Palkovic is forever on the A-list Lititz resident recalls Bikini Atoll atomic bomb experiments

By on July 25, 2012

By: ROCHELLE A. SHENK Record Express Correspondent, Staff Writer



Baker Day at Bikini Atoll July 25, 1946. Lititz resident Steve Palkovic was there.

Steve Palkovic’s life today is vastly different from his situation 66 years ago.

The retired teacher, guidance counselor, football, wrestling and golf coach, and former Record Express sports editor, currently resides with his wife Arabel in a pleasant apartment at Luther Acres. In 1946, Palkovic played a role in Operation Crossroads, a military-scientific experiment to determine the impact of atomic bombs on naval vessels. The experiments were conducted after World War II ended in September 1945.

Palkovic, who grew up in Lebanon and was a football player, enlisted in the Navy at the age of 16.

"I enlisted right after football season. This was right at the tail end of the war," he said. "I had three brothers serving in the military, one of whom was in the Navy, and I thought I would enlist, too."

At that time Lebanon had two steel mills. Palkovic explained that in those days many young men didn’t even finish high school; they often completed ninth grade and then had to work to help support their families, often working in the steel mills.

"I was pretty lucky," he said. "I wanted to play football and go to school. My mom said I could do that, but I had to work in the summer at the steel mill. I had worked in the mills since I was 10."

After enlisting, he was sent to Naval Station Great Lakes, near the city of North Chicago, Ill., for boot camp and then on to San Diego.

"We traveled by train to San Diego," he recalled. "It took four days or so. We didn’t have sleeper cars, so you slept in your seat. We had a mess car, and by the time you got your food and went back to your seat, you had eaten your meal."

He said that in San Diego he was told that he was going to be a cook, because he had been a Boy Scout, and "Boy Scouts have experience cooking."

"I had taken electrical courses in high school and thought that knowledge could be put to use," he said, "so I pointed out that I had taken those courses and asked if I could be assigned to the Seabees (the U.S. Naval Construction Force). I was assigned to the 53rd Naval Construction Battalion."

With that assignment he boarded a Navy ship for Hawaii, which at that time was a U.S. territory (it became a state in 1959).

"The journey to Hawaii was quite an experience," he said. "It was my first time on a ship. Prior to enlisting in the Navy, the farthest I had traveled was to Harrisburg to play a football game."

In Hawaii, he and other Seabees in his division were alerted that they were to be part of Operation Crossroads. Ships were provisioned and after a stop in Guam for additional supplies and equipment, the 53rd Battalion boarded the USS Randall on March 8 bound for Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

Palkovic said that due to the Atomic test project, native Micronesians had been relocated. The battalion reached Bikini Atoll on March 13 and men and supplies were transferred to the USS St. Croix, which then became their headquarters.

Heavy equipment including bulldozers, trucks and cranes were unloaded.

"We had a lot of work to do on Bikini," he recalled. "We cleared trees, removed obstructions like coral heads, established places to live, built 90-foot steel towers that housed instruments to record the action and results of the atomic bomb, built places to hold water, and provided for electrical needs. Some of us lived on ships while others lived on the island, including scientists."

In addition to the steel huts that were constructed to house members of the unit and scientists, the Seabees also built recreational facilities such as ball diamonds, an archery range and concrete basketball and volleyball courts for the 3,500 men stationed on nine of the 30 islands of the atoll — all of which are separated by miles of water. Bikini was the main island. Palkovic said that after the construction tasks were completed, a lot of the Seabees were re-deployed, but some, like him, remained and lived on the ships.

The original date for the initial test was May 15, but this was later changed to July 1. The world’s first peacetime atomic-weapons test was conducted at Bikini on that date in 1946: a 20-kiloton atomic bomb was dropped from an airplane and exploded in the air over a fleet of about 80 obsolete World War II naval vessels, among them battleships and aircraft carriers, all of them unmanned.

"At that time, not much was known about the affects of atomic bombs — they wanted to see the affects of the bomb on the fleet," he said. "This test created the mushroom cloud that most people associate with atomic bombs."

During the test, Palkovic and his unit was moved 30 to 40 miles away.

"When we went back to survey the test area, it was an incredible sight," he recalled. "Some of the ships were listing, some were completely laying over, some were all black and had twisted metal. Some of the carriers had planes on them. The wings on the planes and flight decks melted. It was really something to see."

He also explained that the palm trees on the island had been fitted with cups placed every five feet.

"The scientists thought that the bomb might create a tidal wave that could flood or completely engulf the island," he said. "If it flooded, they wanted to be able to measure the depth of the flood water. But there wasn’t a flood."

The second test, on July 25, was the world’s first underwater atomic explosion, which raised an enormous column of radioactive water that sank nine ships. Further tests, some of them thermonuclear, were conducted from 1954 to 1958, when Bikini, together with Enewetak Atoll, constituted the Pacific Proving Ground of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. In 1956, Bikini was the test site of the first hydrogen bomb dropped by a U.S. airplane.

After the first two tests, Palkovic and his division were deployed to another atoll, this one closer to Australia. After completing two tours of duty, he was discharged from the Navy in December 1946. He returned home, finished high school and then earned a bachelor of science degree in math and science from Millersville State College. He taught at Lebanon Catholic for three years before teaching at Manheim Township High School for the balance of his career. While there he coached football and helped create the school’s wrestling and golf programs. Today, in retirement, he spends much of his time volunteering at Lititz Springs Park.

"When my division was stationed at Bikini, we didn’t realize we were part of history," he said in retrospect. "We were just doing our jobs." More PALKOVIC, page A15