As if these weapons merely existing wasn’t bad enough, people lived with the constant fear that they might be used at any time. These fears were not entirely unfounded, what with the tensions between America and the Soviet Union growing day by day. This constant anxiety was palpable in daily life and took many forms, from regular “duck and cover” drills to the bunker building fad of the 1950s and 60s, where private citizens built bomb shelters in their back yards, private arks in which their family would ride out the apocalypse.
The anxiety over the ever present threat of nuclear death sometimes took stranger forms during the long, dark years of the Cold War. One of the oddest incidents associated with nuclear paranoia occurred from March to June of 1954, when citizens across the US and Canada reported mysterious pits forming in their windshields.
Castle Bravo: America’s biggest bomb
But before we dive into the outbreak of windshield pitting, we need to look at the event that formed the backdrop against which the drama played out. In the 1950s, the US military was busy developing and testing nuclear weapons of various types. The fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were quickly becoming firecrackers compared to the weapons being detonated in the 50s. This was because the military had literally begun to create stars on Earth, if only for a split second. The biggest tests of the 50s focused on so-called thermonuclear devices, weapons powered by fusion reactions, which are the same nuclear reactions that power the sun.
Obviously, star-making is messy business. It isn’t something you want to do on your home soil if you can help it. While many tests were performed in the deserts of Nevada and Utah, the largest were performed at the Bikini Atoll, an archipelago nestled in the endless waters of the Pacific. One of these tests, dubbed Castle Bravo, released power unprecedented in human history up to that time.
The device, dubbed “the Shrimp”, was a thermonuclear device utilizing an experimental fusion fuel composed of about 40% lithium-7. The remainder of the fuel was lithium-6, which was thought to be inert. With a predicted yield of 6 megatons (1 megaton is the equivalent of the detonation of 1 million tons of TNT), the weapon would made a big boom to say the least. But the explosion proved to be a lot bigger than expected, releasing a mind bending 15 megatons of energy, and producing a mushroom cloud that reached 130,000 feet into the atmosphere.
The immense power obliterated the island the test weapon rested on, kicking up a huge cloud of radioactive dust and debris. The unexpected yield came from what is now known as the “tritium bonus.” Basically, lithium-6 was not as inert as scientists thought. When it was bombarded by neutrons from the initial fission reaction used to “kick start” the fusion reaction, the lithium-6 split into tritium (a hydrogen isotope with 3 neutrons in its nucleus) and helium. The tritium contributed to the fusion reaction, resulting in a huge yield of energy and a massive explosion.
But at the time figuring out just why the boom was bigger than expected was the least of anyone’s worries. They were more concerned about the radioactive fallout falling like deadly snow all around them. The cloud of radioactive death spread far and wide beyond where the experts had predicted, falling over Navy ships and populated islands alike.
But perhaps the most infamous victim of the cloud, and the one most widely reported on by the media of the day, was the crew of a Japanese fishing boat named Fifth Lucky Dragon. Of the 23 fisherman, 22 were sickened and 1 later died due to radiation exposure. The incident resulted in a diplomatic row with Japan, who were understandably not happy with their citizens once again falling victim to America’s nuclear whims. The two countries very nearly severed diplomatic ties.
All of this happened early in March of 1954. Newspapers were abuzz with talk of fallout, radiation sickness, nuclear tests, and the like. Then, in Washington state, residents began to report strange pits forming in their windshields.
The strange occurrence began in the town of Bellingham, Washington. Locals reported strange pits appearing in their windshields. Police speculated at the time that the culprit was a group of vandals using a pellet gun to shoot at windshields, probably as an adolescent prank. With no physical evidence to go on, though, they could do little more than guess. Even so, 1500 reports of damage flooded in.
Residents of Bellingham began to place newspapers, rugs, and sheets of plywood over their windshields to protect from the suspected hoodlums. However, as April wore on and the police were no closer to nabbing a suspect, news media began to speculate on other causes for the alleged pitting. They honed in on the Castle Bravo tests, specifically. In a public already fearful of the effects of radioactive fallout, the idea took hold.
Meanwhile, the reports of pitted windshields crept closer to Seattle, about eighty miles from Bellingham. By April 14, the madness took the Emerald City by storm. Police responded to 242 calls from concerned citizens. Altogether, over 3000 cars were effected, with whole parking lots swept by the mysterious phenomenon.
That day, with the panic at its height, Alan Pomeroy, the Mayor of Seattle, requested emergency assistance from both the governor of Washington and then president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like in the case of the Gorbals Vampire, the panic touched the highest halls of power. But there was little even the President of the United States could do.
Even without presidential intervention, the strange occurrences began to disappear. In the following days, reports took a nose dive. Police logged 46 on the 16th, and another 10 on the 17th. Afterwards, no doubt relieved police officials received no further reports.
The panic spreads, and bizarre theories emerge
By April 18, the panic had spread well beyond Washington. Citizens of Oregon, California, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky reported pits in their windshields as well. Bizarre theories emerged to explain the epidemic.
Police in Portland, Oregon favored the original explanation: that a set of vandals, perhaps inspired by the nationwide panic, were using a pellet gun to shoot up unsuspecting citizen’s windshields. A more widespread explanation was that the pits resulted from sand flea eggs hatching inside the glass. This came after witnesses claimed to have watched pits in their windshields expand from about the size of a pinprick to the size of a dime. No one tried to explain just how sand fleas were able to lay eggs in tempered auto glass.
In Seattle, where the epidemic had hit the national scene, citizens hypothesized that electromagnetic rays from a nearby naval base were the culprit. Other guesses included micro-meteors, chemicals in rain water, and cosmic rays.
A particularly strange explanation came from a woman who claimed that the pits were the result of a psychic attack from her neighbors. She claimed that she could see her neighbor’s faces in the pits.
Psychic attacks and cosmic rays were fringe explanations. Most believed the damage resulted from nuclear fall out. Of course, this ignored the fact that the Castle Bravo tests were conducted thousands of miles away from the United States, and that by the time the fall out reached the shores of the Lower 48 it would have been diffused to the point it was relatively harmless.
It turns out that they were only partially right. The real cause of the damage was regular wear and tear. But what caused the panic was anxiety about the nuclear tests. This anxiety fixated on the pits when people began to stare at their windshields rather than through them. This was the case especially after the media reports began to link the pitting in Bellingham to radioactive fallout.
The incident acted as a release valve for Cold War tensions. It made an abstract and misunderstood fear –that of radioactive fallout, something that many people didn’t understand very well – concrete and actionable. Calling the police was cathartic; it made people feel like they were doing something about the fall out issue.
Evans, Hillary. Bartholomew, Robert E. Outbreak!: The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. Anomalis Books, LLC. 2004. Pgs 728-731.
“Operation Castle.” NuclearWeaponArchive.org. May 17, 2006. The Nuclear Weapon Archive. March 1, 2014. <http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Castle.html>