BURLESON, Texas — James D. Tyler stuffed cotton balls into his ears and waited for the announcement.
He was kneeling at the bottom of a 6-foot-deep ditch, bearing every piece of his combat gear, too young at 18 to even consider that this might be the end of his life. If it was going to be, he wouldn’t be alone. No one in Company F had any better odds.
Except that Tyler, then a grunt in 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, would not go over the ditch into the teeth of the enemy.
He and everyone else knew their orders — hug the side of the ditch, close your eyes, put your face in the crook of your arm. Do not raise your head, under any circumstances.
“It was just before dawn,” said Tyler, 72, of Burleson. “We assumed that the people in charge knew what they were doing.”
The countdown began, and then everything went blindingly white.
Several decades ago, during the darkest days of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, the U.S. military tested more than 1,000 nuclear weapons in the deserts of Nevada and the waters of the Pacific. Many of the thermonuclear detonations involved the presence of large numbers of soldiers, sailors and Marines, who began to think of themselves as “guinea pig ground grunts. “
It’s a largely forgotten part of American history, mostly because the government didn’t want it known. In today’s world, it can be difficult to fathom using regular troops, given essentially no protection, as test subjects in an experiment in how to take advantage of the post-nuclear bomb drop.
“These guys were sworn to secrecy,” said R.J. Ritter, national commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans. “For the official record, it didn’t happen. They were told by a CID officer, ‘What you saw and heard here today didn’t happen.’ Now after all these years they’re free to tell their story, but they are hard-pressed to find someone old enough, including in the militar y, to understand that it happened.”
All told, about 400,000 Americans would be classified as “atomic veterans,” about half of whom served in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during occupation duty in the late 1940s. The rest were exposed during above-ground nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962. After 1962, the military detonated nuclear weapons underground because of airborne contamination that eventually sickened thousands of civilian “downwinders” in Nevada, Utah, Arizona and the Marshall Islands.
Some of the veterans, as well as the civilians, died prematurely, some came down with cancers, some had children with genetic deformities. VA officials, however, say that only 1,500 veterans registered exposure at or above 5 rem, considered the occupational limit for a year.
“A majority of individuals, even if they were in those tests, did not get exposed to a high level of radiation,” said Dr. Paul Ciminera, director of the environmental agents service with the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington.
Comparatively, Tyler has been lucky, as others were, including Ritter, who lives in Houston. Tyler had none of the problems that the government linked to exposure to high levels of radiation. But that hasn’t stopped Tyler, a retired machinist supervisor from Bell Helicopter, from trying to get benefits from the VA for his presence at the tests in 1957.
He has repeatedly applied for service-connected compensation for degenerative joint disease, arthritis and glaucoma, but the VA says there is no connection between those diseases and radiation.
“I’m just mad,” he said. “They’ve run me around for so many years.”
The VA lists dozens of cancers of the brain, blood, pancreas, stomach, lung, breast, colon, liver, bone and more as presumptively caused by radiation exposure. Other diseases, such as brain tumors, cataracts and thyroid disease, are not directly linked but are worth more further scrutiny by VA officials. Arthritis and joint disease are more a factor of old age, officials said.
“There is no biological plausibility to link radiation and arthritis,” said Dr. Terry Walters, deputy chief consultant for post-deployment health in the VA’s Office of Public Health in Washington. “The incidence of those diseases in an exposed population isn’t higher than expected. This is a really well-studied area with a well-documented body of science. I don’t think they’re going t o find any startlingly new diseases from atomic exposures.”
Ritter said that it’s not uncommon for “atomic veterans” to try to get compensation in their old age but that in many cases they decide that the bureaucratic fight isn’t worth it for “a couple of hundred dollars.” His group, he said, has campaigned for a number of illnesses to be linked to radiation exposure, but arthritis is not one of them. Ritter continues to serve on a congressional advisory board on radiation issues.
Ritter, a former Navy deep-sea diver, was near 18 tests in the Pacific in the mid-1950s and has shown no problems.
“I haven’t exhibited any health issues yet,” he said. “I’m very fortunate. All my children were born healthy. I can’t say the same for a lot of my shipmates. I watched some of them go through real hell.”
Separate from Tyler’s ongoing dispute with the VA, though, are the jaw-dropping stories of his presence at the tests.
In June 1957, Tyler’s unit at Camp Pendleton, Calif., was transported to the Nevada Test Site, northwest of Las Vegas, for a series of thermonuclear tests called Operation Plumbbob. (The government said no thermonuclear tests were ongoing at Nevada.)
For the first two, Tyler’s battalion was about 30 miles away. But on July 5, his battalion was moved to a ditch five miles from ground zero and was given instructions on how to survive. Tyler remembers being told that no unit had ever been that close.
“I think they wanted to see what it would do to us,” he said. “I think they were trying to see how close they could put us to it and not kill us right then.”
A common phrase among Marines sent to the atomic tests in Nevada was “Semper Fry,” a dark joke on the Marines’ motto, “Semper Fi.”
When the bomb detonated at 4:40 a.m., Tyler saw nothing but a blinding white, even though his eyes were shut and his face buried in his arm. After a few seconds, he started to see one color at a time all the way through the spectrum, even though he never opened his eyes.
Then he heard the boom and felt the air coming. It was a giant outgoing wave that would “tear your head off” if someone rose from the ditch. Seconds later, the air came back the other direction with equal force.
“I had been around artillery and those big cannons on ships,” he said. “But those were like a little tiny firecracker to that bomb.”
The Hood shot, as it was called, had a yield of 74 kilotons and was the largest atmospheric detonation to occur in the continental United States. The yield was nearly five times larger than that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
After the all-clear sign was given, which Tyler didn’t hear because his ears were ringing, the Marines moved out for an exercise to see how they could tactically maneuver after a nuclear explosion.
“They took us out to the crater,” he said. “It was pretty hot radiationwise. But they didn’t do nothing for us. We didn’t even take a shower until we got back to Pendleton.”
The men had been repeatedly warned not to speak of the tests, not that they had much chance anyway.
“As soon as we got back, they took us on another exercise for four or five days,” he said. “They kept us up for days on end, running around a mountain playing war, just wearing us out. You’d be surprised after all that how you have other things to talk about.”
Tyler doesn’t expect to win his dispute with the VA. But he offers unsolicited advice to young veterans who might be trying to prove a link between their service in Afghanistan and Iraq and a health problem when they’re old.
“Keep every record you can,” he said.