Historical Notions: Operation Wigwam
Or, That Time When Risking Total Obliteration Was Supposed to Keep us Safe
And now for something completely different. We picked up this item, in a cheap frame, at a flea market in Connecticut last month.
When we took it out of the frame, we found this letter, dated July 27, 1955, tucked in behind it:
Subj: Commendatory Service During Operation WIGWAM
1. The Underwater atomic test, Operation WIGWAM, in which you participated was conducted on the Pacific during May 1955.
2. The high state of readiness, application of professional skill and efficiency required of each individual in the performance of his duties was reflected in the successful accomplishment of this unique and unprecedented operation.
3. The Task Group Commander takes pleasure in commending you in recognition of your services that contributed to the fulfillment of the mission of the task group, and thus ultimately to the successful completion of the operation.
I don’t know how common this kind of commendation was, but the event it commemorates definitely was not common – if a series of tests numbering over 1,000 can truly be considered “not common.”
Almost ten years before Operation Wigwam, in July 1945, the United States had carried out its first nuclear bomb test (code name “Trinity”) in New Mexico, followed the next month by the deployment of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. Another series occurred in 1946, the first carried out in the U. S. occupied territory of the Marshall Islands.
Following the Soviet Union’s test of its own nuclear bomb in 1949, the United States began developing its next generation of atomic weapon. The testing area known as the Nevada Proving Grounds was established in 1951 and began being used almost immediately. The first U.S. thermonuclear device was tested in the Marshall Islands as part of Operation Ivy in 1952, although it was only an intermediate step. The Soviet Union tested its hydrogen bomb in 1953. In 1954, United States tested its first usable thermonuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, under the code name Operation Castle, trying out different fuel mixes. Tests were conducted in the islands through 1958. Testing continued in Nevada through 1991, when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect.
Operation Wigwam, however, took place deep in the Pacific Ocean, some 500 miles southwest of San Diego, California. The purpose of the test was to study the potential effects of deep underwater nuclear explosions on submarines and surface vessels. There were 30 ships and some 6,800 personnel involved in the operation.
What they did is take a 30 kiloton nuclear device and hang it off a cable 2,000 feet long, in an area where the water was 16,000 feet deep. The barge it was hung off of was unmanned, and being towed about 6 miles behind the fleet’s tugboat. It seems they also attached to the towline a series of pressure-measuring instruments and unmanned surface boats with instrumentation. They also specially built and included some unmanned submarine-like hulls that they called, God give me strength and I would not make this up because I’m not a racist jackass, “squaws.”
The rest of the ships and all the actual personnel held station five miles upwind from the bomb barge, except for two that had been reconfigured had special shielding put on them, which were set up five miles downwind from it. They set off the bomb at 1 p.m. local time on May 14, 1955.
Polinski’s ship, the U.S.S. Wright, held the film lab where the radiation badges issued to the personnel were developed and analyzed – approximately 10,000 of them. They found that being upwind generally protected the personnel from the small amount of airborne contamination caused by the detonation. Even on the two ships that were stationed downwind, only seven personnel had badge readings above zero, in each case no higher than 0.20 rem (not nothing, but well below the safety standard).
So it’s nice to know that at this point, they were well aware of the dangers of exposure to radioactive fallout and put a lot of effort into protecting their personnel, as they rapidly worked out better and better ways to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians at a time.
Nuclear bombs were, obviously, a very serious business. For that matter, so was any operation that involved thousands of personnel and technicians and so forth. It was all happening under a veil of secrecy – though once the operation was over, things like certificates of participation were handed out, and written commendations put in the records of men like Polinski.
And let’s take another look at that logo.
Setting aside the fact that the graphic designer didn’t know or care about the difference between a teepee and a wigwam (a teepee is a tent, and a wigwam is a house), this four-color logo was designed to a professional standard. I have no idea who designed it (though I suppose one could find out). Notice how the ground inside the circle aligns visually with the naval ship profile outside the circle. The inclusion of the water horizon beyond the earth and the yellow zig-zag stripe and open entry flap on the teepee keep the whole thing from being too horizontal (as does the conical shape of the teepee). Even the double circle around the teepee keeps it interesting by swapping colors on a diagonal line.
Of course, the appropriation of Native American culture that was involved in the Navy using two distinctive types of their dwellings in the process of branding this operation, which was a dangerous experiment carried out for the development of a horrifically destructive technology of war, is also a next level settler colonial act.
Sometimes it’s the casual racism that gets me. Sometimes it’s the serious certitude, in history and in the present, that one of the worst possible courses of action is necessary. Today, the combination of the two is just about making my head explode.
Defense Threat Reduction Agency. “Fact Sheet: Operation WIGWAM.” Created May, 2015; accessed June 25, 2021. https://www.dtra.mil/Portals/61/Documents/NTPR/1-Fact_Sheets/WIGWAM%20-%202017.pdf?ver=2017-02-07-081700-960.
United States Defense Nuclear Agency. Operation Wigwam Explosion, 1955. SIO Photographs Collection. SMC 59. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego. Accessed June 25, 2021. https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb7441335n.