From 1946 to 1962, the United States conducted about 200 atmospheric nuclear tests--more than the other nuclear states put together at that time. Approximately 400,000 servicemen in the US Army, Navy, and Marines were present during these atmospheric tests, whether as witnesses to the tests themselves or as post-test cleanup crews. At that time, many of these servicemen did not know about the effects of radiation exposure and did not question if their health was at risk. After leaving the armed services, many developed serious health complications, including cancer. For years, these veterans tried to seek assistance and compensation from the Veterans Administration (VA). However, the VA has denied some of these claims for assistance because the US government has asserted that the veterans were not exposed to unsafe levels of radiation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, these “atomic veterans” began speaking out about their experiences. In 1988, Congress passed a bill that compensated atomic veterans, but only if they had specific types of cancer, including lung, bone, and skin cancers. In 1994, President Bill Clinton established the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. This committee not only investigated the cases of the atomic veterans but also cases of people being injected with plutonium without their consent. The committee eventually released its report and concluded that many of the test subjects, including the atomic veterans and civilians, were unaware that they participated in these tests and therefore did not give consent. A year later, President Clinton apologized to all people involved with US nuclear radiation testing, including the atomic veterans.
Cleaning Up Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Some of the first atomic veterans were servicemen who were sent to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to help clean up the two cities after the atomic bombings. Three units were sent to Hiroshima from October 6, 1945 to March 6, 1946: the 186th Infantry Regiment of the 41st Division; the X Corps of the Sixth Army; and the 34th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division. The 2nd Marine Division and the 10th Marine Regiment were sent to Nagasaki from September 11, 1945 to July 1, 1946. Approximately 255,000 troops were involved in the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Some veterans noticed effects quickly. Marine Corporal Lyman Eugene Quigley, who was sent to Nagasaki, recalled that “When I got back, I had burning, itching, running sores on the top of my head and the top of my ears.” Furthermore, he had sores that looked suspiciously similar to the sores developed by atomic bomb survivors. The doctors who examined him during his discharge examination in 1945 claimed that the sores were caused by a fungus. Nearly a year later, Quigley began developing stomach tumors that caused him massive amounts of pain. This was only the beginning of his deteriorating health, which included lipoma, or cancer of the fatty tissue. In another case, Marine Harry Coppla, who was sent to Nagasaki 44 days after the “Fat Man” bomb was dropped, believed that the multiple myeloma he developed resulted from his time in Nagasaki.
The US government estimates that the Marines in Nagasaki were externally exposed to 1.25 rem of radiation, which is the equivalent of receiving an abdominal and pelvic CT test (0.8-1.5 rem). As for the occupation forces in Hiroshima, the “[p]otential exposure...was markedly lower due to radioactive decay prior to the delayed October 6, 1945, entry into the city.” However, these estimates were based on external exposure and not the potential exposure of inhaled or ingested plutonium and uranium particles.
Being in the presence of plutonium-239 or uranium-235 does not necessarily cause harm to a living organism. Both elements undergo alpha decay, in which an alpha particle (an atom with two protons and two neutrons) is released. These alpha particles cannot penetrate the skin. However, if plutonium or uranium is inhaled or ingested, then it can lead to health complications, such as cancer and tumors.
During the early Cold War, the United States wanted to prepare servicemen for the possibility of a nuclear war and placed them only miles away from nuclear test detonation sites. Depending on the particular shot, servicemen were stationed approximately 6 to 11 kilometers (approximately 3.7 to 6.8 miles) away from ground zero during Operation Buster-Jangle in 1951. At the same time, the government also wanted to research the psychological impacts of witnessing these explosions. Psychiatrists were present before, during, and after tests to assess the psychological effects. Lincoln Grahlfs, who piloted a tugboat during 1946’s Operation Crossroads, explained that the government was not “going to let the opportunity go by to see what would happen to a bunch of men also.” For this reason, some atomic veterans described their situation as being treated like “guinea pigs.”
The Department of Defense (DoD) set a maximum exposure limit of 3 to 5 rem “per test or series;” the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) calculated that on average the dose per participant was about 0.6 rem. However, the determination of radiation exposure immediately after the tests was based on Geiger counters being waved over the servicemen. The DoD did not conduct urine tests or other bioassay tests at the time of exposure, so there was no analysis of how many radioactive particles were inhaled or ingested. As such, the estimates calculated by the DNA may not have accurately reflected the extent of servicemen’s radiation exposure.
