Atomic Vets | Retro Report


Less than a year after Hiroshima, the militarybegan a series of classified experiments.

You are here to participate in an atomic maneuver.

The moment of explosion is less than a dayaway.

We could not tell our wives, our mothers, anybody.

 My commanding officer said a guy would have to be crazy to volunteer for that.

These atomic tests continued almost two decades, raising questions about the effect on soldiers and whether the government downplayed therisks.

Which puts the finger squarely on one of themajor fallacies in the public attitude toward atomic weapons.

Safety equipment? I don't even know what thatis.

The story of the atomic veterans is stillplaying out today, 70 years after it began.

We're falling sick, and they're trying totell some us that it never happened.

The guys started saying we were guinea pigs, atomic guinea pigs.

The decks of the 73 test ships anchored inBikini lagoon are scenes of feverish activity as scientists plot experimental programs designedto furnish data on radioactive rays, flash burns, and blast effects of the mighty atombomb.

Animals of many kinds are shipped aboard the target vessels to serve as proxies forhuman crews.



In the summer of 1946, the first post-waratomic tests took place at Bikini Atoll.

Military leaders tried to calm public fears.

It will not blow out the bottom of the seaand let all the water run down the hole.



Operation Crossroads was designed to testhow warships would hold up to a nuclear blast.

Ostensibly they wanted to see what would happento those ships, but they weren’t going to let the opportunity go by to see what happenedto a bunch of men also.

Lincoln Grahlfs piloted a naval tugboat atthe time.

We were told, ok, when you hear the countdown.

Put your arm over your eyes.

Here I am steering the ship in single file following anothership and I'm told put my arm over my eyes.

3 .



2 .



1 Fire! It was the biggest damned set of explosionsI ever saw.

It was.




Over the next 16 years, hundreds of thousandsof military men would take part in nuclear test shots.

 They were made to sign a secrecyoath to never discuss what they saw.

They said don’t tell anyone or you can betried for treason.

Frank Farmer witnessed 18 atomic blasts whilehis ship was in the Pacific.

You feel the heat blast from it.

It’s sobright, you actually see your bones in your hands.

Yeah, your natural instincts would say ‘runaway!’ but that’s not what we were told to do.

Four hours later we were in alongsidetarget vessels with no protective gear whatsoever.

Lingering radioactive contamination was aninvisible menace to any form of life at Bikini.

I was wearing a t-shirt and dungaree pants, and that’s all.

Not told of the risks, the sailors were operatingin fallout-contaminated water for weeks after the tests.

You use that water to drink with, bathe with, wash your clothes in it.

It's all just real dumb.

For people as smart enough to becomeadmirals and presidents, you'd think they'd have enough sense not to put you into somethinglike that.

As the Cold War heated up, atomic testingexpanded to American soil — allowing the military to assess new weapons quickly anddevelop strategies against possible nuclear war.

In Nevada, military personnel were stationedcloser to the blasts than ever before.

Five military observers stood directly beneaththe burst indicating the safety of interceptor nuclear rocketry to personnel on the groundbelow.

It is tremendous.

It is directly above ourheads.

It worked! It worked! A range of things were assessed to see howthey would stand up to nuclear explosions… A key concern for the military was how welltroops could continue to function.

To avoid trouble, get down, fast! If you staydown, so that the flying debris can sail over you, you can protect yourself completely fromatomic blast.

My husband was in one of the front trencheswhich I believe was about a mile maybe from the blast.

 They were told not to look atthe blast.

And when the explosion went off, Howdy said that the shock waves had made partof the trenches crumble around them.

Since the biggest value of the operation isfor us to prove to ourselves that it can be done.

Psychiatrists are with us to study ourreactions before, during and after the experience.

And then they were loaded up and taken tohave lunch.

We have had proven to us that a soldier canfight and survive on an atomic battlefield if he protects himself adequately.

Over the next few decades, even after thenuclear test ban treaty ended atmospheric testing in 1963, the military would continueto insist that what the soldiers had been through was safe.



But among the atomic veteransdoubt spread as some began to fall sick.

More and more I heard about guys that hadprostate cancer and lung cancer and all kinds of cancers.

I got boils all over my body.

I'd get themhere, I'd get them here.

One set of boils would go away, and I'd get another set ofboils.

Some veterans believed that their radiationexposure even affected their children.

My daughter died of a malignant brain tumorat the age of 46.

 Her daughter was born with a deformed foot.

I wish somebody hadwarned me that if I had children, they might be born with some defects.

But nobody did.

Whether the tests were to blame was nearlyimpossible to prove, but among vets and their families anger grew.

I believe I wrote about 535 letters of angerto see if somebody wouldn’t respond.

