Jim Bruss knows the power of "the bomb." And he should. The 83-year-old had a bird's-eye view of some of the most spectacular fireworks ever seen.
More than 60 years ago this month, when he was in the Army Air Forces, Bruss flew in the tail gun of a B-29, filming atomic bomb test explosions for the U.S. government.
It was called "Operation Crossroads," a series of experiments that documented the effects of nuclear bombs on naval warships.
These days, in his tidy Temple Terrace home, he keeps up with current events and remembers historic ones.
Those tests were important to keep more nuclear weapons from being used in future wars, he says.
Today, the weapons in contention are thermonuclear, far more powerful than those he witnessed.
"I worry about North Korea and I worry about Iran," Bruss said, reflecting on nuclear proliferation. "And I worry about what might happen if a bunch of idiots get a hold of it."
An age of experiments
Bruss always wanted to be a pilot, so he joined the Army Air Forces in 1944 after graduating high school in Ohio. He trained but did not make it as a pilot, so he became a tail gunner, hoping to fly in a B-29 during World War II.
As he trained, though, Germany surrendered. The European Theater of the war was over.
Bruss began training to fight in the Pacific. As he trained, however, Japan surrendered. World War II was over. And soon, too, would have been Bruss' time in the military.
Then he heard the government needed volunteers for testing nuclear weapons. He eventually joined more than 42,000 military and civilian personnel to help.
Said Bruss: "I thought it was going to be a heck of a good assignment."
The Navy wanted to test the resiliency of its warships to nuclear weapons off a tiny string of islands in the Pacific Ocean known as the Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands.
Bruss' B-29 flew about 10 miles from the center of the blast. "I don't think anyone had any fear of the bomb," Bruss said. "Nobody knew too much about them except they were big."
The first, called the Able bomb, was dropped by plane on July 1, 1946. When he heard the signal, "Bombs away! Bombs away!" Bruss knew he had about 45 seconds before the impact. He put on thick safety glasses and the clear, sunny day turned to night. Then — flash! — the bomb detonated, and for about four seconds it was "as bright as the surface of the sun," he said.
Within minutes the mushroom cloud grew to 15,000 feet. Then to 5 miles. But the bomb slightly missed its mark, and the damage was not as bad as expected.
The military tried again on July 25, this time exploding the "Baker" bomb from beneath the sea.
From the plane's tail gun, Bruss saw huge warships floating as crumpled wrecks. Missing was the superstructure on an aircraft carrier. The side of another ship looked like a giant can opener had ripped it apart.
The B-29s had been retrofitted with cameras, which Bruss and others operated during their flight. By some estimates, they used half of the world's supply of film to capture the bombings and related events.
The United States' third and fourth nuclear blasts were about the same power as the nuclear bombs that the country had already detonated on Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The government wanted to see how it might defend itself against other countries that might develop the bomb. Could atomic bombs destroy the United States' seemingly indestructible war ships?
The answer was yes.
"It is awfully hard to describe the power of those bombs. We got an awful shock wave in the plane," Bruss said. "When we flew damage assessment and saw the shape the ships were in… it scared the hell out of everybody."
The Bikini islands might be more famous for sharing the name of women's swimwear and as the birthplace of Godzilla, who supposedly was awakened from his sleep in the watery depths after atomic bomb blasts.
Credit the cultural phenomena to Operations Crossroads and other tests conducted in the area from 1946 to 1958.
But like nuclear weapons today, controversy surrounded the mission.
The original 167 Bikini islanders were asked by the government to leave in order to conduct the experiments. They planned to return someday, but no one at the time realized the long term radioactive effects.
"At that time we did not think too much about that," Bruss said. "About (the natives) being dislocated."
Except for a short time in the 1970s, no one has inhabited the island since. A trust fund established in 1975 has paid out about $180 million to cover some costs of cleanup, property damage, food programs, housing and more for about 4,000 people from the Bikini and surrounding islands, according to Jonathan M. Weisgall, a Washington, D.C. lawyer who has represented the Bikini people for 35 years.
Weisgall still is seeking about $150 million from the government for the cost of radiological cleanup of the island.
"The story is not over until the people are back at Bikini," Weisgall said. "I have been arguing to Congress on the legacy of this and you can't close the book on these victims... That remains one moral promise the U.S. owes these people."
On to more history
A couple weeks after the second blast, Bruss' military service was complete. He went to Indiana University and later became a reporter in Ohio.
He was on the sideline of history again in May 1970. While Bruss worked as the director of information services at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War. Four were killed, nine wounded. He worked 12-hour shifts with another reporter covering the tragedy.
"The opposition to Vietnam was a lot more prolonged than the opposition to Iraq," Bruss said. "We had student demonstrations from the East Coast to the West Coast."
In 1973, he and his wife, Fran, moved the family to a house in Temple Terrace, about a mile from the University of South Florida, where Bruss became the director of information services. He worked there seven years then retired and owned a couple of businesses.
Perspective on current events can come from witnessing history or being on the sidelines of it. From Bruss' point of view, there is no success for the user or the victim when it comes to nuclear weapons.
"It is an unthinkable weapon. And the bombs we saw go off were nuclear. And the thermonuclear are far more powerful," Bruss said. "I don't know how to describe it. All I know is the less of those things around the world, the better."
Jared Leone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5314.