The Firecracker Boys

H-Bombs, Inupiat Eskimos, and the Roots of the Environmental Movement


By Dan O’Neill

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In 1958, Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, unveiled his plan to detonate six nuclear bombs off the Alaskan coast to create a new harbor. However, the plan was blocked by a handful of Eskimos and biologists who succeeded in preventing massive nuclear devastation potentially far greater than that of the Chernobyl blast. The Firecracker Boys is a story of the U.S. government’s arrogance and deception, and the brave people who fought against it-launching America’s environmental movement. As one of Alaska’s most prominent authors, Dan O’Neill brings to these pages his love of Alaska’s landscape, his skill as a nature and science writer, and his determination to expose one of the most shocking chapters of the Nuclear Age.



                  No truly primitive group could exist under such conditions. Only by means of a highly complex technology and through a highly developed knowledge of natural phenomena could human beings penetrate the Arctic.

—Helge Larsen and Froelich Rainey, Arctic archeologists

In the extreme northwest corner of the North American continent, in the region of Bering Strait, prehistoric Inupiat hunters discovered a spit of land jutting twenty miles into the Chukchi Sea. It pointed like a finger back across the water to the people’s ancestral homeland, Asia, just 160 miles away. They called the place Tikigaq, the Inupiaq word for “forefinger.”

The peninsula was an ideal place to intercept migrating sea mammals. From here the Inupiat hunted walrus, seals, and polar bear. They hunted the small white whale called beluga, and ugruk, the bearded seal. They collected the eggs of nesting seabirds from the inland cliffs near a little stream they called Ogotoruk. Eventually, they would load flint-pointed harpoons into ugruk-skin boats and chase, strike, and land fifty-ton bowhead whales. At Tikigaq, they built semisubterranean houses employing what few materials existed in a place a hundred miles from the nearest tree: whalebones and driftwood for the arching structural ribs, and slabs of sod stacked up igloo-fashion to form a covering. As wind and rain smoothed the contours, and sod and flowers sprouted again, the settlement looked like a hummocky patch of grassland, a green rejoinder to the surrounding blue, rolling sea.


That was the summer picture, anyway. In winter, the Chukchi Sea freezes. The spit stands only a few feet above the sea ice, and both are covered indiscriminately by hard-packed, windblown snow. It is hard to tell where the land leaves off and the sea begins. To the extent that Tikigaq looked like a village at all, it must have seemed to be one adrift on the sea ice, twenty miles from shore, unsheltered from the strong winter winds, more than a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Most oral history accounts agree that the early inhabitants of the region around Tikigaq organized themselves into a social system akin to a modern nation. They occupied a precisely defined territory, defended it, and, like the citizens of modern states, were not averse to expansionist forays. Sometimes the Tikirarmiut, as they called themselves, penetrated several hundred miles into neighboring dominions. In time, they became the largest and most powerful society in northern Alaska, “the aristocrats of the Arctic,” as one writer has called them. By the late 1700s, their territory included a stretch of coast from Icy Cape, 200 miles to the north, to Kotzebue Sound, 200 miles to the south.

It was during this time, in 1778, that Capt. James Cook became the first European to sail up the Alaska coast, through Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea. But, though he explored all the way to Icy Cape, he missed the low Tikigaq spit. Shortly after Cook’s voyage, around the turn of the nineteenth century, the Tikirarmiut lost a decisive battle with a people on their southern frontier and may have lost half their entire population. It is likely that many of the best hunters died and a period of starvation followed. Europeans first encountered Tikigaq during this period of instability. In 1820, Glieb Semenovich Shishmarev of the Russian navy saw the settlement from some miles offshore. Sailing by without landing, he named the point Cape Golovin in honor of a fellow captain in the Russian navy.

The next Europeans to glimpse Tikigaq reenacted the “discovery” and, for the second time, the most prominent features of the Eskimo’s homeland were renamed, this time in honor of Englishmen. Capt. F. W. Beechey sailed HMS Blossom into the Chukchi in 1826 and closed on a high bluff, which he named Cape Thomson (later written “Thompson”) after Deas Thomson, a commissioner of the British navy. Putting ashore, Beechey became the first outsider to encounter the Tikirarmiut when his party was “met upon the beach by some Esquimaux who eagerly sought an exchange of goods. Very few of their tribe understood better how to drive a bargain than these people.” Beechey’s account describes a “robust people above the average height of Esquimaux: the tallest man was five foot nine inches, the tallest woman five foot four inches. All the women have tattooed upon the chin three small lines . . . all the men had labrets [lip ornaments].” The Englishmen found the natives to be “very honest, extremely good natured, and friendly.”

