On Friday, Oct. 19, 1962, at 10:29 p.m., a number of Kauai residents observed a brilliant, green-rimmed, orange fireball that burst low over Kauai’s southwest horizon, remained visible for about 10 seconds, and then faded into a reddish glow before disappearing.
What they’d witnessed was a glimpse of a low-yield nuclear bomb that had exploded in the atmosphere about 80 miles above Johnston Island, situated 750 miles southwest of Hawaii, which was utilized by the United States as a nuclear weapons test site from which atmospheric detonations of nuclear devices were carried out between 1958 and 1963.
Elsewhere, only a faint white flash resembling lightning was seen on Oahu, and on Maui, and radio communications between Johnston Island and Hickam Air Force Base, Oahu were disrupted for about 15 minutes.
Although the fireball made a powerful impression upon those who saw it, the bomb that generated it was considered small by the standards of that time, since its explosive force was measured at less than the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.
Nonetheless, the explosion was still terrifyingly violent, as it was roughly of the same magnitude as was produced by the atom bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.
The Mana, Kauai, rocket launching site also participated in the test.
Shortly before the blast occurred, about 10 high altitude sounding rockets carrying equipment designed to collect technical data were shot from Mana into the sky high above the Kauai.
Noted Kauai photographer George Senda (1925-96) took the picture accompanying this story from a hill overlooking Hanapepe — the first photograph of a nuclear fireball ever taken in Hawaii.
George’s father, William J. Senda (1889-1984), was also a prominent professional photographer who took thousands of pictures of Kauai’s people, places and scenery that constitute a splendid historical record of Kauai during the 20th century, and the Senda Gallery in the Kauai Museum is dedicated in his honor.