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Lawrence Rauch *49 and Operation Crossroads: Atomic Testing at Bikini Atoll

By Rosalba Varallo Recchia

This post is part of a series on education and war related to our current exhibition, “Learning to Fight, Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War,” on display through June 2018. Please stop by to learn more.

Lawrence Rauch *49, a mathematics graduate student and a research assistant in physics, concentrated on radio telemetry while at Princeton.  He lived in the Graduate College near John Tukey, Rauch’s mentor during this time. Richard Feynman also lived nearby. Rauch was passionate about his studies, but World War II affected his academic experience. He won the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship in 1942, but due to his involvement in war research had to turn it down. Throughout the war, Rauch worked on defense related projects–which had the added benefit of keeping him out of the draft. He was chosen among five other members of the University to attend the first series of post-war nuclear testing being conducted in the Pacific Ocean by the Joint Army and Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946.

Lawrence Rausch *49’s ROTC portrait. Lawrence Rausch Papers (AC393), Box 2, Folder 10.

In 1942 and early 1943, Rauch had been involved with the electronics work in the investigation of a more stable way to split an atom. In the latter part of 1943, Rauch started his long-term war project at Princeton, working with Dr. Myron Nichols of the Princeton Physics Department. The two became pioneers in the field of radio telemetry as well as lifelong friends. Nichols and Rauch led the development of the first high speed electronic telemetry system and used it in connection with jet aircraft flights. During his time at Princeton, Rauch was appointed an instructor in the mathematics department. He taught a number of undergraduate courses as well as special courses for military programs. Rauch did his doctoral research and thesis under Solomon Lefschetz and received his PhD in mathematics in 1949.

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In July 1946, Rauch took the telemetry system he developed at Princeton to Bikini Atoll for Operation Crossroads. This test series was conducted to measure the effects nuclear weapons had on warships, equipment, and other military targets. The United States positioned over 90 boats that were either seized by the United States during the war or retired American ships including carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines to test their ability to withstand an atomic bomb. Some of the ships included live animals, such as pigs, goats, and rats, to study the effects the nuclear blast and radioactive fallout had on animals.  

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A firsthand account of the events leading up to the first drop can be found in Lawrence Rauch’s personal letter he wrote to his parents the night before the first drop. “Well, tonight is sort of like the night before Christmas — at least everybody is expectant. If the visibility and winds are right tomorrow morning then off it goes.”

First page of a letter from Lawrence Rauch *49 to his family, June 30, 1946. Lawrence Rauch Papers (AC343), Box 1, Folder 8.

Pictured in the first image in the gallery of atomic testing photographs above (the one in which the mushroom cloud is pictured off to the right rather than in the center) is the moment of explosion of the first test, Able, which took place on July 1, 1946. The bomb, similar to that of the plutonium bomb, “Fat Man,” that was dropped on Nagasaki, was dropped by aircraft over the lagoon. The bomb missed its target. It sank just five of the ships in the lagoon, one carrying the measuring instruments.

In his follow up letter to his parents on July 11, 1946, Lawrence explains:

About all I can say at the present about Able Day is that there was unfortunately some poor newspaper reporting which may lead the public to wrong and perhaps dangerous conclusions. I can say that the results in general were just about what were expected by the people who knew. The bomb is more of a personnel killer than a ship sinker although it didn’t do badly on the latter count. I’ll have some interesting items when we get back.

He goes on to say in his letter to his parents of July 19, 1946:

Did you hear the bombadier (sp?) say “Bomb away!”? I did. Down inside the ship where we were a little more than 13 miles away we could just hear a very low rumble through the water – couldn’t feel anything. The fellows up on deck at the time with the goggles on could feel the heat on their faces like going from the shade into the sun. The goggles were dark enough so the sun looked like a dull red ball. The initial flash of the bomb looked a brilliant white through them which gives you an idea…. One of our two telemetering target ships sunk right away and the other was OK. I notice there have finally been several good newspaper articles on what really happened (as much as the reporters were allowed to see). Also a little more is being released concerning the radiation effects upon the test animals.  

The second test, Baker, was detonated underwater on July 25, 1946 sinking eight of the ships in the lagoon. The effects of the underwater blast created a highly concentrated amount of radioactive water that coated the ships and killed most of the live animals (pigs and rats) that were on board. Given the high level of radiation, soldiers could not decontaminate the remaining fleets and instrumentation, so instead they sunk them in the lagoon. A third test, Charlie, was scheduled but was canceled due to dangerous levels of radiation surrounding the area.

Between 1946-1958, the U.S. government continued to use the area around Bikini Atoll and the Marshall Islands for nuclear testing. A total of 67 nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall Island area and 23 of those tests were conducted specifically at Bikini Atoll lagoon, including one 1954 test of the largest nuclear device the U.S. ever detonated, the hydrogen bomb named Castle Bravo Bomb.

The impact nuclear testing had on the native residents of Bikini Atoll and the island itself would change their lives forever. Many of the natives living on the island were removed by the United States government prior to the bombing of Able and Baker in 1946 and relocated to the island of Ronderik, then to Ujelan a year later and to Kill in 1949.  Many of the original residents were allowed to return in the 1970s; however, they were evacuated when new tests showed high levels of residual radioactivity in the region. Today, Bikini Atoll and the surrounding islands are uninhabitable due to high levels of radiation in the area.



Graduate Alumni Records (AC105)

Lawrence Rauch Papers (AC393)

For additional reading:

Rauch, Lawrence Lee. “Oscillation of a Third Order Non-Linear Autonomous Systems.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1949.

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