After visiting a small encampment near the base of Cape Thompson, Beechey ascended the promontory. From its vantage he “discovered low land jetting out from the coast to the W.N.W. as far as the eye could reach. As this point had never been placed in our charts,” he wrote, “I named it Point Hope, in compliment to Sir William Johnstone Hope.” The next morning Beechey sailed away to the west to trace the extent of the low point he had seen from Cape Thompson. On nearing its tip, he saw “a forest of stakes . . . and beneath them several round hillocks.” The stakes were drying racks on which chunks of dark purple seal meat hung and skins lifted in the steady breeze. Other racks, made from the jawbones of whales, supported umiaqs (skin boats). The hillocks were the sod houses of Tikigaq.

A strong current kept Beechey’s gig from landing, but inclusion on world maps had befallen the Tikigaq people. Significant contact with the white man would follow. Though industrial trade goods had filtered into northwest Alaska before 1849, Western culture had had very little influence on the Tikirarmiut. They subsisted on a harvest of animals obtained without the use of firearms. And, though their general health was not always good, they had not yet been ravaged by smallpox, syphilis, influenza, measles, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, nor had they been introduced to alcohol.

But, starting in 1849, each spring saw more than a hundred ships from the American whaling fleet pass northward through Bering Strait and return with barrels of oil and bundles of baleen, the durable, elastic “whalebone” used primarily for corset stays. In little more than a decade, Yankee whalers had nearly decimated the bowhead whale, not only a crucially important food for the local people, but the center of Inupiaq culture as well. The walrus was an alternate source of nutrition for the Eskimo, but it was also an alternate source of crude for the original oil men from the south. And if the 3,000-pound pinnipeds didn’t have baleen, they did have ivory. Turning their technology on the walrus, the whalers, inside of fifteen years, all but wiped out those herds. As a consequence, they nearly wiped out the Eskimo as well. Anthropologists estimate that in scarcely more than a generation the Eskimo population of northwest Alaska was reduced by half, maybe two-thirds.

White men established their first shore-based whaling station in Alaska on the Tikigaq spit in 1887. The Tikirarmiut had steadfastly refused to allow the station to be built in their village, and even refused to work there, but it took root five miles east. Inhabited by “American whalers, Hawaiians, Negroes and men of all nations,” Jabbertown, as it was called, accelerated the introduction of disease and alcohol to the Tikirarmiut.


If the polar bear, because it spends so much of its life hunting on the ice offshore, is classified by biologists as a sea mammal rather than a terrestrial one, a similar logic might apply for the Tikirarmiut. Every hunter spent much of his life upon the crystalline ocean, the gnashing, churning, jumbled wilderness of sea ice. From November to April, he hunted seals during every hour of light, often standing perfectly still at a breathing hole while high winds compounded the chill of temperatures reaching twenty, thirty, and forty degrees below zero. Strong surface winds are more frequent here than in any other part of Alaska, and the winds of greatest velocity, both on average and in the number reaching sustained gale force, occur during the coldest months of the year. As one meteorologist succinctly put it, the area is “one of the most uncomfortable in the world.”

These winds also have the power to tear the ice pack from its grip on the land, holding it offshore and creating a lead often miles wide. If the lead opened up behind a hunter, he was cut off and could be carried far out to sea. Men disappeared this way. They drowned, froze to death, or were devoured by polar bear, which also hunted on the ice. A hunter was considered lucky if he was carried all the way to Siberia. At Tikigaq, a lost hunter’s family always held out hope until the following winter, when the men sometimes returned over the frozen sea.

There seems to be no other explanation for Tikigaq’s size, its permanence, and its location at the tip of a barren spit than the fact that the people who lived here were a sea people. They were also one of the few communities that practiced the most venerated occupation in Eskimo culture: They were whale hunters.

