My Friend Bill
by Dennis Wayne Smith
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
We headed out in different directions. I went midships on the starboard side, working my way forward. I slowly ran the counter’s probe wand over the railing. The meter fluctuated between 30 and 40 roentgens. I ran it over a hose rack and it hit 50 roentgens as the clicks per minute increased. These were pretty much the average readings I received over my area.
The radiology team met back at the port hatch thirty minutes later. Howard’s reading had been about the same as mine. So were Bill’s, with the exception of the forward gun mount where his needle had pegged. We noticed the greenish hue in the sky had become larger. Then the rain came. We headed below decks, stripped down and hit the showers. Doc stationed himself outside the shower stalls with his own Geiger Counter. I had my shower running with only cold water. I let it hit me full in the face for a long time, trying to get rid of the stink of the damned asbestos suit, before I started soaping down. Howard came out first. He stood with his arms out and legs spread while Doc ran the wand over him. There was no clicking from the Geiger counter. I came out next and assumed the position. Doc pronounced me “clean”. Bill came out. There was some clicking under his right armpit. He went back into the shower. When he came back out, the clicking continued. He headed back into the shower. When he came back out the third time the clicking had stopped . Bill was clean.
Mr. Lingan came in and talked with us while we were getting dressed. He looked at our logs and whistled when he saw the high readings Bill had picked up in the forward gun mount. He said, “I need to get these up to the captain right away” and took off with the log sheets.
The next test was two days later. This time the weapon would be carried aloft by a Thor missile and detonated in the ionosphere above us. All hands were required to observe this one. It was designated “Blue Bird.” We were each issued a pair of dark goggles with one-inch thick lens. At 0100 hours we were all seated topside with our knees pulled up. Even with the goggles you had to bury your head into your arms because the initial flash would blind you. The control room on the island was coming through the ship’s speakers.
“The blue bird has left the island - stand by” — We didn’t need to be told that. We were close enough to see the Thor missile lift from its pad and hear the roar and see the flame. It quickly disappeared into the blackness of the night. We waited. Then the countdown.
“D - minus 30 seconds.”
We buried our heads and closed our eyes.
“10 - 9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1”
With the goggles on, my face buried in my arms, and my eyes shut, I still saw a flash of light. We waited. The speakers came alive. “All Hands May Now Observe Detonation”
We removed our goggles and looked up. The sky was on fire. A deep, dark, boiling red, covering the entire sky. There seemed to be lightning bolts flashing through it. There were audible gasps all around me. I heard an unknown voice somewhere behind me “Now we know what hell looks like”. Somebody else said, “the hell we do, this shit would scare the piss out of Satan.” Then a band of light appeared, arcing from horizon to horizon. The ship’s speaker came alive telling us we were looking at the Van Allen Radiation Belt. We were told that the lights that looked like tracers headed for it was actually ionizing radiation from the detonation being pulled into the belt.
Everybody was quiet getting ready to get back into their racks. The usual horseplay and laughter was muted. Somebody propped open an overhead scuttle to let in some air. It was raining again.
We had steamed southeast to Palmyra Island and anchored just outside the lagoon. We were here for what the Navy called R and R (Rest and Relaxation). Bill, Suds, Howard, several guys from deck force and operations and me had a game of tag football going. The longer our game went the more competitive it became. Pretty soon the “tagging” was replaced by full contact tackling. Bill and Suds and their crew were on the opposite team from me and Howard and our guys.
When it finally ended, there were bloody noses and torn t-shirts. I don’t even remember which side won but it was great fun. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood as we piled aboard the LCVPs and the sun was setting. Bill set down in a corner of the boat . “Man, I must really be out of shape. Damn, I’m tired and ache in every bone.”
I said, “hell, we all do.”Bill didn’t feel like eating chow that night. I said, “they’ve got ice cream. Do you want me to bring you a bowl?” He thought a second. “Nah, I don’t think so.”
After chow I went back to the berthing area to get Bill for the movie but he was sound asleep.
