It was called “Operation Castle.”
Camillo Balsamo was a civilian technician working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in September 1954. “Operation Castle” was the detonation of the world’s first hydrogen bomb at Enewetak Island, part of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.
The 80-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. man was near ground zero, flying in a B-17 bomber measuring the effects of the hydrogen blast on the nearby atmosphere. Balsamo was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Health and Safety Laboratory Research and Development operation.
“We built testing equipment for the Energy Commission and used it during blasts like this,” he said. For 27 years, Balsamo worked for the AEC. He began as part of the “Manhattan Project,” the super-secret development of the first atomic bomb that ended World War II.
His Second World War odyssey and future employment with the AEC started during a landing at Omaha Beach, a few days after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. As a member of Gen. George S. Patton’s 6th Armored Division, he and thousands of other soldiers were in the process of landing when Balsamo developed a bleeding ulcer.
His medical condition was so serious that after the landing, he was immediately put aboard a transport plane and flown to a hospital in Scotland. After a few weeks Balsamo was sent back to the States, where he spent the next several months recovering in Staten Island General Hospital — it’s now called Willowbrook Hospital — in New York City.
Later he was released from the hospital and given a medical discharge from the Army. He immediately went to work at the AEC’s main office in New York at 261 Fifth Ave.
At the time, Balsamo was hired as a supervisor of office services. His job was to make sure that 250 women working in the accounting department of the federal agency had everything they needed to do their job.
“It was a terrible experience to look healthy and not be in uniform in those days,” he recalled.
Eventually he transferred to the AEC’s machine shop, located at Ninth Avenue and Columbus Circle in downtown New York.
“It was in an armory across the street from where the opera house is now,” he said. “We made instruments for measuring atomic fallout for radiation counting.”
Although Balsamo didn’t know it at the time, he was working for the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb during the closing months of the war. They received the official word from Secretary of State Henry Simpson when the Japanese surrendered.
After the war was over, he continued to work for the AEC in the same department for decades. It was during the early part of his tenure he saw Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the military commander of the Manhattan Project, and Albert Einstein when they stopped by the AEC’s New York office one day.
By 1954 Balsamo had progressed in his job and was an AEC field technician who not only built some of the instruments but took them into the field to conduct tests when bombs were detonated. That’s how he wound up at the Enewetak Atomic Test Range in the Pacific during the first hydrogen bomb explosion in ’54.
“My job during the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb was to drop specially designed, raft-like 4-foot-by-8-foot pieces of Styrofoam sandwiched between two pieces of plywood from a B-17 right after the bomb went off,” he said.
The plane had a special chute in the back where Balsamo slid the rafts out. Each raft was equipped with radiation-detection devices for testing the radioactive fallout from the bomb blast. They collected them from the sea afterward and checked the instruments.
Although he said they jettisoned more than 300 of these Styrofoam and plywood rafts, only several were ever recovered. However, that was sufficient to produce a successful experiment.
For Balsamo and his three Navy helpers who were aboard the B-17, their day began early when the plane flew out of Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, headed for Enewetak.
“The bomb was dropped at night. We were flying away from the blast when we were told to put our goggles on and look out the window of the plane,” he said. “When it detonated, the blast was huge. I saw night turn into day and remain like that for at least 10 minutes.
“All of us aboard the plane were pretty scared,” he admitted. “As we flew away from the blast, I was tossing rafts out the belly of the plane. I was chained in so I wouldn’t be blown out the chute.”
Balsamo said the hydrogen bomb blast was at least three times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima that ended WWII. In that A-bomb blast, everything from ground zero out five miles was annihilated. From five to 20 miles out there was partial destruction. Within a radius of 25 miles from ground zero there was fallout from the blast.
Most of his career, Balsamo worked in New York City for the AEC’s Health and Safety Laboratory in research and development.
“I worked with the hot stuff,” Balsamo said. “I worked with isotopes in lead containers.”
Occasionally, when scientists learned he was a longtime AEC technician who handled radioactive material on a regular basis, they wanted to turn him into a human guinea pig, he said..
“These doctors would say, ‘He must be radioactive. Let’s do some tests.’ They’d put me in a room and start working on me. One time I had seven doctors working on me seeing if I was contaminated in any way during tests in the 1970s on Long Island, N.Y.”
They found little to get them excited as far as radioactive contamination was concerned. However, in recent years, Balsamo has suffered from two types of cancer. A decade ago he had to undergo radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma that is now in remission. Currently he is being treated for prostate cancer.
Recalling the hydrogen blast at Enewetak, Balsamo said recently, “It was a terrible experience when the bomb went off. We said to ourselves at the time, ‘Holy mackerel, this is the end.'”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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Camillo M. Balsamo
September, 07, 1922 – July, 10, 2007
Camillo M. Balsamo, 84, of Punta Gorda, FL died July 10, 2007.
He was born in Brooklyn, New York and moved to this area in 1992 from Long Island, New York.
He was a Machinist for the Atomic Energy Commission for 27 years, and then he was an inspector for the Board of Education until he retired.
He served our country in the Army, the third Armored Division and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the DAV in Port Charlotte, Fla. Chapter 82, a life member of the Elks Club currently a member of the Punta Gorda Elks Lodge #2606, The Sons of Italy, a member of N.A.R.F. and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years Veronica; a son Philip Balsamo of Punta Gorda; a daughter Judith John Pizzolorusso of N.Y.; a daughter-in-law Doris Balsamo of Mayaka; three brothers Michael, Thomas and Albert all of Florida; two sisters Ann Tutorra of Fla., and Adeline of N.Y., seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The family will receive friends from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm Thursday July 12, 2007 at the Kays-Ponger Funeral Home, 635 E Marion Ave, Punta Gorda. A Mass of the Christian Burial will be held Friday at 11:00 am July 13, 2007 at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Punta Gorda, Fla. Internment will immediately follow at Royal Palm Memorial Gardens.