Why the US Navy Annihilated Its Own Battleships With Atomic Bombs

July 27, 2021Matt Fratus
Operation Crossroads nuke baker test coffee or die

The “Baker” explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a United States military nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, July 25, 1946. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of July 25, 1946, a spectacular explosion shot radioactive seawater some 6,000 feet into the air at a Bikini Atoll lagoon in the Marshall Islands. A mushroom cloud climbed above the epicenter of the blast, where a nuclear device — called Helen of Bikini — had been anchored 90 feet beneath a floating barge. The detonation generated a tidal wave the size of a skyscraper. The shock wave raced across the lagoon and engulfed the targeted fleet of 90 aging American, German, and Japanese battleships. When the violence of the first underwater nuclear explosion had finally ceased, eight surplus warships had been sunk. The radioactive fallout damaged several more.

The remarkable display of nuclear firepower was the second and final test of the coordinated military exercise code-named Operation Crossroads

In the wake of the destruction of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US military wanted to know more about the awesome new weapons it wielded. In particular, would battleships become obsolete in the nuclear era? To test the effects of nuclear weapons on warships — as well as on various materials and even animals —  the US military embarked on Operation Crossroads. 

Unlike previous nuclear tests, which had been conducted under the strictest secrecy protocols, the Crossroads tests were announced to the public beforehand. The international press received invitations to join the audience, which included foreign officials such as observers from China and the Soviet Union. The international involvement made the operation “the most observed, most photographed, most-talked-of scientific test ever conducted,” according to the official report on the operation.

The scale of the operation was enormous. The targeted fleet was a mishmash of more than 90 American, Japanese, and German aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and amphibious vessels. While the targeted fleet was empty of human passengers, some of the ships were loaded with animals. Some 204 goats, 200 pigs, 200 mice, and 5,000 rats were placed in the blast zone. 

The scientists chose each animal with particular responses to the explosions in mind. Goats were chosen because of their humanlike weights and respiratory systems. Pigs have similar skin to humans, and scientists wanted to investigate how their skin reacted to radiation. And the mice were present to investigate the development of cancer.

More than 150 ships housed the 42,000 participating military personnel. The logistical support of the operation comprised some 156 airplanes, 750 cameras, 5,000 pressure gauges, and 25,000 radiation recorders. And for good measure, 4,000 pounds of coffee, 11,000 pounds of sugar, 38,000 pounds of fruit, 40,000 pounds of meat, 89,000 pounds of vegetables, and 70,000 candy bars were also packed for the trip. 

Operation crossroads coffee or die
The Baker shot of Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll, July 25, 1946. As the spray column collapses, a 900-foot-tall “base surge” of radioactive mist envelops the target ships. The ship in the foreground, left, is the Japanese battleship Nagato. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Crossroads tests were planned to total three test shots: Able, Baker, and Charlie. The Able bomb was dropped from a B-29 bomber. The Baker bomb was detonated under a barge. And the Charlie test was set to include another underwater detonation that targeted a group of salvaged submarines. The Able and Baker tests’ atomic bombs each had a yield of 23 kilotons. The Baker test produced so much radioactive contamination that President Harry Truman decided to cancel the Charlie test. 

Although the Able test on July 1, 1946, missed the targeted fleet by at least 1,500 feet, five ships still sank. According to an assessment by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “A large ship, about a mile away from the explosion, would escape sinking, but the crew would be killed by the deadly burst of radiations from the bomb, and only a ghost ship would remain, floating unattended in the vast waters of the ocean.”

Operation Crossroads was ultimately terminated on Aug. 10, 1946, because of safety concerns regarding radioactive fallout. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Evaluation Board noted the contaminated ships “became radioactive stoves, and would have burned all living things aboard them with invisible and painless but deadly radiation.”  

The successful tests of Able and Baker, however, sparked an atomic arms race leading into the Cold War. “If used in numbers, atomic bombs not only can nullify any nation’s military effort, but can demolish its social and economic structures and prevent their reestablishment for long periods of time,” the JCS board concluded in 1947. “With such weapons, especially if employed in conjunction with other weapons of mass destructions, for example, pathogenic bacteria, it is quite possible to depopulate vast areas of the earth’s surface, leaving only vestigial remnants of man’s material works.”

Read Next: The Civil War Roots of the US Military’s Tattoo Culture

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

More from Coffee or Die Magazine
dear jack mandaville
Dear Jack: Which Historic Battle Would You Want To Witness?

Ever wonder how much Jack Mandaville would f*ck sh*t up if he went back in time? The American Revolution didn't even see him coming.

west point time capsule
West Point Time Capsule Yields Centuries-Old Coins

A nearly 200-year-old West Point time capsule that at first appeared to yield little more than dust contains hidden treasure, the US Military Academy said.

Ouija Board aircraft carrier
Low-Tech ‘Ouija Boards’ Have Helped Aircraft Carriers Operate for Decades

Since the 1920s, a low-tech tabletop replica of an aircraft carrier’s flight deck has been an essential tool in coordinating air operations.

Army vs. Navy mascot
The Navy Goat vs. the Army Mule: Mascot Origin Stories

For nearly as long as the Army-Navy football rivalry, the academies’ hoofed mascots have stared each other down from the sidelines. Here are their stories.

ukraine long-range weapon
Zelenskyy Says Ukraine Has Developed a Long-Range Weapon, a Day After Strike Deep Inside Russia

Zelenskyy said on his Telegram channel the weapon was produced by Ukraine’s Ministry of Strategic Industries but gave no other details.

7 of the Best Movie Ambush Scenes of All Time

Ambushes make for great action scenes. Here are seven of the best to ever grace the big screen.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, with his daughter, center right, reportedly named Ju Ae, review the honor guard during their visit to the navy headquarter in North Korea
North Korea Launches Missile Toward Sea After US Flies Bomber During Drills

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the launch occurred Wednesday but gave no further details, such as how far the missile flew.

  • About Us
  • Privacy Policy
  • Careers
Contact Us
Contact Us
© 2023 Coffee or Die Magazine. All Rights Reserved