Before the white man’s presence began significantly to influence the Tikirarmiut, Eskimo whale hunting had changed little over the centuries. In late March or early April, when the gulls and snow buntings appeared, whaling crews lashed their skin boats to sleds and headed miles out on the shore-fast ice until they encountered open water. Still farther out to sea was the floating ice pack. So long as an offshore wind blew, the open lead between the shore ice and the ice pack was maintained. Here at the edge of the lead the men sat day and night watching for migrating bowhead whales. They did not allow themselves sleeping bags; their only protection besides their clothes was a windbreak made of snow blocks. For days or weeks they watched, eating frozen meat and drinking water from a seal-flipper flask worn inside their parkas. They slept only intermittently.

At home the women observed prescribed rituals. Froelich Rainey, an archaeologist who spent the winter of 1940 at Tikigaq, noted that they refrained from any work during the whale hunt. The women did not wash or comb their hair, change their clothes, or scrub the floor. They believed that if they scrubbed the floor, the skin of the whale would be thin. A woman was to remain tranquil and “act like a sick person” so that the harpooned whale would be calm and easy to kill. Nor could women ever use knives—someone would even cut their food for them—because they might sever the harpoon line attached to the whale.

When a spout of water appeared, the men jumped for their skin boats, knowing the whale was offering itself. Each boat had six men at the paddles, a helmsman in the stern, and a harpooner in the bow. Paddling silently, they made for a spot where they thought the whale would surface. When they saw the broad back rise and a blast of vapor shoot into the air, they paddled rapidly toward it, the harpooner positioning himself in the bow. He threw with all his might and the stone-tipped point sliced through the tough, black skin into soft blubber. As the shaft fell away and the line tightened, the point pivoted like a toggle, spanning the entrance hole on the underside of the whale’s skin. The walrus-hide line playing out from the bow of the boat had a series of inflated sealskins attached, each with a buoyancy sufficient to lift 200 to 300 pounds. Their drag tired the whale as it dived. Again, the crew paddled hard to follow the whale as other crews joined in the chase. When the whale was finally too exhausted to dive, the helmsman took the boat right up to its flukes and, working from the bow, the best lance man attempted to cut the tendon controlling the tail to hamstring the whale and prevent it from sounding again. Charles Brower, a twenty-one-year-old sailor who participated in a whale hunt at Tikigaq in 1885, describes what came next:

              Then the lance expert cut loose with all his skill. A stroke here, another there. Lightning speed! Deadly precision! Still the whale wouldn’t die. The Eskimos had one last trick. Shoving the oomiak [the skin boat] along until part of it lay fairly across the whale’s back put our expert in position to lance a large artery similar to the jugular vein in a man. Poised for a mighty effort, he jabbed deeply at this vital spot and a great fountain of blood spurted high and crimsoned the water all about. We backed away in a hurry. A dangerous moment! For in dying, the animal went into his death flurry with such a thrashing of fins and flukes that any boat would have been stove in and its crew injured or drowned.

If a boat capsized, a crew could die in minutes in the icy water. But if all went well, the jubilant crew sang traditional songs as they towed their prize to the ice edge nearest the village. There, thirty or forty men wielding flint knives with handles ten feet long worked through two days and nights butchering the carcass. Women and children likewise worked continuously, hauling the meat back to the village’s underground caches.

The dances and feasting that followed featured the most prized food in the Tikirarmiut’s diet: muktuk, the whale’s black, three-quarter-inch-thick skin together with an inch or so of the adjacent blubber. (A non-Eskimo might be tempted to compare this chewy delicacy to a chunk of automobile tire bonded to a layer of greasy fat.) The meat of the whale would feed people and dogs throughout the year; the blubber would be rendered for food and fuel. The bone and baleen were also valuable raw materials in the Eskimo technology. Bone was used for house frames, cache and grave scaffolds, and tools; baleen produced nets, line, and baskets. And the whale hunt itself provided the framework within which the people of Tikigaq attained social stature, material wealth, and spiritual virtue.


A “forest of stakes . . . several round hillocks.” For sixty years after Tikigaq’s discovery, incurious white men added nothing to this prosaic summation. They did not know that they had visited what was probably the most ancient village site in the Arctic, one of the great capitals of the aboriginal North. “We now realize that Tikigaq was one of the largest settlements in the entire Eskimo-speaking world,” writes anthropologist Ernest Burch. “Both culturally and socially its significance was thoroughly underestimated by the first European observers.” During the 1800s, the population was probably 600 to 700 people in the winter, but the village was virtually abandoned in the summer when the white men visited. By then the people had moved off, traveling in skin boats and hauling tepee-like tents. They hunted caribou in the interior hills, fished along the Kukpuk River, and collected the eggs of migratory seabirds from the cliffs at Cape Thompson.

