In 1946, under Operation Crossroads, the U.S. government exploded two atomic bombs at the Bikini Atoll, the beginning of a nuclear testing program that continued into the 1950s. Two Smithsonian scientists traveled to Bikini to participate in a biological survey of the area both prior to and after the tests. Smithsonian scientists also returned one year later, as part of the Bikini Resurvey, to continue their collecting in order to provide data for future researchers on the environmental impact of the atomic bomb tests. The specimens they amassed became part of the National Museum of Natural History’s vast collections.
This work did not mark the end of the Smithsonian’s involvement in Operation Crossroads. One of the planes that recorded radiation levels after the second, "Baker," blast, came to the institution and is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. And the National Zoological Park became home to Pig 311, one of the few test animals to survive the first atomic bomb or “Able” test.
For the first bomb test, some 3030 rats, 109, mice, 57 guinea pigs, 176 goats and 147 pigs were placed in various locations on the target ships that were anchored at the blast site. These animals were used, in the words of one 1946 Joint Army-Navy Taskforce press release, in order “to provide much needed information on protection, early diagnosis and treatment of personnel who may hereafter be exposed to atomic energy and explosion, either in war or peace.” Uniforms were made for the pigs to see what protection various types of fabric would afford. The hair on some animals was cut to typical human lengths and a variety of skin lotions were tested to see if radiation burns could be minimized. Drone planes and boats recorded a variety of data during and after the blast. Many of the animals died immediately and most others died within two weeks as the effects of radiation poisoning took their toll.
One exception was a pig that survived the sinking of her ship and, to everyone’s surprise, was found swimming for shore in one of the lagoons. Pig 311 was recovered and sent to the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, for observation. Three years later, on April 4, 1949, Pig 311 was given to the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, where she was put on display. Despite several attempts at breeding, she produced no offspring, leading scientists to speculate that she had been sterilized by the radiation. She died at the zoo in 1950. Read Time Magazine’s 1949 story about Pig 311: “This Little Pig Came Home.”
The National Zoo also held Goat 315, one of the other rare survivors of the Able blast, as well as three coconut crabs captured on Bikini by Frederick Bayer in 1947 during the Scientific Resurvey. They were three of five crabs and one dog found alive on the island—the only animals discovered—when the scientists returned for further fieldwork one year after the blasts. The dog was adopted by sailors on the U.S.S. Chilton, and the two other crabs were deposited at an aquarium in San Francisco. For more information on the use of animals in atomic tests, see the National Library of Medicine online exhibit, “Animals as Cold Warriors: Missiles, Medicine, and Man's Best Friend.”
To read more about the Smithsonian and Operation Crossroads, visit the centennial website.
Heather Ewing, Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution Archives