Reveille came at 0530. When I jumped out of my rack I noticed Bill was already up. I tied a towel around my waist, grabbed my shaving kit and stumbled to the head. An engineman named Mosley was shaving at the sink next to mine. He said, “Where’s your buddy, Baylor?”
I said, “Probably looking for you to whip your ass.”
Mosley was patting cheap after shave on his jaws. “No man, I’m serious. He was supposed to stand the mid-watch on the auxiliary engines. I went to wake him up but he wasn’t in his rack. Hell, I couldn’t find him anywhere. Mac had to take the watch.”
I headed to the mess hall to grab a cup of coffee and climbed the ladder to the main deck which I did alone most mornings to gather my thoughts and try to catch a breeze of some sort. As I moved forward I saw Bill up by the forward gun tub. When I got to him I said, “where in hell have you been, buddy”? A lot of guys looking for you. You didn’t relieve the watch last night”. Bill said, “I know I didn’t”.
That concerned me a little. I said, “are you okay,Bill”?
He smiled,”actually,I feel better than I have ever felt in my life”.
That also disconcerted me for some reason. Bill had a strange aura about him, as though he was glowing just a little. It had to be the rising sun to his back causing the effect. But he also had a very slight scent of cinnamon about him which made no sense. For some reason we started talking about our adventures ashore.We laughed and talked for an hour. Finally I said, “lets go get some chow, buddy, before it’s all gone. Bill said, ”not now, I’ll be down in a little while, maybe”. I said, “make it quick or it will all be gone”. As I turned to leave Bill stopped me. Putting his arm around my shoulder he said, “about that Australia thing,that was just a pipe dream, Den. I want you to promise me you’ll take care of yourself and go home and marry that raven-haired girl you talk about. She’s waiting for you”. I said, “how would you know that”? He smiled again, “I just know, believe me I do. Hell,I might even be at the wedding.”. I said, ”we’ll talk about it later” and headed down below for some chow.
After leaving the mess hall I headed down the passage way that led by sick bay where old Doc Bailey ruled the roost. As I passed the hatch door was open. I noticed someone was on the hospital bed with a sheet over his head. I stuck my head in and said, “who you got there, Doc?”-He shook his head. “It’s your friend Bill, Smitty. I’m afraid we’ve lost him. He woke me up around 2300 saying he was in pain everywhere. I got him in here and he started throwing up. I gave him something to put him out but he was gone before he even swallowed it. I stumbled back against the bulkhead. I said, “you’re crazy Doc, I just talked with Bill up topside”! Doc reached over and pulled the hatch shut and dogged it down. Doc said, ”listen to me Smitty! I’ve been in this man’s navy 30 years. World War 2 and the Korean Conflict and I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen too many dead men and I’ve heard what you’re saying many times. The bottom line is I believe you talked to Bill on the main deck earlier. But your good friend has been dead close to 8 hours and lying right here”. He pulled a little of the sheet back. It was Bill.
A cold shiver ran down my back and my hands were shaking. Doc grabbed my arm and said, “get ahold of yourself. If you have any sense at all you’ll keep it between us. You want an honorable discharge when you get out and not a Section 8. You wouldn’t be able to get a job at a dump. Just let it go, Smitty.”
I nodded okay but the chill was still with me. Doc said, ”I’ve notified the Captain. A hospital boat is on it’s way to take Bill back to the Island where he’ll be flown to Hawaii and back to Pennsylvania”. Doc handed me a key. “In the meantime I want you to go to his locker and get all his things out and bring them back here so they can go with him. I know you would be the one he would want to do it. The chill was still running up and down my spine as I went to get Bill’s seabag and then to his locker to put all his things in it. While going through his locker I found a piece of paper with Bill’s handwriting. It looked as though he had started a poem of some kind but hadn’t finished it.
Steaming On A Sea of Red
By William Baylor
Steaming, Steaming, Upon A Sea Of Red.
