When Robert Lawson pursued continuing his education after graduating Jay High School in 1957, he had no idea that an “outdoor classroom” would include witnessing the test of a nuclear weapon in person.
“After a semester of college, I came back to Jay and ran a feed store,” Lawson said. “I really wanted to continue my education and I couldn’t afford to go back to school.”
Lawson said he believed the U.S. Navy had the best educational opportunities, and signed up in 1959.
“During my first year, I was in school pretty much the whole time, and I kept volunteering for more classes the entire time I served,” he said. “Never stop learning if it’s made available to you.”
As a budding naval aircraft electrician, Lawson began his military career with basic training at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California.
Lawson said the trip to his first station was amazing for someone who had never left the Delaware County area before in his young life.
“It was the ‘first time’ for many things,” he said. “It was my first time away from here, and it was my first ride on an airplane. When I left Oklahoma, it was the middle of winter here – cold, wet and windy. When I arrived in California, everyone was walking around in short-sleeve shirts.”
After his initial schooling, Lawson transferred to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, to train as an electrician’s mate.
He worked on anything in the Navy’s inventory that needed electrical power to operate – with the exception of radios and anything electronically controlled.
“We worked on aircraft engines, autopilot systems, starters and other such things,” he said. “Electronic technicians worked on the radios – we worked on everything that had a wire running to it.”
Lawson was later transferred to Naval Air Station Barber’s Point, Hawaii, where he helped other servicemen improve their aim against simulated enemy vehicles.
“I worked in a utility squadron,” he said. “We towed targets for other ships or airplanes to shoot at for practice. We used Yuma, Arizona, as a base to help fighter jet pilots with heir marksmanship skills, and we towed targets out to sea for ship gunners to practice hitting.”
It was while he was stationed at Barber’s Point Lawson came face-to-face with Operation Dominic in the South Pacific and witnessing the largest nuclear bomb test by the United States that had ever been performed up to 1962.
From April to October 1962, the United States performed 31 nuclear tests as part of Opertaion Dominic while the country was in a heated Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Lawson witnessed the detonation of a nuclear device codenamed “Bighorn” on June 27, 1962, from his vantage point 30 miles away.
“We got up around 3 a.m. that morning and had to go behind a sand hill – in a specified location,” Lawson said. “We had to wear the darkest sunglasses you can imagine and turn our backs toward the blast.”
The 7.6 kiloton device was air dropped over Christmas Island by a B-25 bomber, and it exploded more than two miles above the ground.
“The flash was extremely bright,” he added. “We couldn’t even see the sun while wearing those sunglasses, so the blast was many times brighter – even with our backs turned. We felt the heat even after the blast had subsided.”
Lawson said he remembers watching the explosion and thinking to himself, “With these kind of capabilities, who was going to mess with the United States?”
“It was a very impressive test,” he recalled.
After serving four years in the Navy, Lawson was discharged and returned to Oklahoma to plant roots and begin a new career with familiar duties.
“I found a job working for the U.S. Air Force in Enid, Oklahoma,” Lawson said. “I was working on T-38 aircraft – very similar to what I was doing in the Navy.”
After a year in Enid, Lawson became employed with Thyssenkrupp and worked with elevators until his retirement years later.
Along the way, Lawson met and married Bonnie “Sue” Hickman on Dec. 4, 1965. The couple has three children and 10 grandchildren.
Lawson is still involved with the military in his community. He is serving his first term as commander of American Legion Post 195 in Jay, and helps maintain the Veterans Walk in the city.
“We engraved seven more bricks there this week,” he said. “I love talking to the veterans and I always bring home new stories to tell my wife.”