-by Greg Hoots-
Note: This story was first published in the Flint Hills Special, 2012.
For years I shared my lunch break with Don Mogge. I would grab a bite to eat in the early afternoon, and Don would usually meet me at the café in Alma, Kansas where I dined, and he would enjoy a glass of iced tea and a slice of pie. We always sat at the last two barstools at the end of the counter.
Don would walk into the café, an unlit cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth and a ball cap shading his eyes which were covered with sunglasses. “The bright sun really bothers my eyes,” he explained once.
For a long time, Don seemed like most every rancher in the area, an expert on grain and cattle prices and a prognosticator of the weather. Don was a bright guy, and often he would comment on stories in the Topeka newspaper which was left on the counter for customers to read. After I published the first edition of the Flint Hills Special, Don realized that I had an interest in history, and he began to tell stories during my lunch break, each seemingly more riveting that the one which preceded it.And, Don had stories to tell. He was born in Mill Creek Township in Wabaunsee County on January 29, 1929, the son of William “Bill” and Gertrude Mogge. One of four children, the family lived on farms south of Alma during the years of the Great Depression; his dad struggled to make a living during those hard times. In 1940 Don’s dad landed a job with the Rock Island Railway and the family moved to McFarland that year. As a youth, Don worked in McFarland at the stockyards and at the gas station located at the corner of Main and Market Streets in the bustling railroad town.
Don’s tales were like pages from a history book, and each day I would extract a little more information about his storied life. After graduating from Alma High School, Don continued working in McFarland until February 1951 when he received his induction notice to report to the draft board. During Don’s time in the Army, he was assigned to an Engineer Combat Battalion and trained in underwater demolition. In that role, Don participated in five secret missions to Korea where his outfit destroyed strategic North Korean targets. After his stint in the Army, Don returned to Wabaunsee County and on June 19, 1954 married Trudy Reiners. The couple had two children, Cindy and Rodney.
In 1957, Don began a 27-year career as a member of the Topeka Police Department, first assigned to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit and later as a detective. Mogge retired in 1984 as a detective sergeant. In July of 1965, while working as a CSI crime-scene photographer, Mogge photographed the collapse of the Melan Arch Bridge, located on Kansas Avenue in Topeka. A year later in 1966 Don witnessed the massive F-5 tornado which ripped through Topeka, and as a crime scene photographer, Don was assigned the task of photographing the destruction of the storm. As the Topeka streets were filled with rubble, Don was given a motor scooter to follow the path of the storm just minutes after its passing, and he took over 400 photographs of the storm’s damage, using his 4×5-inch format press camera.
Later in his career, Don was a member of the investigation team on a number of high-profile cases, including his role as lead investigator in the 1979 kidnapping and murder case of twelve-year-old Jack Hanrahan. In 2000, sixteen years after his retirement, Mogge was called to testify in the trial of Thomas Berberich, accused of Hanrahan’s killing.
The stories were gripping. Virtually any of the tales would make an excellent crime novel or movie. There was one story that Don told that I found most astonishing. One day, out of the blue, Don related to me that he had witnessed the first four above-ground tests of thermonuclear bombs (hydrogen bombs), conducted by the United States military at the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Nevada Test Site. If the story seemed too unbelievable, Don had an aged scrapbook which chronicled those events.
Don related this tale. “I was assigned to Company A, 231st Engineer Combat Battalion and received eight weeks of basic training and then received an additional six weeks of training, and then I was sent to school for underwater demolition. When I arrived back to my unit, I found that Company A had been picked to go to a top secret installation at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada.
We left Ft. Lewis by convoy, and when we arrived at Camp Desert Rock we found nothing but sand, rocks, and Yucca trees along with sidewinders and scorpions. We were then advised that my company was going to move onto the testing grounds, and that we would be observing bomb tests in what was called Operation Buster. Between Desert Rock and the testing grounds was a small town where adult male employees of the Atomic Energy Commission lived. The population of the town was 150.
