tv Veterans and Nuclear Radiation Exposure CSPAN February 20, 2021 10:30am-11:06am EST
i'm hannah dailey one of the historians here at the national world war ii museum in new orleans today. i'm going to be talking about speaking about atomic veterans. which when i first came across the term, i had never heard of it before which surprised me because i study military history, but i'd kind of touched on everything at least a little bit. so i was researching a potential
oral history interviewee who used the term in his memoirs since then i have done quite a bit of research and have a very wonderful working relationship with keith kiefer. who is the current commander of the national association for atomic veterans, but what is an atomic veteran? the va's official definition states that it is someone who served between 16 july 1945 and 30 october 1962 and during their time in service was exposed to radiation. there are several different government agencies that define it. slightly differently based on dates the va states don't include the anna we talk atoll radiological cleanup crew who served from 77 to 1980 and we're certainly exposed during their time of service.
and so going back to the first interview. we that i found i guess so f lincoln graphs. so he enlisted in the navy in 1942. he didn't wait for the draft. he was eager to get in. he thought the war was gonna last a lot longer. he served a board a tug in the pacific and then when the war was over he still had to finish out his time of service. so post world war ii, mr. graphs was assigned to the uss atr 40 and he participated in operation crossroads. all right. so operation crosswords was something i had heard about but maybe wasn't quite sure immediately. so operation crossroads is a series of nuclear tests at the bikini atoll in the marshall islands in the pacific that were done in 1946. so the natives on the bikini
atoll and in enemy talk were removed off of the islands so that the us could perform these nuclear tests and continue to study them able and baker were both detonated and they tested nuclear weapons on naval warships. in particular and so mr. graphs he was situated about 10 miles or so out from the detonations and he witnessed abel and baker after these detonations. they were living life as normal on the ships and they would actually pull the water from the lagoon to clean with to brush their teeth with and to cook with so these atomic detonations were? within 10 to 20 miles of the ships. and so we in lincoln graphs eat f. lincoln graphs are turned back to the states. he had a very unique experience
which if you'll play the first he talks about i got this big absence on my face. and so i reported into oak knoll naval hospital. and when i checked in a naval hospital. among other things they gave me a complete physically examination. they found i had a high fever. and i also had a crazy white blood count. and they did what was common to do in those days gave me massive doses of penicillin. it didn't touch it. and so after several days. and hospital. oh every day a doctor would come
in with a whole. parade of other doctors following him and the guy in charge would say now this is the interesting case. i've been telling you about so i'm an interesting case. the penicillin didn't do anything for this. so one day the corpsman comes in and says, okay. i'm willing you down to x-ray. so they take me to x-ray. and they put a lid lid shield over my eye. and they hit me with a shot of x-ray. and i go back. room next day they come in and they give me another shot of x-ray.
and this commander who was a doctor. should son when i was a country doctor, we'd call this a hair the dog that bit you. and i figured out that was his way of telling me. what he wasn't supposed to tell me. the hair the dog that bit me was a little bit of radiation and so he had a very unique experience and they never really explained to mr. grouse. what had happened but after they did complete the two tests in the pacific when they returned to the states, there was a large area roped off on the main deck from nobody could go on that area on the ship. they said it was too hot that it was contaminated. never mind that they're all still living on the ship at the
same time, but that was the case and as we have continued the tradition of doing navy days to this day f lincoln grass was on his ship during a navy day and they were stationed at pearl harbor happened to be there maybe days when civilians can go bored naval vessels and it's actually pretty cool. so you've never done it should definitely try to but this particular navy day. everyone civilians were boarding all the vessels around them and their ship had a sign that said no visitors because they were consider two contaminated too hot but the whole time all of the sailors were still living aboard the ship. all right, so moving into the 1950s. we're going to look at operation castle which was another series of nuclear tests. so this one was a series of high-yield thermonuclear weapon tests. six hydrogen bombs were detonated at the pacific proving
ground specifically in a we talk and the bikini atoll. i believe this is possibly the first successful hydrogen bomb test. and yes, so sorry. yeah. um, so ronald benoit who grew up during world war ii he was drafted into the army in 1953 and trained as an a military police. so he and 29 other mps were sent to the sent to marshall islands. he was a board ship with other servicemen to witness these hydrogen bomb tests. afterwards after the test was over all of them servicemen would be put below deck. and the ship was then washed down by washed down. i mean it was an attempt to kind of clean the radiation from the nuclear fallout off of the vessel they were taking water
