Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Robert Conard
Excerpts from an interview with RADM Robert Conard, MC, USNR (Ret.) in Setauket, NY, 9 November 1993, conducted by Jan K. Herman, Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
Interviewer: You were relieved [from duty in Montpelier (CL-57)] in September of 1944, and where did you go then?
I was given some leave, and I took a little tour of the West and then went to visit my family, who was living in Alabama at that time, and then on to my next assignment, which was at the naval hospital in Charleston. I think I mentioned in my little booklet that I was uncertain as to what direction I wanted to go in medicine at this point. I did go into internal medicine at that time and then later went to the National Naval Medical Center.
This is Bethesda?
Bethesda, yes. I was still uncertain what I wanted to do, and continued in internal medicine there. Then something happened that changed my whole career, and that was the atomic bomb. I got a call from Washington to come down, and they wanted to talk to me about a possible position. They told me they were looking for doctors that would specialize in radiological safety associated with an atomic bomb test to take place and wondered if I might be interested. I was floundering at that point, as I said; it sounded very interesting.
Was this late in '44, like maybe November of '44 or somewhere around there? You got off the ship in September of '44,and then you went back to Bethesda and you were there for some time at the hospital in internal medicine. This was early '45.
Yes. At that time, BUMED [Bureau of Medicine and Surgery], with a lot of foresight, realized the importance of atomic medicine. There were several other Navy doctors involved in this. There were about 10 of us M.D.s [Medical Doctors] from the different services that were called on to join a nucleus group to specialize in radiation effects, radiation measurements, and radiological safety.
So we were sent around the country to different Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) laboratories and we learned how to use instruments to measure radiation. We learned about the radiation effects and were given specialized training. We turned out, then, to be the corps of medical experts to join in the Bikini operation--Operation Crossroads--the first test in Bikini.
This was in 1946.
Yes. The Bikini test proved to be one of the most challenging events of my career. There were a tremendous number of ships involved and thousands of personnel. We were testing the effects of the atomic bomb on Navy ships. At that time, the effects of atomic weapons was practically unknown, and so this was a new field we were getting into.
Did you go out to Bikini Island?
Yes. Following training of 4 or 5 months in different AEC laboratories I went to Bikini as a radiological safety officer. I was on a patrol boat that went in after the first atom bomb test. This first explosion, was an awesome sight, the first of many I would later see.
How far away were you from the explosion?
We were about 7 miles away.
You were on a ship?
I was on a ship. And then the ship came and let us off into the water just outside of Bikini. I had eight men with me on our patrol boat, and we steamed into the lagoon, and with some trepidation, because we really didn't know what we were going to face. The effect of the bomb was obvious as some of the ships were damaged and smoking. But fortunately, this was an airburst with no fallout and there was little radiation involvement. We were able to clear the ships for boarding soon.
But the second test, the bigger test, was an underwater test, and that proved to have a much more serious aftereffect, because the radioactive material was mixed with the water and the ships were contaminated. It was a much more difficult operation. I was on one of the ships that had to do with recovering the technological instruments, clearing personnel, and being sure they were showered and properly decontaminated. So this was quite an experience for me.
I know it was very controversial. There were apparently incidents where sailors were sent aboard to hose down the decks and had very little protection, because people didn't understand, the concept was so new, the whole idea of radioactivity.
Well, the hosing down did some good and reduced the radiation levels considerably. Of course, we didn't know too much about radiation at that point, and so we were trying to be very careful and bent over backwards to be sure that people didn't get too much radiation. In the meantime, the algae had taken up radioactivity from the water and the sides of the ship became radioactive, so we even had to move people for sleeping in more toward the center of the ship so that they wouldn't get irradiated.
So your observation ships, not just the target ships but the observation ships, had serious contamination.
That's right, from the water in the lagoon. I had to testify before the Senate Veterans Committee about 8 years ago about the situation at Bikini. I told the committee that my overall impression was that radiological safety was carried out in a very satisfactory manner and that there were very few cases of overexposure to radiation.
Following the Bikini operation, target ships were towed down to Kwajalein and I was ordered there to check the ships as they came in and removed ammunition. So we had our men wear respirators since we were afraid that plutonium and other fission products might be present on the ships. That proved to be a very tricky operation, with the difficulties of going down in a hot ship and bringing back all the ammunition.
What condition were those target ships in at that point?