From 1946 to 1954, the United States conducted tests in the Marshall Islands under operations Crossroads, Greenhouse, Ivy, and Bravo. Mostly Navy servicemen were present at these tests. They were on observation ships about 15 to 30 miles away from ground zero. The United States began conducting its first test series within its continental borders in 1951 under Operation Ranger at the Nevada Test Site. US Army and Marine servicemen were present during these above-ground tests.
While these tests happened many decades ago, the memories of witnessing these nuclear explosions have haunted many atomic veterans. In a New York Times mini-documentary directed by Morgan Knibbe, an atomic veteran tells the audience: “I’d like to think it hasn’t affected me. I’d like to think I can tough it out, and everything’s okay. It has affected me.”
Sworn to secrecy, many of these servicemen never told anyone of what they witnessed. If they told anyone that they were involved in these nuclear tests, they could have been fined up to $10,000. Some feared that if they spoke about witnessing the tests, they could be tried for treason and shot. A veteran recalled the US government “put the fear of God in [them].” It was only many decades later that they began to share their experiences.
Many of these tests took place at night or very early in the morning, before the sun rose. The brightness of the nuclear blast’s light shocked and initially blinded these soldiers. It was “[b]righter than the brightest day” that anyone had ever seen. Many recalled the light was so bright that the soldiers could see through their skin and muscle and see their veins and bones. Rex Montgomery, who was at the Hood test of Operation Plumbbob in 1957, recalled the surreal experience and the questions he asked: “How did that come through all that to get to your bones? That you can visually see them like an x-ray?”
Once the light faded, the fireball appeared, and the overpressure came, knocking many people over. The heat that followed was so intense that some people ran screaming and calling out for their mothers. After the initial blast passed, the mushroom cloud appeared. Some of the veterans describe the sight as “colorful” and even “beautiful,” when the reds, purples, oranges of the mushroom cloud melded together.
The damage from the explosions was immediately evident. Nearby trucks, bulldozers, and tank retrievers were reduced to scraps of metal.
Servicemen were not provided protective gear beyond what they were issued by the military. Sailor Frank Farmer, who witnessed 18 tests in the Pacific, recounted that he and other Navy servicemen wore nothing but T-shirts and dunery pants. These men did not realize that they were working in a highly radioactive environment from the tests’ fallout. Farmer recalled that they used contaminated water for drinking, bathing, and washing their clothes.
Rex Montgomery was present at the Hood test in Nevada, where a 74 kiloton thermonuclear device was detonated. He recalled that he and the other men in his platoon were equipped with only their utility jackets, weapons, helmets, and a gas mask. They were also given only rudimentary instructions: crouch down, put their backs against the explosion, bow their heads, and cover their eyes. Furthermore, they were not informed of what would happen during the test. Only soldiers who had previously witnessed them knew what was going to happen.
Thomas Saffer, who was a US Marine present at the Plumbbob Priscilla test in 1957, described woefully inadequate decontamination procedures:
The radiological safety person from the Army came up with a Geiger counter and put it over us and we could hear it clicking, clicking, clicking. Then one man on each side dusted us off with a broom because the prevailing thought was if you get rid of the dust you get rid of the radiation. So we were "decontaminated." I didn't even know at first that I was contaminated. Secondly, if this was decontamination, hooray... The animals at a test site that I went to much later got better treatment than we did. They got washed and scrubbed with soap and water; we didn't even take showers for hours after that event.
The atomic veterans attribute the health complications they developed after they finished their service to weak protection and decontamination measures. These health issues ranged from hair loss and boils to spine problems and schwannoma tumors that cover nerves. As well, many suffered from different types of cancer, including prostate cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia.
Testifying Before Congress and Suing the Government
Many atomic veterans sought help from the Veterans Administration to pay for medical treatments. However, the Department of Defense (DoD) estimated that most of the veterans’ radiation exposure was 0.2 to 0.12% less than the maximum radiation exposure limit, which the VA cited as part of its decision to deny claims. Furthermore, atomic veterans had to prove evidence of cancer within one year of being discharged. Additionally, the servicemen were considered to have been working during “peacetime” and therefore were not eligible for disability and medical benefits. As a result, the VA denied many claims of atomic veterans who tried to seek compensation for on-duty-related injuries from cleaning up nuclear sites or witnessing nuclear tests.
In 1979, the VA wrote a guide for its regional offices that designated eight types of cancers, such as leukemia, that the offices could use to base compensation and benefits for radiation exposure. However, if a veteran had health complications that lay outside of the VA’s designated cancers, such as tumors, muscle diseases, or genetic damage, they could not receive benefits. Acie Byrd and James Gate, two African American veterans, began a movement among the atomic veterans to break their silence and to speak out about their experiences in the 1970s. Many testified before Congress throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The National Association of Radiation Survivors filed a lawsuit in 1983. The veteran’s group claimed that the VA denied benefits to veterans who cleaned up Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those who were present during the atmospheric nuclear tests. The group also sought to overturn an 1864 law that stipulated that lawyers representing veterans could not charge a fee of more than $10.
