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Operation Crossroads: Bikini Atoll

Operation Crossroads was an atmospheric nuclear weapon test series conducted in the summer of 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The series consisted of two detonations, a low altitude test and a shallow water test. The devices, each with a yield of 21 kilotons, were named shots ABLE and BAKER. A planned third test, a deep underwater detonation, was canceled after the second test.

The series was intended to study the effects of nuclear weapons on warships, equipment, and material. These tests would provide important information on the survivability of warships in the event of nuclear war. Both the Navy and the Army Air Forces were, given the possible budgetary effects of such tests, very interested in the outcome of these experiments. From a scientific point of view, technical experiments were also planned on nuclear weapon explosion phenomena and radiation contamination.

In contrast to all later atmospheric nuclear tests, a large media contingent was present for the two Crossroads detonations. They were allowed to cover the test atomic bomb explosions "with sufficient thoroughness to satisfy the public as to the fairness and general results of the experiment." Quartered aboard USS Appalachian (AGC-1), 131 newspaper, magazine, and radio correspondents from the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and Britain covered the detonations, turning these experiments into major media events. In addition, the three artists presented here also recorded the project: Gunnery Sergeant Grant Powers, USMC, was the official combat artist for the operation while Lieutenant Commander Arthur Beaumont, USNR, and Captain Charles Bittinger, USNR, were observers.

Evacuation of the Fleet
Arthur Beaumont #1
Watercolor, 1946
Gift of the artist

Selected as ground zero for test ABLE, USS Nevada (BB- 36) was painted bright orange to assist the B-29 bomber crew find their aim point. Although the old battleship survived both bombs, extensive contamination from test BAKER led to her destruction by gunfire and aerial torpedoes in an exercise off Hawaii on 31 July 1948. The view is from the bridge of USS Arkansas (BB-33), during final test preparations and the evacuation of people and the support fleet from Bikini lagoon.


Sunset Bikini Fleet
Charles Bittinger #16
Oil on canvas board, 1946
Gift of the artist

By sunset on 30 June, the support fleet had evacuated Bikini Atoll and steamed to positions over 10 miles away. Left behind was the target fleet, full of darkened ships awaiting their fate the coming morning.


Mike Hour
Grant Powers #7
Watercolor, 1946

At 0900 on 1 July, test ABLE detonated about 518 feet above the target fleet. The surface temperature of the resulting fireball was about 100,000 degrees Fahrenheit, scorching wood, paint and metal alike.


Plus 1 Second, Carlisle and Gillian Transports Take It on the Bottom
Grant Powers #5
Watercolor, 1946


Do to a bombing error, the ABLE device exploded almost directly over the attack transport USS Gillian (APA-57). It was flattened by the force of the blast and sank in under one minute. USS Carlisle (APA-69) was tossed about 150 yards by the blast. Battered and on fire, the ship sank in flames shortly thereafter. To the right is former Japanese cruiser Sakawa, which sank the next day following severe superstructure and hull damage.


Explosion on DD-367
Grant Powers #20
Watercolor, 1946


The destroyer USS Lamson (DD-367), although moored over 600 yards away from ground zero, suffered an explosion from the force of test ABLE and sank that afternoon. Later investigations discovered the blast wave had created a large wrinkle in the hull.


Plus 1 Second Bikini Atoll
Grant Powers #3
Watercolor, 1946

The initial explosion and blast wave collided with the surface of the lagoon and was reflected back upwards. This deformed the shape of the fireball, creating the skirt around the stem of the mushroom cloud.


Plus 2 Seconds
Grant Powers #9
Watercolor, 1946

The fireball surrounded by bomb debris and water vapor begins to rise into the sky. At the same time, the blast wave moves out from the bottom at 180 mph. The orange warship on the left is USS Nevada (BB-36).


Untitled (Bomb Blast)
Charles Bittinger #20
Oil on canvas, 1946
Gift of the artist

As the fireball rises, it changes shape from a sphere to a toroid--a donut shape--and begins to spread out into vapor as it cools, producing the familiar-looking mushroom cap of the cloud. The darker-colored stem is composed of surface material and water vapor drawn upward by the fireball.

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01 August 2001