Conspiracy of silence: Veterans exposed to atomic tests wage final fight
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 16, 2019
This is the first part of a three-part series looking at the plight of veterans exposed to atomic radiation testing. The second part detailed the multiple types of exposure vets have had to endure. The third was about how the dangerous cleanup scarred troops for life.
WASHINGTON – When Lincoln Grahlfs reported to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in California, he was suffering from a strange abscess on his face, a 103-degree fever and an abnormal white blood cell count.
The symptoms demanded an unorthodox treatment: A doctor shot the Navy sailor’s face with X-rays with only a shield to cover his eyes.
Soon after, the abscess cleared.
“That was the hair of the dog that bit you,” the doctor told him.
It was the spring of 1947. Grahlfs believed he heard a coded message in the doctor’s words: He knew servicemembers were getting sick from a massive, secret U.S. government project.
In his 20s, the petty officer first class participated in Operation Crossroads in the Pacific Ocean, the first U.S. atomic bomb tests since the nuclear weapon attacks of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Over the next seven decades, more mysterious illnesses surfaced for Grahlfs and the generations who followed.
“We were experimental subjects who did not give our advised consent to be experimental subjects,” said Grahlfs, 96, a retired sociology professor and author of the book “Voices From Ground Zero: Recollections and Feelings of Nuclear Test Veterans.”
At least 200,000 U.S. troops participated in the tests and cleanup operations during World War II and later in the Pacific Ocean, the Nevada desert, New Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. They took the human brunt of deadly ionizing radiation that contaminated nearby lands, water and communities.
Even today, the wide-ranging implications of hundreds of tests conducted from the 1940s until the 1960s and cleanup operations that followed in the late 1970s has yet to be fully understood. In all, the U.S. has conducted more than 900 such tests.
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.
Grahlfs has battled gastrointestinal and sleep problems, an overactive thyroid, and skin and prostate cancers. His son was diagnosed with a rare adrenal disease, his daughter died of a malignant brain tumor in her late 40s and a granddaughter was born with a foot deformity.
“The next generation can suffer,” Grahlfs said from a senior living facility in Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife, Joan.
The vast majority of nuclear veterans are gone, with less than 5 percent, or an estimated 10,000, alive today. Still, a fight goes on to bring the government operations to light and gain recognition for their sacrifices.
“They are a dying breed,” said Keith Kiefer, an Air Force veteran who runs the National Association of Atomic Veterans. “And with them also goes their story, because of a very small percentage of the U.S. or world population is even aware of the atomic veterans.”
‘Watch the bomb’
Alex Partezama was nervous when he got to the Nevada Yucca Flat in the dead of night.
It was April 1953, and the Marine days earlier had learned of Desert Rock V, the code name for the military exercise tied to Operation Upshot-Knothole.
“We had nothing special. No special goggles. No badge. Just like you would go into combat,” said Partezama, now 88. “It was 4 in the morning in the desert. Pitch black. And they had loudspeakers.”
The Pennsylvania native was drafted a year earlier. A crotchety Marine master sergeant told him it was his lucky day to pick a service and rank the branches by his liking.
Partezama listed the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. He forgot the Marines.
“He started pounding the table and he says, ‘No way!’ and the language he used I can’t tell you,” Partezama said. “And then he says, ‘You just joined the Marine Corps.’ My heart went down to my shoes.”
The son of a coal miner was sent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
With a peace agreement underway for the Korean War, his regiment was sent to the Nevada Test Site, about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
Partezama didn’t think much of it until he was told to sign a paper offering an additional $10,000 in life insurance.
“I’m thinking, ‘Now wait a minute, are you telling me something is going to happen over there?’” he said.
A day before the test, the Marines ran the course and saw their selected positions.
Military planes, tanks, jeeps, cannons and mannequins dressed in Marine fatigues dotted the desolate landscape. Rabbits and pigs were in cages. Sheep were tied to cactuses.
In the middle, a 300-foot steel tower held a nuclear bomb in place.