Tikigaq was an Arctic Machu Picchu, one that was still thriving, a fact that would not be understood until 1939 when archaeologists Louis Giddings and Helge Larsen visited the spit to excavate the Old Tikigaq site, adjacent to the modern village. When Giddings and Larsen arrived, they found that the local people had scavenged the area for artifacts to sell to the crews of government ships. “The mound,” said a disheartened Giddings, “looked like it had been bombed repeatedly from the air.” With their assistants, they explored other possibilities on the spit. One midnight, with shovels slung over their shoulders and anticipating their dinner of whale meat, Giddings and Larsen began their long trudge home. Their route rose and fell as they crossed the gentle undulations of ancient beach ridges. Stopping at one of these corrugations to rest and to look at the red midnight sun, they noticed something odd. The low-angle rays lit up in relief a network of slight depressions along the entire length of the ridge top. “Frost scars,” explained Larsen. Such disturbances were common in the Arctic. But then they saw the same phenomenon on the next beach ridge. And there was something else. The outlines appeared to be square. The polygonal deformations formed by frost action always took irregular shapes. These, by contrast, had to be the work of man. “But no,” Giddings wrote in a memoir, “. . . these could not be man-made because no village in the Arctic could have been so large. The markings appeared again on the third ridge and on the fourth. . . . I made a suggestion: I had nothing to lose, I said, by digging a hole in one of the squares to see what it might contain—if, that is, we could find them again when the sun shone high in the sky. Larsen thought a moment, then said, ‘Let’s all come and try.’”

What they found on the old beach ridges not far from the village and the Old Tikigaq site was “by far the most extensive and complete one-period site yet discovered and described in the entire circumpolar region.” Ipiutak, as they called the ancient settlement, contained 600 or 700 houses. It revealed that occupation of the spit had been essentially uninterrupted for millennia. Tikigaq, today called Point Hope, is one of the oldest continuously occupied sites on the North American continent. It not only predates Plymouth Rock, it may predate the pyramids.

A peculiarity of the ocean currents is eliminating our chances of ever knowing just how old the village is. Currents that formed the peninsula seem now to have reversed themselves and are eroding the spit, which used to extend several miles farther out to sea and hook to the north. The most ancient sites, the ones farthest west, are gone, and successively more recent eastern sites are disappearing. Today, 99 percent of the Tikigaq people’s archaeological heritage is under the sea.


If the artifacts of the Tikirarmiut’s culture were washing away, the people nonetheless sustained a sense of themselves as a cohesive society, steeped in and sanctified by the traditions of forebears extending back thousands of years. They were able to incorporate those aspects of Western culture most compatible with this inheritance. They readily took to a plan introduced by the Episcopal missionaries in the 1890s that allowed for democratic participation in church government. As early as 1920, Point Hope had a village council, again established with the help of an Episcopal clergyman. The system was not precisely a model of representative democracy—the whaling captains directed how their extended families and crew voted in elections—but it did represent a modern structure for self-determination in local affairs. By 1940, the U.S. government had formally ratified Point Hope’s constitution, authorizing it to form a legal community government within the federally administered territory.

Nowhere on the Arctic coast of Alaska was this tradition of cohesiveness and sovereignty more deeply incised than at Point Hope. And, it was this fact, rooted in a feeling, as one writer puts it, “of belonging inalienably where they were,” that would save the Tikirarmiut in their brush with extinction in the atomic age.


                  It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.

—Lewis Strauss, Chairman, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission

In the 1940s and 1950s, life at Point Hope went on pretty much as it always had. Nature—the cycles of light and wind and wave, the habits of animals, the character of the landform—didn’t so much impinge on human experience as merge with it. But on another frontier, a technological one, change was occurring at an almost unbelievable speed. In radical contrast to the worldview of the Eskimo, who understood so well the matter of nature, the oracles of the atomic age were busily exploring the nature of matter and imagining man’s unfettered control over nature.

