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Keizer vet survived nuke testing

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

Of the Keizertimes

When he was a child in Wakefield, Kan., Lowell Gunselman’s father often told him, “Live an adventurous life and you’ll never have to tell a lie because you’ll always have the truth to talk about.”

In his 77 years, Gunselman has done his best to live by those words.

It’s no small irony then that he’s spent the past two years trying to set the record straight about his experiences in the in the U.S. Navy. “We were just guinea pigs,” Gunselman said. “ I didn’t find that out until a year ago last September that it was classified as a human radiation experiment. I cried, I was so angry. When you take into consideration all the things that happened in Nevada and New Mexico, and all those guys are dead – from the early testing that was done on land – it really is a sad scenario.”

Gunselman was party to the hydrogen bomb testing at Bikini Atoll, the exercises he took part in exposed many of his shipmates and fellow soldiers to radiation levels that had a lasting impact on their lives. He fathered five children without incident, but knows of many on the ships and others near the area that weren’t so lucky.

“I didn’t know the stories about the guys who tried and tried and tried and their wives never had a live birth. One woman who had a husband on the Curtiss had 26 miscarriages,” he said.

In the early 1950s Gunselman graduated high school near the top of his class and planned a stint in the military that would pay for his college education and set him on the path to become an electronics technician. He was indoctrinated at San Diego Naval Air Recruiting Station on March 4, 1956, and because he’s already been studying to be an electronics technician, was sent Treasure Island.

The Story

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission conducted 105 nuclear weapon tests in the Marshall Islands between 1945 and 1962.

Tests took place both underwater and in the atmosphere. Through the years Bikini Atoll has perhaps become the best-known site for nuclear testing in the north Pacific Ocean; 23 nuclear devices were detonated there between 1946 and 1958. The indigenous population of the atoll was relocated. Limited numbers returned in the 1970s, but left again in 1978 after additional testing showed dangerous levels of radioactive materials in the islanders’ bodies. The Academy Award-nominated documentary “Radio Bikini” tells the islanders’ side of the story.

The first hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. More powerful than expected, it contaminated a much wider area than originally anticipated, including fisherman on a Japanese fishing boat. The ship’s radio man died just seven months later of acute radiation poisoning. The original Godzilla movie was partly inspired by this incident.

The day when Keizer resident Lowell Gunselman ran out on his ship deck to repair radar was the first time a thermonuclear bomb had been dropped from the air.

“I was sent up there for a 26-week course, but with the electronics studies I had done in Detroit, I skipped the first 16 weeks and went into the 17th week on what was called radar special circuits and fire control, specialized, that I would never have gotten from a private school,” Gunselman said.

By the time he completed the course, he’d caught the attention of the commanding officer of the USS Curtiss, a seaplane tender with seven battle stars from World War II and Korea. The officer told Gunselman his qualifications “were beyond anything that we could hope for.”

Top flight credentials weren’t enough for the mission the Curtiss was about to embark upon, however. Gunselman was dispatched to Lawrence Livermore Labs National Laboratory, the nation’s then-repository for the best and brightest working on the nuclear weaponry.

“It’s where they all got together to do developing and testing,” Gunselman said. “I thought it was extremely strange. The Navy never sends one person to a class.  I’m the only guy here, the only military here, and I’m a 3rd class petty officer,” Gunselman said.

It’s important to note that body of knowledge regarding the effects of radiation on the humans was, at best, anemic. Gunselman frequently asked about the effects of alpha, beta and gamma radiation on humans, but got no satisfying answer.

“I always blamed them for just not wanting to deal with me as a Navy enlisted man, but later on I found out that they really didn’t know, because that’s what they went over to Eniwetok and Bikini to find out: what was a fatal dose,” he said.

Gunselman trained to use radiac meters – also known as Geiger counters – and how to check for radioactive contamination, but the lack of firm answers from his colleagues in the program was worrying. When Gunselman called his commander to voice his concern, a three-star general intervened ending some of the friction, a short time later he was called back to the ship to carry out its next mission at Bikini Atoll.

Things had changed when Gunselman, then 22, got back to the Curtiss. There was a new commander and the space that had been used to service seaplanes had been converted to recording and sensor equipment.

While he noted the change, he was concerned more with immediate needs.

“My brother was in the Marine Corps and he told me the first thing you do is make friends with the cook,” Gunselman said. “I found him and made friends. He would bring me real nice coffee grounds.”

Gunselman’s station on the boat was the radar transmitter room at the bottom of the ladder leading up to the bridge. From the room he would monitor sensors recording heat, light, vertical and horizontal motion, seismic tremors and gamma radiation.

“There were 26 units with 100 channels each, and there were 185 antennas added to the masts, and they had put new cross bars up,  they had antennas everywhere. Those were all hooked to my recording devices basically, and there were little sensor transmitters all over barges, floats, buoys, ships that we knew we were going to destroy,” Gunselman said.

The ship was charged with transporting components to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands for Operation Redwing and the first airdrop of a hydrogen bomb.

The Curtiss became the central monitoring station for 17 tests of the hydrogen bomb, but it was the second one that defied all expectations and made Gunselman a hero.

