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Watching A-bomb explode gave vet a lifetime of conversation starters

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Nine miles out at sea when an atomic bomb ignited at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, 19-year-old Frank G. Buzzelli watched as the mushroom cloud swelled above the tiny island’s lagoon.

He and other sailors aboard the Navy’s USS Mount McKinley were given sunglasses and told to turn their backs.

“They told us to close our eyes, but I still saw a flash of light when the bomb detonated and we all heard the terrible thunder-like sound,” said the 91-year-old Buzzelli, who remembers the atomic explosion like it was yesterday.

But it was nearly 72 years ago on July 1, 1946, when the bomb named “Able” was detonated as an experiment to measure the impact on a fleet of discarded warships populated by dozens of animals.

The blast represented the first since Japan had surrendered the previous year after the United States had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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“They had various size ships at the atoll and the explosion wrecked them. Some were left half up and half down in the water,” Buzzelli said.

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Frank G. Buzzelli, 91

Hometown: Niagara Falls

Residence: Wheatfield

Branch: Navy

Rank: radioman

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War zone: Pacific Theater, World War II

Years of service: 1944 – 1946

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal

Specialty: radiophoto

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When he had entered the Navy in 1944 to fight in World War II, he says he could never have imagined he would finish out his hitch watching an atomic bomb explode.

“I went in the Navy when I was 17. My parents had signed the early enlistment papers and I started right after graduating from Niagara Falls High School,” he said.

At the Navy’s request, he voluntarily stayed on past his 24-month enlistment to serve as part of a special radiophoto unit. The unit would handle the transmission of photographs taken of what would be the first of a number of detonations to understand the fury of what had been unleashed in the new atomic age.

“We transmitted the photographs to newspapers in San Francisco which published them in special editions a few hours after the detonation,” Buzzelli said.

The next day he and three other members of his unit were on a plane with several admirals flying back to the West Coast.

“When I got to San Francisco, I went out and bought all the newspapers I could find with the pictures of the detonation,” he said in recalling how amazed he was to see the images of what he had witnessed.

He then caught a train to New York City and was honorably discharged. But before beginning work with his father at the family business, Buzzelli’s Dairy on 19th Street in the Falls, he attended Cornell University and earned a degree in agriculture.

Soon after starting work, he married the former Helen Hargrave and they raised five children. Buzzelli was ambitious. He opened a side business, an ice cream parlor at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Tuscarora Road.

“I opened up Creamland Dairy in the 1950s and made my own ice cream and lemon ice. Everyone loved the lemon ice,” he said of the business that still continues under different ownership. “There’s a metal cow on the roof and I put that there.”

In time, the family dairy merged with other local dairies and became known as the Niagara Milk Cooperative on Buffalo Avenue, with Buzzelli serving as its general manager until 1997.

“I was 70 when I retired,” he said. “I liked what I was doing.”

Overall, he says, life has been good to him, though there have been some major challenges.

Last November, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. He says that he does not know if the cancer was caused by his exposure to radiation from the atomic bomb blast, but he says he accepts his situation.

And more recently, his wife of 65 years passed away.

Yet, he says he remains blessed with his children, a dozen grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

And there’s his military service.

Watching the detonation of that atomic bomb, he said, provided him with a lifetime of great conversation material.

“I’ve told people what an experience it was and that I’m glad I was there. It’s part of history,” Buzzelli said.

Among his prized possessions, in fact, are copies of those San Francisco newspapers he bought so long ago that show pictures of the atomic bomb exploding.

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© 2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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