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Johnson Island

In 1962, the United States carried out a series of high altitude nuclear tests called Operation Fishbowl. The tests were a response to the Soviet Union’s announcement they were ending a moratorium on nuclear testing. The planning for these tests was rushed and resulted in many changes as the program progressed.

All the tests of Operation Fishbowl were launched from missiles from Johnson Island, just north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The missiles were launched toward the southwest of the Island to keep the detonations as far from Hawaii as possible. This was because the planners were worried that the bright nuclear flashed might cause blindness or permanent retinal injury.

The purpose of the test was to investigate three main phenomenons related to nuclear explosions. The first was the electromagnetic pulse that is generated by a high-altitude nuclear explosion which appeared to have very significant differences from the electromagnetic pulse generated by nuclear explosions closer to the surface. The second was the auroras associated with high-altitude nuclear explosions. The third was the areas of blackout of radio communication.

The first planned test was Bluegill. It was going to occurred on June 2, 1962. After the missile was launched the it was lost by the radar that was tracking it and there was no way to predict if the missile was on a safe trajectory. An order was made to destroy the missile and the warhead. No nuclear detonation occurred.

The second test was codenamed Starfish and took place on June 19, 1962. Less than a minute after launch the rocket engine suddenly stopped and the missile began to fall apart. An order was given to destroy the missile and the warhead. Some of the parts of the missile fell on Johnson Island and a large position fell into the ocean. It took Navy divers two weeks to recover approximately 250 pieces of the missile, some of which was contaminated by plutonium.

A second attempt at the Starfish test was attempted on July 8, 1962. Codenamed Starfish Prime was a success. The 1.4 megaton explosion occurred at an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles). The electromagnetic pulse was far great than anticipated. It was so great it drove much of the instrumentation off scale. This caused great difficulty in getting accurate measurements. About 1,445 kilometers (900 miles) away in Hawaii, the pulse caused electrical damage. This included knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off bugler alarms and damaging a telephone company microwave link. After the detonation, there were bright auroras for miles around. For several days debris was seen in the atmosphere. The radiation belt cause by the Starfish Prime detonation persisted at high altitude for many months and damage several US and Soviet satellites.

A second attempt was made at launching the Bluegill device on July 25, 1962. Bluegill Prime had a malfunction after the ignition of the rocket engine and did not leave the pad. An order was made to destroy the missile on the launch pad. This caused extensive damage to the area and contamination of alpha-emitting radioactive materials. Burning rocket fuel, flowing through the cable trenches, caused extensive chemical contamination. The radiation contamination on Johnston Island was determined to be a major problem, and it was necessary to decontaminate the entire area before the badly damaged launch pad could be rebuilt.

The disastrous results of Bluegill Prime caused there to be an almost three month break in operations. Personal who was not involved in radioactive cleanup was sent home. One test was cancelled and three more were planned. A second launch pad was constructed during the operations pause so that Operation Fishbowl could continue in the event of another serious accident.

On October 15, 1962, a third attempt was made with the Bluegill tests. Bluegill Double Prime’s missile malfunctioned and began tumbling out of control after 85 seconds. There was an order to destroy the missile and its nuclear warhead.

The final four test were all success. On October 19, 1962, a test codenamed Checkmate was successfully detonated at an altitude of 147 kilometers (91 miles) Although the exact amount is classified, it was reported as being under 20 kiloton explosion. The fourth Bluegill test successfully took place on October 25, 1962. Although the exact size of Bluegill Triple Prime is classified, it is believe to be between 200 and 400 megatons. The following test, Kingfish, took place on November 1, 1962 and is believe to have a yield in the same 200-400 megaton range. The last test of Operation Fishbowl was codenamed Tightrope. It took place on November 3, 1962 and was detonated at a much lower altitude. The nuclear yield was only between 10 and 20 megatons.

Listen to NPR story about Starfish Prime

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