Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Most Powerful Thing

Operation Crossroads
Photo by US Department of Defense
On the morning of July 25th, 1946, my father witnessed what he later described as the most powerful thing he ever saw. On that day, he stood on the deck of the USS Rockbridge, one of 175 support ships participating in Operation Crossroads, the U.S. government's atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific.

Bikini had been chosen because its roughly circular reefs would contain the worst of any tidal waves produced by the detonation. At least that was the hope. A "ghost fleet" of damaged and moth-balled ships, both American and Japanese, were gathered within the circle of the atoll, to test the effect of the bomb on large ships at sea.

As the countdown neared zero, my father and the other seamen, "safely" aboard their own vessels just a few short miles outside the barrier reef, watched with unshielded eyes as they listened to the final seconds of the countdown.

The bomb exploded with a force equal to 23,000 tons of TNT. An enormous surge of water exploded from beneath the surface of the sea, instantly creating a dome a mile high, lit like a million lightbulbs by the energy of the explosion within.

My father spoke in awe of seeing a ship carried aloft by the enormous water spout - probably the 203-foot amphibious landing craft that had anchored the underwater bomb - suspended atop the dome for what seemed an eternity.

An enormous shock wave rushed outward and upward at 3,500 miles per hour, tossing the test ships - battleships and destroyers - like toy boats in a child's bathtub. The Bikini atoll took and withstood the primary impact, allowing only a fraction of the surging sea to escape. This remnant wave carried enough residual force to toss the observation ships roughly about in the water.

The hot winds, emanating from a core hotter than the sun itself, blew past the watching navy, until finally the force of the bomb was spent.

At the epicenter of the blast, a vast crater had been formed in the sea by the sudden upthrust of waters. This cavity soon imploded, sucking the waters and the mangled test ships into its vortex. The resulting tidal waves, towering high over the target ships, rushed outward at a speed of over 60 miles per hour, engulfing everything in it's path, leaving a downpour of radioactive water covering everything.

My father never forgot the display of power he witnessed that day.

My mother, after one of my father's retelling of these memories, told of an experience of her own.

"The most powerful thing I've ever witnessed," she said, "was a man, several years ago - I can't recall his name - he came to church now and then at the invitation of several members. We all knew him, knew he was a basically good man, but obstinate against the church and against God. We had all tried talking to him, time and again, but he stubbornly refused to give in. He continued to show up now and then, but with no response."

"After several years of this, he came to a revival meeting. I think it was on about the third night, after a rousing sermon, the evangelist was winding down, introducing the invitation hymn.

"This man I'm talking about stood up and turned his back to the preacher. He marched briskly to the rear of the church. I thought, Oh, no, he's finally had enough. He's leaving.

"We stood to sing, and as we launched into the first verse, here he came, marching, ramrod straight, firm steps, directly toward the preacher at the front of the congregation, where he made his confession and was baptized that night."

"That," she concluded, a tear in her eye, "was the most powerful thing I've ever seen."