icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


  Eniwetok.  The word rolls poetically off the tongue ending in the final delicious hard consonant.  This odd word worked its way into everyday family conversations with other words like Thomas and Tulsa, towns in Oklahoma where my parents had been children.  Eniwetok.  Japtan.  Parry Island.  Shot Island. These places were a part of my childhood mythology.  I spent three formative years in Boulder, Colorado,  learning to emerge from my shy shell, working my way up from kickball to being a pretty spiffy softball shortstop by the fifth grade.  At the same time, my father was working on the first hydrogen bomb.  It was not entirely secret, but the story only emerged in my consciousness over decades.  I am moved to write about it now by Richard Rhodes' marvelous book, Dark Sun, his massively researched sequel to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, that details the development of the first hydrogen bombs against the backdrop of Soviet espionage.  As it happens, I know some tidbits of this story that Rhodes may not.

  In our family, the story began in Oklahoma Territory.  As a teenager, Granddaddy Wheeler carried cash from stores to the bank with a six-gun strapped to his hip.  He later got into oil.  He had a piece of the Oklahoma oil field.  It was a little sandy cup, an isolated pond of petroleum in the middle of the vast underground ocean of oil.  Granddaddy made enough money to survive the depression and World War II in comfort, but the oil ran out while others, with mineral rights to land only hundreds of yards away, made legendary fortunes.  Had his well been in a different place, it is unlikely that Eniwetok would have entered the family history in the way it did. 

  My dad was christened G. L. Winters Wheeler in 1908.  The initials were expanded to family names, George Lafayette, only much later due to wartime exigencies and employment at Lockheed Corporation.  G. L. was a tinkerer.  As a kid, he raided an old dump for wire.  He hooked a telephone hand-cranked magneto to his door to shock his sisters when they tried to enter his bedroom.  He electrified the barbed wire fence to send Morse code to a neighbor, shocking anyone who unhappily touched the fence.  Later he had one of the first ham radio licenses, 5KW.  He went to the University of Oklahoma for a while and then worked in a bank, a job opened to him by his father's connections.  He decided to go back to school and enrolled at Berkeley, confusing it, he later admitted with some embarrassment, with that other bay-area school founded by Leland Stanford Jr.  He thought he was going to the university at which Herbert Hoover had matriculated.

  At Berkeley, G. L. first majored in engineering.  He loved electrical engineering and had a life-long fascination with communications.  He found, however, that he was required to take a course in mechanical engineering.  Rather than some of the theory he might have appreciated, the course featured squeezing concrete blocks in a hydraulic press until they broke.  He found that insipid and not to his taste.  He could not continue in engineering without that course and so, perhaps unwisely, switched to physics.  He had not had the background in Oklahoma for the rigors of physics and labored in the new curriculum, but stuck it out.  He got a Bachelor's Degree in Physics from Berkeley in 1932, the end of his formal education. 

  G. L. kicked around for a while.  He married his first wife.  He got into colored refrigerators and lost his shirt, being too far in advance of the avocado rage that would hit suburbia after the war.  He worked on the precursor of the color TV camera.  He had a daughter.  He got divorced.  He met my mother, Peggy, back in Oklahoma and got married.  He was horseback riding in Griffith Park when word came that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.  G. L.. was too old at 34 to be drafted.  He got a job at Lockheed riveting tails on P-38s.  He worked on the tail structure of the third XP-38 ever built.  That tail fell off, but the plane landed safely.  He took home a pocket full of rivets in order to share his work with his wife.  Later he worked his way into a design engineer group.  He was always bright enough to be good at design but lacked the formal education to move up in that career at a commensurate speed.  He switched to North American and worked on map recognition and inertial guidance for the Navaho missile, the forerunner of the ICBM's that would come to dominate my childhood.  His clearance there was so high that he was not supposed to tell anyone he had it. 

