What a hydrogen bomb explosion looks like

Fred Milverstedt recalls July 9, 1962
What a hydrogen bomb explosion looks like
Photo courtesy of Fred Milverstedt
Fred Milverstedt says he will never forget the sight on July 9, 1962, aboard the USS Iwo Jima.

Last week, the New York Times editorialized on the bluster between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, noting that President Trump “is engaged in a dangerous game of chicken with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, who has kept up his own steady stream of bombastic insults against Mr. Trump and threatened attacks on the United States.”

Back in September, the North Korean foreign minister suggested his country might detonate a thermonuclear bomb, saying, “This could probably mean the strongest hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean.”

Amid all this, I decided I should talk to an old friend, who, as he once put it, is “among the few folks on earth who have ever witnessed the detonation of a hydrogen bomb.”

His is a name that will resonate with longtime Madison residents.

Fred Milverstedt grew up in Madison and, for a run of several years in the 1970s, wrote an idiosyncratic and entertaining sports column in The Capital Times.

When he left the newspaper, Milverstedt in 1976 partnered with Vince O’Hern and founded Isthmus, the Madison weekly that endures today.

Fred for many years has lived outside Minneapolis, in Plymouth. He made a triumphant return to Madison in 2013 for some events associated with the publication of his memoir, “One More Ride.”

The memoir includes a brief mention–just a few paragraphs–of Milverstedt’s witnessing the thermonuclear bomb, which happened while he was serving in the U.S. Navy in summer 1962.

But what Fred wrote is powerful:

“However trite it might read or sound, it was like seeing God. It was so immense, so brilliant in its terrible power, that nothing else that’s ever happened to me in my life has been by comparison any big thing.”

I phoned Fred last week and asked if he might expand on his memory of the blast and the circumstances surrounding it, and he agreed.

Summer 1962 was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Having enlisted in the Navy, Milverstedt was then serving aboard the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault craft that was dispatched to the South-Central Pacific that spring to assist with Operation Dominic, a U.S. effort to gauge the effect of detonating nukes in space.

On July 9, 1962, the U.S. was preparing to launch a Thor missile with a nuclear warhead from Johnston Atoll, 940 miles southwest of Hawaii. “Our role,” Milverstedt told me, “was to evacuate personnel from the atoll prior to the launch.”

The launch was scheduled for 11:00 that night.

“They let us all hang out on the flight deck,” Milverstedt said. His ship sat a few hundred yards off shore. “We had goggles we were supposed to wear. They provided us with roentgen counters [to measure radiation]. We each wore one on our belt.”

According to a 2012 Discover magazine story on the 50th anniversary of the launch, the missile carrying the warhead launched and reached a height of 660 miles, then began descending.

“We were supposed to sit there with our heads down, which we did,” Milverstedt said.

When the missile had descended to a height of 240 miles, the 1.4 megaton nuclear warhead was detonated.

“It was about 10 minutes from the launch until it detonated,” Milverstedt said.

At that moment, he recalled, “There was a heat sensation, very temporary. Poof! Then we were able to look up. It was, initially, brighter than the sun, through the goggles. It was everywhere you looked. That light faded fairly quickly, then there were these bands of color, every color in the spectrum, flashing back toward us in the sky. That probably lasted 20 minutes.”

According to the Discover story, the blast created “a brief but extremely powerful magnetic field” called an electromagnetic pulse, so strong that it blew out hundreds of streetlights in Hawaii, nearly 1,000 miles away. Satellites failed, airplanes registered electrical surges. “The overall effect,” Discover noted, “shocked scientists and engineers.”

It had a lasting impact on anyone who saw it. Milverstedt said that years later an officer on the Iwo Jima wrote about it and said everyone agreed it was the highlight of their military career.

Fred wasn’t sure “highlight” was the right word, but he knew what the man meant. The immensity, the power, the scientific knowledge that made it possible.

“And the end result is the total destruction of everything around it,” Milverstedt said.

Still, it hasn’t cost him sleep. “It’s so big there’s no sense worrying about it.”

I asked about the roentgen counters, and whether his had registered any radiation.

He laughed. “Probably just enough to make me a sportswriter.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.