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For him, the dawn of the nuclear age was great adventure

The war was over, our dead were buried.

The atom bomb had crept from its secret place to have its terrible two interludes in the sun. Now the time had come to find out how much more damage this culmination of scientific achievement could bring to the world.

It was time for opening a few doors, parting a curtain or two, even allowing carefully chosen people _ certain scientists and politicians _ to have a look at the next, relatively harmless Big Boom.

Fifty years ago today, July 25, 1946, the most famous of these tests took place. A "safe" spot had been found among the Marshall Islands. A remote little island group called Bikini was chosen.

The Bikinis seemed ideal. They were 4,150 long miles from San Francisco. Their population was only 167, no one of whom was represented in Washington. The islands surround a lagoon 20 miles long, 10 miles wide, 200 feet deep _ excellent for large explosions.

The official record of Operation Crossroads, as the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff called their nuclear testing project, noted: "Natives (were) evacuated to another island. The islands were sprayed with DDT to insure healthful conditions for Task Force personnel."

Carl O. Dunbar, a Yale geology professor and director of the university's renowned Peabody Museum, was with about 100 observers on the SS Panamint, some 11 miles from the target area. The group witnessed two tests, the first an over-water explosion on July 1, the second, 25 days later, larger, deadlier and underwater.

Dunbar died in 1979, but in the 1960s, retired and living "on a little red brick road by the bay" in Dunedin, he recalled the testing time for Irene Albert, a Clearwater Sun reporter.

"We didn't see the flash when the bomb was dropped (on the first test) because we had been told to cradle our faces in our arms," Dunbar recalled. "It would have been blinding in spite of the dark glasses we had been issued.

"There was a rumbling . . . like a distant peal of thunder. Then a column of water, tons of water, high as the Empire State Building. Then we heard other explosions, saw fires burning."

A few days later, when it was believed the area had been "cleansed," Dunbar was taken on a tour that passed some of the 75 ships that had been anchored like sea-going laboratory guinea pigs in the lagoon. Among them were German and Japanese war ships and outmoded U.S. crafts, like the battleship Pennsylvania, once flagship of the U.S. fleet, and the 30-year-old Nevada, target ship of the blast.

"Some ships sank immediately," Dunbar recalled. "Some were blackened, burned, looked like toys that had been stepped on."

Though it was only an interesting incident in a distinguished academic career, Dunbar always considered his stint as an observer "a great adventure." His grandson, David W. Dunbar, who is chairman of the new Peoples Bank in Palm Harbor, recalls the older man's enthusiasm for the nuclear breakthrough in science.

"He was awed by the power," the younger Dunbar recalls. "As a geologist nothing frightened him more than the finite oil supply our economy relied on so heavily."

That was 1946, of course; hope was in the air. Dunbar was with his peers, and none of them had any reason to lack confidence in the U.S. military.

"There was no sign of nerves (among the observers), no symptoms of apprehension about the tests," the professor recalled, "although nobody really knew what was going to happen. We did know within seconds there would be no chain reaction.

"If it had not been for the overpowering significance of the event, the expedition would have been rather like a college fraternity lark. Our only real concern was that the wind might shift and rain back radioactive particles on the observer."

These were only the second and third tests of atomic weapons. The previous test was in New Mexico, just before President Harry S. Truman ordered the bombs dropped on Japan.

Perhaps Dunbar's affirmative feelings at the time say more about the times than about the professor. He was not a man who always went along. In later books, written from his geologist's point of view, he thundered against pollution of the earth and for the necessity to control the population explosion.

His attitude to the tests was shared by many Americans at the time. It might have saved his son's life. Carl Dunbar Jr., a fighter pilot, had completed one hazardous tour of combat duty in Europe and had been assigned to the invasion of Japan _ until the dropping of the atom bombs prompted a quick Japanese surrender.

The July 25 test was more serious for the ecology than the above-water one on July 1. Trapped under water, radiation was slower to dissipate and deadlier than had been anticipated. Even five days later, no one dared board any of the ships in the target area.

In all, 23 atomic explosions took place at Bikini, and the little islands have never been the same. Half a century later, people can walk them safely, but the soil is still so contaminated that no one can safely eat anything grown in it.

Upon leaving the main island 50 years ago, the late Bikinian leader King Juda lamented: "Everything is in God's hands now," according to the Los Angeles Times. The words are enshrined on the Bikinian flag, which has a series of stars and stripes. Two of the stars are set apart, symbolizing the two islands vaporized in the atomic tests.

About 90 of the original inhabitants still wait on Kili, the considerably less scenic island to which they were transported. Once in 1968, the U.S. government announced it was safe to return to Bikini, and many former inhabitants did so.

A decade later, the United States decided their return had been premature and took them away again. Meanwhile a lawsuit worked its way through the courts, and the Bikinians were awarded a $100-million trust fund, which most say does not make up for the loss of their ancestral islands.

Nineteen ninety-six is not 1946. The optimism of the victory at war loses reality half a century later. The great hopes for nuclear power long ago diminished into great fears.

And yet there must have been a clean, happy wonder in the spectacle of that early blast.

"The rapidity with which such a vast geyser of water gushed up to a mile in height and the mushroom cloud formed was incredible," Dunbar said.

But was there the faint portent of a fearful future, when he added: "For a few seconds I wondered whether the cloud would keep on expanding until it enveloped us too."