Operation Dominic
The Johnston Island Atmospheric Nuclear Test Series

The Soviet Union had abrogated the 34 month old de facto nuclear testing moratorium on 1 September 1961 by initiating an unprecedented series of atmospheric nuclear tests.  In response the U.S. began a frenzy of various named operations testing their nuclear devices.  The first deployment of  HMM-364 was in 1962 as an element of Joint Task Group 8.3 (JTG 8.3), commanded by Rear Admiral I. M. Mustin, and in support of Operation Dominic.  The squadron departed MCAF Santa Ana, California on  11 April '62 with twenty brand new HUS-1 (redesignated UH-34D on 1 Nov. '62) aircraft aboard the LPH-5, USS Princeton.

Upon arriving in the vicinity of Johnston Island  it was found to be a small ancient atoll (80 million years old and perhaps the most isolated reef in the world) with a recently constructed rocket launching platform and a small airfield with an extremely short runway.  A description of landing a DC-8 was, "It's like landing on a table top.  Touch down on one side of the island, apply hard braking and hope you don't run off the other side of the island."  Prior to Operation Dominic, Johnston Island  had simply been a US Coast Guard facility for the operation and maintenance of a LORAN station,

Operation Dominic was a series of  36 atmospheric nuclear detonations (29 dropped from aircraft, 1 Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile, 1 surface ship launched ASROC anti-submarine rocket , 1 launched atop a Nike Hercules rocket and 8 carried aloft by THOR rockets.)  Except for the two submarine launched tests, all the other detonations were in the vicinity of either Christmas Island or Johnston Island.  JTG 8.3, and HMM-364 as an element thereof, were tasked to support the eight high altitude, above 100,000 feet, THOR launched detonations from Johnston Island.

The THOR rocket launched tests were to evaluate the capabilities of an antiballistic missile to operate in a nuclear environment and the vulnerability of  U.S. reentry vehicles (RVs) to survive a nearby nuclear blast.  They also provided information on the ability of a U.S. radar system to detect and track RVs.  Another goal was to discern the effects of a high altitude blast on improved command and control systems, which were shown to be vulnerable in earlier high altitude tests.  The final goal was to obtain information on the feasibility of testing in outer space.

The Yankee Kilo Marines were busy with administrative and logistical flights from the time they arrived.  They also conducted training flights that would prepare them for the recovery of information recording devices which would further understanding of the effects of high altitude nuclear explosions.

Throughout the entire time span of Operation Dominic the Squadron's commanding officer was Major Manning T. Jannell, who later retired as a Brigadier General.  Maj. Jannell had definite ideas on how flights were to be conducted and flight crews organized.  Further, Maj. Jannell's goal was to have 100% aircraft availability for each scheduled missile launch.  To accomplish this goal he assigned each aircraft a permanent crew consisting of a pilot, copilot, crew chief and 1st mechanic.  The names of these crew members were stenciled on the side of the aircraft and this evoked a high degree of personal pride within the crew.  As a result the aircraft "belonged to them" and they took great pleasure in keeping the aircraft looking good and running in perfect condition.  The crew spent a lot of time waxing their aircraft which proved to serve the Squadron well on extended sea duty by protecting the aircraft and keeping salt water corrosion to a minimum.   They knew the sound and feel of their "personal" aircraft and a momentary spark plug misfire, or any other abnormal sound or vibration, would bring all to immediate alert.  When something major such as an engine replacement was due, the permanent crew and others pitched in at 110% effort.  The engine was replaced, test flown and was up for the next launch.  The helicopter became a part of the crew's being and Maj. Jannell's goal for 100% aircraft availability for the entire duration of Operation Dominic was achieved.