from the pacific ocean and reusing it. now since midnight was an mp his job was to stay by the doors and make sure none of the other service men snuck out or try to open the door during this process and fortunately he was stationed outside the door during this washdown process. and here we have a bit of his experience of watching the hydrogen bomb and then his experience of returning to annually talk if you'll you'll play the next clip, please. and that bomb went off we had glasses. he couldn't even see the sun with him like weldman glasses. i went to take him off. i seen the bones of my hand and the guy in front of me. it's coverton and you don't you don't forget it. believe me from the radiation. it's true. it's not fantastic and there was a bomb was 1,000 times bigger than the atomic bomb. i mean you can imagine that what the you know what the atomic bomb killed a couple of thousand
people in japan. this was 1,000 times bigger. okay, pull back into and we talked in the first ones off to ship you would think of me to scientists 10 and peace because we were so and we could take all our clothes off. they had a decontamination parts alongside the ship to call our clothes off. when on the island they i took about 30 40 shower shower shower take to take another and go take and they kept checking us radiation. you know. there was something we got contaminated. there's no doubt about it. you know, i have breathing problems from it still today, you know, i ended up in the hospital for four days. and i tried to get to records i saw him. it doesn't show us in the hospital before the and then sticking with the 1950s. we're going to focus on ken holmberg. he joined the navy in 1956. he served aboard the uss
lawrence county lst887 stationed in the marshall islands. so at that time they were still doing testing on the at the pacific proving ground operation hardtack was in 1958 and it was again atomic explosions being studied. so they were setting many different things one of the things they wanted to see was how an atomic bomb would affect an underwater mine. so they had these giant blocks of wood. they secured underwater mines too floated them out during the test and then would after the test gather them up put all the contaminated material on the deck and bring it back to honolulu. holmberg talks about how swimming was allowed in the marshall islands. that was fine. however, they were not allowed to consume the coconuts the bananas or the fish you could fish for fun, but you were not
to consume the fish. there was a two hour countdown to each detonation, which apparently was pretty exhausting after a while and ken holmberg witnessed 12 separate detonations, which is amazing. so if you'll play the next clip, you'll kind of see what it was like for him in his experience. when obama's going to be detonated we all had to stand on the main deck. in turn our backs and put our hands over our eyes. and these and they said do not look at that. detonation and the officers had these special glasses and i got a pair for one one exposure and you couldn't begin to see the sun with them. so the first bomb i had my hands over my eyes that detonated and i could see all the bones in my
hand. and i thought holy balls. this thing is something else. and just say after you count to 10 or 12 and then you can turn around. in the mushroom cloud is going up and and it's just it's on fire and and and they tell the tell us brace yourself. well then and i was just stand there in the shockwave hit. and knock me right on my --. i thought holy balls. this is some serious stuff. they got here. and every have and then we had this. i don't know like a sprinkling system put it into our onto our ship. after obama was exploded. could all go below decks. shut all the hatches it and they
on this sprinkling system. so there are second radioactive water out of the bay because we were in the the bay of antietam. in washington i i suppose the purpose was to wash a ship down. i don't know. in hindsight, it didn't. it don't make much sense to alignment like me. and so when asked about you know what he thought about at the time or if they talked about it, ken holmberg was adam. he said, you know, this was a huge secret. we were not allowed to tell her loved ones what we were doing. we were not allowed to talk about anything, you know need letters home. he was informed if he spoke about what he saw or what he was doing. it was one-way trip to 11 war. all right, so moving along the natives that the us government had removed from the marshall islands or you know, we talk in the bikini atoll in order to do
this testing had expressed a desire to be able to go back home to their homes, which the us government had promised that they would do so that resulted in the no we talk atoll radiological cleanup. this is from 1977 to 1980 and so the idea was that you know, they needed to remove the radiation from the island to make it livable. so the bikini atoll was out. it was too much radiation. they called that a no-go so they changed to shifting to concentrating cleaning up and we talk. so keith kiefer who is going to be the next clip in a minute. he was part of this annually talk atoll radiological cleanup crew what they were doing was removing 18 inches of contaminated soil and dumping it
into a crater. so there have been these huge craters from the atomic palm testing so they were dumping it into cactus crater. on runit island and then they're going to cap it with a concrete dome. keep keepers spent most of his time. he was based on the main atoll, which was codenamed fred and he was in communications. so he basically went to every single island during his time of service there. he could fix anything and he he touched every island so whatever whatever was on every island. he's been there and then if we can play the next clip, which is going to be mr. kiefer's explanation of what it was like the safety precautions that were there and his personal physical reaction to having served at that time. next quick, please me personally i had an absolutely no