Just 11/2 miles away, Partezama and other Marines were told to crouch down into a 5-foot trench. A countdown began, and when it reached 5, they braced for impact.
“When that bomb went off, they instructed you, ‘Wait for the shock blast to come from the bomb, and wait for the shock blast to come back,’” he said.
If they stood a second too soon, they were warned, the force of the blast would take off their heads. Then, they were told to look.
“They said, ‘Open your eyes, watch the bomb,’” Partezama remembered. “All you saw was this mushroom cloud and this red, angry ball going up.”
His trench shook like a snake with a surreal, violent force.
A deep depression marked the earth.
“You’ve got 23,000 tons of TNT in that bomb, what do you think it’s going to do to the earth? And all I could think is, ‘My God, we’re on solid ground, how can that happen?’” he said. “The unknown will scare the hell out of you.”
Geiger counters went off scale. The tower was eviscerated. Remaining debris was melted and thrown hundreds of feet from ground zero. Sand turned to glass. Animals were killed. Sheep that survived ran on fire.
“America says, ‘Wait a minute, we have to see what these atomic bombs will do to troops,’ so this is why your tests started,” he said. “At 20 years old you are too damn naive to really realize the implications here. … Orders are orders and that’s the end of the story.”
Occasionally, someone will tell Partezama, “well, I wouldn’t have gone.”
“I say, ‘Excuse me, it’s either go there or you go to prison,’” he said. “Period.”
A secret to keep
In certain circles, Myron “Myke” Bruessel doesn’t exist.
A 1973 fire in St. Louis, Mo., destroyed a rash of military records, including those of the Army veteran.
He served in the Signal Corps conducting off-site tests to detect atomic bombs at Operation Ivy at the Pacific Proving Grounds and Upshot-Keyhole in the Nevada Yucca Flat in the 1950s.
“As far as the Army is concerned, we didn’t exist,” said Bruessel, who is 87 and lives in Silver City, N.M. “We’re still trying to resolve that.”
He was drafted in 1951 from California and shipped off to complete a four-year degree program in electronics in a mere six months.
Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes Bruessel as a retired soldier, but it doesn’t acknowledge his radiation exposure.
Still, Bruessel considers himself lucky. For his work, he was posted in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, thousands of miles away from the detonations. Today, he has no related illnesses and with his wife, Nancy, enjoys a big, healthy family.
“It’s been a good life we have now,” said Bruessel, who has eight children, 18 grandchildren, 36 great grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. “I’m still upright, which sure beats lying in bed with tubes attached to me.”
Still, Bruessel works with the National Association of Atomic Veterans, or NAAV, for recognition.
The atomic veterans have yet to receive a service medal after years of failed legislation on Capitol Hill. This year, they are slated to get a certificate of participation instead.
“I guess that’s better than nothing, but they deserve a medal,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee, who has helped lead the atomic vets’ charge on the Hill. “It’s a sign of disrespect we haven’t formally honored these veterans and we can remedy this very easily.”
Previous attempts to honor the veterans have been met with setbacks.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a resolution to name July 16 National Atomic Veterans Day. However, the resolution failed to say it should be repeated “hereafter.”
In 1995, President Bill Clinton launched an advisory committee to probe U.S. human radiation experiments. A few months later, Clinton apologized to the atomic veterans and others affected by the tests at an Oct. 3 White House ceremony to accept the panel’s 1,000-page report.
“Americans were kept in the dark about the effects of what was being done to them,” Clinton said. “The deception extended beyond the test subjects themselves to encompass their families and the American people.”
The groundbreaking moment was short-lived. Within two hours, a Los Angeles jury returned a “not guilty” verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, overtaking the headlines.
The following year, Congress repealed the Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Act, releasing the veterans from their oaths of secrecy.
“There are a significant number of atomic veterans even today who don’t know their oath of secrecy has been lifted,” said Kiefer, 62, the head of NAAV and an Air Force veteran who became an atomic vet after participating in nuclear test cleanup operations in the late 1970s. “I still run into them today.”
