Posted in family, history, Okies

Atomic Vets Again

I’m late for Memorial Day, and I have no new posts on it planned to make, so this is it. But I made old posts. So for Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, I always remember America’s atomic vets. I have at least one in my family — he died from the experimentation he was subjected to by the military — and until I heard his story, I’d heard of this kind of thing but had no idea my grandpa’s cousin was involved in what I’d thought of as just another part of history. And that’s the thing: History is made up of people. Every single one of us is history. That’s important. And it’s important that we understand where we and our families and friends are part of history.

US Army troops in Nevada, training for nuclear warfare.
These troops are about 6 miles
from Ground Zero. The Pixley Farm was about 120 miles away.

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball

My father wrote this in his memoirs about living in the San Joaquin Valley on a farm called Pixley Farm during that time period, which meant Nevada where the nuclear testing happened was right over the other side of the Sierras:

In the early 1950’s, everyone was afraid of the communists, Russia and China in particular. In 1949, the communists took control of China and Russia exploded its first atomic bomb. Russia was supplying arms, ammunition, aircraft and tanks to the North Koreans and China. China joined with the North Koreans to fight UN troops in October of 1950. The mood in the United States was one of near paranoia. It seemed that war with Russia was inevitable. The specter of WW3 loomed on the horizon. It was at this time that Senator Joseph McCarthy began his famous communist witch-hunt. He contended that there was “A Red under every Bed”. The United States engaged in extensive Atomic Bomb testing in Nevada. From our vantagepoint on the farm, the flashes of light from the tests lit up the sky behind the Sierra Nevada mountains. Following the flash of light by a couple of minutes, we were jarred by the shock wave. The roar of the blast came many minutes later. It was an eerie experience. On one occasion, just before sunrise, I was helping Dad set siphon pipes when we saw the flash. We hung on to the pickup until the shock wave arrived. When it hit, it was so strong that it sloshed water out of the irrigation ditch. On another occasion, I was knocked out of bed by a shock wave. Atomic bombs were fearsome things to a nine-year-old kid. (They are fearsome things to a 66-year-old.)

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball
The red marker that says E Terra Bella Ave shows roughly where Pixley Farm was located, where my dad could see the atomic testing over the mountains.

This is the part where my dad talks about meeting the atomic vet in my family, who eventually died as a result of the radiation:

One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom. He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army. I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero. They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment. The bomb sat on a tall tower. They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench. When the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall. He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head. We talked for a while and then he left. I never saw him again. Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.

Ronald Baggs, My Life As a Ping-Pong Ball

I made a more detailed post on atomic vets awhile back, called America’s Atomic Veterans, if you want to read it.

I think it’s important to remember not only the soldiers who died in foreign countries, but also the soldiers who died right here in America. They died without volunteering to be experimented on by their own government. The government considered them expendable. Just human guinea pigs to see what the bomb would do to them. And while we’ve made progress, neither the living vets nor the people who died have been properly compensated for the mess created. This isn’t a partisan thing, and it’s not about whether you approve of the military or not, this is just messed up what happened to people.

Posted in family, history

America’s Atomic Veterans

Black and white photo of mushroom cloud in the distance with a number of men sitting on the ground in the desert, watching. Cacti are visible in between the men and the mushrom cloud.
Atomic bomb test in Yucca Flat, Nevada, April 22, 1952.

I was raised on stories of atomic bomb tests, witnessed from afar.  My father’s family were California Okies who lived and worked on a series of farms all over Kern County and Tulare County, California.  My father told childhood stories of seeing flashes on the other side of the Sierras, then watching the shock wave roll towards them.  The shock waves were often strong enough to  knock you out of bed, or knock water out of the irrigation canals.

I didn’t know this story, though, until my father wrote his memoirs in his late sixties or early seventies.  He was born in 1941, and this seems to take place in 1952:

One afternoon, I came home from school and there was a strange man in the living room talking to Dad and Mom.  He was one of Dad’s cousins and was home on leave from the Army.  I sat and listened with wide eyes as he described his participation in the atomic bomb tests in Nevada.  He along with many other soldiers had sat in a trench one mile from ground zero.  They had dark goggles and ear protection that was their only special equipment.  The bomb sat on a tall tower.  They were told not to look at the tower or to raise their heads above the edge of the trench.  Wen the bomb went off, Dad’s cousin saw a blinding flash, and was thrown backwards against the trench wall.  He said that the blast was deafening and that a sheet of hot sand whistled over his head.  We talked for a while and then he left.  I never saw him again.  Six years later, in 1958, I heard that he had died of leukemia.

-Ronald Baggs

That’d be my first cousin, twice removed.  (I had to look that up.)  Family history meets just plain history.

The American military carried out these bomb tests regularly, and often they tested the effects on American citizens.  Quite often, these were low-ranking military personnel who were not told what they were getting into and given no radiation protection.  This is besides the effects of fallout on civilians, which was a huge problem in Nevada, surounding areas, and anywhere else weather patterns happened to take it.  And testing on unwitting civilians, which happened as well.  And the civilians in the Pacific Islands who because of all kinds of racist and colonialist crap were even more disregarded by America and France and other places that nuked the crap out of the region than most people I just talked about.

The Only Country that Ever Nuked America Was America.

Sometimes, they even had their test subjects stand up and walk towards Ground Zero after the bomb went off.

Many people, like my grandpa’s cousin, didn’t survive long.

But many people did.  And many of them — and their children — had a lot of health problems that continue to this day, especially cancer.  They were sworn to secrecy (sometimes under penalty of treason), but many began breaking that silence in order to protest lack of compensation or apology for being made into human guinea pigs for nuclear weapons.

Today, they’re known as atomic veterans.  But most people don’t know, or only know in passing, that this happened, and what happened to them and their families.  The following Retro Report video is a good overview with lots of interviews with atomic vets and their families:

It makes the point that while nuclear testing officially stopped, there are still atomic vets from after that era:  People who were sent in to clean up earlier test sites.

This post may be late for Memorial Day, but on Memorial Day I always remember people like my grandfather’s cousin, completely forgotten casualties of the Cold War, killed by their own superiors in the military. They’re rarely given the recognition for this that they would be had they died in other military contexts.

Here’s a video shot by a guy whose dad died after being subjected to atomic testing in the Marines:

And he makes the also-good point that this is not a partisan issue, it’s a matter of basic respect.

So that’s what Memorial Day has had me thinking of.   I have lots of vets both living and dead in the family, but the only one I know of who died because of something that happened during his service was used as a lab rat in Nevada without being told.  My grandfather on the other side got a Purple Heart for a relatively minor injury in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but my other grandpa’s cousin got no recognition to my knowledge even though he died from the effects of the radiation.

Apparently they were usually sworn to secrecy under threat of treason charges, but he had no trouble telling family.  I imagine that was common.

They’re still fighting for recognition and compensation, to my knowledge.  The unfortunate joke among atomic vets — probably quite real — is that the government’s just waiting until most of them die.

And most people don’t even know they exist.