  I was born in 1943, just a tad ahead of the soon-to-surge baby boom.  My sister, Cathy,  was born in 1948.  Just after the war, G. L.. and Peggy used waning left-over oil royalties to buy 40 acres of walnut trees in Van Nuys out in the San Fernando Valley.  I had a Shetland pony, stolen by some cad.  Granddaddy Wheeler had retired and moved to Woodland Park, Colorado.  He died in 1950.  We moved there and lived for a year off the proceeds of the sale of the walnuts; living off our capital, a grand Wheeler tradition.  If we had kept the land in Van Nuys, the Eniwetok story might have been diverted again in a tide of great financial fortune.  I had a grand time that year in Woodland Park, with good school chums, a second horse, an Indian pony, and acres of pines for adventure.  Those pines and the red, gravelly soil in which they were rooted are still in my blood. 

  At the end of that year, we were broke and G. L.. had to start over at age 42.  After some searching, he got a job at the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder.  He worked on the coronagraph that was shipped to Africa for the Khartoum solar eclipse of 1951.  Then he heard that an outfit called Cambridge Corporation was looking for help.  He signed on.  Cambridge Corporation was an offshoot of Arthur D. Little, Inc, an early technological spin-off of MIT.  In league with the Carrier air conditioning company, Camco had the contract to build and operate the huge dewars to store the liquid deuterium that would power the world's first hydrogen bomb.  That opened the link to Eniwetok, a small coral atoll none of us then knew.

  In 1995, the world (a small technologically-oriented piece of it, anyway) celebrated the 100th anniversary of James Dewar, the Scotsman who invented the double-walled, vacuum-pulled vessel that could hold super cold liquids for long periods of time.  Liquid air, liquid oxygen, liquid helium, and liquid hydrogen all came within the purview of scientific and engineering research.  Basic science and engineering came together in the new field called cryogenics. 

  G. L. knew nothing about cryogenics when he joined Camco, but he was a quick study.  He signed up in February and was promptly shipped off with a group of men to MIT for several months.  Sam Collins, a professor at MIT, had learned how to make a cryostat, a device to manufacture liquid helium.  G. L. and the others were sent to MIT to learn about cryogenics, cryostats, and dewars. They stayed in the Burton House dorm and ate in the Graduate House, the old faculty club on Massachusetts Avenue right across the street from the domed sprawl of MIT where I would matriculate and my eldest son after me.  G. L. recalled a friendly waiter in the Graduate House who was always curious, graciously inquiring about how his work and studies were going.  Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, he wondered whether the man had been a Russian spy. 

  The dewars for the bomb were built in Massachusetts and then trucked to the National Bureau of Standards site in Boulder, up on the mesa south of town.  They were designed to hold liquid deuterium, heavy hydrogen.  The hydrogen bomb was intended to reproduce for a fraction of a second the process that powers the Sun, the nuclear conversion of simple hydrogen into the element helium.  Helium has two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus, ordinary hydrogen has only a single proton.  To fuse four protons into a single helium nucleus, two of the protons must be converted to neutrons.  This is a rare, relatively slow process in nature, but the Sun has eons of time.  The people rushing to develop the bomb were more impatient.  To speed up the process, they wanted to start with deuterium, hydrogen with an extra neutron.  That way the neutrons would already be in place, and in the nuclear fire two deuterium nuclei could be fused to make a helium nucleus directly, without waiting for the creation of new neutrons.  Deuterium was the fuel of choice.

  To work properly, the deuterium had to be as dense as possible and that required that it be liquefied and stored in one of James Dewars' insulated devices.  The dewars to store the liquid deuterium were huge.  They were mounted on large truck flatbeds so they could be transported.  Each held a little over 500 gallons of liquid deuterium, kept cold by a sophisticated construction of insulating Styrofoam and aluminum foil and heat shields themselves cooled by easy to manufacture liquid nitrogen.  Each dewar had attached to it a Collins cryostat so that as the liquid boiled, it could be re-liquefied and returned to the dewar for storage in a closed loop and a generator to power the whole shebang.

  There were six or seven dewars.  Only one would go up with the bomb, but redundancy provided a fail-safe mechanism.  Each dewar had a team and a field engineer who served as team leader.  G. L. was one of those team leaders.  A pipe running from the cryostat to the dewar had a transparent length of quartz so that one could monitor the flow of liquid deuterium from the condenser to the dewar, checking for bubbles or other irregularities in the flow.  Liquid deuterium is essentially clear and invisible, but few people have been near it at all and then it is mostly in opaque metal vessels.  By peering at that invisible flow through the quartz pipe, G. L. claimed to be one of the few human beings who had, or ever would, "see" liquid deuterium.