Frank Farmer and his wife, Judy, were walking out after dinner at his local American Legion Santiam Post 51 in Lebanon, Ore., when a bulletin board notice stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Wanted: Atomic Veterans,” the veteran Navy sailor read aloud. “I think that’s me.”
It was 2002, six years after the secrecy veil was lifted on the military’s nuclear testing program.
Farmer didn’t know.
He told his wife his story for the first time.
“She couldn’t believe this was happening,” the Nashville, Tenn., native, 83, said.
He was 22 when he served as a petty officer third class at Operation Hardtack 1 in the Pacific’s Marshall Islands. He was a machinist on the internal combustion engine repair ship USS Hooper Island charged with ship maintenance around Enewetak Atoll, the ring-shaped coral reef in the Pacific Proving Grounds.
Over three months, Farmer saw 18 tests. Sailors were told to go topside for the detonations, which were equivalent to 54,000 tons of dynamite. He felt the ship jolt and rattle.
Once, when the wind shifted as a blast went off, the Hooper Island crew was told to pull anchor, grab servicemembers off a nearby island and “run,” he remembered. The ship’s top speed was 13 knots.
“They said just go as fast as you can to get away from it,” he said. “How the hell are you going to get away from the wind at 13 knots?”
Judy Farmer said her husband needed to get in touch with the man who posted the flyer -- Fred Schafer, vice commander for NAAV. Schafer is a bit of a legend in these circles.
“He went through the whole thing with me,” Frank Farmer said. “He said, ‘We’ve been released from the secrecy oath since 1996.’ They claimed they put it out over radio or TV, but I never saw it.”
NAAV was started by Orville and Wanda Kelly of Iowa in 1979, who defied the secrecy oath. Orville Kelly diedin 1980, but his wife and a wave of new veterans carried its mission forward to fight for benefits and recognition.
Farmer fought the VA for years, and is still fighting.
“It’s a continuous battle,” he said. “Most of us think they are waiting for us to die so they don’t have to worry about it.” During his time in the Pacific, Farmer and other servicemembers frequently swam in the tainted waters. Once, he scraped his leg against the coral and an intense skin rash developed.
More than 60 years later, it continues to plague his entire body.
In 2003, he received a 10 percent disability rating from the VA for hearing loss. About five years ago, it was raised to 40 percent for his rash, translating into a monthly payment of about $600.
“I still can’t believe our government did that to us,” Farmer said. “I laugh about it sometimes, but it’s sad, you know? There was no reason to use us as guinea pigs. They knew what it could do, but they still put us through it. It’s a disgrace.”
‘Maybe I’m the only one’
Karl Ulle wonders whether he’s the last surviving crew member of the USS Pasig.
The World War II sailor, who enlisted at 17, was one of the youngest on the AW-3 water distilling ship.
He learned through ship reunions that 80 percent of the 267 men who served with him died by age 55.
“Maybe I’m the only one,” said Ulle, now 91.
During his four-year tour, the Navy supply officer’s ships took part in Operations Crossroads and Sandstone in the Pacific in the 1940s. He saw the final detonation for Operation Sandstone, known as the “Zebra” test, at Enewetak Atoll.
Ulle says the Pasig was 7 to 8 miles away from detonation at daybreak in May 1948. As part of his duties, the lieutenant junior grade passed out welder’s goggles with taped airholes.
The blast overtook the dark skies with an incredible brightness, he said.
“We could feel the heat wave hit us about a minute or two later, followed a minute later with this big rumble, ‘Babuuum!’” Ulle said.
The Pasig’s scientist wanted to measure the blast’s radiation levels, so the ship turned toward ground zero and came within two miles.
“They had Geiger counters to measure radiation levels and they had the men lined up. They were going up the pant leg, up the middle, clicking like mad,” he remembered. “I don’t think they knew what they were doing. We were all guinea pigs.”
That evening, a storm known as “black rain” pelted the Pasig and other ships with radioactive materials. The men were called to swab and hose down the ship.