protection at all and and the protection that would that individuals received varied from from the time during the time. i'll operation and also very from group to group or individually individual some individuals. they tried to get dust masks or wanted us masks and and they weren't available. were basically told take it, you know if you're concerned about the dust take your take your t-shirt off and put it over your, you know, put it over your face. there were times at the you know that a few of the may have had. dust, you know dust masks. times that some of the people had booties but the bulk of the
individuals doing the work or around around where they would be exposed to radiation had little to no protection the standard uniform for most of the people was a a pair cut off cut off. shorts, maybe socks and a pair of a pair of shoes. most didn't even have a t-shirt on. or if they did, you know if they did have a shirt on most most might have a t-shirt. some had radiation badge or dose meter badges, but the majority of the individuals did not the orders read any we talk eight toll rate a lot to clean up. and my initial, you know
reaction was radiation, you know, sorry to ask some questions and they say oh you don't have anything to worry about you're not going to get exposed to any more radiation than you would walk around the city of new york or living in denver, colorado or wearing a watch with a radium dial. um, i was and naive and believe them but yet at the same time must have had some inkling in the back of my mind because even though they didn't do any baseline testing that in retrospect you would expect somebody going into a potentially radioactive area. you would expect them to have you know, sperm count blood work up, you know physical. urinalysis so test they didn't do any of that.
i am on my own went and get a wound up getting a sperm count, which was normal before i went over. went over there and spent a little less than six months six months there and came back and my wife during the entire time. we were married we never had used any birth control and she wasn't getting pregnant wasn't getting pregnant. and that's when i learned that my time over there potentially had an effect on my health, and and i learned that technically i was sterile. so went on and and i continued to have unexplained illnesses. a deep deep muscle pain bone
bone aches fevers that would come and go without any explanation or be tied to, you know, having a cold or for a flu or or some, you know, something like that that you would that you would associate with those type of symptoms. i'd go into the doctors and and the doctors that you know not have any answers for me as to what the what the cause it was and this continued on for you know for years. unfortunately keep keepers experience medically. had become quite common with these men that are considered atomic veterans. f lincoln graphs has had issues from 1946 to current most people have there are of course a few that don't but part of the problem. is that all of these guys had
signed some sort of non-disclosure act with this part of their service. they were not allowed to talk about this so when they went to their doctors with these physical ailments physical issues, they could not say hey, i witnessed 12 atomic bombs going off and was within possibly 20 miles 50 miles of it. it might be radiation induced they could not do that for very long time and it wasn't until 1996 under the clinton administration that that was repealed that they could then discuss what they had done what they had seen what they had been exposed to now it didn't only happen in the pacific. those were just the clips that i pulled for today. there are servicemen that were exposed also on the nevada proving ground where there were experiments going on there either on the ground as mps which we have a couple in our
collection, but other ways there were pilots that had to try to measure. um different parts of the atomic bomb blast that flew to close unfortunate part for me as an interviewer more for them more for them. but is that because of their exposure to radiation and because of the induced health issues that they have afterwards that these men are expiring quicker than some of the world war ii veterans. which is unfortunate so it's important to get these stories done. now as i mentioned keith kiefer is the current commander of the national association for atomic veterans if you think you might be an atomic veteran, or you have more detailed questions about that. please feel free to look at their website which is nav and
aav.com all of their contact information is there they are really wonderful very easy to work with but continuing on what exactly does this have to do with world war ii. i think it is important to remember and these men service that that just because world war ii is over and ended with the with japan surrendering in 1945. these people are still reminders of that war. they are still suffering. we have world war ii veterans that were part of operation crossroads that are reminders of the war that our reminders of our experiments with nuclear energy atomic energy. nuclear weapons are and so these men and their oral histories show the connection that we are still looking at these weapons. we are still messing with stuff that we had discovered during world war ii.
