Robert Burns

'They didn't want to admit we were used'


Robert Burns enlisted in the Navy to be an eager sailor.

All his friends already were in. So he persuaded his mother to sign for her 17-year-old son to enlist at the end of 1944.

The Navy put him on the USS New York in the South Pacific, gave him a gun to load to shoot down kamikaze planes trying to sink the battleship.

Then they turned him into a guinea pig.

Burns, of Worth, was one of 42,000 men assigned to Operation Crossroads, military tests that measured the fallout of atomic bombs in July 1946.

He was on a small boat in the Marshall Islands when one bomb - the fourth the United States had ever exploded - was detonated in the air. He was there when the fifth went off under water, only a few weeks later.

He watched something utterly thrilling during the ocean bombing: a battleship whooshed up on top of the ocean's spout caused by a hidden mushroom cloud beneath the surface.

His ship radioed back to the flag ships 20 miles back to tell what they saw: Ships on fire, an aircraft carrier sinking.

The sailors wore badges that changed colors as radiation contaminated the air. But when the colors changed, there was nowhere to go.

There had been talk of special clothes, too, to protect the sailors from the dirty water.

"We didn't get any of that. We went in right after the bombs went off and the waves coming out and everything, we were just with the radiation water."

Then Burns and the others were moved to the island of Kwajalein, where their blood was taken. They were monitored for radiation.

Most of the livestock that was tagged and chained to the decks of the target boats closest to the detonation died within days.

Burns, 83, ended up in a naval hospital, where he was poked and told there was nothing to be done.

"All the guys with me had the same problems. Most of them are dead now. I should have died a long time ago but," he said laughing, "I'm still going."