Biography

Age: 80

Unit: Assigned to the USS Arkansas

War fronts: Witnessed the atomic bomb tests of Able and Baker in Bikini Atoll as part of Operation Crossroads, a campaign to test the effect of nuclear weapons on naval ships.

His words: “All they had was a Geiger counter. If you had radiation on your clothes, they told you to take a shower."

On the Web: Watch more of Standridge's story and see profiles of more veterans at www.trib.com/honor

Next week's profile: As young men, the Mesa brothers of Laramie left their family and each other to meet their brothers in arms.

The Navy officers wore goggles. The sailors were instructed to cover their eyes in the nooks of their elbows.

But Kenneth Standridge peeked. Baker exploded 90 feet underwater, just under the USS Arkansas, the ship that had carried Standridge and other sailors to Bikini Atoll.

He saw the mushroom cloud that would be shown over and over again, in video footage and photographs.

"It looked just like that. I'd never seen anything like it." He remembers feeling that he was witnessing something more powerful than anything man had made before.

Just 11 months before, on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay had dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, Japan. Fat Man detonated over Nagasaki three days later.

By the time Standridge, born and raised in Riverton, joined the Navy in December 1945, fighting in the Pacific had ended.

But the Navy had more work to do.

Bikini Island is the largest of 23 that make up the atoll in the Marshall Islands. The two-piece swimsuit was named after it, hitting American beaches in 1946 just days after the first nuclear bomb tests of Operation Crossroads.

Island natives were moved 200 miles away.

Ninety-five ships were designated target ships, including Standridge's -- the USS Arkansas.

Another 150 support vessels came, serving as floating hotels for the sailors whose ships would soon been blasted from the water. Goats and other animals were tied to target ships to test the dangers of radiation.

On July 1, 1946, a B17 bomber named Dave's Dream dropped Able, detonating 520 feet above ground.

Soon after, Standridge returned to the Arkansas to prepare it for the next bomb. The wooden and steel deck reminded him of the ocean; it had rolled in waves as tall as his kitchen table. The ship looked as if someone had twisted it.

Standridge, then just 18, had never heard of the word "radioactive."

For the next couple of weeks, sailors looked for ways to cool down. They ran around with their shirts, swam in the ocean water. They bathed and drank ocean water after it went through the distillery, he says.

"All they had was a Geiger counter. If you had radiation on your clothes, they told you to go take a shower."

Baker bomb was detonated on July 25. The flash that usually shielded the explosion from view happened underwater, giving Standridge a vivid picture of the rising wall of water. He watched from about 21 miles away on the USS Rockbridge.

The blast sunk the USS Arkansas.

By the fall of 1947, Standridge's wife had conceived twins during one of his leaves. He wanted to start his life. But an officer sent him to the hospital instead. Doctors checked his blood everyday. They wanted to cut into him, to look further for something wrong, but Standridge wanted out. He was discharged in November 1947.

"I should have stayed and got disability," he says now. "There were a lot of people at the hospital running around with no hair, but everybody wanted to go home."

He points to a stack of papers three inches high on his kitchen table. They represent a decades-long fight with the Veterans Administration about his health, problems he believes were caused by radiation poisoning.

"They are saying, I've lived over 50 years, I should be OK. I think they should still take care of me. I think they should pay for my pills."

For a long time after the bombs, he didn't have wax in his ears. Doctors stuffed them with penicillin and cotton to prevent infections.

His twins were born in 1948. Both have had cancer as adults.

All four of his children, in fact, have faced serious health problems.

His youngest son was born with a deformed heart, and Standridge drove him to Salt Lake City every three months until he had open-heart surgery when he was 17.

In 1992, his middle son developed a nervous system disease which causes the coating to fall off his nerves.

Standridge believes it's all related. He remembers something a Navy doctor once said to him, after learning about Standridge's service: I bet your kids glowed at night, the doctor had said.

Standridge's legs and hands would sometimes break out and "weep" -- that is, fluids would drain from them. A Lander doctor said it was blood poisoning progressing up his arm. He's had skin cancer removed from his nose and face. He had his prostrate and saliva glands removed.

And though Standridge will show government letters proclaiming the USS Rockbridge and USS Bottineau as "radiologically suspect" months after Standridge and other sailors lived and sailed home on them, he has other letters that say the government doesn't believe he was exposed to excessive amounts of radiation.

Standridge is glad the war ended when it did, that the bombs dropped on Japan did their job.

And somebody had to do what he did, to be the witness to history.

But he wishes he had more to show for his service than the stack of papers on his table, with conclusions and denials based on 1947 science.

They Served With Honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week, from Veterans Day to Veterans Day.

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