HMM-364's first direct nuclear encounter, dubbed Bluegill, was the planned launch of a THOR with a W-50 warhead in a MK-4 RV on 3 June. This, and all subsequent missions, called for twelve aircraft to evacuate all non-essential personnel from Johnston Island to the USS Princeton prior to launching the THOR.  Additionally, these twelve aircraft were tasked to fly designated search patterns in an attempt to retrieve NIKE missiles which were to be shot through the blast/radiation zones of the high altitude detonations.  The other eight aircraft were divided into four sections with the mission of retrieving three data collecting pods which were attached to the side of the THOR rocket.  These data pods were designed to be jettisoned from the rocket at a predetermined altitude, which allowed them to climb a bit higher from there own inertia and kinetic energy, as the THOR continued to roar upward.  These pods were designed to float after free falling for a designated distance then parachutes would deploy easing them back to the sea with the blast data stored in their recording devices.  Bluegill lifted off the launch pad at midnight (local time) but problems had been encountered with the range safety radar prior to launch, and five minutes after launch the Johnston Island missile tracking system failed. Unable to monitor the missile's flight path, the range safety officer destroyed it 10 minutes later, prior to warhead detonation.

The next high altitude THOR launched test, dubbed Starfish, was scheduled for 20 June.  The rocket with the 1450 kt Starfish device (W-49 warhead and the MK-4 RV) on it's nose was launched that evening but the THOR missile engine cut out only 59 seconds after launch.  The range safety officer sent the destruct signal 65 seconds after launch, and the missile was destroyed at approximately 35,000 ft.  The warhead high explosive detonated in 1-point safe fashion, destroying the warhead without producing nuclear yield.  Large pieces of the missile fell back on Johnston Island, and more wreckage along with plutonium contamination was found on nearby Sand Island.

By July 9, 1962 another THOR had been delivered and was configured the same as the previous Starfish test vehicle.  This rendition bore the name Starfish Prime.  Again all non-essential personnel (total personnel on Johnston Island numbered between 700 to 800) were evacuated to the USS Princeton for the night launch of Starfish Prime.  Many of the people brought to the ship were relatively high paid scientists, engineers etc. who had nowhere to go and nowhere to spend their salaries.  Rumor has it that many high stakes poker games could be found on the USS Princeton as these folks waited for the all clear signal to return to their work stations on the island.

At 0900Z the THOR lifted off Johnston Island and roared to an altitude of  248 miles where the W-49 warhead/MK-4RV were released and detonated.  The test was quite spectacular with impressive light displays from an artificial aurora lasting up to seven minutes.  The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from the test sent power line surges throughout Oahu (800 miles away) knocking out street lighting, blowing fuzes and circuit breakers, and triggering burglar alarms.  This was the highest altitude test and second largest warhead detonated during the Johnston Island portion of Operation Dominic and was probably the one that lead to newspaper headlines which read, "It Was High Noon at 11:00 PM Today."

Soon after it was determined the THOR was launched in a successful manner a barrage of  NIKE missiles were launched to gather additional data.  The trajectory and splash down points of these rockets and associated recording pods could not be predicted as precisely as the pods from the THOR rockets.  One atomic veteran who was stationed on board another ship wrote.  "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."  This observation was reinforced by the fact that none of the recording devices of the NIKES were ever located by squadron flight crews pilots even though extensive search patterns were flown attempting to recover them.

On the other hand, the THOR's recording devices splash down points were more predictable and the four sections assigned to retrieve them had much better luck.  When such a pod was located one aircraft would approach it at an altitude of 10 to 12 feet and hover over it while the crew chief, using a grappling hook and line, would snare the parachute to prevent it from blowing up into the rotor system which would have certainly ruined the crew's day, espically over water.  Next the crew chief, using another tool which resembled a "shepherds crook", would use the hook to latch the free end of a 50 foot long sling to an attaching point on the pod.  The other end of the sling was fastened securely to the helicopter.  Once the hookup was made the pod was hauled back to Johnson Island trailing below the aircraft.  The training squadron personnel received prior to commencing Operation Dominic aided them in reducing the time spent at the 10 to 12 foot distance from the pod which was contaminated with radio active particles.  It was during Operation Dominic that the squadron's commanding officer, Maj. Jannell, picked up the nickname of "Hook."