In 1986, an anonymous letter was sent to a lawyer representing the atomic veterans that accused the VA of destroying documents related to the case. A year later, the judge who presided over the case imposed penalties on the VA for withholding and destroying subpoenaed documents and ultimately ruled in favor of the National Association of Radiation Survivors. This case prompted the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to investigate VA conduct not only with regards to the atomic veterans but also for all US veterans.
In 1988, Congress passed the first compensation bill that allowed servicemen to receive disability and medical benefits, regardless of serving in peacetime or not, and extended the period of development of certain types of cancer from 1 year after discharge to 40 years after the atomic veteran participated in “radiation-risk activity.” Additionally, it ended time limits on filing claims. However, this bill did exclude lung, skin, and colon cancers, which were common forms of cancers among atomic veterans. Two years later, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which gives a $75,000 lump-sum compensation to qualifying onsite participants of nuclear tests, including atomic veterans.
Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments
In 1994, the Clinton administration created the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments to investigate the US government’s role in radiation experiments on US servicemen and American civilians from 1944 to 1974. The Committee found that the US government had conducted human experimentation that included injection of radioisotopes and intentional releases of radioactive gases into the environment. Furthermore, the members of the Committee discovered that the government, scientists, and officials involved did not follow any procedures to obtain consent from the subjects in these experiments. They concluded:
Government officials and investigators are blameworthy for not having had policies and practices in place to protect the rights and interests of human subjects who were used in research from which the subjects could not possibly derive direct medical benefit.
The Committee recommended that the US government should apologize and compensate people involved in the experiments and tests, obtain informed consent from human subjects if the government wished to conduct further radiation experiments, and the Environmental Protection Agency should have oversight over any experiments involving intentional releases of radioactive gases into the environment.
After the report was released, President Clinton formally apologized to the victims of the human radiation experiments and to their families. In his speech, he stated:
Those who led the government when these decisions were made are no longer here to take responsibility for what they did. They're not here to apologize to the survivors, the family members or the communities whose lives were darkened by the shadow of the atom and these choices. So today, on behalf of another generation of American leaders and another generation of American citizens, the United States of America offers a sincere apology to those of our citizens who were subjected to these experiments, to their families and to their communities.
When the government does wrong, we have a moral responsibility to admit it. The duty we owe to one another to tell the truth and to protect our fellow citizens from excesses like these is one we can never walk away from. Our government failed in that duty, and it offers an apology to the survivors and their families and to all the American people who must...be able to rely upon the United States to keep its word to tell the truth and to do the right thing.
However, some of the atomic veterans were not aware that such an apology took place. During his interview with the New York Times, Frank Farmer said that he “wasn’t aware of any apologies--not until [the interviewer] mentioned it just now.”
In 1996, Congress repealed the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Act, allowing atomic veterans to talk about their experiences without fear of fines or treason charges. Two years later, Congress introduced another compensation bill. However, the bill did not move pass committee in both the House and Senate.
Over the decades, the US government and third-party groups conducted epidemiological studies and examined mortality rates. Here are some of the major studies:
- The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in 1985 that examined procedures to collect estimated radiation exposure rates of personnel during Operation Crossroads. The report looked at the reliability of film badges measuring radiation levels at the time of detonation and the sufficiency of personnel decontamination procedures and of the Defense Nuclear Agency’s dose reconstruction. The report concluded because not all participants wore film badges, the measurements collected were not reliable; there was no decontamination procedure; and that DNA dose reconstruction analysis did not account for the possibility of radiation entering the body through inhalation, ingestion, or open wounds.
- The National Academy of Sciences examined the feasibility of conducting an epidemiological study of “increased risk of adverse reproductive outcomes in the spouses and of adverse health effects in the children and grandchildren of Atomic Veterans” in 1995. The researchers concluded that such a study would face “insurmountable difficulties.” These difficulties included contacting a sufficient number of potential subjects to conduct the research and establishing the radiation dose veterans had received. Due to these difficulties and the potential cost of such a program, researchers concluded that this type of study would not be feasible.
- The Medical Follow-up Agency of the National Academy of Medicine conducted a study on the mortality rate of atomic veterans present during Operation Crossroads. The study concluded that its “findings do not support a hypothesis that exposure to ionizing radiation was the cause of increased mortality among CROSSROADS participants.” It added that there would have to have been a statistical significance in rates of leukemia, other health complications, and overall mortality rates of participants compared to the control group.
