By Madison Monroe
On May 5, 1962, at 6:56 p.m., the 88-man crew of USS Razorback (SS 394) closed the hatch against the sunny San Diego sky and departed the Naval Electronics Laboratory Pier in accordance with Command Joint Task Group 8.9 Op Order #1-62. Unbeknownst to them, their mission was to act as the evaluation submarine for the only full-scale nuclear test ever conducted by the United States.
The government called it the ‘Swordfish Phase’ of Operation Dominic. The men had confidence in the 20-year-old sub. Razorbackhad a history that could subdue any submariner’s fears.
Christened in 1944, she was part of the largest single-day launch of submarines in U.S. history. At 311 feet long, 27 feet high and 16 feet wide, she could move at an impressive 20-1/4 knots fueled by four diesel 1,350 horsepower engines. She boasted ten torpedo tubes and two periscopes. USS Razorback was built for war and, in 1944, she was state-of-the-art technology. She ran five combat patrols against the Japanese in World War II, receiving five Battle Stars in that effort. She was also used in rescue missions retrieving downed American pilots. During the Cold War, Razorback was used in surveillance patrols against the Russians. In 1955 alone, she made over 390 dives.
Knowing the history of this sub, the crew had confidence Razorback could withstand the force of any weapons test, but they did not know the full extent of their mission until they were underway.
“The Captain prepped us for what was about to happen. He told us that we would be at periscope depth, and I didn’t realize this, but I think we were about a mile and a half from the explosion. I didn’t realize we were that close,” Commissaryman 2nd Class Petty Officer (boat’s cook) Maurice Barksdale said. Quietly, the crew mentally prepared during the 19-hour journey 400 miles off the coast of California.
On May 11th, they reached their designated mark 2,000 feet from ground zero. They descended to periscope depth and turned off the engines. Other than nervous match strikes to light cigarettes and the overwhelming thump of their own heartbeats, an eerie silence enveloped them. Because clouds obstructed aerial documentation, the Navy waited until May 12th to launch the warhead. After what seemed like an eternity, “there was a countdown and everyone was told to brace ourselves for two or three different shock-waves,” Barksdale said.
Hanging onto walls, bunks, rails and whatever they could reach, they held their breath and waited for the impact.
Also 2,000 feet from the target, above the surface of the ocean, was another test ship, this one unmanned. Detonating 650 feet underwater, the nuclear bomb shot up a spray dome 3,000 feet wide that rose 2,100 feet into the air in 16 seconds. The ship on the ocean’s surface began to bow and fracture from the force of the blast. Steel crumpled like an aluminum can. Bolts snapped and equipment blew into the sea. At the same time, Razorback violently jerked, rocked and shuddered for an excruciating 45 seconds.
Click here to view videos of the test from the Navy. Footage of the blast and documentation of the after-effects of the surface ship can be found at 3:30 minutes on the first video and footage of USS Razorback can be found at 9:30 minutes on the second video.
The sailors held on and rode out the shock waves. Barksdale recalls, “Well, the first one wasn’t that bad – it was kind of a rumble. But the second wave, I thought we were going to capsize. It was a rough, rough wave.” Eventually, the waves slowed and finally ceased. The crew collectively exhaled, as smiles of relief crept across their faces. They had survived. Razorback weathered the force of a nuclear explosion and did not sink.
The purpose of this mission was to see and document the effects of a nuclear bomb on ships above and below the surface and determine the severity of the impact on equipment and crew. As the radiation spread on the water eight miles from the point of impact, and possibly hundreds of miles in the air, the scientists rushed in to document everything. No one knew the unseen danger of radiation, not in 1962.
“What I remember more than anything else,” Barksdale said, “was that [about eight of the crew] went topside after the explosion to hose down the sail and the decking and everything. I think that was before the days that people realized about radiation poisoning. So I had wondered if they had problems with side effects of that day.”
Barksdale went on to say, “It was a wonderful experience getting to know the guys on the Razorback I have been in a lot of situations in my life, but I will tell you this right now: the men of that submarine have left a mark – an indelible mark – in my memory to this day. They were all wonderful men. We all had to pull together. Everyone helped everyone else and I immediately bonded with them, and I think they bonded with me. In many ways, they had to – because I was one of the cooks…. They always told me my cooking was halfway decent. I don’t know if it was or if it wasn’t. I just know this: I tried my best to prepare a good meal.”
Every year during the first week of April, the remaining crew spends the night aboard USS Razorback to eat and work on the sub together. They are proud to be part of her magnificent history, to have manned the longest-serving submarine in the world, to be bonded to each other and to have faced annihilation and emerged victorious.
Today, the vessel is harbored on the Arkansas River at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock. It is used for educational field trips, birthday parties, reunions, special events and overnight stays.
To find out more about USS Razorback, visit them online at www.aimmuseum.org.
BRAVE MEANING: noun: brave | 1.a brave person. | 2.to meet or face courageously:to brave misfortunes. | 3.to defy; challenge | 4.ready to face and endure danger or pain
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