Bluegill Prime, the second attempt to launch the payload which failed on 3 June was scheduled for 23:15 (local) on 25 July.  It too was a genuine disaster. The THOR missile was carrying one pod, two re-entry vehicles (all heavily instrumented) and the warhead.  The missile engine malfunctioned immediately after ignition, and the range safety officer fired the destruct system while the missile was still on the launch pad.  Dale K. Olson aboard the U.S.S. John S. McCain, DL-3 remembers the night, "I got a real sick feeling knowing that there was a fully active A-bomb on the rocket.  It gave a new meaning to 'Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass good-bye.'  I monitored the count down and opened the outside hatch (against orders - but what the hell, if it blew who would know) when we heard the abort code. Hell of a fire ball!"  The Johnston Island launch complex was demolished.  This proved the wisdom of evacuating all non-essential personnel from the island.  According to the Los Angeles Times, "There was no release of radiation and no personnel were injured." True the warhead did not detonate but when the rocket was destroyed, the warhead was also destroyed and plutonium was scattered all over Johnston Island.  There was speculation that the tests would be canceled.  In any event the USS Princeton would not be required in the area until the island was cleaned up and another launch pad built so she departed for San Diego with an interim stop in Hawaii.

When the Squadron arrived at Pearl Harbor a number of their new HUS-1's were flown to K-Bay and exchanged for older aircraft of HMM-161.  The command could not believe the superb condition and appearance of the aircraft delivered to them by HMM-364.  A letter from the Commanding Officer of HMM-161 was sent to Maj. Jannell via the chain of command up to the Commandant and back to HMM-364.  The myriad of endorsements complementing the Marines of HMM-364 made them very proud of the effort they expended in keeping the aircraft in top notch shape an providing 100% availability for the first portion of Operation Dominic.

The "Yankee Kilo Marines" were advised that a three week cleanup of Johnston Island was complete and another launch pad was being constructed.  Therefore, they soon found themselves embarking aboard the brand new LPH- 2, USS Iwo Jima (Ninteen aircraft formation) for transit back to the Johnston Island arriving in time for the third attempt to launch the Bluegill device which had now twice been unsuccessful.  This launch, named Bluegill Double Prime, was rocketed aloft at 21:14 (local time) on 15 October 1962.  Between 86 to 90 seconds into the flight the THOR again failed and the missile began tumbling.  It was destroyed by remote control 156 seconds after launch and some of its radioactive debris fell back onto Johnston Island.

Bluegill Triple Prime, on 26 Oct '62, was the fourth and finally successful launch of this high altitude test using the W-50 warhead in a Mk 4 RV. The 1000 kt warhead detonated at an altitude of 31 miles, approximately 19 miles south-southwest of Johnston Island.  This burst occurred low enough in the atmosphere for fireball formation to occur, and observers saw a brilliant white flash and noticeable heat pulse on bare skin.  A slightly distorted bright moon-like sphere was seen, yellow at first, then gradually showing green, pink, and violet hues.  Blue-purple streamers were formed.  A bright glow persisted for 30 minutes, at times bright enough to read a watch face in the dark.  The fireball was seen in Hawaii also.

At dawn the following morning the search for the three recording devices which had been attached to the THOR was underway.    The pods, which floated only a few inches out of the water, were equipped with a radio transmitter that emitted a signal which was received by two directional antennas attached to each main gear of the helicopter and connected to an oscilloscope next to the crew chief.  The crew chief could tell if they were flying toward, or away from, the pod by viewing the strength of the signal.  The signal would create a bar on the scope and by keeping the bar centered, with verbal instructions to the pilot, the crew chief could direct the helicopter right to the floating pod.  As each was found the lead aircraft of the section would hover low while the crew chief, using the "shepherds hook," attached the loose end of the strap to the device.  The crew chief would then verbally direct the pilot to commence lifting straight up, lifting straight up and out of ground effect into the "Dead Man's Curve." (Hovering and/or very slow airspeed at low altitude eliminates the possibility of a safe autoration in the event of engine failure and operations within this environment is known as the "Dead Man's Curve.")  At approximately 50 feet above the water all the slack was out of the lifting strap.  Then with a jolt the helicopter would abruptly stop ascending as if it was anchored to the bottom of the ocean for the pod alone, without all the sea water it had accumulated, weighed approximately 2,000 pounds.  The pilot would raise the collective a bit more as he twisted the motorcycle type throttle clockwise to wind the Pratt and Whitney R-1820 engine up to its red line of 2,850 RPM and 54" of manifold pressure which developed the maximum rated 1,525 shaft horsepower.  Then, so very slowly the helicopter with its remaining fuel load and crew of four began ascending again lifting the water laden pod from the sea with streams of water pouring from it.  Once the pod was out of the sea and the water drained, the cyclic stick was moved unpreceptively forward to produce the slight forward component of lift which eased the aircraft forward, allowed it to gain translational lift,  and accellerate to 60 knots which finally placed the aircrafrt in a safe operating environment outside of the "Dead Man's Curve."  The pod was hauled to Johnston Island at this relatively slow speed of approximately 60 knots because, with the total weight of aircraft and the pod, the engine was not capable of greater airspeed while at the same time maintaining an altitude of approximately 100 feet.  Upon reaching Johnston Island the pods were placed in protective mounds which were lined with lead.  Each of the other two pods were recovered in the same fashion.  The crews searching for the Nikes and their recordings were not so lucky again.

