Erlandson: a veteran of many wars, Operation Crosswords

Erlandson: a veteran of many  wars, Operation CrosswordsBy JOHN E. ANDERSON, Ridge Writers

Helge W. Erlandson Jr. entered the Navy on March 1939 in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was deployed on the USS Maryland after boot camp and was aboard her on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor. She took two bad hits, submerging the bow. After pumping out the bow, the ship went to the repair yards.

August 1942 found him in Diesel Engine School, at Navy Pier, Chicago. From school, he was assigned to the destroyer USS Ward in Houston, Texas and spent until 1944 on convoy duty in the Atlantic. At that time Erlandson was a Chief Engineman.

He next transferred to a repair training unit for PT boats in Melville, Rhode Island. He was then sent to Lido Beach, Long Island, for commando training, but the war ended before he could put that training to use.

Erlandson was then assigned to USS Reclaimer, a repair and salvage ship. This was where, in December 1946, he participated in Operation Crossroads nuclear tests. Operation Crossroads was an atmospheric nuclear weapon test series conducted in summer 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The series consisted of two detonations, a-low altitude test and a shallow-water test. The devices, each with a yield of 21 kilotons, were named Shots ABLE and BAKER. A planned third test, a deep underwater detonation, was canceled after the second test.

The series was intended to study the effects of nuclear weapons on warships, equipment, and material. These tests would provide important information on the survivability of warships in the event of nuclear war.

The USS Reclaimer was among the first to approach the damaged ships. Fortunately, Erlandson was the fireman maintaining the diesel engines in the bottom of the ship but still was exposed to radiation.

It wasn’t until October 1984 that the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) discovered that radiation exposure of more than 40,000 military personnel was several times higher than originally thought. In 1996 the National Institute of Medicine conducted a survey on the mortality of veteran participants in Crossroads and found that the increase in all-cause mortality was 4.6 percent.

Erlandson’s wife Dorothy noticed a change in her husband’s mental health after the Bikini tests, and the family believes he suffered irreversible effects for the rest of his life.

Chief Warrant Officer (4) Erlandson continued serving the Navy throughout the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, retiring in June 1969 and going to work for private contractors. He ended up traveling to Iran, leaving just before the war broke out. He also was in Tanzania, Africa.

Erlandson never fully retired after he came home to Ridgecrest in 1978, but worked several local jobs. He died in October 1996.

He and his wife Dorothy had been married since November 30, 1946, and had three children; Susan, Michael, and Candee. Candee lives in Ridgecrest, taking care of her mother who will be 96 years old this year.

References for this article include information from family members Dorothy and Candee Coffee; “Fore and Aft” newsletter, USS Markab, “Officer of the Week,” Oct. 23, 1953; California Legionnaire, Vol. 56, 5 January 1986; and the Institute of Medicine publication, Mortality of Veteran Participants in the CROSSROADS Nuclear Test (1996).

Story First Published: 2019-11-08