Secrecy Strings:Stitching Together the Gaps of the Atomic Veteran Narrative Since 1945
“It was like a nuclear winter.” The air in the small recording booth thickens as the 79-year-old atomic veteran recalls his experiences in the US Army during the 1957 Plumbbob tests. Fred Walden enrolled into the US Army in 1956, just a few months after turning 18. Walden and his fellow US soldiers were taken to the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada where dozens of atomic tests took place. In the months that Walden was in Nevada, he witnessed four atomic tests and was exposed to 131 kilotons of radiation (equal to about 7 Hiroshima bombs’ worth of radiation). Minutes after the explosion, while the ground was still hot, Walden and his crew went to ground zero to examine the carnage. “The ground was burnt,” Walden recalls over sixty years after being at the test site, “it was like a freshly laid black top.”
Although Fred Walden was exposed to dozens of kilotons of radiation in witnessing the tests in Nevada, he and the others were told they “weren’t close enough for anything to happen” to them. But Fred saw the aftermath of these explosions. There were test dummies set up at the blast sites, like you might see in an episode of The Twilight Zone or in the 2008 Indiana Jones movie. Fred told us that the first few rows of dummies were still on fire when they got there. “Then the last three or four had been vaporized, there was nothing.”
Somewhere in Nevada, these dummies still exist. The mannequins who survived years of nuclear winters and the humble abodes in which they resided are still in their living rooms and kitchens, living out the 50s, in what is called Survival Town. As part of the maneuvers at the Nevada Test Site, soldiers built an average American suburban town with a variety of structures to record which would be best to be living in should a nuclear fallout occur.
The proving grounds for the tests of dozens of nuclear weapons is in the middle of the desert in Nevada. Less than 100 miles north of Las Vegas lies the nuclear testing site for the US Military used from 1951-1992. Most of the aboveground tests, of which there were about 100, were done between 1951 and 1958. The main reasons given to perform these tests were military and national security as well as testing the strength of equipment for use on both offense and defense. These things were done to protect the people and the planet throughout the Cold War, in the eyes of the military, but the people and the planet had no say in the matter. In total, about a thousand tests were done above and underground over a span of forty years. The US military unleased thousands of tons of radioactive chemicals like Iodine-131 into the atmosphere for people within an unknown distance to come into contact with as the range of distance they can go is questionable at best.
Fred Walden recalls when he witnessed a nuclear detonation test: “We actually went up to Ground Zero and back out while it was still smoking.” He described in so many words that he could see each individual pebble and crevice in the sand as the ground beneath him through a stark black and white lens. He tells us that he fumbled to get his helmet on and could see his skeleton through his hands like an x-ray.
In the time of poodle skirts and greasers there was a Public Service Announcement known as Duck and Cover. In this short video, we see an animated turtle named Burt hide inside of his shell when warnings of a possible nuclear attack via screaming sirens overhead. The fear of the Cold War included drills like this to protect ourselves from an all-but-imminent nuclear attack, however they did not serve to educate people about the true dangers of radiation nor how to effectively protect themselves from it.
In addition to using the proving grounds of Nevada, the US military also used the atolls of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific for nuclear tests. An atoll is a group of islands made up of the top of an underwater volcano. This location was used first as the nuclear testing grounds for the US as they were able to test the force of atom bombs on Navy ships from all sides of the war. These islands are in the closest thing to the dead center of the Pacific Ocean. 5,000 miles off the coast of San Diego, 3,000 miles away from Japan. The inhabitants of these islands, the Marshallese, were told to evacuate their homes so these tests could obliterate the land. After testing on the atolls for a dozen years (1946-1958) and conducting around 70 tests, the landscape of the islands were permanently damaged; some of them sinking under the sea and others with massive craters.
It was in one of these craters, Cactus Crater on Runit Island, where the US decided to fill contaminated dirt into as part of the Enewetak Radiological Cleanup Project starting in 1977. One soldier who participated in this cleanup mission is Keith Kiefer, now the National Commander of the National Association of Atomic Veterans. “Because the islands were too radioactive for the Marshallese to live there…the purpose of the mission was to take and clean the islands up to where it was safe for the islanders to return and live on the islands that they had been removed from to start this testing.” He discusses his time in the military as a ground radio repairman in the US Navy for the mission to clean up the Marshall Islands.