The test on 30 October named Housatonic was the largest nuclear warhead detonated (8,300 kt) in the Johnston Island area when HMM-364 was present.  It was not launched aboard a THOR but rather air delivered by a B-52 and was detonated at an altitude of 12,130 feet.  The device was a MK-36 which had a diameter of 56.2 inches, a length of 147.9 inches and weighed 7,139.55 pounds.  It was the last air dropped weapon of the U.S. atmospheric test series and was spectacularly successful.  It is believed the photograph attached to this paragraph is the detonation of Housatonic, but it may be Bumping which was air dropped on 6 October.  The interesting point of the photograph, though not completely discernible in the lower right portion, shows members of the USS Iwo Jima's crew lined up on the flight deck to observe the blast.

Kingfish was the last THOR launched device which was detonated on 1 November.  The detonation occurred at an altitude of 60 miles. The dramatic visual (and other) effects were observed over much of the central Pacific. The explosion appeared as a bright yellow glow, at first circular, but elongating along a south-to-northwest axis.  The long axis reached 125 miles after 30 minutes, and eventually reached 185 miles. The glow persisted for at least 1.5 hours.  On Johnston Island a yellow-white luminous circle with intense purple streamers was visible for the first minute. Brilliant streamers (beta particle auroras) were seen going north and south from Maui.  At Oahu a bright flash was seen, and after about ten seconds a great white ball was seen rising slowly out of the sea and remained visible for several minutes.  Another major effect of this shot was the widespread disturbance of the ionosphere and the consequent disruption of radio communications over the central Pacific, which lasted at least three hours.

Upon recovering the recording pods of Kingfish, the squadron's participation in Operation Dominic I was ended and the USS Iwo Jima steamed away from Johnston Island.  Additionally, the thermonuclear frenzy of superpower saber rattling between the United States and the Soviet Union ended relative to atmospheric testing (Underground testing in Nevada continued and was named Operation Dominic II).  HMM-364 arrived back in California just in time for celebrating the Marine Corps' birthday.


Through the release of atomic energy, our generation has brought into the world the most revolutionary force since prehistoric man's discovery of fire.

This basic force of the universe cannot be fitted into the outmoded concept of narrow nationalisms.  For there is no secret and there is no defense; there is no possibility of control except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world.  We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of atomic energy and its implication for society.  In this lies our only security and our only hope - we believe that an informed citizenry will act for life and not for death.

I do not know with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.

      A. Einstein

Click below for
Warren R. Smith's Memories of Operation Dominic

Information provided by:
    Donald L. "Crook" Crooker, former Cpl. USMC
    James T. "Jim" Shepherd, 1stSgt. USMC (Ret)
    Dennis T. "Denny" McKee, Maj. USMC (Ret)
    Warren R. Smith, former Cpl. USMC
    El Toro Flight Jacket, Dec. '62
    Los Angeles Times, 26 July '62
    Los Angeles Times, 11 Sep. '62

Images provided by:
    Dennis T. "Denny" McKee, Maj. USMC (Ret)
    Jim Barrow, Air Force Communications Service
    Public domain photographs of neuclear blasts and warheads by Department of Energy/Department of Defense.