The first test was uneventful measured against the second one.

“Just a measly little nothing, 300 kilotons,” Gunselman said.

The second test, and first air drop carrying 3.58 megatons, became known as “Cherokee.” The bomb was supposed to drop on two barges 50 miles from Gunselman’s station on the Curtiss. It landed 37 miles away.

“Know how the water is straight up and down in a nuclear test, and it starts to mushroom? This one mushroomed to 94,000 feet.  It sucked 20 cubic miles of water out of the Pacific Ocean.” Bikini Atoll, named for the tops of an undersea volcano that jut up out of the water forming a crescent around a body of water, became a single island.

“All the water in between them was all gone, sucked up into the air,” Gunselman said.

The blast ruptured the Curtiss’ boilers, the ship had enough power to turn, but it couldn’t outrun the radiation infused globules that rained down from the sky. Fifty miles from the impact site, the ship dropped anchor. The concussive force of the blast had disabled the ship’s radar leaving it blind to the size and shape of the fallout cloud.

“At that point our radar wasn’t good for anything other than detecting moisture, and we had other ships in the area that might have been heading into the fallout cloud,” Gunselman said.

When he approached the commanding officer about the need to restore the radar, he was told any attempt to fix the radar under the falling globules was likely suicide.

“I told him, ‘It doesn’t make any difference whether I’m out there fixing that radar or flaking out on Waikiki  Beach or surfing in Hawaii or sitting in a ball game in the United States. When my time comes, I’m going to go. It really doesn’t make any difference, so I want to go out and fix that radar. There’s 372 other guys on board this ship,’” Gunselman said.

While the admiral was unwilling to assign someone to the mission, a volunteer must have presented less of a moral quandary. Gunselman stripped to his skivvies and bolted 65 feet for the radar deckhouse.

“There were four glass tubes all shattered in the bottom of the cabinet, but the replacements were right there so I replaced them, flipped the switch and ran back to the hatch. It took me 32 minutes,” Gunselman said.

He wasn’t allowed back into the bridge, but he reached inside to flip the switch for the radar that would indicate where things were. As it came on, it revealed the USS Mt. McKinley was headed into the fallout cloud. Gunselman told the captain what he was seeing and grabbed the radio mircophone saying, “this is the USS  Curtiss. McKinley, reverse your engines. You’re headed into the gamma cloud.”

He descended six decks to the ship’s Decontamination Center where he was scanned with radiac sensors that pinged at 50,000 milliroentgens – an unheard of level of gamma radiation exposure. At the time, 500 milliroentgens was considered fatal.

“[The lieutenant] immediately summoned two decontamination team guys, and they brought saltwater soap and a brush that they had that was wood, but with soft bristles. We went right into a shower that was 10 feet away, and they scrubbed me down. I went down about 40 percent within an hour of showering. By the time we got through two hours of showering, my skin was kind of bright colored,” Gunselman said.

After the prolonged shower, Gunselman was taken to the ship’s gym where he worked out four hours. He was scanned for radiation every ten minutes and the workouts appeared to drop the level of contamination.

The lieutenant brought him a horsemeat steak with potatoes and another vegetable and told him he was going to be okay. “It was good stuff,” Gunselman said.

After the meal, he worked out another two hours and he spent four hours in the gym daily  until the end of the mission almost six weeks later.

When the Curtiss docked, Gunselman underwent thorough examinations. While they didn’t find overt cause for concern they suggested he weigh heavily the decision to have children. Gunselman’s health records show no indication of the tests – including sperm tests – he said he endured.

Until 2008, Gunselman believed the air drop was nothing more than a miscalculation on the part of the pilots who dropped it, but then his wife came across documents on the internet that labeled the mission a Human Radiation Experiment (HREX), leading him to believe the missed target was intentional on the part of the U.S. Government. After that, Gunselman noticed other things weren’t adding up, like U.S. Government pictures of the Cherokee drop.

“They dropped the bomb at 5 a.m. When it was dark, but the picture they have of the bomb dropping out of the back of the plane was taken in the daylight. [The bomb in the picture is] snow white with one 65-foot parachute on it, but it weighed 6,870 pounds.  You can’t drop that much on one 65-foot parachute,” Gunselman said.

Gunselman said he attached sensors to the bomb prior to it being carried into the sky for the airdrop and it was black and had five parachutes.

He gets angry and emotional about what he believes is the obfuscation of what happened during the tests.

“We had a 35-man crew aboard the ship who washed our decks down with contaminated seawater, then went over to the other ships that were on that side of the test and did that. Those 35 guys are all dead. They were dead a long time ago, in some cases,” Gunselman said.

Gunselman knows he’s been fortunate, none of the maladies he’s suffered as he’s aged, including prostate cancer, can be directly attributed to the HREX, but he feels a sense of duty to the ones who suffered to set the story straight.

“I want the story. I want the truth of the matter, and I’m the only left, really, that can tell it,” Gunselman said. “The fact they’re not telling the truth, when it wouldn’t hurt anybody, it really irritates me. But it’s typical.”