OPERATION DOMINIC – ATOMIC TESTS - CHRISTMAS ISLAND - 1962



On 6 March 1962, eleven pilots and six H-21B helicopters left Stead AFB, Nevada, and were airlifted by C-124 "Globemaster" aircraft to Christmas Island, South Pacific in support of Operation Dominic atomic tests. The flight from Travis AFB, California to Hickham Field, Hawaii took about 11 hours. For chopper pilots used to flying 1 1/2 to 3 hour flights this seemed like an eternity. Even the C-124 pilots found things to pass the time. The pilot was working on his Squadron Officer Correspondence Course in the cockpit while the co-pilot napped in his bunk. Lots of ocean to look at and this was only the first leg of the journey. After a crew rest and refueling stop in Hawaii, the group took off for an 800-mile flight Southwest to Christmas Island. The Island is part of the Gilbert Island group and about 100 miles north of the equator. For the Nevada boys the transition from possible snow showers to blazing sun was quite a shock.




The facilities were meager at first to say the least since the whole operation was starting from scratch. The contractor to provide food and lodging (Holmes and Narvel) was just getting set up. We were "housed" in barracks, from WW II, I think, and don't think they had been occupied since then. We managed to scrounge brooms etc to sweep them out and got some cots from supply.






The Island was part of the Queen's (British) mandate and bird sanctuary.



The Gilbertese natives lived in a village on the far side of the island. (They would later be evacuated during the atomic tests.)










The flight line was a mile or so from the living area and we were authorized one jeep for the "Det" commander and one pickup truck for the maintenance troops. There may have been some sort of bus setup but of course it never fit our schedule. Fortunately the ingenuity of chopper pilots was not to be overlooked. I had loaded my Cushman Eagle motor scooter on the C-124 just in case and Stu Hoag brought his Mo-Ped and Jerry Griggs his bicycle. We made quite a parade going to the flightline with a passenger (or two) and me on the Cushman with a tow rope to Jerry and his bike. And of course the "Limeys" drive on the wrong side of the road, which was covered with land crabs. What with dodging the crabs and fighting all instincts to go to the "right" side of the road when coming around the curve and meeting another vehicle, it's a wonder we survived.














Our mission was to provide personnel airlift and search and rescue. We also conducted recovery of rocket nose cones shot through the clouds of an atomic device detonation by Research agencies.(LRL, etc).







This required entering ground zero within 20 minutes of detonation and flying 15-25 miles over the shark infested Pacific Ocean without any flotation device on the helicopter. And those sharks were huge hammerheads we could see from the air. (I think Deviney wore several extra shark repellent kits just in case.) (The Emergency Procedure for ditching was to slash the co-pilot with your survival knife as you swam out so the sharks would go for him. 'Joking, of course') The nose cones had a balloon float that would pop out upon water contact (usually).





The crew chiefs would snag a line on the float with a grappling hook and the nose cone would normally be placed in a net basket slung below the helicopter for transport back to the Research site pads. Some of these cones where so hot with radioactivity that they could not be placed in the basket as it was too close to us so it would be left hanging on the line back to the island. (And I wonder why I have so many skin cancers). All nose cones were successfully recovered.


We got to fly on a regular basis, nearly every other day. So we had time to "enjoy" the local flora and fauna. The island was made of coral so the "sand" was actually coral and shells that had been ground up by the ocean surf. We spent many hours beachcombing for various seashells and what ever else we could find.









We also did a lot of fishing in the surf, while watching the little sand sharks swim by. There was an RAF station on the far side of the island and I believe some areas of docks. At one point, some of the guys had made friends with some Navy guys there and went out on a fishing boat with them. If we caught an edible fish we usually could get a couple of the Hawaiian cooks to fix it up for us. At a certain time of the months, the languista (sp) lobsters (no claws) would come over the reef in to the shallows at night to feed.





You would wade out to about knee-deep water and with some moonlight you could see them on the bottom. By slowly and carefully reaching into the water and get right over them and grab them about midway. They had no claws to pinch you but the first time you grabbed them and brought them out of the water, they would "flip" and you'd instinctively toss them away. After a couple of tries though you would just hang on and put them in a bucket to be cooked over a coconut husk fired BBQ later.






