Winston Norcross was stationed on Eniwetok Island in 1946 during “Operation Crossroads.” American B-17 drones would return to base after flying through the mushroom cloud of atomic test bombs.
Norcross was a couple hundred yards from where the silver planes landed by remote control. The radiological crew removed the contaminated filters from the planes and put them in lead containers to be transported so that they could be examined for gamma rays and neutron measurements.
“Some things you don’t forget,” said Norcross, a 92-year-old retired teacher from Mooers who has chronic leukemia.
The country does not forget, either. Norcross and other veterans were honored for their service in June on a North Country Honor Flight trip from Plattsburgh to Washington, D.C. for a day viewing the nation’s monuments. Honor Flights are held throughout the country for veterans from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Norcross served in the Army Air Corps in supply. His part in Operation Crossroads began at Roswell in New Mexico where the drone training was taking place. From there he was flown to Eniwetok. The post-WWII nuclear tests in the summer of 1946 blasted a group of ships around Bikini Atoll, located in the Pacific Ocean in the Marshall Islands. The second one was set off underwater. His crew was evacuated for the first bomb test, but they remained on Eniwetok, 190 miles downwind, for the second one.
The atomic bomb that was detonated underwater “really raised Cain. The men on the command ship 10 miles out of range had coral rained on them. Some of the guys had the coral for souvenirs, but they got rid of it after the old Geiger counters were popping.”
Nine days after the last explosion, Norcross was aboard the USS Appling, which sailed into the toxic Bikini harbor waters, surrounded by thousands of tons of floating nuclear debris. His crew spent the day sightseeing the bombed out area and taking on passengers while the ship circulated the toxic water all day for the return trip to San Francisco.
In his journal, he wrote: “Thursday 8 Aug, 1946 Entered Bikini Lagoon early this morning to pick up passengers. Had a close look at most of the atomic bomb victims — ships. Left lagoon at dusk."
The USS Appling sailed to San Francisco, and although it was only several years old, it was scrapped shortly after its return to the U.S.
Winston Norcross' military I.D. Photo provided.
Norcross said the government claimed it had no official record of his involvement. Then several years ago his son Jim located a military booklet on eBay — a souvenir booklet that had been made for the drone squadron. His father’s name was in it.
Once presented to the Veteran’s Administration, it was proof that his father was one of thousands of service men exposed to the radioactive waste. He was given 100 percent disability, explained Jim Norcross, who went with his father on the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Following his time in the service, the elder Norcross was a member of the North Adirondack Teachers Association and worked as a physical education teacher, a BOCES driver education teacher and a guidance counselor. If you said he was from the North Country, you’d be correct — but he is north enough in Clinton County to be distinctly in the shadow of Canada.
When Norcross was in D.C. this past summer, he found the names of some of his former students etched on the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
He recalled Tommy Eldridge from Rouse’s Point, who served as a flyer in the war. His plane was shot down.
His name is on the Wall.
“It was a little comforting — at least their names are up there in perpetuity,” he said.
Honor Flights bring many veterans recognition they may have never received.The honorees receive a police escort to the airport, where each trip begins with a ceremony recognizing each veteran with recognition of their service. Locals come out to cheer, flags are raised and music is played. And then the veterans, each with a family member or friend, board the plane to the nation’s capitol. Once they arrive in D.C., they travel by bus to Arlington Cemetery and the war monuments; they have police escorts for each leg of the journey.
“One guy had been through hell. He was sort of bitter,” Norcross said. “When he finally saw some of the monuments, it was wonderful for him. It helped him let go.
“I’m no hero, but some of those guys were,” he said.
NYSUT salutes all of its many members who served in the military, and those who continue to serve.