Ulle was locked away in the supply office putting together the weeklong captain’s menu. Mulligan stew, the Irish soup of meat and potatoes, was expected on Thursdays.
“I didn’t want to run away from it, but I was glad to get away from it,” he said.
The Pennsylvania native signed up for the Navy after his high school best friend was drafted into the Marines and killed in Okinawa six months later. Ulle’s parents, German and Austrian immigrants, like other families in Mason Town, Penn., knew all too well the Marines were getting slaughtered in the war.
The Navy seemed to offer better odds for survival. So Ulle served from 1945 to 1949, and it changed the trajectory of his life. He ditched plans to become a mechanical engineer to be an accountant after his work as a supply officer.
He worked as a CPA for 60 years, opened a tax prep office in San Diego and employed eight people at its height. He sold it in 2005.
The retired accountant, who has five children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, only recently began to share his nuclear vet story. He learned about NAAV two years ago, after serving as district commander in California for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Ulle has also battled health problems. Tumors started showing up in his chest, sciatic nerve and spinal cord the year he left the Navy. A gastrointestinal sarcoma tumor was recently found near his stomach area. He said doctors won’t biopsy or remove it for fear the procedure will kill him.
Ulle has always been under the impression that the VA only helps the “paupers,” so he hasn’t pursued disability payments.
“The only thing I got from the VA was a pair of hearing aids,” he said.
His plan is to undergo an autopsy after he dies, and if his tumor is linked to ionizing radiation, his children will pursue compensation from the government.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act into law allowing one-time compensation payments for eligible servicemembers, nearby residents and others. Veterans could receive a flat payment of $75,000.
However, the Department of Justice, which issues the awards, says as of May 31, it’s only approved claims from 4,624 “onsite participants,” which includes servicemembers.
At least 3,585 have been denied.
A deafening sound
Jerome Gehl’s ears still ring every day.
It’s been 60 years since the Army private first class participated in Operation Hardtack 1 at the Bikini Atoll.
As a guard, Gehl saw all 35 tests conducted at the Pacific Proving Grounds site in 1958.
“My ears ring 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s been like that since I got off the island,” the 80-year-old said. “They’re ringing right now.”
He has also suffered from skin cancer and has limited feeling in his legs or feet.
Two years ago, the Wisconsin native was approved for 10 percent service-connected disability, about $130 monthly, for hearing loss.
“They denied it the first time, then after a while they ended up giving it to me,” he said. “I thought I earned it. I was a good soldier, you know?”
About 10 to 15 percent of the general population suffers from the hearing condition, but for atomic veterans, it’s closer to 100 percent, they say.
Gehl told a doctor about the hearing problem during a physical in 1959.
“And he says, ‘Well everybody’s ears ring,’” he remembered. “Well, bullshit.”
Recently, he was hospitalized near his home in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, when his lungs reached an alarmingly low 40 percent capacity. Now he’s on an inhaler and pursuing new VA benefits.
Gehl joined the Army at 17 after he was inspired by an uncle who served in the Navy. He was assigned to Sandia Base in Albuquerque, N.M., the Defense Department’s primary nuclear weapons installation site. From there, 57 men in his company, including Gehl, were shipped off to the Bikini Atoll.
“You did whatever you were told to do,” he said. “You just do it to the best of your ability.”
What Gehl knew of atomic bombs came only from newsreels of the blasts in Japan.
At his new assignment, he guarded the perimeter of the island, a runway where small planes landed and the inside of the building where workers assembled the bombs.
He and the other guards donned short-sleeve shirts and Bermuda shorts, while the assemblers wore white, protective coverings from head to toe.
“I think that’s where we got a lot of radiation,” he said. “We were probably 50 feet away.”
For the tests, Gehl was about 3 miles from the detonations and wore the high-density goggles. First, they felt the heat, then the shock wave and finally, a deafening sound.
“It’s just like somebody shooting a gun off right alongside your ear when that shock wave hits,” he said. “It’s ‘Bang!’ It’s there and it’s gone. That’s what wrecked my ears.”
