Left: Seaman First Class Robert Needles, 1946 Right: Bombs Over Bikini (cover) by Connie Goldsmith. Connie recently had the opportunity to interview an Operation Crossroads veteran. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, in which they talked about the nuclear testing program that is the subject of Connie’s latest book for TFCB.
Serendipity is a wondrous thing. A few days after the Sacramento Bee reviewed my book Bombs Over Bikini on March 16, 2014, I received an e-mail from Robert Needles. He’s a veteran of the US nuclear testing program in the Marshall Islands – the topic of my book. After discovering that he lives only fifteen miles from me, I quickly arranged to meet with him.
Needles was a tenth grader when he changed the date on his birth certificate and joined the US Navy in 1946. The Navy sent the sixteen-year-old Seaman First Class to Bikini Atoll, where he joined more than forty thousand military and civilian personnel preparing for Operation Crossroads.
He was stationed on the USS Furse, an American destroyer. “My first position on the Furse was Captain of the Head,” Needles jokes. He was at Bikini Atoll, when Able and Baker, the first of sixty-seven US nuclear bombs were detonated. The Navy dropped Able from a plane. It hung Baker beneath a ship and exploded it underwater, the first time that had been done.
Above: The USS Furse was commissioned in 1945 and assigned to Operation Crossroads in 1946.
“When Baker exploded, we took that giant steam cloud to be a huge wave coming right at us,” Needles says. “The ship turned and started steaming away from the lagoon.” He has a declassified copy of Furse’s log for July 25, 1946. “0835: BAKER DAY atomic explosion sighted in BIKINI LAGOON, distance 11 miles. 0845: changed course.”
Above: Baker explodes in Bikini Atoll, July 25, 1946
“Three days later, we went swimming in Bikini Lagoon,” Needles says. “No one knew how dangerous that was.” He notes that the cover photo of Bombs Over Bikini shows Baker exploding from a vantage point on the beach. “I remember going to a party on that very beach.”
After the war, an executive officer sent Needles to Navy radio school in San Diego. “That was one of the biggest changes in my life,” Needles said. It inspired him to complete high school and to use his GI Bill to attend college after his three-year Navy service. Needles and Josephine, his wife of sixty years, live in Northern California. Eighty-four years old, Needles is in good health except for a thyroid condition. Doctors cannot say for sure if it’s directly related to his exposure to radiation during Operation Crossroads.
Photo Credits: Robert Needles portrait (Robert Needles); USS Furse and Baker explosion (Wikimedia Commons)