I even invited all of the senators and congressmenout to Nevada to have a picnic.

If it was so safe, maybe we should just turn it intoa playground.

In the 1970 and 80s, risking prosecution bybreaking their silence, some veterans went public with their concerns.

Some of the military men who participatedin atomic testing were up on Capitol Hill saying again that they were the victims.

They’reagain asking for compensation.

Policy forces the so-called Atomic Veteransto prove that radiation suffered in the military caused their illnesses and that’s not easy.

The government initially denied all compensationrequests, insisting the radiation dose at the test sites was low enough not to causeharm.

The Veterans Administration says the levelof cancer among the veterans is not any higher than that for the general population.

Some vets felt the government was coveringup what it knew about their exposures — using pervasive secrecy and spotty service recordsas bureaucratic obstacles.

There’s a big joke among atomic veterans.

Oh, they will wait until enough of us die off and then they’ll pay compensation tothe few that are left.

The fight for compensation would last almostas long as the Cold War itself.

   In 1988, political pressure from atomic vetsgot Congress to finally pass a compensation bill.

And while it applied only to a limitednumber of diseases and covered a finite period of time, the U.


was starting to take a closerlook at its nuclear past.

Today the Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, has begun to release some of the government’s most closely guarded secrets about nucleartesting.

A presidential commission was formed to makepublic the hidden history of radiation experimentation which included secret tests on civilians aswell as those on atomic vets.

We were stunned, just stunned at the challengesthat had been put in the paths of people who were just trying to find out what happenedto them.

In 1995, the committee’s report was readyfor release.

We worked extremely hard over the last 18months in order to inform you and the American people about what really happened to radiationresearch subjects in the Cold War period.

We went out, we had this extraordinarily movingceremony, the President made his remarks.

The United States of America offers a sincereapology to those of our citizens who were subjected to these experiments, to their familiesand to their communities.

 When the government does wrong we have a moral responsibilityto admit it.

The President’s apologizing for the wrongdoingwas very significant.

Presidential or national apologies are actually relatively few andfar between.

But it is true the report’s release was completely trampled by the O.


verdict’s coming out.

The trial of O.


Simpson is over.

On television about the only station not carryingthe verdict, the Weather Channel.

We were supposed to have been the entire segmentof Nightline and we ended up being the last maybe 45 seconds — “and in addition todaythe advisory committee on human radiation experiments released its report.

” It had taken fifty years for the governmentto come to this public reckoning, but even among the veterans themselves, few noticed.

I wasn't aware of any apologies, not untilyou mentioned it just now.

I did not hear about it.

 I had people tellingme “Well, they put it out over the radio and TV.

”  I said, not on mine, I neverheard it.

The United States government to this day.



Despite the government’s new openness, thebattle is far from over.

A new generation of veterans is now fightingfor recognition.

In the late 1970s, army engineers were sent back to the Marshall Islands — theoriginal atomic test site.

Bikini Atoll isn’t anybody’s idea of aSouth Pacific paradise.

 After all, it is still radioactive.

They sent myself and thousands of others toground zero, to try to clean up their mistakes.

Since the atomic tests, some Marshall islandershad been displaced, while others living nearby suffered from high cancer rates, thyroid problems, and birth defects.

The U.


government promised to make someof the contaminated islands habitable again.

We were the rock and rebar crew, that’swhat they called us, because we picked up concrete blocks, rebar, anything man-made.

Runit Island is now not only littered withlarge amounts of debris, but is also the island having the highest residual radioactivity.

They told us that it would be basically likegetting an x-ray done, they didn't talked about the six months, 24-hours a day thatwe're exposed.

My gut is that we were just expendable.

The radioactive remains from the atomic testswere encased in a concrete dome.

 The clean-up vets feel they’re similarly being sweptunder the rug.

The V.


does not acknowledge us as atomicveterans though we went in and cleaned up the mess of their testing.

While the V.


has maintained that the clean-upvets’ radiation exposure was minimal, two bills are before Congress to extend compensationto them.

And while nuclear weapons experiments continue, they are now done in highly secured facilities with minute quantities of weapons-grade plutonium.

But the country still grapples with how tohandle soldiers exposed to toxic materials in the line of duty.

Whether it was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia.

They wore the uniform.

The least we can do is take care of our men and womenwhen they come home.

Mysterious illness called Desert Storm Syndrome.



The depleted uranium shell.



Exposure to open air burn pits.



I think that that's the insidiousness of it, is that it's still going on today.

It's just a new day, it’s just a different war.

‘Cause I mean we did it for the country.

If it was for me I wouldn’t have gone over there.

When you sign up, you sign your lifeaway and they should be able to recognize people for that regardless what era they wereserving in.