In varied conditions. Some of the target ships were more damaged than others. I remember one of the ships, the Prinz Eugen. It was a beautiful German cruiser, and when it was towed into Kwajalein we went on board. I couldn't help but admire the beauty of the ship. Inside was all the silverware, all the fine furniture. Everything was left intact, and it was in pretty good shape, we thought. And then about a week later, we got word that she was sinking. Apparently, one of the seams in the ship had been loosened by the atomic blast. I went on board when she was beginning to go down. We got off in time, but she went on under and even to this day, in the lagoon, the stern of that ship can be seen just above the water level.
So it was in port?
It was in port at Kwajalein, the atoll of Kwajalein.
Later, I was ordered to Honolulu. There, operational ships arriving from the Bikini test had to be checked to be sure they were not dangerously radioactive. So I had the job of going out on these ships and checking the amount of radiation.
How did you do that? Geiger counters?
Yes, with geiger counters. Unfortunately, the number of whaleboats and small boats attached to the ships had to be sunk because they went above a certain level that we had established for radiological safety. When I think back on it, we were bending over backwards. We didn't realize just what levels of radiation would be considered dangerous or whether it was possible they could be decontaminated. So we had to sink a lot of these boats. We took many of them out to sea and sank them with machine guns.
The small boats?
Yes. Think of all of the money that went down in the water from that.
When you saw your first atomic explosion, you were on the deck. Did you have any safety goggles or anything?
Oh, yes. We had goggles on. It was a very awe-inspiring experience, particularly the Baker shot, the underwater shot, where this big dome of water rose out of the lagoon. One ship was just pushed upright into this dome of water, and then it went right down and sank. So that was very impressive, and, as I said, we learned a lot from the Bikini experience. We learned about how little we knew, too. But the experiences we had certainly served us well in subsequent tests.
Were you involved in other tests after Crossroads?
Yes, Operation "Greenhouse" at Eniwetok and several of the Nevada tests. Before I leave Bikini, I might point out another interesting thing that happened. When I later was assigned to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco, they decided to sink the target ship from the Bikini operation which was the Nevada (BB-36). She was an obsolete battleship and was contaminated to some extent. They decided the best thing to do was just to sink her. So I got word that I was to be the radiological safety officer for that operation and went to Honolulu and boarded a destroyer.
There were some experts in the different types of Navy bombs there. The Nevada was towed out south of Honolulu about 30 or 40 miles or so, and our destroyer then went up to the Nevada. The men were setting tremendous bombs on the deck of the ship. They were 500-pound bombs. They were being set all around the deck of the Nevada. As I remember, there were three experts to prime the bombs and get them ready for detonation. They said, "Doc, would you go along with us?"
I said, "Well, okay." I was a little leery about it because of the size of these bombs.
So the four of us got on the Nevada. The destroyer went off about 7 miles in the distance--a safe distance--and left us on the Nevada. I watched these experts as they inserted gun cotton and electric wiring. I was a little apprehensive, to say the least. They finally came and got us, and we went back out a safe distance, and eventually the bombs were set off by what I think were radio signals.
There were tremendous explosions all over the Nevada, which must have made holes way down into the bowels of the ship. But you know, she didn't go down. She still floated. Pretty soon the Navy sent in torpedo planes from Honolulu and, after a long siege, the ship finally sank. But that ship didn't want to give up easily.
So you saw those initial explosions of the 500-pound bombs going off. What did that look like?
Oh, it was just a holocaust. It was a tremendous blast all over the ship, and I thought, "Oh, she'll never survive this." But there she was, sitting in the water.
Not even listing?
Did you see you see the planes come in and drop the torpedoes?
Yes. We were there when the planes came in. They were able to put torpedoes into her hull. I've often wanted to look up the Nevada and see what operations she'd been involved in before that, because it was a gallant ship.
Was this the afterend of Crossroads?
So the Nevada survived the airburst in the first test.
And she survived the underwater burst, too. Later the Saratoga (CV-3) and a number of other ships from the Baker test at Bikini went to the bottom. Bikini now is an interesting spot for scuba divers. They like to come into the lagoon and dive down amongst all the wreckage of these ships that were sunk in Operation Crossroads.
What did you do after Crossroads?
I went to the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and was given a semester of training at the University of California in medical physics. I would like to say at this point that the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery realized early on that this field of atomic medicine was important, and their support has been invaluable to me and to many others in this field of atomic medicine.
Related Resource: Operation Crossroads Fact Sheet