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.
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.
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.