“Only the government can come up with this kind of logic.” Kiefer says as he explains that he and his fellow soldiers were sent to the islands to live and work for a minimum of 6 months to work on the cleanup effort, even though the citizens of the islands were told it was too contaminated to live on. According to Kiefer, they were told they were in no danger working on the islands. “I asked them about it and they said, ‘no problem, you won’t experience anymore radiation than you would walking around in Colorado or the cities in New York or wearing a watch with a radium dial on it.’”
This is in reference to the time in the 1940s when radium was used on watch dials to make the hands glow. Not mentioned in that comment is the number of women workers who contracted cancer and died from putting said radium in their mouths via the tips of paintbrushes to make those radiant watch dials. Keith and his crew have more in common with those women, and with the civilians in the surrounding regions of the test sites, than they could know.
After this far-from-convincing reassurance, Keith took it upon himself to get a baseline physical including a physical and a sperm count. He says he is not sure why he did this on his own, but his intuition told him he needed to. And it’s good that he did. After being part of this clean-up project, Keith had some unexplainable medical issues.
“At forty years old a doctor told me that I had the bone structure of a ninety-year-old.” Since Keith was part of the Radiological Clean-up Project on the Enewetak Atoll, he was exposed to a myriad of different chemical elements. One of these elements, Strontium, has the same chemical properties as calcium. When absorbed by the human body, strontium acts like calcium and goes straight to the bones.
“I'm disappointed that our government hasn't been more forthright and honest about the various veterans' experiences in exposure. I understand that it's a significant liability, but we're all adults and we should take responsibility for our actions.” Large entities like the government often justify their actions by saying they weren’t aware of the consequences and things had to move faster than the research could to discover what those consequences would be, but that this is false. Keith Kiefer continues in this vein by saying, “What's interesting is: The documents show that the government didn't go into it blind. In many cases, they knew what they were doing, and they were using the soldiers as guinea pigs, test subjects.”
At times it has been argued that those in charge of detonating these ginormous blasts had no idea of the consequences of the effects of low-level radiation exposure. However, there were plenty of atomic scientists and other specialists who knew of these dangers and published warnings. It is at the fault of the military and the government for ignoring these warnings and blissfully allowing young men to put their lives on the line for the sake of “military necessity” and “national security.”
The tests Fred was exposed to were detonated in 1957. The tests Keith helped attempt to clean were detonated in 1946 and the cleaning process began in 1977. Each of these were after the publications by the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, formed in 1946 by Albert Einstein himself. This Committee warned of the dangers of the atomic bomb to human’s health and souls.
Now that the deed has already been done, the government is continuing down the same path of secrecy in the clean-up process. Although the cleanup crews were reported as being heavily protected and monitored with dosimeters and radiation badges, according to people who were there, this was not the case. “I myself, the entire time I was there, never had any badge or any type of protective gear, no booties, no dust mask, no protection at all.” Keith did not have anything to protect him as he worked in radioactive dirt up to 14 hours a day.
How do you clean something that takes thousands of years to cool down? How do you clean dirt that’s been unequivocally and permanently dirtied? The official answer for the soldiers sent to the Marshall Islands, more specifically the Enewetak Atoll, seems to miss the mark. “There was a number of different things that was done to try and clean the islands up.” Keith Kiefer explains the lengthy process of transferring radioactive dirt from one island to another by means of shovels, trucks, and boats. “One hundred and ten thousand [110,000] cubic yards of contaminated soil was bulldozed up, loaded on boats, transported over to Runit Island, and then dumped into the crater.”
Keith continues to discuss this concrete dome which resides in the Pacific Ocean. “Reports showed 243 bags of plutonium that were recovered from crypts were dumped into this crater and then 18 inches of concrete was put over top of it forming kind of a dome that almost looks like a saucer.” There have been many different tactics used in the storage of nuclear waste, but there was normally some sort of metal coffin. In this case, concrete was the only material used to contain the plutonium-polluted soil.
“Originally that was supposed to be a temporary situation, it wasn’t intended to be permanent, but now it essentially looks like it’s going to be a permanent structure.” As Keith reflects on the work he did on the atolls when he was a young man serving his country in the military, I think about how he and Fred were younger than me when they worked on these projects.
Keith and Fred were pawns in the strategy to keep military secrets while their missions were going on and well after they were accomplished. As the age to enlist into the military, to put your life on the line for your country, is just 18, it’s easy to see how the US was able to carefully craft its story.