  G. L. came home one day in Boulder and said they were trying to think of names for the dewars they were constructing.  One was "Frigid Digit."  G. L. invented the name "Glacial Gertie."  At the time, I had no idea what a dewar was, though I recognized the new word that had become a part of my father's vocabulary.  I did know that I disliked the name Glacial Gertie.  It had too many hard consonants in the wrong place, no euphony.  I came up with the alliteration "Sleet Sue."  G. L. liked that and proposed to adopt it for his dewar.  As it turned out, however, one of his young colleagues, Bob Cushman, Cush, was engaged to a spirited young woman named Sue.  When Cush heard the name, he begged to use it, and G. L., sweet fellow that he was, acquiesced.  So the swap was made.  G. l. was in charge of Glacial Gertie, Cush of Sleet Sue.

  In the summer of 1952, Glacial Gertie and Sleet Sue and their sisters were tested in Boulder then shipped overland by truck and put on a ship headed for the West Pacific.  Later, in the fall, G. L., Cush, and their teams flew on Pan Am to Hawaii then on MATS, the Military Air Transport Service, to Wake Island, and on to Eniwetok.  They spent three months there as final preparations were made for Project Ivy.  Ivy stood for "I," one in a long alphabetically-named series of post-war atomic tests carried out in the Pacific.  The bomb was Ivy Mike, M for megaton, the sought for escalation from the mere kilotons that had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  G. l. was responsible for making sure Glacial Gertie was properly shipped, installed, and functioning at Eniwetok.  Eniwetok is a whole coral atoll consisting of an irregular ring dotted by islands sticking only feet out of the ocean.  One of the larger islands at the south rim of the atoll was also called Eniwetok.  It had a few stores, commissaries, where one could buy Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops long before Jimmy Buffett made them famous in Margaritaville.  The main compound was on Parry Island adjacent to Eniwetok island.  At low tide, you could walk between them on a narrow spit of land.  Before the atomic age, Parry Island had only a rickety wharf extending out into a sea dotted with the hulks of Japanese ships sunk during the war.  By the time G. L. arrived, it had tent barracks, a mess hall, a helicopter pad, a concrete loading ramp, a hydrogen liquefier building, dewars, and a horseshoe field.  He became very proficient at horseshoes, whiling away the time at 3 A. M. keeping a weather eye on the dewar.  

  On one off-duty excursion, a landing craft took a bunch of people to Japtan, a somewhat bigger island on around the atoll from Parry Island.  G. L. shinnied up a palm and cut loose a coconut.  He smuggled it back to the States as a souvenir.  On Eniwetok, he bought a pool cue carved with south sea designs.  He also acquired a pith helmet, mandatory head garb in the Pacific glare.  The desiccated coconut husk, the pith helmet, and the pool cue, the latter somewhat the worse for wear, still sit on a shelf in Peggy's house in Colorado Springs. 

  The meals on Parry Island were quite good, one means to maintain morale in an otherwise isolated environment.  There was often steak and lobster.  Another of the souvenirs G. L. brought back from this experience was a menu from the mess hall.  Inside the cover page, across from the listing of the day's meals, was a photo of a bare-breasted island girl clad only in a sarong slung low on her hips.  That menu made a great impression on my pre-pubescent soul, partly because I recognized, if only dimly at the time, its sexual tones and found it interesting that G. L. would proffer that particular souvenir to his wife.  I  lost track of it, and, to my pleasure, ran across it in Peggy's basement only last summer as I was cleaning up some stuff.

