The date July 16 holds special significance for a group of about 320,000 American military veterans. It’s the date in 1945 when the United States held its first nuclear test and the date that group of veterans wants named Atomic Veterans Day.
The ongoing efforts to declare a national Atomic Veterans Day have been underway since just after 1983, when President Reagan signed a proclamation. The U.S. government lifted an order of secrecy in 1996 that enables atomic veterans to talk about their experience. Before that, nobody who worked with radioactive materials as part of their military service could discuss what they did in the service.
The government passed the Atomic Energy Act and the Invention Secrecy Act following World War II, which laid the groundwork for absolute secrecy in matters relating to nuclear weapons.
Air Force veteran Keith Kiefer, of Zimmerman, who served a total of six years in the Air Force 1975-1981, said, “You couldn’t even talk to your doctor.”
He added that many of the soldiers’ wives and kids didn’t know what their loved ones had done in the service.
Marine veteran James Hamann, of Dayton, served from 1953-1956 and said, “It’s (Q Clearance) not on anybody’s record, and there are thousands of us.”
Xavier Gagnon, of Minneapolis, also a Marine veteran who served from 1953-1956, said, “We were instructed not to confirm or deny anything.”
Servicemen often heard that the penalty for talking could be five to 20 years in prison.
All three of the local veterans are part of a nationwide movement to raise awareness about and recognize atomic veterans for their uncommon service, and they scored an incremental victory in Minnesota for this year. Kiefer said the governor recently signed a proclamation declaring July 16, 2017, as Atomic Veterans Day.
Advocates have tried for years to have the day declared nationally, but Kiefer said they’re having better luck going state by state. As of this year, about a dozen states have declared July 16 as Atomic Veterans Day.
Kiefer said a federal resolution was passed in 1983 to declare a national Atomic Veterans Day, but the wording failed to include “and every year hereafter.”
Andrew Mathews, of Milaca, senator for District 15, brought the 2017 Minnesota proclamation bill forward.
Mathews said in a press release earlier this year: “It is a tremendous honor for me to have carried this bill, which recognizes a relatively small, but incredibly important, section of veterans that played a critical role in our nation’s security. These are men and women who were – often unknowingly – put in extremely dangerous situations, doing so in the service of their country. It is imperative that we do all we can to honor their sacrifices.”
Who are the atomic veterans?
The National Association of Atomic Veterans includes members of the U.S. Armed Forces who as a result of their service work were exposed to ionized radiation.
The group of 320,000 includes soldiers who participated in nuclear weapons tests from July 1945 to October 1962; service people who helped after an earthquake in Japan produced a tsunami that compromised the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011; those who had post-test duties such as decontamination and radiation removal; and those assigned to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the nuclear-bomb detonation.
Others considered atomic veterans are those who participated in underground nuclear testing, served as technicians aboard nuclear-powered aircraft or submarines and those involved with the Enewetak Atoll radiation cleanup projects, as well as veterans who handled or were exposed to depleted-uranium weapons.
Generally, the group pushes for approval of an atomic veterans service medal and compensation for illness or disorders related to radiation exposure.
Hamann said he is the commander of the Atomic Veterans Post 515 in Dayton’s Bluff, the only atomic veterans post in the state. He’d like for every service post to be an atomic veterans post.
Another goal of the atomic veterans is to spread the word that not all atomic veterans know yet: The former servicemen and women are no longer bound by secrecy.
What did atomic veterans do?
Atomic veterans basically did what they were told and did not ask questions, according to Kiefer, Hamann and Gagnon. They shared some stories from their service experiences.
Gagnon reported to Marine boot camp, and afterward he was told he’d go for advanced training at Camp Pendleton, North Carolina, and then to Korea for service.
“Three weeks later, they picked seven of us out, and we had to go through a whole series of psych tests,” Gagnon said.
The Marines were told they’d be on special duty but weren’t told what it was. Gagnon remembers being given a folded-up form to complete that unfolded to about 3 feet of paper and asked in-depth questions. He was pulled in as part of the group and given the same questionnaire again after training.
Gagnon said he arrived in Nevada with a group about a year later, and the military wanted him to sign something signifying the accuracy of the form. Gagnon refused to sign the form and then the military gave him even more responsibility.
He said in 1955, he was part of a flying squad that was sent out for “anything that came up.” His outfit was sent to guard an air base that had a bomber plane parked at the end of a runway.
He said the four-hour shift turned into 14 hours, “Then I found out that this was a hot plane that had been flying through a decontamination cloud all day.”
Other assignments he remembers is constant patrol of critical areas and driving a buffer vehicle loaded with roll-off containers that everyone knew held some kind of nuclear materials.
“To this day,” Gagnon said, “I don’t know what was in them.”
Gagnon said the military used wells to cool off the plane, and that water was not contained but flowed into the ground. People presume now that the military used all the now-modern tools available to gauge radiation such as Geiger counters, dosimeters and protective suits. Gagnon and Hamann said that equipment was not available or used when they served. In fact, Gagnon remembers men sleeping in a canvas tent while nuclear tests were being conducted outside.
The standard was to wear a badge that when developed would change colors if it detected high levels of radiation, but few servicemen wore them either because they were not made available or were ineffective. Gagnon and his fellow servicemen are among the thousands potentially affected by harmful radiation. He said he when he joined the service, he weighed 170 pounds; when he was released about a year after the hot plane assignment, he weighed 132 pounds.
Doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him and there is no record of an illness. Gagnon said he did not begin gaining weight until he went to work on a North Dakota farm where they fed him five times a day.
Hamann said the long forms Gagnon remembers were required by the Atomic Energy Commission for the “Q Clearance” given to those who worked with any kind of nuclear energy for weapons, or, ionizing radiation. He said those Marines at training camp had their own entrance to the camp, and the security people didn’t even know what was going on.
