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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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776251,720 (3.83)7
A gripping memoir describes one young soldier's tour of duty at the Atomic Energy Commission's Pacific Proving Ground at Eniwetok during the 1950s, describing the ups and downs of life in the shadow of the nuclear tests and radiation exposure. 30,000 first printing.



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The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground by Michael Harris is, to put it mildly, a VERY interesting read. Any student of Cold War history will be captivated by this story of the men who, without knowing it, put their lives in grave danger during the United States nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific.

Having read much about the various tests conducted during the fifties, I was always curious about what had happened to the various soldiers, sailors and airmen who were ‘up close and personal’ on the remote islands near the various test sites. Thanks to Harris, we now have part of the answer.

Michael Harris tells us of his time on Eniwetok Island where we are introduced to his mates, their day to day lives, and how they each dealt with the isolation (without women), the personality conflicts, and of course, the constant worry about radiation.

The book is at times, funny, sad, and always deeply disturbing, as it shows just how little knowledge there was at the time considering the effects of radiation on humans. A prime example always comes to mind; although the ex-German Navy heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen had been blasted by atomic bombs as part of the first post-war anti-ship testing, when the locals had requested permission to salvage the ship’s propellers, they were refused. Authorities were concerned that that radium used in the ship’s instruments might pose an environmental hazard to aquatic life.

The Atomic Times is a fascinating read for anyone, and will prove to be a surprising—perhaps even shocking read for younger people today who have no idea of what took place not that long ago, or very far away.

www.daniellittle.com ( )
  Sturgeon | Nov 24, 2016 |
The Atomic Times:
My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground
Author: Michael Harris
Publisher: Word One International
Date: 2005
Pgs: 288


Welcome to the Pacific Proving Grounds where three-eyed fish swim in the clear lagoon. The same lagoon that the local commanders advise men to swim in as a way to relax. Men show up with toenails that glow in the dark. The author was onsite for Operation Redwing. He witnessed 17 hydrogen bomb tests firsthand, no goggles, no radiation suits. The Army called them observers even though most of them pushed papers, swept floors, tended bar, etc. What they were actually there for was as human guinea pigs to prove that humans could survive close to Ground Zero.

Catch-22 with radiation.
Area 51 meets Dr Strangelove.
Except this one’s a true story.

Autobiography and memoir

Why this book:
It came to me through a free book program. I started reading it because of that. I was sucked into the firsthand account of what happened to the soldiers at the Pacific Proving Grounds during those atomic tests in the early 50s.

Favorite Character:
Michael Harris plays as a great character in this story.

Least Favorite Character:
Major Maxwell who spends the length of the novel spewing platitudes in the face of atomic bomb blasts, radioactive fallout, and the growing psychosis of the soldiers who lived through it.

The Feel:
The story gives us a don’t trust the government feel. And a sense of horror at what was done to those soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the Pacific Proving Ground.

Great pace.

Hmm Moments:
The story of his walking off the plane on his arrival at Eniwetok.

The descriptions of his bunkmates makes you wonder if the Army was dumping future serial killers and inmates there so that they were out of sight. Chester, the Korean War veteran who carried the skull of a North Korean soldier around as a war prize. Mumbles who talked to himself continuously. When the author describes what he overheard him saying, I thought of how Lovecraft described those who had witnessed the visages of one of the Elder Gods of the Cthulhian mythos. The quote is worth repeating for the creppy factor. “The stars in the mirror are a shattered answer to anything made out of blood.”

The actions of the rapist doctor on Eniwetok and the blackballing of his victim because he stood up to him is a harsh look at how predators in positions of power did things back in that mid-1950s time frame. Wonder how many of the other men in the Pacific Proving Grounds were his victims. He did eventually get caught. He was shipped off the island. But his victim or lover or whatever was dragged off to the brig.

The disintegrations that the psyches of the soldiers on the islands undergo as the pressure cooker fails to find release in the tests is horrific. Especially in context with the things that were being done to these soldiers under the guise of “nothing bad can happen to you because the Army wouldn’t allow you to be harmed.” Standing on a beach facing an atomic test without goggles as the hot wind blows over them, sitting in their offices as a fallout warning is given for the island with the admonishment to close the windows and button up when the window are rusted open and won’t shut.

The Lord of the Flies aspects to the men in the barracks dealing with their own.

Why isn’t there a screenplay?
This would make a helluva movie.

Last Page Sound:
Loved that.

Author Assessment:
I will take a look at other stuff by Michael Harris.

Knee Jerk Reaction:
really good book

Disposition of Book:

Would recommend to:
genre fans
__________________________________________________​ ( )
  texascheeseman | Dec 3, 2015 |
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 |
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