My Brush with Greatness
My brush with greatness
came a half century ago during my military service as an Electronic
Technician in the United States Navy. Just before graduation from the
Navy’s E.T. school
I requested “Foreign Duty” and “Submarine Duty”, and was sent to Guided
Missile Unit Ten
(GMU-10), Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor.
GMU-10 was the land facility on SubBase
that maintained the airframe, electronic, and nuclear
components for the Regulus 1 missile, a subsonic missile with a nuclear
warhead, somewhat like
todays cruise missiles, but without the super-accurate GPS guidance
system used now.
At GMU-10 I worked on one of these
older guidance systems, and became interested in the history
of development of nuclear weapons. Reading mostly from the Submarine
Base Library near our barracks,
I learned of the development of the first nuclear weapons, led by
Robert Oppenheimer, often called the
father of the atomic bomb.
The two types of nuclear weapons
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atomic bombs, but the
Regulus missile carried a hydrogen bomb, or thermonuclear bomb, using
an atomic bomb for a trigger mechanism.
During the early 1960s, one of the
hottest periods of the Cold War, atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons
were still being performed, and in 1962, in a test named Starfish
Prime, a hydrogen bomb was detonated
at an altitude of 250 miles. The time and direction of the test was
openly publicized, and I witnessed the
burst from the southwest side of the island of Oahu, near Waianae,
about twenty-five miles from Pearl Harbor.
The 11pm burst was above Johnston
Island, about 700 miles west of Oahu, on July the 9th. The light
was spectacular, and frighteningly powerful, starting with a brilliant
white flash, and finally fading to the
deepest purple about an hour later. This was the first test that showed
the severe and widespread damage
that HEMP, or High Altitude Electro- Magnetic Pulses can cause, in
electrical and electronic components and wiring.
A week or so later—the precise time is
hazy in memory—I went to attend services at a small Baptist church
near Waianae. I arrived early. The time for Sunday School was listed as
starting at 10:30am, but we were on
“Hawaiian Time”, an informal yet widely accepted custom that any
non-commercial business would start
about an hour after the duly prescribed and appointed time. I walked up
to the driveway entrance.
Waiting at the entrance to the driveway
of the church, sitting on the stone fence was a man I guessed to
be near the age of sixty—a young person almost always overestimates the
age of someone significantly older.
We nodded to each other in silent
recognition. The man looked familiar, hauntingly so, and we moved to
sit closer. He moved carefully, slowly, with a halting gait.
After a short opening greeting and exchange of pleasantries, he started
talking, asking what my name was,
where I was from, and what my work was. I told him, briefly, and
mentioned where I was stationed.
Details of my job were secret, but it
was no secret that I was stationed at a Guided Missile Unit—our uniform
shoulder patches boldly stated “Guided Missile Unit Ten”). At the
mention of my duty station, and my work
with the Regulus missile, he turned and asked me: “Then you know who I
am, don’t you?” I said that
“Yes, I think I do”, but my embarrassment was sufficient to prevent me
from speaking his name, in spite of
my recognition of that famous head, with those dark as night,
magnificent black eyebrows, large and thick
and alive like two fuzzy black caterpillars perched above his eyes.
He then spoke: “I’m Edward Teller”,
confirming my suspicions. At this, he grew silent for a moment,
and my awe, confirmed by his admission, was monumental. Here before me,
speaking to a third class
petty officer in the U.S. Navy, a Southern Baptist boy from Oklahoma,
was Edward Teller, a Hungarian Jew,
the father of the hydrogen bomb! I was nearly dumbstruck with the
realization of who I was talking with,
and my contribution to the conversation after this was very little,
next to nothing.
He seemed to sense this, and graciously
filled in the conversation with small talk, probably aware that
to some mortals such as me, his name, at least his presence, was
Years ago, a scant few before his death, I emailed him, but
predictably, I received no reply, not even a
confirmation that he had been in Hawaii for the Starfish Prime test.
But when I remember our chance
meeting fifty years ago, I recall those black, bushy eyebrows, and the
sincerity and gentleness of his voice,
and couple that with the beautiful, frightening image of the Starfish
e-mail to Bart
Back to Bartcop.com
e-mail to Bart
Back to Bartcop.com