By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"I had no idea what we were gettin' into," he says. "They needed volunteers, and I was standin' around looking ugly, so they picked me."
Aboard his sturdy ship -- one of 16 LCTs (the military abbreviation for "Landing Craft, Tank") -- scientists and observers gathered to witness the explosion.
"We anchored up just beyond the horizon," Duke recalls, with the atoll used as ground zero about 20 miles away, barely out of sight. The bomb missed its target by about 800 yards, spreading radiation over most of the fleet.
"I could feel the pressure and the heat," Duke remembers.
The fireball and mushroom cloud was mixed with seawater, debris from the atoll, and ship debris that turned to steam and vapor as it was drawn upward by the explosion. Down below, the blast wave expanded horizontally, coursing through the anchored fleet at the bottom of the cloud, engulfing it in a wave of radioactive steam.
The cap of the mushroom cloud hovered above the ships and islands of the atoll until the wind sheared it apart.
Two-hundred sixty-four people were accidentally exposed to radiation because the explosion and fallout had been more than twice the size expected, according to Navy information. Along with the rest of those witnesses, Duke absorbed a huge dose of roentgens courtesy of Uncle Sam, including a nasty burn on his shin that left a scar. Eventually, the target ships moved away from the blast zone and were decontaminated. But, Duke says, the exposure he received that day has plagued him ever since.
"By 1948, I'd lost all my teeth," he says, showing off his slightly skewed smile. "They just got loose and dropped out. I ended up losing a kidney. Three discs in my back deteriorated. And I'm sterile."
He remembers being issued a film-badge radiation meter that registered the dose he'd been hit with and a ship physician telling his crewmates, "Hope you married guys already had children." When he sought recompense for his injuries from the Navy, he notes, more injustice followed.
"We were guinea pigs," he says of his shipmates. "Then they use you, abuse you, and lose you." He says he's appealed to three Navy medical boards who have heard his case again and again only to decide his symptoms aren't related to radiation exposure.
On October 13, 1947, documents show, the sailor left the Navy. "My father was never home, and I had younger brothers and sisters, so I got a hard-luck discharge to get out and help take care of 'em," he explains. He returned to Fort Myers that year and later to Hallandale. In 1952, he married Betty Jo Smith and, since they couldn't have children of their own, adopted a pair of twins. "Preemies," Duke calls them. "The doctors said they would never live, but they're in their 40s today."
Duke found solace and good wages aboard shrimp boats that worked the Gulf of Mexico. A spiritual maturation followed, and a lot of his anger toward his abusive father dissipated. He taught himself plumbing, electrical, and mechanical skills, eventually becoming a licensed finish carpenter. His wife rarely joined him at sea. "It was just too hard for a woman on a shrimp boat," he says. Duke spent almost ten years shrimping, occasionally returning to his family.
When he moved to Hallandale a few years later, he made a living in construction. He found work at the new airport south of Fort Lauderdale and moved his family into a small Quonset hut near the airport's under-construction site. One summer day in 1968, he and another airport carpenter, a Seminole Indian named Harry Oster, were cleaning out an old building. Duke was removing a rotten door jamb when, he recalls, his hammer suddenly flew out of his hands, landed on the floor, and skittered away from him.
"And when I reached it for it, it moved away from my hand," Duke says. "That kind of bothered me."
Then all the metal tools and the nails on his belt did the same. Astonished, he walked to the front door.
"There was a metal trellis with honeysuckle on it," he says, "and it fell off against me like it wanted to cling to me. I walked across in front of the yard, and the plants in the yard seemed magnetized to me."
Back inside, he asked Oster, "What's going on, Harry?"
Oster, sitting on a sawhorse, said he didn't know what was going on. That's when Duke says he saw Oster's shirt open and his chest open up. "I saw a -- I didn't know what it was called at the time, but it turns out it was a hiatal hernia," Duke says. "And it just closed up as I looked at it."
Oster looked shocked, took a look at Duke, and exclaimed, "Red, what's that white stuff coming from your chest!?"
"It was ectoplasm," Duke says, slicing his liverwurst sandwich with a grizzly bear's grace. "And that was the beginning of hell and high water for over a year."
Duke's tales are hard to verify. He says he has no idea if Oster is even alive. "I never worried about documenting anything, 'cause I always figured there was a reason it was happening," he says. "There's nothing I would ever say or do in this field that would ever be a falsehood. I know it all sounds far-fetched, but on my mother's memory, what I'm telling you is truth."