Witnessing 'Operation Hardtack' a life-changing experience

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJuly 26, 2013 

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    Email David Lauderdale at dlauderdale@islandpacket.com.

Thanks to Tom Hatfield of Hilton Head Island for sharing his story of a life-changing experience.

"Operation Hardtack"

By Tom Hatfield

On July 31, 1958 -- 55 years ago this week -- the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb 76.8 kilometers above Johnston Island, located 700 miles west of Hawaii. It was the first of two tests, with the second a few days later at a slightly lower altitude. These two tests were the first out-of-atmosphere thermonuclear explosions and, to date, have never been repeated. To those of us who witnessed this test, it was a life-changing experience.

In October 1956, I was a U.S. Army SP-4 draftee who had just completed my degree in mechanical engineering at Purdue University. After basic training I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala., and starting in January 1957 worked in the Guidance and Control Lab.

My boss was one of Dr. Wernher von Braun's scientists, Dr. Ernst Dieter Grau. Our job was to coordinate the efforts of all of the various agencies involved in Operation Hardtack. My job was simply to write a very detailed progress report every month of these coordination efforts.

Redstone Arsenal was to provide the guided missile for the test. The Redstone Missile was chosen as being the most reliable vehicle, at that time. For example, America's first launch of a satellite was on top of a Redstone Missile. (I actually saw that launch at Cape Canaveral.) This launch was a few weeks after the Russians launched their "Sputnik." It was the beginning of the space race.

To those of us who witnessed the hydrogen bomb test, we did so lying on the deck of an aircraft carrier miles off Johnston Island. The bomb was detonated at 10:50 p.m., local time. The blast was so intense that the fireball in the sky appeared as a sun for nearly 30 minutes. The blast poked a hole in the ionosphere that resulted in the disruption of all high-frequency radio communications in the South Pacific for several hours. Engineers and managers on the mainland had no idea what the results of the blast were for these several hours. To them, that must have been scary.

Since there was no announcement of the blast and the fireball could be easily seen in Hawaii, many people there believed that it was the beginning of World War III.

Operation Hardtack was a highly classified exercise for several years after the blasts. I was warned to not discuss it with anyone, ever. While many aspects of the project have since been declassified, some things that I witnessed and was informed about, may still be classified.

My unprofessional opinion is that Operation Hardtack was a mistake that should never be repeated.

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