This is an excerpt of my story of Dr. Justin Arata’s military service — both as a physician during WWII and later collecting data after the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
For Dr. Justin Arata of Fort Wayne, the most significant part of serving in the Navy during World War II occurred after Japan surrendered.
Born in 1921 in Mishawaka, Indiana, Arata tried to enlist for military service before the war began while attending Indiana University at Bloomington. He was deferred. That changed when the war began. “Then they needed medical personnel,” he said.
Arata was drafted into service as part of the Naval Medical Corps. He was assigned to Naval Hospital Oakland in California with 6,600 beds. It was the second-largest military hospital in the world; the largest with 9,000 beds was in San Diego.
Upon graduating in 1944 from the Medical Corps, Arata was put in charge of a ship with 18 sick beds. When the war ended in 1945, Arata and thousands of other troops continued to serve during the occupation. But his were no ordinary duties.
On July 1, 1946, Arata left from Hawaii on the ship Pensacola, nicknamed the ‘Grey Ghost’ by Tokyo Rose. Destination: Bikini Atoll. Located in the center of the Pacific, Bikini’s lagoon was the crater of an old sunken volcano.
Surrounding the lagoon were numerous obsolete destroyers, subs, merchant ships, cruisers and battleships. “They had been designated as targets for our atomic bomb testing,” said Arata. The testing’s official name was Operation Crossroads.
The first atomic bomb was exploded over the USS Nevada. The battleship had served in both World Wars, including Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. After being hit by a torpedo and bombs, it had sunk but was salvaged to serve as a convoy escort in the Atlantic and as support in four Allied invasions.
Arata was in charge of placing radiation monitors above and below the main deck of the Pensacola. Everyone in the operation was evacuated to troop ships stationed 18 miles upwind of the lagoon. “We were ordered to turn our heads against the targets so our eyes would not be damaged by the flash of the bomb,” said Arata.
When the bomb exploded, seamen were allowed to follow the mushroom-shaped cloud that formed. “It was a beautiful sight,” he said. “Pink, baby blue and orange streaks interspersed within the cloud as it rose higher and higher.”
Military personnel waited two days to assess damages and collect radiation monitors on the Pensacola. “Damage was great,” said Arata. “Our stacks, boilers and radar aerials were all nearly blown off. Anti-aircraft guns were dislodged, the hull twisted, and the waterproof door to the wardroom pushed in.”
Read the complete story in my book We Gave Our Best: American WWII Veterans Tell Their Stories.
Thanks to every veteran reading this story for your service!