Minot man in Navy in Hawaii when U.S. detonated nuke above Pacific

Eloise Ogden/MDN Orlan Swensrud of Minot was in the Navy on temporary duty in Hawaii when the U.S. detonated a nuclear weapon above the Pacific Ocean.

Orlan Swensrud of Minot said he was “shocked” when he opened the July 28 edition of the Minot Daily News and read a story about electromagnetic attacks and when a nuclear weapon was detonated over the Pacific Ocean in 1962.

Swensrud was there. He was in the Navy and on temporary duty in that area at the time with an aircrew flying missions in a P2V-7.

The U.S. experiment to detonate a nuclear weapon was done at the height of the Cold War and known as Starfish Prime. On July 9, 1962, the U.S. launched a Thor missile from Johnston Island, an atoll southwest of Hawaii. When the missile reached 240-250 miles upward, a 1.4 megaton (equal to 1.4 million tons of TNT) nuclear warhead detonated. It was the largest nuclear test conducted in outer space and part of a series of high-altitude weapons tests. The tests were done in response to a Soviet announcement in 1961, that they would end a three-year moratorium on testing, according to Starfish Prime information.

Swensrud, a 1957 graduate of Velva High School, joined the Navy along with a classmate, the late Merlin Anderson. Swensrud was stationed at Whidby Island, Wash., where he became the mechanic on the executive officer’s plane.

“We got word (in June 1962) that they wanted four of our airplanes (P2V-7s) to Barbers Point, Hawaii,” Swensrud said. “The executive officer’s was chosen as one of them so that meant I went automatically.” The planes were to go to Barbers Point the following month.

Submitted Photo Orlan Swensrud was in the Navy when this photo was taken in the late 1950s.

“We flew from there to Alameda (California) overnight and from there to Barbers Point for two weeks,” Swensrud said. “We flew missions out of Barbers Point. I understood that every reserve squadron that had P2Vs on the West Coast had planes over in that area – all of the islands in that area.

When they went to Honolulu the second mechanic went surfing, got third-degree burns and ended up in the hospital. “I had to fly by myself for the two weeks we were there,” Swensrud said.

“My job basically was to sit between the pilot and the co-pilot,” he said. He said his work included running the fuel log and fuel panel, setting power settings, monitoring gauges and operating carb air. “That were my responsibilities,” he said.

“In our briefings before flight they always told us if we saw a bright light ‘Do not look at it,’ “ Swensrud recalled. “That was the word we got. They didn’t know exactly when this detonation was going to take place. I knew there was (going to be a detonation) because we were briefed on that.”

He said the plans for a detonation was a secret for some time. Before he got to Barbers Point he didn’t know the reason they were sent there until they arrived.

He recalled there had been a number of postponements for the detonation. “They must have postponed it about four or five times. Everything had to be perfect. We were warned of that – do not if you see any kind of bright light out the side window, top, whatever, don’t look at it. I don’t remember if there were shades inside that would pull down just for that reason or not. It’s been a long time ago,” he recollected.

During those two weeks based from Barbers Point, he said the P2Vs flew over and around ships and received information.

“There were ships of all kinds from all kinds of countries over there and there were a lot of Russian ships over there,” he said. “We’d heard that there was all kinds of ships over there from all countries trying to get what information they could get off this detonation. What they were really looking for I have no idea.”

“I’d never seen such a congregation of airplanes as over there from different units – from the whole West Coast – from San Diego all the way to Whidby Island,” he added.

Swensrud said he was in Hawaii when the nuclear weapon was detonated but he wasn’t flying at the time. He said their nights were spent in the World War II barracks on Barbers Point.

When the U.S. detonated the nuclear weapon he said he read it knocked out some lights in Honolulu.

During the time he was in Hawaii, he said he didn’t see any after effects of the detonation.

Swensrud got out of the Navy in August 1962 and was discharged in August 1964 following two years in the Navy Reserve. He returned to this area and has been a mechanic from 1962 to present day. He took over his family’s farm and farmed for 35 years. He also has 12 years in aviation, including refueling work at the Minot International Airport and Minot Air Force Base, and four years of active-duty aviation.

“Looking back I enjoyed it. In a way now, I wish I would have stayed now for 20 (years in Navy),” Swensrud said.