Steaming, Steaming, Upon A Sea Of Red.
Dare We Pray Tonight For Sleep Or Rest?
Or Would A Moment’s Lack Of Vigilance Bring
Us That Eternal Sleep That Knows No Sound?
Being Young And Foolish, We Do Not Know.
I slipped the piece of paper into my own pocket and I still have it.
I carried it all back up to sickbay still totally bewildered. When I got back Mr. Lingan was in sick bay. He told me he was sorry about Bill and we shook hands.
The loud speaker announced that the hospital boat had pulled along side. Two of Doc’s Corpsmen put Bill on a stretcher and carried him topside. As the stretcher was being lowered to the hospital boat I yelled out, “be careful with him”! One of the Corpsmen on the boat said, “we will, we will! Don’t worry!” Old Doc, Mr. Lingan and Suds and me stood there and watched the boat until it went behind the break wall at Johnston Island. As we turned to go below decks Doc said he wanted to see me in sick bay. I followed him down. Doc gave me some kind of pill and a glass of water and told me to swallow it. He said, “I’m giving you an “off duty” slip for today. I want you to get in your rack and stay there. Again, I believe you told the truth but also again, I’m telling you that if you value your future, you’ll keep your mouth shut. I nodded in agreement and headed for my rack. I was already growing drowsy. I slept a dreamless sleep for 9 hours.
We endured 3 more surface drops with only Howard and me on the radiology team. We also witnessed 3 more detonations in the ionosphere. These were also sent aloft on Thor Missiles. For these we also wore heavy goggles with our heads buried in our laps until the initial flash had passed. Even then you could hear men yell out that they could see their own bones like an Xray. I saw mine once in my left leg but didn’t say anything.
On November 16th the Hawk was the last ship to depart Johnston Island. We never knew why we were required to stay another 3 days after everyone else had left. We steamed out of Johnston Harbor at 0500, headed back to Pearl. We were all tired to the bone. We were also hungry for something real to eat. We had run out of groceries a week earlier and we were subsisting on powdered eggs, spam, powdered potatoes and powdered milk. The refrigerated reefer ship that was on it’s way to Johnston Island to re-supply us never showed up.
on November 19th we tied up to a pier in Pearl. We hooked up to shore steam, electricity and fresh water. After that the engineering crew was so tired we weren’t up to getting undressed and climbing into our racks. We just threw our pillows on deck and flaked out in our dungarees.
On Friday, December 8, 1962 we tied up at our assigned berth in San Diego. We were home. In August of 1964 I received an Honorable Discharge and headed back to Indiana. The dreams started a month or so after I returned home. Bill and I talking that morning up by the forward gun tub. All of it. Word for word. The scent of cinnamon, the aura of light. Right up to me heading below decks. But it wasn’t that often. Maybe once every 2 months or so. Everyone aboard the Hawk signed paperwork that nothing we saw or heard at Operation Dominic would not be revealed to anyone for 30 years which would be 1992. And I have honored that. As the years wore on, strangely, the dreams increased. It’s now to the point, after all these years, that the same dream comes to me at least once a week and sometimes even more often. It is very stessful on me as I always wake up with a depressed feeling. I recently told my wife, Linda, about it.
She has tried to help me in every way she can and I don’t know what I would do without her. I do have a VA Psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital in Birmingham who I only see about once a year because of being diagnosed with PTSD from the tests. But I have never discussed the dreams with him. I’ve told him I have dreams about the tests but don’t go into any details as I have here. I also have severe pain in my back and both legs which two VA doctors have told me may very well be caused by the ionizing radiation. I also have asbestos in my lungs from wearing the asbestos fire-fighting suit during the tests and working with asbestos on a daily basis down in the boiler room of the Hawk. The VA has me at 90% disabled.
Linda told me I should write about it because it might be therapeutic for me. I only hope it is. Hoping and praying.
Copyright © 2017 by
Dennis Wayne Smith
edited by Edward Ahern