He said about 500 Marines were involved in the training camp, many of which went next to Lake Meade in Nevada, a known nuclear-testing site. He said nobody knew what they were doing there, they only knew it was a missile base. Hamann said there were 13 bases like it, each staffed with 1,000 to 2,000 service people.
“I’ve been trying for 60 years to get all those people together,” he said.
A nickname for one of the atomic testing sites was Atomic Teapot. Hamann said he probably made about a handful of trips to the site with about 30 other guys. He they were never given formal orders, usually just a verbal command.
He said the testing involved different bomb technologies, such as hydrogen, thermonuclear, plutonium and uranium. For examples, the men said the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was plutonium technology, and the one dropped on Hiroshima was uranium based.
Hamann said the Marines almost always went to site at night and were given orders of “shoot to kill.” Hamann and Gagnon both said during their entire time in the service, they were never allowed to have a camera, at least not one with film in it.
Kiefer’s time in the Air Force included being part of the Enewetok Atoll cleanup team. The area includes the Marshall Islands of the South Pacific where many nuclear tests were conducted. The area was also nicknamed the Bikini Atoll. His orders for service read “radiological cleanup project.”
He said, “Two of the nuclear tests destroyed the islands to where they no longer exist.”
Kiefer said the basic mission was to remove radioactive soil and other materials from the sites and dump them into enormous craters created by an atomic bomb, “Cactus.” Once loaded, the craters were then sealed with 358 concrete panels that were 18 inches thick. He said the cleanup teams were tasked with removing contaminated soil and equipment.
He said the crews used bulldozers to scrape off the top layer of soil, which was piled into dump trucks and then loaded onto boats for transport to the crater on Runit Island. Kiefer said protection from radiation in the 1970s was not much better than when Gagnon and Hamann served. He said the soldiers put on yellow chemical suits and surgery masks – not filtration masks – to take publicity pictures, but they mostly worked without protection.
The badges were supplied to some personnel, but many were ineffective due to improper storage and handling. Some workers would mask their faces with cotton T-shirts. He said they pushed radioactive dirt into the same lagoon from which they took water to desalinate and drink.
Kiefer keeps “challenge coins” that commemorates his time serving on the Enewetak Atoll Atomic Cleanup Joint Task Force – Marshall Islands 1977-1980. The coin bears the name of each island, which is followed by a number that represents how many nuclear bombs were detonated in that area. Kiefer said the numbers only represent those bombs that exploded and do not include the duds or ones that otherwise did not detonate.
The coin bears these names and numbers: for a total of 43 known blasts:
Atomic veterans’ challenges today
Service people have been able to talk openly about nuclear duties for the past 20 years, but all of them face difficulty in having their challenges acknowledged. They explain how the effects of radiation may yet still be unknown, since some of the radioactive isotopes involved can have a half life of more than 24,000 years.
There are also many different kinds of radiological exposure, and each may have a different effect on the human body. At least one of the atomic veterans was told by a sergeant that he could not give blood, but the others were not told that.
The three atomic veterans attest that obtaining a copy of their now unclassified service records proves nearly impossible. The “Q Clearance” they had does not show on their existing service records.
“A lot of them get the story that their records burned up in the St. Louis fire,” Kiefer said.
This refers to a National Archives Fire in 1973, but Kiefer has learned the fire only involved Army records in a room approximately 10-by-20 feet that contained Army records from World War II. The question has been asked how Marine records burned up in an Army archives fire. Gagnon said he’d bought bonds during his service years and kept one of the originals when he cashed them in years ago. The bond bears the address where he was stationed, so it is the most official record he has of his time as an atomic veteran.
“Radiation is something that fouls the senses,” Hamann commented, and often a person doesn’t know it’s affecting them.
He said when an atomic veteran asks for a service-related benefit, they’re automatically denied and then it can take up to 10 years to get approval for an atomic veteran to get even a partial benefit. Hamman claims the government delays the process as long as possible.
Gagnon said he applied for benefits this year and got a letter saying “they’re working on it” and to expect a time period of at least six months for a claim. He said nothing is done about veterans’ exposure to radiation; it is not on the Veterans Affairs’ list of presumed diseases but is recognized as a cause for “undiagnosed illness.”
The three men said nuclear fallout from the testing entered the atmosphere and drifted to other places, landing on vegetation eaten by livestock and in water consumed by people and animals. The atomic veterans say even Albert Einstein, whose mathematical equation on energy enabled nuclear weapons, warned they would produce diseases and viruses the world has never seen.
The three have gathered many perspectives.
Gagnon once met the pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the Little Boy nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The pilot said the bomb dropping was necessary and millions more lives would have been lost had it not been dropped.
Many scientists and others involved had trepidation about the bombs. The atomic veterans said another aboard the Enola Gay took their own life.
Hamann suggests that the government take some of the money all the countries pay toward storing nuclear waste and funnel some of it to the atomic veterans. He said it’s also concerning that the Department of Energy manages that money, and it’s never undergone an audit.
Hamann and Kiefer attended a rally this year held to try to bring awareness to the plight of atomic veterans and how they’re being “ignored and shoved aside.” The organization had invited all members of the U.S. Congress, and two lawmakers attended with activist Erin Brockovich.
Kiefer is also excited to attend an event 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, July 16, at the Veterans Lake Park, 8702 181st Ave NW, which is private property in Ramsey. The day will be to celebrate and commemorate the proclamation, as well as enjoy grilled food and a celebratory cake.
The three atomic vets think the proclamation is great progress, and they’re happy that at least for 2017, their home state will recognize Atomic Veterans Day.