SIOUX CITY | Vivid memories of Nov. 1, 1952, remain for Phillip Severson even though he had his eyes closed for part of it.
Severson’s service with the U.S. Navy landed him on the USS Curtiss that day, 25 miles from Enewetak Island. The atoll was a popular testing ground for nuclear weapons and that day was no different. In just a matter of minutes, Ivy Mike, carried to the island by the Curtiss, would be the first hydrogen bomb detonated.
“They just brought us up on the deck and told us to face away from the deck and cover your eyes with your arms,” said Severson, who worked in the engine room of the ship. “I wasn’t expecting too much as far as heat and a shockwave.”
Severson acknowledged that what happened next is a little unbelievable, but something he swears to this day.
“I was braced against a lifeboat and I will swear to this day, with both arms over my eyes and my eyes closed, I saw the boat I was leaning against,” he said. “Some guys say they saw their own bones.”
The blast of heat from the detonation took his breath away, he said. The shockwave made his knees buckle.
“After that was done, they let us turn around and it (the cloud) looked like it was never going to quit,” he said. “It was the whitest cloud I ever saw, with pink ruffles in it.”
Severson said he didn’t know what to expect when the bomb went off. Details during wartime were kept pretty quiet, especially concerning the nuclear arms race. Military officials made sure that was the case back home, too.
“I found out that the recruiter took a liking to visiting my parents every so often to find out if I was writing about anything I was doing,” he said. “Our cameras were confiscated and we were under strict orders to not write about anything we would see or perhaps even thought.”
The cloud of secrecy continued, even as complications of the fallout manifested in a large amount of the nearly 400,000 individuals involved in Operation Ivy. About seven years later, Severson began experiencing issues with his thyroid. After one treatment failed, his thyroid had to be removed.
“I went from about 200 pounds to 165 pounds and I couldn’t pour water out of a boot, I was that weak,” he said.
Still, Severson had to keep quiet how the malady arose.
“We were under strict secrecy to not tell anyone, even if we have problems with our health, even the doctors,” he said. “None of us could talk about anything, even when they were ill.”
Severson said he heard a lot of talk prior to the detonation celebrating the opportunity to avoid active battle in Korea. But reflecting more than 60 years later, Severson said the cheers weren’t necessarily for a better situation.
“A lot of individuals thought they were lucky they didn’t go to Korea,” he said. “But their lives were shortened just about as effectively as if they had been there.”
After Operation Ivy, Severson went back to San Diego, where the Curtiss was stationed, and took a trip across the country to attend submarine training in Connecticut. He served on two submarines until he left the Navy in 1954.
Severson calls himself fortunate. He said he’s lucky to have escaped the fallout without worse consequences – many contracted cancer afterward. As a youth, he was a sickly child and was still able to pass the rigorous requirements to be accepted into the submarine program. He was able to find a steady, fulfilling career in construction and carpentry when he decided anesthesiology wasn’t the correct path for him. He was able to retire from Midwest Energy after 18 years with the company.
However, he doesn’t use the word “lucky” to sum up how he feels about not going to combat in Korea. He enlisted in the Navy with the expectation that he was going to do the job that he was asked to do, and that’s what he did.
“Being in the Navy, I wasn’t sure where I was going to go,” he said. “It was the luck of the draw, but I wouldn’t have minded it one way or another.”