and that wars never truly end because the people that experience them. are here and they're around us and we should always listen to their experience. it's very vital. i think to the history of the united states of america. okay. well, that is all i have for y'all for today. i think we are going to go ahead and take some questions now. so i did have a question earlier. somebody had mentioned that her husband had been at i think nagasaki right after the bomb was detonated and he died a little bit early on and she was wondering if it could have been from radiation. obviously. i'm not a doctor i can actually tell you that but from what i've read nagasaki the radiation that you could receive from those sites after detonation did not last months from what i've read lasted hours into possibly days.
feel free to correct me on that. i'm not quite sure but that's what i read on the internet and hopefully that is accurate. okay any other questions? the world war ii museum has interviewed about nine of these atomic veterans to date. and no i have not. heard of or interviewed any female atomic veterans? i mean, that's not saying that there aren't any i'm sure there are somewhere. does anybody have any other questions? looks like we have one question in the q&a hannah yasmine wants to know. how can we advocate to get justice for the?
that is a great question yasmeen keith kiefer with the national association for atomic veterans is extremely well skilled in this their organization has people spread out all over the country with contact information. so if you happen to be in their area, you can go to their website look up the area find the person for example, ronald benoit is stationed in massachusetts and kind of takes care of that cluster states. they will help you try to get benefits. they are very skilled at it. and yeah, it's a great route to go they are. a wonderful organization so the hydrogen bombs were huge compared to the atomic bombs that were dropped on japan. they made them look small. which is a bit terrifying when you think about it.
yes, some atomic veterans have been given compensation for their suffering. unfortunately. it is one of those things where a lot of the atomic veterans have passed away before they were able to get said compensation because the va limits the definition of who qualifies as an atomic veteran to 1962. it means that some people are not included including the people who are part of the anna we talk at whole radiological cleanup. they are working on expanding that definition with the va. of course. okay, but yes. any other questions? okay. well, i think those are all of the questions that we have for today. i think we have a few more here. i can pull them up. hi everyone. okay, the distance learning
specialist here in the q&a. i can go ahead and pull a few so cheryl crawford wants to know is there any evidence that any of the atomic vents who went into hiroshima? to examine damage after the explosion had radiation that i am not sure of i have not personally spoken to any of those veterans. i'm sure that that can be answered possibly through keith kiefer if he has had any contact with those veterans but to my knowledge. not sure. ernest wants to know have you ever talked to any of the descendants of any of these atomic veterans? i have yet to do that right now. what i'm focused on is getting the atomic veterans themselves their stories recorded now before they pass away there is a sense of urgency because of
their medical conditions after that. we would start looking at the descendants as a possibility, but it's really the it's really the first person perspective that we look for when we do oral histories at the museum. some and one question you may not be able to answer this one, but i think it's interesting. are and john wants to know are mortality and morbidity survey data collected by the us government if any of about these servicemen and women was it classified? is it still classified? he said been released and you talked a little bit about clinton era but yeah, i am not qualified to answer that. unfortunately. i know right now currently ditra the defense threat reduction agency is in charge of giving out certificates for people who think they qualify as atomic veterans. however, those certificates don't actually promise you any
benefits. so there's a lot of layers to it, i believe and that's why it's so great having the national association for atomic veterans because they are very familiar with navigating that information. awesome, and i will end with this question from joan. is there any literature you recommend about these experiences? hmm i ended up reading f lincoln graphs. he wrote a book. it is on amazon if you search his name, he doesn't use his first name just his first initial which is f and then lincoln graphs is gra h l f s he has a memoir. he wrote a book. it's published talks about his experience which pulls from world war ii until besides that the nav people have they have a letter that they do every month
and they do include stories. and so that is all on their website. and so if you're interested you just have to go through each newsletter. they will feature a story from a veteran each time. it is really interesting. i mean it's very cool read. awesome, and we have links that nav website in the chat for anybody watching and with that it looks like we are just oh i have one more question. i see in the chat, okay. so rusty asks did veterans volunteer for this assignment and the answer is no they did not this was part of their service. awesome. well, i know i learned a lot today and i want to thank everyone for joining us today and hannah. thank you for joining us and doing this important work and we hope that you will all join us again tomorrow forwelcome.