CONNEAUT — A Korean War-era airplane mechanic found himself in the midst of a historic secret mission that involved the atomic tests on the Marshall Islands.
Richard Onest was 20 when he was called to the temporary assignment and has a certificate to prove he was there.
He said he was assigned to a seven-man crew that flew in a C54 loaded with 24 cameras focused on the islands. His work occurred when the plane was on the ground but he was in the air for a very unique experience.
“When we went up I had nothing to do but sit there and enjoy myself,” he said.
The crew was told to have the plane ready by 8 a.m. each morning but nobody, even the pilot, knew what the mission was.
“They [pilot and co-pilot] were given orders to fly certain patterns and take photographs before and after the atomic explosions. That was very, very interesting,” Onest said.
“We had orders not to talk about anything we did,” he said.
“We would fly in circular patterns around the island taking photographs of it from all angles. Two days later there was a big bomb, a big explosion, and five days after that we got the same mission. ... And there was no island, just a big round hole with blue water so I actually got to see an island disappear. We flew through the [atomic] cloud,” he said.
Onest said they got a chance to take an off duty trip to the beautiful, little islands.
“I was a 20-year-old young kid and it didn’t faze me,” Onest said.
He said they were on the special mission for six months before returning to McChord Air Force Base outside Tacoma, Wash.
He said he enlisted in the Air Force because his older brother was already fighting on the ground in Korea.
After three-months of basic training in Sampson, N.Y., he went to a eight-month airplane mechanic school. He was then assigned to the Washington Air Force Base.
Onest said he worked on RD63s which were the biggest planes in the Air Force at the time.
He said two Greyhound buses could fit inside the plane and it could still take off.
“We had four big engines on each aircraft,” he said.
Onest said they were a real challenge to fix and keep in the air.
He said he returned to the area and became a tool-and-die maker besting more than 60 people for a job in Pennsylvania.
After marrying, Onest’s wife, who was from Conneaut, wanted to come home.
He was able to get a job at Premix in North Kingsville where he worked for more than 30 years before his retirement.