At 95, United State Navy veteran and longtime Canby resident Arbie Irwin has probably forgotten more than many of us will ever learn or experience. But one thing he will never forget: the image of a 23-kiloton nuclear weapon detonating and wreaking before his unprotected eyes.
Irwin had joined the Navy in July 1945, in the waning days of World War II. He and a friend from Hubbard High School — both 17 — decided to drop out and enlist together.
“We had been talking about it between junior and senior year,” Irwin recalled. With a chuckle, he added, “We both signed up together, and they split us up right away. I never saw him again.”
After Germany’s surrender two months earlier, the war had ended in Europe and was wrapping up elsewhere. Irwin wasn’t sure where his service would take him, but he was eager to see the world.
“The war had been going on for years and it was horrible,” he recalled. “I was a young guy, and I wanted to do my part. I wanted to go in and see if I could save the world.”
He was told to report to San Diego for basic training — which proved to be an immediate problem.
“They didn’t ship us down, and I didn’t have a car,” he said. “I had to hitchhike.”
On the Pensacola, which Japanese soldiers had respectfully and fearfully nicknamed the “Gray Ghost,” Irwin was assigned to the boiler room and played a crucial role in keeping the ship full steam ahead — especially given the fact that two of the crew’s three boilermen were prone to seasickness — and he was not.
“I never got sick,” he said proudly.
In 1946, he and his crewmates would become part of history as they took part in the military’s Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear tests that were conducted on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The operation consisted of two detonations, Able, which was dropped from an aircraft 520 feet above the target fleet and Baker, which was detonated underwater.
Irwin watched them both.
“They made us sit down on the deck, turn our backs and cover our eyes up,” he recalled. “Then, the very instant after the initial flash, they said, ‘OK, you can look.’ I saw that cloud starting to mushroom, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. I didn’t think it was ever going to stop.
“You couldn’t believe the colors that were there. They were just incredible. You wonder how something could be made to be that powerful. It made me feel like this was something unreal, you know.”
The Pensacola was stationed about 10 miles from the drop site when Able was detonated on July 1, 1946. But days later, Irwin and a few of his shipmates were sent to ground zero to assess the damage and report back.
“They said they wanted some of us young ones to go in there and see the damage,” he said. “This was before my 19th birthday. They wanted us to tell them what we say: ‘This was burned, this was charred, this was where we saw some extreme pressure.'”
He saw a lot, including his old locker, where he had accidentally left a few bottles of Coca-Cola. The locker had been torn from the wall and deposited on the other side of the room, but miraculously, one bottle survived. Irwin still has it to this day.
“I don’t think it was radioactive because I’ve had it ever since I got out [of the military],” he said.
Sadly, Irwin and his other crew mates wore only their regular clothing during these outings — no special protective gear to protect them from the radiation.
At the time, it was thought that the radiation would affect only exterior surfaces, so the men simply disposed of their clothing and were hosed down upon coming back to the ship.
“If I had known what I was signing up for, I probably still would have done it,” he said. “But knowing what I know now, I might have hesitated a little more and asked for some protective gear.”
Irwin identifies as an atomic veteran, a class of primarily WWII-era veterans who were exposed to ionizing radiation from a nuclear explosion during their active duty.
Mostly, these are veterans who were part of the military occupation forces in and around Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during the end of the war or who, like Irwin, participated in an above-ground nuclear test between 1945 and 1962.
Epidemiological studies have shown atomic veterans tend to experience higher rates of cancer, leukemia, cataracts and other disorders. Veterans and their advocates fought for decades to have their service recognized and fairly compensated by the VA, and though much progress has been made, some still fall through the cracks.
Such happened with Arbie Irwin.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in my 80s,” he said. “It started in the groin, and I thought it was a hernia. Then I started bleeding in my stomach.”
Fortunately, Irwin’s doctors were able to remove the tumors in his groin and stomach, and extensive tests over the years have shown that he has been lucky. The cancer has not come back, though he still experiences digestive problems he believes may stem from the earlier stomach problems.
However, despite his oncologist and a specialist at the VA hospital saying in writing that they believed his tumors may have been related to his service in Operation Crossroads, his claim for disability compensation was denied.
“I know people that were over there on Bikini, doing the same thing I did, and they got compensation,” Irwin said. “But not me. And I appealed it, I wrote letters, and they said., ‘Well, I don’t think it’s the right kind of cancer.’ So, I never got anything from the government.
“The only things they furnished for me were my hearing aids and my glasses. And I still have to pay a copay.
After service, Irwin went to work at the Crown Zellerbach paper mill in Oregon City, where he worked 37 years.
“I was from a poor family, went through the Depression,” Irwin said. “So when I got out, I got me a job.”
He met and married Bonnie Louise Sims, from Stayton, in June 1949 following his discharge, and the couple moved to Canby in 1972, where they built a home together and raised three children.
They had just celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary a few weeks earlier when Bonnie passed away on July 4, 2021, at the age of 92.
He’s a longtime member of the local chapter of the National Association of Atomic Veterans and said he often thinks back to his firsthand experiences of the aftermath of a nuclear weapon.
“Back in those days, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Boy, I hope this is never used again.,'” he said. “Because it can just ruin the world. It hit me then and it still does today. I hope our leaders never let it come to that.”
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