Following the discovery in the late 1930s of nuclear fission (the splitting of an atom) and its release of enormous amounts of energy, scientists and observers of science declared the dawning of a golden age. Writing in Collier’s magazine in 1940, physicist R. M. Langer of the California Institute of Technology described an atomic garden of Eden where people scooted about parklike landscapes in uranium-powered cars and airplanes. The abundant energy, “so cheap it isn’t worth making a charge for it,” would allow the countryside to remain uncluttered as daily activities—even agriculture—could take place underground. And while offering “unparalleled richness and opportunities for all,” the advantages would not be purely material. Class distinctions would evaporate, and social ills would become “relics” as everyone enjoyed the good life. “War itself will become obsolete” because economic stresses would disappear. And this was not, said Langer,

              . . . a promise of Utopia centuries away. It is a statement of facts that will profoundly change for the better the daily lives of you and yours. . . . This is not visionary. The foundations of the happy era have already been laid. . . . Reality is about to be handed from the scientists in their laboratories to the engineers in their factories to application to your daily life. It is a new form of power—atomic power.

Within a year of Langer’s epiphany, the world was at war and it was the possibility of a nuclear bomb, not of a nuclear Shangri-la, that roused men’s imaginations. In 1942, President Roosevelt, in a race to beat Germany in the development of the atom bomb, moved to establish the Manhattan Engineering District. One hundred and fifty thousand people went to work in facilities all over the country. Three new laboratories—secret cities, really—were built at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oak Ridge enriched naturally occurring uranium to weapons grade, Hanford made plutonium, and Los Alamos designed and built “the gadget” itself.

These “atomic cities” bore little resemblance to Professor Langer’s promised land. They were company towns where the government owned all the land and all the buildings. No one was permitted to live there, or even visit, without a government pass. Scientists accustomed to free intellectual exchange faced “compartmentalization” of information and military secrecy. Only a tiny percent of the workforce even knew that they were working on the atomic bomb. Until future Nobel Prize–winner Richard Feynman was permitted to tell them, technicians at the Los Alamos computing center had no idea of the purpose behind the laborious calculations their machines performed. To many, security regulations were maddeningly excessive. Security officers read and censored outgoing mail, bugged homes and offices, and monitored telephone calls, interrupting any conversation that headed off course. When they got a rare day off to go up to Santa Fe, scientists noticed that they were tailed by plainclothes intelligence agents. Hotel porters turned out to be counterespionage informants, and bartenders, FBI agents. One drollery had it that because physicist Henry D. Smyth was in charge of two departments simultaneously, he required official permission to talk to himself. Thus, the emerging nuclear culture was pervaded by secrecy, insularity, and a sense of exclusive ownership of the truth—a value system profoundly at odds with the openness of Eskimo society.

Working night and day under the direction of forty-year-old J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project scientists and engineers at Los Alamos achieved their goal on July 16, 1945, at 5:25:49 A.M. At that moment, in a desert called Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death), while the people of nearby Alamogordo slept, the predawn darkness was ripped by a flash of light bright enough to be seen from another planet. Physicist I. I. Rabi was there, lying in the sand, shielding his eyes.

              Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one.

A millisecond after detonation atop a 100-foot tower, the ball of fire reached the ground with the pressure of 100 billion atmospheres, pounding out a crater nearly a quarter mile wide. The fire mass grew symmetrically, like an inverted bowl, pushing out in front of it along the ground a surge of billowing dust. At the center of the rapidly expanding inferno, temperatures reached 10,000 times that of the surface of the sun. It ascended into the darkening sky, rolling and boiling into convolutions like a fiery brain or a bloodred eye. From a base of churning black clouds and exploding gases, thousands of tons of radioactive earth were sucked up into a convection stem that trailed the fireball into the sky. At 15,000 feet, hitting warmer layers of air, its head mashed and stretched into a luminous canopy. With its stem rising eight miles above the desert floor, the flattening lobe spanned a mile and created a visual image that would thereafter become a symbol as deep-seated in the human psyche as the cross: the mushroom cloud.


On Sale
Jun 23, 2015
Page Count
448 pages
Basic Books

Dan O’Neill

About the Author

Dan O’Neill is the author of A Land Gone Lonesome and The Last Giant of Beringia. He was named Alaska Historian of the Year by the Alaska Historical Society for The Firecracker Boys. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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