By Janie Southard
FORT RECOVERY -- Charlie Gaerke was one of seven Navy deep sea diver/photographers to document the underwater effects of the atomic bomb during the first A-bomb tests in the Marshall Islands in July 1946.
The Marshalls are composed of 29 atolls and five islands scattered over 357,000 square miles north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The Bikini atoll is where Gaerke, his fellow diver/photographers and 42,000 other military men, 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation recording devices and thousands of experimental animals waited for the bomb.
"It was called Operation Crossroads and the Navy brought in about 60 target ships to test with bombs exploded above and below the water," Gaerke, 78, told The Daily Standard last week at his farm home near Fort Recovery.
A lifelong resident of Mercer County, Gaerke said the first atomic bomb was exploded on July 1, 1946, and ships were ordered to stay 14 miles away as protection from possible radiation fallout. "We were allowed on deck but we had to turn our backs for safety reasons," the former diver recalled.
Author Jack Niedenthal claims the test bombs that exploded near Bikini atoll were "about the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki (August 1945). More than half of the world's supply of motion picture film was on hand to record the detonations at Bikini," he said. Gaerke said the U.S.S. Nevada was target ship for that first bomb and was painted bright orange. There was tremendous damage and five ships were sunk.
"But, the bomb completely missed the Nevada," he said.
Although he doesn't recall how long it was before the diver/photographers were allowed to do their jobs, when they got down to about 200 feet the specially designed underwater cameras did not function properly.
"Because of the high pressure at that depth, the shutter button would not release. So, we could each take only one picture. Those cameras cost the Navy $30,000 each, and they were junk. Someone made two waterproof cases for the 35mm self-winding cameras and they worked fine," he said.
The men also had to photograph damage to the ships that didn't sink. Those ships stayed radioactive much longer, according to Gaerke, and were checked with a Geiger counter.
"When we could board, they gave us canvas shoes and gloves to wear, which were thrown away after one use," Gaerke said.
The divers were told often they would be sterile after their exposure to radiation; however, Gaerke is quick to point out he is the proud father of seven healthy children.
The second atomic bomb test near Bikini was exploded on July 25, 1946. It was suspended 50 feet below the surface of the water on a landing craft. The ship Gaerke was on was only seven miles away so he could watch the explosion.
"It was fantastic! There was a column of water about two miles across and maybe a mile and a half in the air, with ships up in the air too. Some (ships) stood straight up in the water. Some sunk but some just slid back down and floated like nothing happened," he recalled.
Fifty-seven years later, Gaerke wrote of his WWII experience for the October 2003 issue of the magazine "Reminisce" and ended his article saying he'd love to hear from his diving mates: Tom Sullivan, Aubrey Bradbury, LeRoy Brown, Eugene Barry, Gene Gagliardi, Keith Cook, Bill Schell and Roy Roberts.
"I had calls from all over from guys who were on the ships at Bikini, and also heard from guys in my unit," Gaerke said.
In February 2004, Gaerke, Cook of Oregon, Gagliardi of California and Jack Kirkpatrick of Texas (a member of the camera crew, but not a diver) met at Sullivan's home in California for the crew's first reunion. (Crew member Bradbury was deceased and Brown could not be located.)
"We had a great time, laughing, looking at old pictures and remembering. It was like it all happened yesterday," Gaerke said adding he wouldn't mind one more ocean dive.