Once we arrived on the flats, referred to as Frenchman’s Flats, we were advised by the AEC that our location was approximately 14-miles from the spot where the bombs would be detonated. We were also given orders that we would assist the AEC in the work project during the testing of five bombs, and at least the first bomb would be dropped down a 300-foot tall towner and would be detonated at 100-feet above ground level.
On the morning of October 18th, we were advised that the first bomb would be dropped the next morning at 6:00 am. We were given dark glasses and instructed not to stand up, bet to sit or kneel. That night a desert storm came up with a lot of wind and blew itself out during the night. We were all set for the test the next morning, and the countdown came to zero and nothing happened. We later found out that the wind had caused some problems with the wiring ant that Mr. Dean, a high-ranking scientist with the AEC, climbed the tower, himself, and repaired the wiring on the bomb.
Three days later, on October 22nd, at about twenty minutes before the scheduled detonation, a countdown began and at about 6:00 am the bomb, given the code name Able, was dropped from the tower and detonated. We could see a cloud of dust and sand from the explosion before we heard the report from the blast. We would learn later that the bomb was a “fizzle” a term used by the AEC to describe a detonation which failed to produce the yield or explosive force expected. Even when a fizzle occurs, an explosion occurs and radiation is released. The force of the explosion, however, was insufficient to completely destroy the bomb tower.
We were notified that in the remaining tests in which we would participate, the bombs would be dropped from an aircraft. The next test was conducted on October 28, and that bomb was code named Baker, and was dropped at 7:20 am from a B-50 bomber and detonated at 1,118 feet above the ground. The blast measured 3.5 kilotons and was spectacular. At first there was a great flash, first white and then red and then a bright blue color. A beautiful white mushroom started to develop, and then we could see a wave of dust raised by the blast which hit us, and a few seconds later there was a great noise followed by silence. The white mushroom kept rising upward from where we were. We were advised that it passed 20,000 feet and then started to drift to the east.
Our military unit had constructed a number of buildings, including concrete bunkers and structures made of brick and wood. Everything was built between 1 ¼ and 4 miles from the detonation site, and the army brought in tanks, trucks, artillery guns and other military equipment which was placed in the same area. A variety of animals, including cattle, sheep, and hogs were brought to the site and placed at varying distances from the anticipated blast. While we were instructed to watch the explosions of the first two bombs, for the third and fourth test we were place in ten-foot deep trenches, much closer to ground zero than before. The third bomb, dropped at 7:00 am on October 30, was code-named Charlie, and it was huge, giving a yield of 14 kilotons. The explosion destroyed everything up close, all of the buildings, all of the equipment, everything was vaporized. Further back, the only animals that survived the initial blast were some hogs, locate the furthest from the blast site; I guess it helped that they were built close to the ground. We all wondered, “how much bigger can the bombs get?”
The fourth bomb, dropped on November 1, was named, Dog, and was the largest one that I witnessed. More troops were brought in for this test, including members of the 11th Airborne. The bomb was dropped at 7:30 am and yielded 21 kilotons, one and a half times the power of the bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. The amount of dirt and debris that blew over and on top of us in the trench was tremendous. I picked up a two-foot long piece of lumber, a 2×4, and it had been blown through a cyclone fence, and the imprint of the fence wire was deeply burnt into the board.
While we were originally scheduled to observe five bomb blasts, after the detonation of the Dog bomb, we were advised the next day that our unit would not be required to attend any more tests. We were given a pass to go spend a day on the Las Vegas Strip, and then we packed up and returned to Ft. Lewis.
While many of the soldiers who observed the tests suffered serious illnesses throughout their lives, I was lucky; I seemingly had no long term effects. The Department of Defense periodically checked with me to see if I had developed any illnesses relating to my participation in the bomb tests.”
The story left me speechless.
Mogge spent his retirement years ranching on his farm about half way between Alma and McFarland. Don passed away on September 3, 2007 from complications after heart surgery.