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Minnesota man reflects on A-bomb test

SPRING LAKE PARK, Minn. -- Thanks to the anniversary of this nation's birth, early July is a time when we all hear a lot of fireworks. But 70 years ago this month, Spring Lake Park resident Wilfred "Bill" Hemker says he was on hand to see a uniqu...

SPRING LAKE PARK, Minn. -- Thanks to the anniversary of this nation’s birth, early July is a time when we all hear a lot of fireworks.

But 70 years ago this month, Spring Lake Park resident Wilfred “Bill” Hemker says he was on hand to see a unique firecracker go off.

In July 1946, Hemker was part of a 42,000-man task force of Americans who had assembled at a remote part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean to participate in Operations Crossroads, an atomic bomb test.

Hemker was there on July 1 when the fourth atomic bomb in history - and the first after World War II - was detonated above Bikini Atoll.

Hemker, who will be celebrating his 94th birthday on July 4, already had been a part of atomic history. The native of West Salem, Wis., Hemker was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he enlisted in the Army and became a crewman in a special unit of B-29 heavy bombers.

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He was trained in electronic systems on the plane including radar countermeasures and assigned to an airfield in Utah, making flights to test a large bomb.

“A new bomb,” Hemker said. “We knew it was a powerful bomb.”

What he didn’t know at the time was that he was helping in the top secret Manhattan Project: the American program to develop the first atomic bomb.

The test bombs being dropped by his plane had the same size and weight as the bombs that would soon be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We were glad that happened, that the war was basically over,” Hemker said of learning that the test missions were part of the atomic bomb project. “We were happy to participate.”

After the war ended, however, Hemker was asked to participate in yet another test.

The military wanted to test the effects of an atomic blast on ships and planes, so a massive task force was assembled, and a target fleet of more than 90 surplus and captured ships was anchored in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll.

The vessels that were doomed to be bombed included the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, the battleships USS Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and New York, the German cruiser Prinz Eugen and the Japanese battleship Nagato.

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There was also a media contingent of more than 100 reporters from around the world invited to witness the event.

The 167 native Bikinians living on the atoll were evacuated. They were replaced by a herd of animals -  204 goats, 200 pigs and 5,000 rats - to test the effects of being nuked.

In the first test in the operation, called the “Able” shot, a B-29 nicknamed “Dave’s Dream,” carried a “Fat Man”-type fission bomb, the same type of bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

This particular bomb was nicknamed “Gilda,” after a character played by Rita Hayworth in a 1946 movie.

According to an official history of the Crossroads tests published in 1947, Hemker’s name isn’t on the list of people who were aboard “Dave’s Dream.” But Hemker said he was on the flight when the bomb was dropped and detonated at 34 seconds after 9 a.m., Bikini local time, on July 1, 1946.

Hemker said he remembers that a ground crewman was fatally injured when he backed into a spinning prop of the plane before it took off. He remembers the plane making a 90-degree turn after bomb was dropped to escape the 21-kiloton blast.

“It was a huge bomb,” he said.

But the bomb, which detonated about 520 feet above the water, was a bit off target.

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“The navigator, when we got back, said we were off by three miles,” Hemker said.

Only five ships were sunk.

“There wasn’t glee that there was a major effect.” Hemker said.

But he said, “I was glad to take part.”

Hemker went home after the “Able” shot. He didn’t participate in the more devastating, underwater “Baker” detonation at Bikini Atoll on July 25.

As a civilian, Hemker worked as an economist, salesman and businessman for companies in Illinois and Minnesota. He had another stint in the military when he was recalled in 1950 for a year flying on B-36 bombers.

The United States kept nuking Bikini until 1958, detonating 23 atomic devices there, including the largest U.S. nuclear test ever, the 15-megaton “Bravo” blast in 1954.

Bikini isn’t inhabited today, although it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a tourism site for scuba divers who like to view the sunken ships.

Operations Crossroads also inspired a French automobile designer turned clothing designer named Louis Réard who is responsible for another post-WWII creation we often see at this time of year.

On July 5, 1946, Réard unveiled a shocking-for-its-time, navel-exposing, two-piece swimsuit. The designer naturally named it after another explosive event that occurred just four days earlier.

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