- In 2000, the GAO released a report on the DoD’s dose reconstruction program, which established the estimated amount of radiation a veteran could have been exposed to. The report had two main conclusions. First, the dose reconstruction program was a valid method of estimating radiation exposure. Second, there should be an independent review board that would examine the program, because many of the atomic veterans questioned the program’s validity. As a result, Congress mandated that such an independent review should occur. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency tasked the National Research Council to conduct the review. In 2003, The Board on Radiation Effects Research, under the auspices of the National Research Council, released its report. It found that while the estimated average dose was valid, estimated individual exposure was uncertain, because many veterans at the time of exposure were not wearing film badges that would collect radiation data. As well, methods to estimate “inhaled radioactive materials involve many assumptions that are subject to error” due to a lack of data. Furthermore, the report recommended that an independent oversight system should monitor and review the program.
- In 2016, the Journal of Radiological Protection published a study on the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation on servicemen who were present during Operation Plumbbob, especially the “Smoky” test. The researchers examined the rates of atomic veterans at the test and compared those rates to the national rate. They found that there was a statistically significant higher rate of leukemia in atomic veterans who witnessed the Smoky test. Compared to other atomic veterans, Smoky participants had higher rates of leukemia, respiratory cancer, nephritis, and nephrosis. The researchers also found that the risk of leukemia from the Smoky test, while remaining elevated, did decrease over time.
The US government has officially recognized and apologized for not adequately informing servicemen who cleaned up nuclear sites and for using them as human test subjects during atmospheric testing. However, many atomic veterans today feel neglected and ignored and are still fighting for recognition. Frank Farmer commented sardonically, “There is a big joke among atomic veterans. [The government] will wait for enough of us to die off and then pay compensation to the few of us still left.”
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 Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon, Killing Our Own (New York City: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1982): 12.
 Ibid, 14.
 “‘Atomic Soldiers,’” The Washington Post, accessed April 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1980/05/04/atomic-soldiers/48092905-0088-43fc-91c8-8060c401d327/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5bfd439973c8.
 Dominik Fleischmann, “Radiation Dose and Radiation Risk” (Presentation, Stanford University, Stanford, 2018, https://med.stanford.edu/content/dam/sm/cvimaging/documents/lectures/18DEC13_Fleischmann_RadiationDoseRisk_final_HANDOUT.pdf).
 “NTPR: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Occupation Forces.”
 “OPERATION BUSTER-JANGLE 1951 ,” Defense Nuclear Agency (United States Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Tests Nuclear Test Personnel Review, Washington, DC, 1982, https://www.dtra.mil/Portals/61/Documents/NTPR/2-Hist_Rpt_Atm/1951_DNA_6023F.pdf): 7.
 Atomic Vets, directed by Retro Report.
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 Joanna M. Miller, “‘Atomic Veterans’ Get More Attention, Help: Radiation: People who witnessed nuclear bomb tests while in the military could benefit from a bill expected to come to a Senate vote soon,” LA Times, published September 16, 1991, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-09-16-me-1633-story.html.
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The Atomic Soldiers.
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 Susan Thaul, et al, Mortality of Military Participants in U.S. Nuclear Weapons Tests, 14.
 Walter Pincus, “GIs Win Some Illness Claims From A-Tests,” The Washington Post, published February 5, 1978, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1978/02/05/gis-win-some-illness-claims-from-a-tests/da766a73-a273-45c9-932c-3847eb79911d/?utm_term=.26b033dade33.
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 Miller, “‘Atomic Veterans’ Get More Attention, Help.”
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ROBERT LINDSEY, “VETERANS AGENCY FINED FOR DESTROYING DATA,” The Washington Post, published January 9, 1987,
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 Miller, “‘Atomic Veterans’ Get More Attention, Help.”
 Ruth R. Faden, et al, “Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments - Executive Summary” (Report, Washington, DC, 1995,
 “Human Radiation Experiments Report,” C-SPAN, published October 3, 1995,
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Adverse Reproductive Outcomes in Families of Atomic Veterans: The Feasibility of Epidemiologic Studies (Report, Washington, DC, 1995, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232434/).
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 Ibid., 3-4.
 Glyn G. Caldwell, et al, “Mortality among Military Participants at the 1957 PLUMBBOB Nuclear Weapons Test Series and on Leukemia among Participants at the SMOKY Test” (Report, Washington, DC, 2016,
 Atomic Vets, directed by Retro Report.