We had a good supply of coconuts from the surrounding palm trees. We tried getting the outer husk off with a machete but it was tough to do. One of the Gilbertes boys showed us how one day by using a pointed stick stuck in the ground. It must have taken all of 30 seconds for him to shuck a coconut.







We “went native” after a while and somewhere we came up with wrap around like skirts known as “lava-lava”s” that were great for casual wear and with nothing to chafe underneath we were “hangin' loose” as they say in Hawaii.








Back: Deviney, Carroll, Goessel, Cannon,Lambert, Silver, Gish. Front: Hoag, Thomas, Griggs, Henderson. Taking photo: Hall







On our off duty time we did the usual things like “readn, writin and haircuts”. The volleyball, softball, horseshoes and open air theater at night. You usually took your poncho along just in case of an evening thundershower.






After a month or so, Al Deviney's back began hurting him so he went back to Stead and Jerry Preston replaced him. (Sorry, Jerry but I must tell this story) Of course all of us having been exposed to the sun had a pretty good suntan. We started teasing Jerry about being the only "white" guy there. So he was determined to get that tan. But that takes time. He laid out in the sun one day for several hours to get that tan going. Mind you we are 100 miles north of the equator with the sun almost vertical. We kept telling him to cover up but "I'm not even pink yet" was the reply. Well, Jerry, like me, tends to be fair skinned and freckled so you know what that means. The next morning he was as red as a beet and so sore from the sunburn that he could hardly stand to put on his clothes. Needless to say it gave more reason to tease him, mindless bastards that we were. Fortunately after a few days of pain the worst was over.


One day while between "shots", we were allowed to take a chopper and load it with food, beer and fly across the island for a day of recreation. After loading the helicopter with the goodies, we taxied over in front of the Ops tent to pick up another person. We had previously figured since it was a "day off" we didn't need to be in flight suits so the two pilots were dressed in swim shorts and shower clogs. As we stopped in front of the Ops tent, our CO, Jack Cannon, stepped outside and when he saw the pilot's attire, he ran over and frantically said, "Get the Hell out of here, the General is in Ops". We quickly departed for the other side of the island.


The rotor blades of the H-21 were somewhat susceptible to moisture changes. If you flew in the morning, the blades after being soaked overnight with the high humidity, might beat like Hell. But by afternoon they had dried out and were smooth again. So we learned not to track the blades until later in the day and live with a little "thumping" in the mornings.


As stated earlier, the island was a bird sanctuary. There were many kinds of land and sea birds, from gulls to Albatross and Frigate birds with 6-foot wingspans. We made a few practice runs to pickup dummy nose-cones to perfect our procedures. One helicopter would land near the beach for backup and rescue while another flew out over the water. When making an approach to the beach, you made it kind of fast so you could get ahead of all the nesting/resting birds that took off as you flew over them. I was sitting on the beach with rotors idling and barely turning when Stu Silver made an approach to land near me. Just as he touched down, a big bird that had been sitting on my rotor head and spinning around, hopped down the length of the blade and launched towards Stu's aircraft. It flew right into his blades and was splattered. It ended up putting a hole in the blade, which had to be replaced.







The civilian contractor for the meals left a lot to be desired. Initially the food was pretty bland and basic. You had to pay for it whether you ate or not so even though some of brought some of our own food, it didn't last long nor did we have the facilities to cook. One of the highlights was that after about a month someone had contacted Skip Cowell in Hawaii to see if we could get some ice cream or something. One day soon after, good old Skip arrived on a C-118 courier plane with a big dry ice container filled with ice cream and a sack full of pineapples. We were his slaves!! Naturally, right after that they started having ice cream and desserts at the chow hall.


There were no Officer or NCO clubs on the "rock" so you have to drink your beer on the hootch steps and fight off the land crabs. So we decided to remedy the situation and began to beg, borrow or steal what we needed to set up a bar. One day one of the senior officers was invited to the "O"club and after looking around at all the "stuff", told our CO that he had a bunch of, er,ah, "enterprising" young men. (He meant thieves.)







BEAUTIFUL


BUT DEADLY


We were told initially the trip would be three months. So when 3 months time drew near we began to wonder. The rumors for how long this exercise was going to last started floating around. We thought we might end up spending Christmas on Christmas Island. Finally when nearly 4 months was near, the word to shut down was welcomed. We began to leave Christmas Island around June 23, 1962. It had truly been an adventure but home sounded good to us.