top of page

Introducing. . . Harold R. Wainscott

BY MARLENE BROWNING-WAINSCOTT

Sweet Owen Contributor 


Harold R. Wainscott dedicated a decade of his life to serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1961. His service took him to the Pacific atomic testing area in the Marshall Islands, where he held the crucial role of a weatherman. In this capacity, Wainscott bore witness to significant historical moments, including the world’s first test of a thermonuclear device (AKA the “hydrogen bomb”) and various atomic test shots, some conducted in space and others underwater. Alongside numerous comrades who served in the U.S. Armed Forces, Wainscott became recognized as one of the “Atomic Veterans” due to his involvement in atmospheric and underwater nuclear weapons tests.


Operation Ivy


“I joined the Air Force because I received my draft notice,” Wainscott recalled. “I had just turned 21 and was single. I had eight weeks of basic training in Texas and got my first choice of Weather School at Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul, Illinois.” 

From there, he boarded the U.S.S. Shanks to Hickman Air Force Base in Hawaii. 

“I worked in the Terminal Weather Station there for a few weeks and had an opportunity to volunteer for duty in the Pacific testing area in the Marshall Islands for Operation IVY. I volunteered because the idea of such an adventure interested me. By the end of 1951, I was working in the Terminal Weather Station at Eniwetok Atoll. The Eniwetok Atoll is a close-knit circle of coral islands and one of the islands is called Eniwetok as well. It was the largest island and was long enough to have a 6,000-foot runway for larger aircraft.” 

During this time, Wainscott witnessed the world’s first thermonuclear device test on Nov. 1, 1952, “There were only two test shots in Operation IVY. Those shots were both in November. The first was codenamed ‘Mike.’ Generally, it is called the hydrogen bomb, but to be accurate, it was a device. To be called a bomb, it had to be an actual weapon. Nobody knew how large the explosion would be. The device was on Elugelab Island. There is a very large crater there now and Elugelab was vaporized. I saw that explosion from the last evacuation plane. The second test was codenamed ‘King.’” 

In 1952, Harold received orders for duty at Godman Airforce Base in Fort Knox. He flew into Cincinnati on Christmas Eve, 1952, and married in Owenton before reporting for duty at Godman. During his four-year assignment at Godman, his son was born in 1954. 

“I reenlisted for another six years and received orders to return to Hickman Air Force Base.” 


Operation Hard Tack


“I had not been working in the (Terminal Weather Station at Hickman) very long when I received a call from Navy Commander Daniel Rex,” Wainscott said. “He was looking for some volunteers for a special project in Fleet Weather Central at Pearl Harbor.”

The project would send Wainscott and seven other carefully selected men to the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where Wainscott previously served. 

“We were testing, by hand, what was to become a weather modeling computer program. When finished, it would hopefully make short-range forecasts of wind direction, velocity, and various high altitudes. We were using old-fashioned merchant calculating machines to test the formulas the scientists had dreamed up. These machines were state-of-the-art at the time. They could add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Each one cost hundreds of dollars, and we had several. They only did what a $1 handheld calculator does now, but it was nearly a miracle back then. 

“The sole purpose of this project was to track radioactive fallout from atomic tests at Bikini and Eniwetok. The results were good enough to cause a computer building to be constructed.” 

The IBM 704 computer needed a building that could be climate-controlled. As a result, concrete blocks were shipped from the states to the island to construct a building the size of a small gymnasium to hold the computer. The 704 was the only computer at the time that could handle complex math.

“They installed refrigeration and air conditioning units in the building to keep the computer cool and prevent overheating,” Wainscott continued. We had to wear our heavy fatigues when we worked there. My job was to feed weather data from all over the Pacific into the computer. Our weather program was considered a success.” 


Shot Oak


In Operation Hardtack, test shots were given names from North American trees and shrubs. One of the test shots was called “Oak.” The Oak Shot detonation was a nine-megaton hydrogen bomb (one of the largest shots in Hardtack and 700 times greater than the Hiroshima Bomb). 

“This bomb was several megatons and was expected to be quite hot,” Wainscott explained. “Full fatigues and headcover were required. The announcement said, ‘At the countdown time of H minus 30 seconds, a marker flare will show the test position. Your eyesight will be lost if you do not use shot glasses to view the test. If you do not have glasses, you must turn away. Please obey this warning!’ 

“A needle-sharp point of blue-white light is stabbing at our eyes through the black glass of our masks. The device was emitting the radioactive spectrum, all of it, in all directions. It was churning and turning, in a boiling motion, as it burrowed into the mushroom’s center. Greens and browns and reds that were never meant to be in the sky. I had a taste in my mouth like a penny on my tongue. There is no sound at all. All of that unimaginable power, and still there is no sound. Then, we see the shock wave coming. The wall of a perfect expanding dome of vapor approaching. Some were not braced for it and were knocked backward. We were watching a show that should never be seen.” 

At the time of testing, Operation Hardtack included more nuclear detonations than all prior nuclear explosions in the Pacific Ocean put together. This was due to the discussions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that led to a moratorium that would end nuclear testing. Additional tests were added to Hardtack in case it was the last chance. Hardtack served as the end of the nuclear device testing in the Marshall Islands.

Upon his return to civilian life, Harold endeavored to acclimate to a world beyond the military. Initially, he assumed the role of a foreman in a plastics factory, followed by a position as a programmer with the Kentucky Department of Highways. In 1976, he transitioned into teaching programming at a vocational school, where he remained until his retirement in 1987.

Over the years, Wainscott kept in touch with many of his friends from his service. He attended reunions all around the country and created a newsletter/website called “The Wetokian,” which allowed those who served to share their stories about their time on the islands and provided a way for everyone to keep in touch. Today, he lives in Owen County with his wife, Betty.

Wainscott received the rank of Master Sergeant during his service and several commendations, “I looked upon most all my assignments and duties as a great adventure, and of course, the computer experience I had in service helped me in my civilian careers. I was fortunate to have things work out so well.”

Comments


bottom of page