Conspiracy of silence: For some veterans, toxic exposure didn't end with atomic blasts
U.S. troops talk about their participation in U.S. atomic bomb tests and subsequent cleanup operations during World War II and later in the Pacific Ocean, the Nevada desert, New Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Video by Brian Cowden
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 17, 2019
This is the second part of a three-part series looking at the plight of veterans exposed to atomic radiation testing. The first part detailed the vast cover up around the testing and its continuing effect. The third part is about how the dangerous cleanup scarred troops for life.
WASHINGTON — Just before noon, sunlight escaped the Nevada desert and a midnight darkness overtook the bleak and lonely landscape.
Eighteen-year-old Marine Cpl. Fred Walden was climbing out of his trench in the Yucca Flat northwest of Las Vegas.
His hair was singed.
“We were literally standing in the shadows of the mushroom cloud,” Walden, now 80, said from his home in Roseville, Calif. “It billowed out. You could see the leading edge drop back to earth.”
The year was 1957.
U.S. troops were secretly participating in U.S. atomic bomb tests and subsequent cleanup operations during World War II and later in the Pacific Ocean, the Nevada desert, New Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The servicemembers took the human brunt of ionizing radiation that contaminated nearby lands, water and communities.
Walden’s brush with deadly toxins didn’t stop there. Later, when Walden was based in Thailand, he encountered Agent Orange, a harmful chemical used by the U.S. military as a tactical weapon. And as it happens, it was this second hazardous run in that helped expedite Walden’s search for disability benefits.
The U.S. military has a long history of exposing its servicemembers and their families to dangerous materials and chemicals. More than 1 million servicemembers have claimed various forms of hazardous exposure, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
During and after World War II, the military conducted secret mustard gas and other biological experiments with about 60,000 servicemembers. Starting in the 1940s, 200,000 servicemembers or more participated in atomic bomb test experiments and subsequent cleanup operations. During the Vietnam War, more than 722,000 troops say they were subjected to Agent Orange, according to the VA.
More recently, servicemembers have come across burn pits during deployments for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A VA registry for those linked to the toxic smoke from burning trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris has reached more than 177,000.
Some advocates, servicemembers and families claim the military is to blame for other recent environmental hazards, such as contaminated water at certain military bases and illnesses related to a housing crisis tied to dangerous mold and other concerns.
The pattern is troubling, said Keith Kiefer, an Air Force veteran who runs the National Association of Atomic Veterans.
“One has to wonder whether our government looks at our soldiers as an expendable resource,” said Kiefer, 62, who became an atomic vet after participating in nuclear test cleanup operations in the Pacific Ocean. “It may be a pessimistic viewpoint, but it’s so common for our veterans to have been exposed to various toxins. You have to wonder if you are like a piece of furniture to be discarded at will.”
A grand, tragic puzzle
For Clayton Crosby, 1962 remains pierced in his sometimes foggy memory.
That year, the Navy electrician second class encountered ionizing radiation and Agent Orange.
Still, the Missouri native considers himself fortunate. He has ringing in his ears — a common ailment for the atomic vets — but no severe illnesses.
He was married and had children before 1962.
“A lot of people had trouble with their children. It’s no fun to see your kids suffer with sickness,” said Crosby, who has three sons and 10 grandchildren and has lost count on his great-grandchildren. “But that don’t mean down the road I won’t have it.”
Until 1996, the atomic vets were sworn to silence, forced to keep their burdens from their families, their friends and doctors. They had limited records and medical help for their illnesses, and faced a threat of prison if they revealed the secret too soon.
“They threatened us with our lives,” Crosby said. “They said they would come looking for us if we said anything.”
After working with the veterans’ association, Crosby said he’s reliving memories that were buried in a world where the Navy mantra “loose lips sink ships” reigned supreme. The atomic vets have helped string together portraits of history, as if they are building a grand, tragic puzzle.
He’s also worked with friends and family to learn more about Agent Orange.
“It probably does the same thing for them as it does for me, it gets a load off their mind,” he said. “They can think of things I can’t remember, and I can remember things they can’t.”
The Missouri native began fighting for disability benefits in 1997, a year after the atomic vets were released from secrecy oaths. He learned it was easier to obtain benefits for Agent Orange, since Congress approved the move in 1991, years before atomic vets could even talk publicly about their experiences.
