Clifford Lewis: Atomic Veteran
Few people have witnessed the explosion of an atomic bomb, but Clifford Lewis distinctly remembers seeing the “explosion of color with a mushroom cloud.” It was 1962, and he was part of Operation Dominic, a series of top-secret tests conducted by the U.S. military.
“I watched them drop the bomb out in the Pacific Ocean while I was at Johnston Island, west of Hawaii,” Lewis said. “It was quite a sight.”
Numerous times, he was chosen to be present during detonations, although he and his fellow men were unclear about the operation’s details. “Each time they put us on the center of an island, we had to bend over and put our head between our legs. They gave us dark goggles and earplugs. There was a countdown, a bomb detonated above, and there was a bright flash. It was scary.”
Lewis and his buddy joined the Air Force after realizing they were about to get drafted as the Vietnam War began escalating. “We figured that by joining, there was a better chance of getting special training we could use when we got out. In my case, it worked,” Lewis said. “I was assigned as a Crash Rescue and Recovery Firefighter, so when I was discharged after four years and one month, I took a chance and applied with the Oklahoma City Fire Department. They hired me, and I stayed for 27 years.”
For the next 15 years, Lewis served as an arson investigator. Since retirement, Lewis has remained active with the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association, serving as past president and currently publishing the organization’s newsletter. During most of his firefighting career, he was not allowed to mention his role in nuclear testing, having sworn an oath of secrecy to the government, an oath which was not rescinded until 1996.
A Life Well Lived
Like many people with radiation exposure, Lewis has dealt with cancer. “I don’t know if it was from radiation or not, but in any case, it hasn’t got to me yet.” To help other veterans who need health resources, Lewis is the Oklahoma State Commander for the National Association of Atomic Veterans, and he also serves as an advocate for other atomic veterans.
Lewis, a member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, has lived in Edmond since the 1970s. He recalls when it was two-lane roads and it “cost a dime to make a phone call between Edmond and Oklahoma City.” When asked to describe his life lessons, he quoted a survival phrase, “Follow waters and do your best.” He added, “I go to church regularly. I don’t smoke or drink. I exercise and try to stay healthy, and I mind my own business.”
In October 2022, the 85-year-old was honored with the first-ever Who’s Who of Oklahoma Veterans medallion, presented by Col. James Wilhite of the Oklahoma Military Heritage Foundation. Lewis also received a Quilt of Valor from the Cordelia Steen Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and was presented with a flag of the Muscogee-Creek Nation by Principal Chief, David Hill and Second Chief, Del Beavers. Lewis was humbled.
“I enjoyed serving my country,” Lewis said. “Serving in the military let me meet people and see things I would never have gotten to see otherwise.” Like a nuclear explosion.