Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter
CAPT John Wallace, USN (Retired)

Have you ever wondered why the military gives harmless sounding nicknames to its operations? I’ve always suspected it’s to lull the participants into a false sense of security (“Hey, guys, we get to go on Operation Benign Puppy”)

In the summer of 1962, my ship, USS Polk County, was ordered to participate in Operation Dominic (Hey, guys, we get to go on Operation Dominic)! Dominic, a Pacific Ocean operation, involved nuclear weapons testing in the vicinity of British owned Christmas Island, for air-dropped weapons, and U.S. owned Johnston Atoll for the ambitious, first-time-ever nuclear blast in the earth’s outer atmosphere.

My ship was one of several assigned to the scientific element of the operation, which meant we were loaded with instrumented vans, arrayed with a variety of antennas, and directed to steam around beneath the nuclear burst. The nuclear weapon was to be carried aloft on a rocket launched from Johnston Atoll. As D-day and H-hour approached, the anxiety level aboard ship increased noticeably . The major danger, we were told, would not be from the nuclear explosion, but from the barrage of instrumented Nike missiles which would be launched to take readings on the detonation. The impact points for these missiles were unpredictable. (I shot a Nike in the air, and where it fell…) Heavy steel I-beams were stacked on top of the instrumented vans to minimize damage should one or more of these unguided missiles land on us. We un-instrumented people were on our own.

As launch time approached, the ship went to General Quarters which put me in the unprotected after gun tub. The uniform for guys about to witness e=mc squared up close and personal was: long sleeve khaki shirt  buttoned at the neck and wrists; steel helmet (not as reassuring as an I-beam, but what the heck); and high-density goggles, which, even during hours of daylight, rendered you completely sightless. The countdown for missile launch proceeded without a hitch and we watched the rocket with its lethal load (the physics package, as the euphemists dubbed it) ride its flame towards a destination above Johnston.

As the countdown for the burst was broadcast over the ship’s 1MC, we were directed to don the goggles, close our eyes and direct our faces down and away from the impending burst. In spite of these measures, the light at detonation was as intense as a strobe and was seen over 800 miles away in Hawaii. Immediately after the detonation, with goggles removed, I looked up into a nighttime, blood-red sky from horizon to horizon, with multiple yellow striations crisscrossing the night sky as small iron rods, which were released with the burst, aligned themselves with the magnetic lines of force around the earth. What an awesome physics lesson!

We “survivors” of the first and hopefully last outer atmosphere nuclear weapons test went on about our military careers with no ill effects. Our medical records were flagged and for several years results of my annual physical received special scrutiny. The visual effects of that event are firmly imprinted on my mind even today; but when I try to recapture my thoughts as I gazed up into that blood-red sky, the only thing I recall thinking was…I wonder where those Nike missiles are…


Entered the Naval Air Reserve out of high school in 1955, serving with VF-782 as an AT striker at Los Alamitos NAS, CA.
After graduation from college, attended OCS and was commissioned in March 1961. His duty assignments included USS Polk County (LST 1084)as Deck and Gunnery Officer; Navy Language School in Anacostia, MD, studying the Russian language; ACNSG Fort Meade, MD. as a submarine rider; NSGA Bremerhaven, Germany as Communications Officer; Vietnam as OIC of Special Support Group to MACV SOG; NSG HQ in Washington, DC; Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA; NCS Rota, Spain as Operations Officer; NSG HQ; ACNSG at Fort Meade; CINCUSNAVEUR London, UK as Deputy DNSGEur; NSGA Puerto Rico as Commanding Officer; NSA Fort Meade; NCPAC Hawaii as Deputy NCPAC.
Retired in January 1989 and remains in Hawaii.