Crosby fought for VA benefits for more than 20 years. In May 2018, he was finally was approved for 100 percent coverage.
“Bureaucracy,” Crosby, 86, says simply of the enemy he battled all those years.
‘I wanted to go’
Crosby grew up in McDonald County, a rural, poor community in the southwest corner of Missouri that tried to secede in the 1960s. Crosby was surrounded by military lore: Two uncles served in World War I, and two more in World War II.
“I was almost 13 years old when my uncle came back from Germany, and I was always an inquisitive kid,” he said. “I always had a soft spot in my mind and heart for the military. I wanted to go and stay forever.”
He signed up for the National Guard as a 17-year-old in 1949. Crosby spent four years in the Navy, followed by additional service in the Guard.
Crosby attended Navy electrician school in San Diego for 13 weeks, followed by two more weeks as a motion picture operator to show Hollywood films on ships.
He was based on the USS Princeton LPH-5 out of Long Beach, Calif., which traveled to Hawaii, Okinawa Island, Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Philippines during his time aboard. From Long Beach, Crosby saw billionaire businessman Howard Hughes’ famed Spruce Goose attempt to take flight.
“It’s amazing the things the good Lord has allowed me to see because where I grew up I thought I would just live and die in the same spot,” Crosby said in a raspy drawl. “I’ve lived a very interesting life.”
It was early in 1962 when the Princeton transported barrels of Agent Orange to Vietnam on its hanger deck, where Crosby often worked. Decades later, he learned it was a virulent chemical from a relative who was sprayed with Agent Orange during the war.
“We’d walk by these barrels, I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I didn’t ask any questions, because nothing had pertained to me at the time – I thought.”
As the Princeton returned from the Philippines, Crosby remarked to an officer that it was his last overseas cruise. The officer grinned curiously.
Soon, he learned why: The Princeton was heading to Operation Dominic at Johnston Island in the Pacific.
“I said, ‘Sir, you knew we were coming back,’ ” Crosby remembers asking the officer, “and he said, ‘Yeah, but I couldn’t say anything.’”
The ship would stay at the Pacific Providing Grounds test site, about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii, for the next three months.
Crosby saw about a dozen tests, including aerial shots, rockets launched off submarines, land launches and plane drops, mostly at night. The sailors, posted about five miles from the detonations, got on the flight decks, turn their backs and put their heads between their legs.
Some had goggles, some did not. Some placed their hands over their eyes.
“You could still see the bones and blood vessels in your hand, even with that,” he said.
By the final weeks of their stay, Crosby’s ship and others were readying plans to head for Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were teetering on a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
By late October 1962, the confrontation was averted. The Princeton left Johnston Island.
At the time of the atomic bomb tests, Crosby said he was curious and chose to watch.
Today, he hopes to never see another. But if he does, he hopes to be at its center.
“The best place to be is what they call ground zero,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about anything because there’s nothing left of you. There’s nothing to pick up and put in a cigar box. Not a thing to worry about, don’t have to worry about radiation, sickness or anything.”
‘Why are we doing this?’
Fred Walden lied about his age to join the military.
The native of Fort Smith, Ark., couldn’t land a job and was desperate to leave his hometown.
At 16, he told the Marines he was 17.
“I just had to get out of there,” Walden said. “I had been trying to get a job but they wouldn’t hire you without experience. And I couldn’t get experience without a job.”
It sparked a 41-year career with three military branches. After the Marines, Walden served with the Air Force, the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard. Along the way, he was exposed to lethal ionizing radiation and Agent Orange.
Walden saw the Hood shot, as it was called, for Operation Plumbbob in the Nevada desert. It was the largest atmospheric detonation in the continental United States. He was only two miles away.
“As far as I know, there’s not many of us left from that test,” he said.
Studies of atomic veterans and subsequent health issues are hard to come by. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine found atomic vets posted higher than normal death rates for certain cancers, such as leukemia, prostate and nasal cancers. For example, servicemembers who participated in the Nevada tests posted a 50 percent higher death rate from leukemia.
In hopes of learning more, Brunel University in London is in the midst of a three-year DNA study of British atomic veterans, looking to explore the connection between the blasts and illnesses.
The vast majority of all U.S. nuclear veterans are gone. Walden is one of about 10,000, or less than 5 percent, alive today.
Before the July 1957 test, Walden remembers the Marines asking senior military officers why they were involved. The answer then, like now, doesn’t make sense.
