In 1949, after the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, America was in a race with the Soviets to develop a nuclear bomb that was about 1,000 times more powerful—the hydrogen bomb. Two years later, a 19-year-old Air Force Dope and Fabric Technician from Philadelphia, PA, volunteered for a special, top-secret assignment that would help move the U.S. closer to perfecting this highly destructive thermonuclear weapon.
“I ended up on a little island in the South Pacific, called Enewatak,” said 82-year-old Vincent Williams, speaking to a group of Disabled American Veterans in 2013.
Williams’ participation in this assignment, code name: Operation Greenhouse, was much more than just an exciting adventure for this young man or even service to his country. This experience would also end up changing the course of his own life.
The goal of Operation Greenhouse, which took place in 1951 and was the fifth American thermonuclear test series, was not only to increase the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons but also to reduce their size, weight and amount of fissile material. According to Williams, the testing of the four devices detonated during Operation Greenhouse occurred on another island in the Enewatak Atoll about 20 miles away. When each detonation occurred just before dawn, the airmen were instructed to kneel on the beach, facing away from the blast, close their eyes (they were given no goggles) and slowly count to 10.
During one of these tests, Williams, who was naturally curious about what was happening behind him, instead counted as fast as he could and opened his eyes. In that horrifying moment, he could see straight through the skin of the people around him. Williams remembered them looking just like skeletons.
“To see all those bones moving at one time, it was quite a shock,” recalled Williams. With that scare, the young airman quickly closed his eyes again.
Three days before another test, Williams was given the opportunity to visit the island where the tests were being done. He was surprised to find houses, made of a variety of materials, including brick, frame, concrete and cinder block, with many of them underground. This simulated city was used to gauge the devastation of a thermonuclear bomb. Radio-controlled drones measured blast and thermal effects and collected radioactive cloud samples.
Williams, who went inside one of the houses, described what he found: “There was a guy sitting on the sofa reading a newspaper. But he wasn’t real. Then I looked around and there was a lady in an apron feeding a baby in a highchair, and she wasn’t real either.” The purpose of these rather eerie, lifelike mannequins was to predict the carnage inflicted by the bomb.
For the largest device that they tested during Operation Greenhouse, Williams was given protective goggles and could actually watch the action. “It looked like an orange cut in half with lightning jumping around inside of it,” he explained. “Right through the center of it, you saw that mushroom cloud. That mushroom cloud was nothing but fire.”
“The instant the big bomb went off, it was like someone had opened an oven in our faces,” Williams vividly remembered. The realization that that “heat” was actually radiation didn’t come until much later.
Like hundreds of thousands of other service men who were huddled in trenches, on ships and underwater, flying into the mushroom clouds or parachuting into blast sites, Williams was exposed to the ravages of this radiation. Years later, the Air Force veteran was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and lung cancer.
“I’m paying for it on this end. But that’s life,” said Williams.
Williams, who lived in Columbus and was a deacon at Second Community Church and chaplain for the Disabled American Veterans, Capital City Chapter 3, lost his battle on July 22 of this year, at the age of 85. His sacrifice will be remembered by all those who loved him, including his three brothers, seven children, nine grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and by the country he served.