  Hydrogen and deuterium were shipped in gaseous form to Parry Island and then turned into cold liquid in the cryostats there.  Most of the time was spent storing and transporting more abundant liquid hydrogen in training exercises.  The precious liquid deuterium was saved for the final tests and the event itself.  The crucial liquids were loaded into the dewars and the dewars were shipped to Shot Island by barge.  The bomb, as depicted in Dark Sun, was a huge device meant to illustrate the proof of principle, not to be dropped on an enemy city.  It was in a large galvanized steel building.  The device itself was two stories high   It had an "ordinary" atomic bomb, a fission device at the top.  The radiation from this immense precursor explosion would race down the insides of an evacuated hull and the resulting radiation pressure would compress an inner shell of depleted uranium moments before the force of the initial explosion exploded through the outer casing.  The inward compression would be communicated to a vat of liquid deuterium, compressing and heating it and triggering the nuclear fire.  For good measure, there was an inner core of enriched uranium that would add a little fission boost and ensure that a proper bang ensued.

  The deuterium was piped from the dewars like Glacial Gertie and Sleet Sue that sat outside the building holding the device.  The pipes led inside the building, around its perimeter, and then into the top of Ivy Mike.  The dewars would build up pressure that was released by opening a valve and burning off the excess.  Hydrogen burns in a hot clear flame by combining with the oxygen in the air.  A common occurrence was for an unwary seagull to blunder into this flame and fall to the ground, ready cooked. 

  Shot Island, where the device sat, was at the north end of the atoll, about thirty miles from Eniwetok Island.  It is known to the Marshall Island natives as Elugelab.  It no longer exists.  Next to it was another small island barely rising above the level of the sea where other bunk and mess facilities were set up for the crews working on Shot Island.  The two islands were connected by a small causeway, so one could walk from one to the other between work and meals. 

  The mess island had another old pier left over from the war that had been rebuilt.  The men that worked on the bomb spent long off-duty hours swimming and snorkeling in the clear waters off the pier.  A giant clam resided just to the left off the pier as you faced the water.  All the men were fascinated by it and grew rather fond of it.  They occasionally fed it large chunks of meat.  Year's later, in relating some stories of those days, G. L. got very wistful as he remarked, "they should have evacuated that thing."  They did not, and the clam was vaporized in the bomb.

As the day of the shot grew near, and the dewars were shuffled around, keeping Ivy Mike full and prepared, it became clear which dewar would be online when the shot went off.  It was to be Sleet Sue.  My small claim to fame here was vaporized along with the clam. 

  G. L was involved in the frenzied last-minute preparations on Shot Island.  Sleet Sue arrived with the last dose of liquid deuterium at 9:30 in the evening.  She was attached to the piping leading to Ivy Mike as another crew loaded the plutonium core into the atomic bomb at the top of the device.  All was finished in the early morning hours.  The story is not quite clear to me now, but G. L. was responsible for setting some critical part of the chain of operations into motion, presumably something to do with putting Sleet Sue on automatic, and was one of the last people off Shot Island.  Another of his assignments was to make sure all his team was off the island and on the landing craft that would take them to a waiting transport ship.  That intense, human responsibility in the middle of the night after an exhausting day, the nightmare of leaving someone behind,  left its mark on him for decades.

  The next few hours, were, G. L.  said, a blur.  They took the landing craft to the transport ship and sailed thirty miles south to lay up beyond the southern extent of Parry Island and the Eniwetok atoll.  G. L. remembered nothing of that trip, probably sunk in the fatigue of the last-minute rush. 

  He vividly remembered the event itself.  They lined up on the rails of the ship and put on goggles of dark welder's glass.  After the first flash at 7:15 local time on the morning of November 1, 1952, they took their goggles off and watched the fireball grow.  G. L. described its overwhelming immensity,   it just seemed to grow and grow, stretching along the horizon and towering into the sky.  He was struck by the irrational feeling that it was not going to stop.  Finally, however, the white fireball, the vapor of water, coral, clam, and Sleet Sue, stopped expanding and the familiar mushroom erupted from the top to tumble even higher.

  G. L. arrived back in Boulder in mid-November bearing the coconut, the pith helmet,  the pool cue, the racy menu, and the flip flops.  There was a light, wet snow on the ground.  I barely knew what had transpired in this epochal time, but one memory remains clear in my mind: G. L. frolicking in that snow, building a snowman, wearing those green flip-flops.