“They said, ‘We want to see what effect the bomb has on personnel and equipment,’” he said.
In the late 1960s, Walden was based in Thailand for about 13 months when he encountered Agent Orange.
During that assignment, he was working in communications and digging six-foot holes to bury cable at a base in Thailand.
Even so, Walden fought the VA for service-connected disability benefits for years. He also said it was easier to obtain benefits for Agent Orange than his atomic bomb test participation.
“That’s the VA for you,” he said.
‘Two giant fireballs’
About two years into his Marine service, Walden was on his way from Camp Pendleton to the Nevada Test Site northwest of Las Vegas.
Their destination was Camp Desert Rock, named for the exercises in the Yucca Flat where members of the storied 5th Marines Regiment, 1st Marine Division, would be stationed for the next two weeks.
Walden had a security clearance. The Marines were told the mission was top secret, and not to discuss it.
They were also told to hold off having any children for a while.
“They told us we were going on a special operation,” said the former Marine telephone lineman in the late 1950s. “They didn’t say what it was or what it involved.”
The Marines started test day at 5 a.m., with only a gas mask and a helmet for protection.
Two miles from ground zero, Walden and other troops were told to get in 6-foot-deep trenches.
“Well, that’s what they told us. But when you knelt down, your head was right level with the terrain, so it was probably less,” Walden said.
The countdown started. Walden struggled to put on his gas mask. By the time it reached his face, the blast went off.
Walden was fascinated.
“It was brighter than any white light you could ever see and it was so bright that I could see the smallest pebble in that sand bank with the naked eye,” Walden said. “That light faded and it was like streaks of lightening settling on the ground ... all around.”
Then, the explosion.
“It was like two giant fireballs in front of your eyes,” he said. “Then the first shockwave rolled out and then the second one was rolling out and the first one was coming back in and they met over the trenches and there was another explosion.”
He climbed out and felt the singed hair on the back of his head.
“We stood there watching the mushroom cloud form, and you could see the raw materials being sucked up,” he said.
When the cloud moved off, the Marines and other servicemembers got into their cattle cars and rode to ground zero and back out again. There were smoldering mannequins, scorched equipment and masses of melted metal.
Marines ran Geiger counters across Walden and the others. The needles on the counters, which detect particles of ionizing radiation, nearly bent off the maximum reading, he said.
The Marines were brushed down with small swish brooms.
The needles on the Geiger counters went off scale again.
For a third time, the Marines were brushed down.
Finally, Walden’s needle fell below the max reading.
“They said it was safe, ‘You’re fine,’ ” he remembered. “We went on maneuvers after that.”
Other Marines who weren’t so lucky were told to go take showers, he said.
Then, they put on the same clothes.
‘Nothing to do with war’
At first, lumps formed all over Walden’s body. Cancerous cells surfaced on his shoulder.
In 2001, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and nodules were discovered in his thyroid. Doctors couldn’t tell if the nodules were cancerous, so thyroid removal was the only option because of his radiation history.
After surgery, doctors found the nodules weren’t cancerous. For the next year, Walden gained 50 pounds and his sleep suffered as they sought new medication to address the missing thyroid.
“Now, to this day, he has no metabolism, he has to be really careful,” said his wife, Ann, 77.
About five years ago, Fred Walden received 100 percent, service-connected disability coverage through a VA representative in Oakland, Calif. He also received a one-time compensation of $20,000.
“We found a really good VA rep,” his wife said. “He was the nicest guy and he even looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Ann, if your husband dies, you come to us and we will see that you are OK.’ Next time we went to make an appointment, they said that guy was no longer there.”
Walden’s coverage was reversed to 20 percent because he was still walking, the couple said. They fought the decision, and his disability was later raised to 60 percent.
Fred Walden met his wife, a native of Great Britain, while he was stationed in England for the Air Force in 1961.
“He brings all this stuff up, we’ve been married 57 years and something new will come up,” Ann Walden said. “It seems incredible, like, ‘Really, they used you as guinea pigs?’ And now I am beginning to realize it.”
Ann Walden once told her husband the tests were part of war. But he disagreed, noting that was the case during the twin 1945 U.S. nuclear weapon attacks in Japan during World War II.
“That was Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he said. “In the ’50s and early ’60s, that’s strictly tests for the convenience of the government. It had nothing to do with war.”