Between 1945 and 1962, nearly half a million members of the armed forces participated in atomic bomb detonations from the islands of the South Pacific to the deserts of Nevada.
For some, the outcome was deadly.
Though reminiscent of a mid-century sci fi saga, the story of the atomic veterans, as they have come to be called, is one of service and sacrifice. With an estimated 167,000 atomic veterans still living, the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs are eager to reach each one regarding benefits to which they may be entitled. What scientists have learned from their experiences has helped improve U.S. responses in nuclear disasters around the globe.
Ushering in the Atomic Age
After the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II, the nation made the leap from a world of conventional warfare directly into the high-stakes atomic age. The U.S. wielded tremendous power with its capability, but its understanding of what nuclear weapons meant to the future of warfare and to the men and equipment fighting the next conflict was limited. Testing was crucial to explore the possibilities afforded by “the new doctrine,” as some referred to nuclear warfare.
In 1946 the Defense Department conducted its first nuclear postwar test. “Crossroads” took place at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and specifically tested the effect of radiation on naval ships. The Navy positioned roughly 70 vessels destined for the post-war scrap heap in this secluded South Pacific location. Participants placed test animals including dogs and goats on board the deserted ships.
After two detonations, sailors climbed on board the irradiated ghost fleet, collected up the animal remains and test samples and inspected the damage. Approximately 42,000 military personal participated in Joint Task Force 1. Navy participation alone numbered 37,000 and nearly 150 support ships, according to Navy records.
The Defense Department briefly oversaw atomic testing until Congress established the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC had wide-ranging powers and regulated the whole field of nuclear science and technology, including atomic testing.
Detonations with military participation continued. Navy divers set testing instruments and entered irradiated waters to gather test samples. Aircraft flew through atomic clouds collecting test particles. Crews routinely washed down their ships and aircraft wearing nothing but a cotton uniform, according former Navy diver, “R.J.” Ritter.
“We never had any type of protective gear. Heck, we’d wash down the ships, aircraft and our buddies with the same contaminated water,” says Ritter.
Testing moved from the South Pacific to Nevada in 1951. On July 1, 1954, the Marines stood up Marine Corps Test Unit I “for the express purpose of developing tactics and techniques in support of the new concept …” The Corps based the regimental-sized unit at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego.
The Marines saw a future of amphibious operations in a nuclear environment. In 1955, it reported, “The Marine Corps has commenced an active program to exploit potentialities [stemming from nuclear weapons and helicopters]. The result has been the rapid development of the new concept, which has enhanced the power of the amphibious assault and will enhance it still more in the future. ...”
At the remote desert test sites, large numbers of uniformed military members could be seen hunkered down in narrow earthen trenches. Ritter recalls one Marine who picked up a dead lizard and wryly turned to his buddy, “Semper Fry.” Gallows humor was typical of the experiments, he says.
Not everyone was laughing and a number of servicemen were deeply affected by their atomic experience.
Dr. Paul Blake, program manager for the Nuclear Test Review program at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, says the flash from a nuclear detonation could leave a lasting impact. “The participants could see the bones in their hands illuminated by the intense flash when one of these bombs went off,” he says.
“I still have nightmares about the glow,” says Ritter, who cannot forget the detonations he experienced as a diver at Operation Wigwam,1955, and Operation Redwing, 1956. The underwater test at Wigwam, off the San Diego coast, sent a virtual tsunami across the test area. “The force and size of the waves was unlike anything I had ever seen,” recalls Ritter.
For Public Information Only
The Atomic Energy Commission and the Nevada Test Organization shot out media releases about atomic testing detailing troop movements following detonations. Highlights included the first use of helicopters in an atomic explosion.
On July 5, 1957, according to one release, the largest detonation to date was fired at 4:40 a.m. Marines crouched in 5-and-a-half-foot trenches 5,700 yards away from ground zero. Some of the trenches caved in from the force of the detonation and small fires broke out in the area. Field monitoring teams checked the area for radiation levels. Marines were cleared to begin a “vertical” envelopment of the test site.
The helo assault began one hour and 40 minutes after the explosion, but landing zones had been moved away from ground zero over radiation concerns. Marine in amphibious personnel carriers also assaulted and jets from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro provided air cover for the mock attack.
Atomic Media Darling
Magazines covered the detonations. Leatherneck’s September 1957 cover read “Big Shot.” “After a dramatic misfire, Operation Diablo proved that Marines could nestle closer to ‘The Gimmick.’”
Nevada businesses saw profit from the gimmick. Hotels hosted atomic-themed events. “Dawn Bomb Parties” started the night before a detonation. Guests waited for the flash of the latest atomic bomb.
The Nevada Nuclear Test site had its share of pin-ups to add to its A-bomb list. Las Vegas showgirls were crowned under such titles as Miss Atomic Blast, “radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles.” There was “Mis-Cue” and “Miss Atomic Bomb,” the last in 1957 and fabled to be the most famous of the pin-ups.
By the time atomic detonations went underground in 1962, nearly 500,000 had joined the ranks of atomic veterans dating to 1945. Included are the POWs in the vicinity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the U.S. occupation forces in Japan the first year following the war. But the majority of atomic veterans are those who served at the South Pacific and U.S. testing sites.
Check back next month for Part II.