army bureaucracy, its bizzare regulations, the laughable behaviors of the officers and the interactions and antics of enlisted men on this isolated outpost. The "Atomic Times" refers to the post newspaper he contributed to as well as, of course, to the atomic "times" of the era.

But, as in "Catch-22", the army's nonsense was not harmless. The book details the twelve H-bomb tests detonated in the vicinity. During the tests the men were required to stand in formation. For protection (they had no goggles) they were to face away from the blast, but on one occasion this was screwed up and as the bomb was detonated in front of them they could see the bones in their hands. Told repeatedly that "your safety is our main concern", this was clearly not the case as the island received intense radioactive fall out following several of the tests. Despite the rote reassurances the men received from their officers, they deeply worried about the possible long term affects of the radiation exposure -- concern that turned out to be warranted. While on the island the author became aware of several navy men who were more closely exposed to the blasts and who suffered grievous injury and death from radiation poisoning. Statistics compiled years later of premature deaths or serious illnesses in the later lives of the men stationed there bear this out.

For anyone who has (as I was) been among enlisted men in any branch of the armed services, the descriptions of their behavior, speech, obsessions and opinions of their superiors of the men will ring true. ( )
  stevesmits | Sep 6, 2015 |
This memoir shocked me. It describes the year-long tour of duty of one of the enlisted men who served as gunea pigs for the government’s research into nuclear bombs. The tone is a combination of gallows humor, much like M*A*S*H, and stark bare bones journalistic reporting. It’s the stark reporting that’s chilling. The physical affects of radiation exposure on human skin and internal organs. The sexuality young men resort to when they’re isolated from women. The brutality men can impose on each other. The callousness of the government. I read this memoir fast, almost straight through. I give it an unhesitating five stars, because I’m still thinking about it months after finishing it. ( )
  dawndowney | Apr 18, 2015 |
When I began reading this book I thought it was going to just another amusing tale of GI life in the 50s. And there is plenty of humor and things to chuckle about, but the longer Harris and his cronies are stationed on the atoll the they call "the Rock," the more serious things become. "The Atomic Times" seems at times a well-wrought mixture of "Lord of the Flies" and "Catch-22." Young men isolated without women is always a bad idea, and I think many GIs throughout the Cold War years knew their own versions of "the Rock." I was stationed at TWO places both known as "the Rock" back in the early 60s: Sinop, Turkey; and Rothwesten, Germany. Even then, it was still an army without women, which can unleash some strange happenings after a while. "The Atomic Times" adds H-bomb tests, radiation exposure and toxic fallout to the mix, which bakes a much darker brownie than usual. One can't help but wonder if the real reason all those GIs were stationed on Eniwetok wasn't simply to provide human guinea pigs to study the effects of fallout and exposure to the blasts. Why the hell didn't those in authority keep the men INside during the tests? Why march them out onto the beach each time? Harris talks of some of the men who were indeed made deathly ill - and even one who died - from the blasts. Add Harris's unhappy and abusive childhood to the mix and this becomes at times a very UNfunny story. But he tells his story with heart and uncommon skill. This guy can write, and his book is well worth your time! - Tim Bazzett, author of "Soldier Boy: At Play in the ASA" ( )
  TimBazzett | May 23, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345481542, Hardcover)

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The biggest and baddest of America’s atmospheric nuclear weapons test series, Redwing mixed saber rattling with mad science, while overlooking its cataclysmic human, geopolitical and ecological effects.  But mostly, Redwing just messed with guys’ heads.

“A gripping memoir...Leavened by humor, loyalty and pride of accomplishment, this book is a tribute to the resilience, courage and patriotism of the American soldier.”
 — Henry Kissinger

“One of the best books I've ever read!  Destined to become a classic.”
— John G. Stoessinger, Ph.D., winner of the Bancroft Prize for International Affairs, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, former Acting Director for the Political Affairs Division at the U.N.

“Shockingly honest...Deeply personal and politically profound.”
— Sen. Charles Schumer

“Hard to put down...Touching, horrifying and uproariously funny.”

— Dr. Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University

“Brilliantly conceived, elegantly rendered and persuasively authentic.”
— Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser and Jesse Stone series

“An entertaining read in the bloodline of Catch-22, Harris achieves the oddest of victories:  a funny, optimistic story about the H-bomb.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Absurd and terrifying....Bored, frightened, angry, and sexually frustrated, the men turn cruel, violent and suicidal.  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.”
— Booklist

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:36 -0400)

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