Asked if he would do it over again, Gehl doesn’t hesitate. “I would say yes, absolutely.”
More than 50 years since the nuclear tests, and more than 20 years since the government declassified the programs, the struggle to raise awareness and recognize the atomic vets remains.
Frank Farmer wears his atomic veteran gear everywhere to find others who might not know the secrecy oath was lifted.
“I wear my hat and jacket wherever I go, it’s like an advertisement,” Farmer said. “Two or three times a year, I still run into a new person who didn’t know.”
Farmer’s daughter, Barb Jordan, is fighting for the atomic veteran service medal.
“I don’t want to be the one that gets that medal on his behalf when he’s gone, because I wasn’t there. He was,” said Jordan, the Alaska Area Commander for NAAV. “He deserves it, not me.”
While Canada, Russia, China, Australia and New Zealand have bestowed the honor on their atomic veterans, the U.S. has yet to take that step. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, which held its annual meeting in May, is working with defense officials and members of their Parliament to gain the recognition.
At the U.S. Capitol, McGovern plans to refile his legislation this year seeking the medal. Last year, lawmakers approved the participation certificate for the veterans as part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. But more than nine months later, veterans finally received word on how to apply for the certificate in early June
In October 2017, McGovern and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., wrote President Donald Trump to urge his support. There was no response.
“They’ve never been properly recognized,” McGovern, who was drawn to the issue years ago by several constituents, said of the atomic vets. “They served with distinction and were exposed with radiation.”
Lincoln Grahlfs said he understands the drive for the medal, but he was satisfied when his victory arrived in the form of 40 percent service-connected disability four years ago for his radiation-related illnesses.
“The government is finally acknowledging that they had done me dirty,” Grahlfs said. “I have been fighting this battle for 70 years.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Terrence L. Hayes issued a statement in response to the atomic veterans’ difficulties obtaining disability benefits.
“VA encourages all Veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence,” he said. “VA has granted service connection for ailments associated with atomic exposure, and does so on an individual, case-by-case basis after a physical examination and a review of a Veteran’s case if the claimed condition is not one of the presumptive cancers.
“The longstanding legal criteria for establishing service-connected compensation for a disability requires a confirmed diagnosis of the disability, evidence of an event or injury that occurred during military service, and evidence showing that the current disability is linked to the in-service event or injury.”
This year, lawmakers have also filed legislation to extend VA benefits to a newer generation of atomic veterans such as Keith Kiefer. The national commander for NAAV took part in nuclear cleanup operations at the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Kiefer says there are about 400 veterans left out of the 4,000 who participated in cleaning up the Pacific Ocean site from 1977 to 1980.
For them, time is running out.
“Some of them are getting up there in age, and many of them have died because of their exposure to radiation,” McGovern said. “It would be nice to properly honor them while they are still alive.”
"America says 'wait a minute, we have to see what these atomic bombs will do to American troops,' so this is why your tests started," said Alex Partezama, an 88-year-old Navy veteran. "At 20 years old you are too damn naive to really realize the implications here. "Orders are orders and that's the end of the story."
CLAUDIA GRISALES/STARS AND STRIPES
In Sept., Myron "Myke" and Nancy Bruessel attend the annual convention for the National Association of Atomic Veterans in Portland, Ore. Myke Bruessel, who conducted off-site tests of the atomic bomb, was posted in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, thousands of miles away from the detonations. Today, he has no related illnesses and the couple enjoys a big, healthy family of eight children, 18 grandchildren, 36 great grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
CLAUDIA GRISALES/STARS AND STRIPES
Navy veteran Karl Ulle only found out about the National Association of Atomic Veterans two years ago. He's never pursued veteran disability benefits, but he wants to give his children the option after he dies. Ulle, who has a tumor in his stomach, says his plan now is to undergo an autopsy after he dies, and if his tumor is linked to ionizing radiation, his children will pursue compensation from the government.
CLAUDIA GRISALES/STARS AND STRIPES