Pensacola, Florida (PNJ) -- Sixty-seven years ago today, a modified U.S. Army Air Force B-29 Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed "Little Boy" on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, ultimately killing some 160,000 people.
Three days after that, a bomber from the same 509th Composite Unit targeted Nagasaki with another nuclear device, killing 80,000.
The horrific opening act of the atomic age forced Japan to surrender unconditionally on Aug. 15, 1945.
Al Brandon, now 86, recalls the triumph and tragedy of the atomic bomb's early days with mixed feelings. He witnessed the detonations of two of the early atomic bombs in 1946.
"I've never said we shouldn't have used the bomb. It ended the war quickly and saved a lot of American lives," said Brandon, who retired to Pensacola in 1982. He transferred to the Army after 12 years in the Navy and ended his career as a chief warrant officer.
As a Navy petty officer, Brandon was stationed in San Diego on Aug. 6, 1945, when news about Hiroshima spread through the ranks.
"There was no mass formation. They didn't get us together and tell us. We just heard it through the grapevine," he said.
Within eight months of the bombs being dropped, he found himself working on a project called Operation Crossroads to further test atomic weapons.
His assignment would be on a ship bound for a destination that at that time was relatively obscure: Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands, about 2,400 miles beyond Hawaii from California.
Upon arriving at Bikini Atoll, Brandon was stunned to find the largest fleet he had seen after four years in the Navy, about 100 ships. He soon learned that the craft comprised a sort of "Ghost Fleet" of retired U.S. Navy vessels, including cruisers and battleships, and others that had been captured from the Japanese and German navies.
They were to be targets, and Brandon's job would be to investigate their condition after two nuclear detonations.
The first of those weapons, called "Able," was dropped from overhead by a bomber on July 1. The second, "Baker," was exploded underwater on July 25, 1946.
"We were all scared to death. We didn't know what was going to happen," Brandon said.
He was allowed to watch from the deck of a transport ship anchored 20 miles away from Bikini. From that distance, for all the publicity about the bomb's power, he couldn't hear it.
"We hid our eyes and turned away with our heads bowed. We had to be told when it happened and we could look," said Brandon. "The mushroom cloud came up like a big oak tree."
After both detonations, Brandon's assignment was to board some of the target ships still afloat, assess the damage and record radioactivity.
Some of those boardings were brief.
"They gave me a Geiger counter, and the first thing I'd look at is if that dial went all the way to starboard, and we'd get out of there," he said.
When their inspections - usually abbreviated - ended, Brandon and the other sailors would retreat to a nearby barge.
"We'd take off all our clothing and throw it in a pile," he said. "Talk about a nudist camp. That's what it was. And then we'd get right in a shower and put on new clothing."
In September 1946, Operation Crossroads was concluded. Some of the surviving target vessels were honorably scuttled, Brandon said.
"We towed them out to sea and pulled the plug," he said.
Others were eventually used for target practice.
Back to Japan
In the early 1990s, Brandon traveled to Japan with his wife, Jo. They visited Hiroshima.
He was drawn to its tragic place in history.
"I saw people walking around with scars. Burned," he said.
Brandon remembers popular gossip columnist Walter Winchell's ominous warnings in the 1950s about the nation's nuclear weapons program.
"He was saying that everybody who participated in the bomb and was exposed to radiation would be bald and sterile," he said. "But in my case, I had four children and still have a little bit of hair."
Despite concerns about radioactivity's dangers, Brandon said he has been free of cancer.
But some of the other so-called "Geiger men" who worked on the Pacific A-bomb mission have not been so fortunate.
Over the years, many have died of leukemia and cancer at a higher rate than average, according to a 1996 medical study of Operation Crossroads veterans.
To be sure, nuclear testing continued after Brandon's experience in the Marshall Islands.
The refinement of the weapons played an essential role in the development of sophisticated missile defense systems deployed by the United States and Soviet Union that were the centerpiece of the Cold War.
But nukes haven't been used in a hot war since 1945. Having seen their power close up, Brandon said, "I'm thankful for that."