Photo of a group of U.S. Navy sea divers
credit: Conrad Cheek Jr.

Seeing as it is African American History month, I would like to share with you a true story of an unsung American hero, my father Dr. Conrad Hugo Cheek Sr., a former Tuskegee Airman with a Ph. D in nuclear chemistry.

During the 1960s, the United States government had a surplus of chemical weapons that had been piling up since the 40s. As a result, we had a problem: how does a country dispose of such deadly ordnance without creating exactly what they were trying to prevent. If they buried it in your backyard, it would be in your well water within 10-20 years.

My exposure and understanding of the situation started one Saturday when we went to my father’s lab at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory back in 60s.

Photograph of Conrad Cheek Sr. | Photo Courtesy of Conrad Cheek Jr.

Photograph of Conrad Cheek Sr. | Photo Courtesy of Conrad Cheek Jr.

He told me to sit on a chair and “do not touch anything.” As I sat on a stool, I noticed that I was next to what seemed to be a 55-gallon aquarium. But there was something strange about this aquarium. There was one air bubble in it, and somehow it was at the bottom of the tank! As I was in awe of my observations, my father returned and I asked him about the anomaly.

It has been about 50 years, but I feel that his response was “The air bubble is at the bottom of the tank because the pressure in the tank is the same as the pressure 10 miles deep in the ocean, which is 7,000 pounds per square inch (PSI). At that pressure, air becomes heavier than water.”

Over the years, as I have explained this phenomenon to other people, I have come to understand another level of what occurred. I used to say that if or when they come out, the chemicals will not rise to the top of the ocean. They will stay at the bottom, as the air bubble did in the aquarium.

Dr. Cheek in his laboratory. | Photo courtesy of Conrad Cheek Jr.

Dr. Cheek in his laboratory. | Photo courtesy of Conrad Cheek Jr.

At my current age and because of my knowledge of physics, I have come to the realization that the pressure inside these steel coffins is at our atmospheric pressure of 14 PSI. So whenever they spring a leak, the chemicals will not escape to the surface of the ocean. My opinion now is that instead, the sea water will seep in and crush, infuse and dilute the chemicals that needed to be disposed of, thus rendering them harmless to the environment.

In 1967, my father was the spokesperson for the government when the Army wanted to sink a ship containing obsolete chemical weapons encased in concrete-filled steel vaults into the Atlantic Ocean. The controversy was national news. He was quoted in newspapers and appeared on a national news program to address the concerns of environmental groups.

I recall seeing him on television when it was black and white, but at the time, I didn’t understand what the program was about. I was 13 years old.