“When you’re 18, not too much scares you,” Fred Walden says. “I mean 18 - what does an 18-year-old know? And to us, it was fantastic, I mean it was something that nobody else had experienced and it was just - so I never really thought that much about it as far as danger or what it could do besides then, none of us 18-year-olds really knew about radiation, you know.” He and the others around him were excited to be part of something bigger than themselves. These bombs were brand new, only used in a country they had never been to. They were doing what everyone else at the time was doing: whatever those in power, those who controlled the narrative, told them to do. “We were in the military and when they gave orders you went, you didn’t ask why, you just went. and we weren’t really told what it was about anyway, we were just told we were going for a - observe a bomb test, they didn’t really say what kind of bomb.”
He adds that after they went back to their base at Camp Pendleton, “we were told not to talk about it so nobody,” he pauses, “at seventeen or eighteen you don’t really give it a second thought.” So, they didn’t talk about it. To anyone. How could they talk about what they witnessed in Nevada when their experience was already being framed by an altered narrative? Even if they could fathom what they had been part of, each soldier signed an Oath of Secrecy which prevented them from talking about what they participated in at the Test Site.
Keith Kiefer comments forty years later on the oath he and so many others signed: “Well, up until 1996, all atomic veterans were under an oath of secrecy and could not talk about their experiences under penalty of criminal charges and fines for it.” This meant that if they talked to anyone in their lives about what they did or witnessed while in active duty, they could be jailed. “In 1996 the Secrecy was lifted for the veterans to be able to talk about their experiences.” Keith and Fred kept secrets from their wives, children, and doctors because of this Oath for twenty and forty years, respectively.
These men, as young soldiers, were taught to do as they’re told and to do what the military says is best for their country. They had faith in the US government and assumed honesty as opposed to a story with cracks intentionally stitched together by systematic strings of secrecy.
“Of course, I was young and naïve and believed them,” Keith says. In stating this, he isn’t abandoning the part that he played as a member of the military. He is an adult taking responsibility, and as a man of moral values he seems to hold his government to the same ethical standard. He’s incredibly disappointed to find that they don’t hold themselves to that same standard.
Due to the Oath of Secrecy and the lack of explanation to what they had been involved in, Fred was unable to discuss why he was having medical issues. “According to the military, we were not close enough to anything to be affected by it. So, I never really, I never thought anything about it for years. And then I started having trouble, I had to have my thyroid taken out I had I don’t know I’ve lost count of the nodules I’ve had taken out of my body.” His wife, Anne, on the other hand did remember. She confirmed by chiming up from the background of the phone call that Fred had over thirty surgeries to remove these government-sponsored cancerous nodules.
Fred had a difficult time proving the cause of these issues due to improper documentation when he was serving in Nevada. This lack of documentation was not on Fred’s side but on the side of the VA. Although it is said that soldiers would have radiation badges on them to indicate when they have been exposed to a certain number of particles of radiation, Fred does not remember being given one or being clearly briefed about the possible dangers of nuclear weapons testing.
According to Keith, “the VA has one definition of Atomic Veterans, the RECA has another definition, they don’t refer to them as ‘Atomic Veterans,’ they refer to them as ‘On-site Participants.’” Here, the word participant makes it seem like they were in the know about everything and willingly participating in being irradiated. These people were willing to make sacrifices for their country, but not in exchange for the structural integrity of their bodies for the rest of their lives.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), founded in 1998, is the group responsible for making sure threats from weapons of mass destruction is at a minimum. “But DTRA, basically in their fact sheet, says that we were never exposed to radiation nor were we exposed to enough radiation to cause any kind of health effects.” This fact sheet, which has been updated a number of times, states that 7,500 dosimeters were issued and none of them came back with readings over 1.0 rem. However, Keith said he was never issued a dosimeter. Does his account allow for enough light to shine through the cracks of the government’s narrative? There were about 8,000 people involved in the clean-up mission on the Marshall Islands and many soldiers still alive to tell their tales have shared a similar story to Keith’s.
The National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV) is a group working towards educating about nuclear history. As the current National Commander of NAAV, Keith’s job is to make sure their current missions and goals are on track. Because of the gaps in the US government’s story and Keith’s personal experience of being inside those gaps, he became part of this group in order to educate other Atomic Veterans as well as other groups of people what otherwise would not know about them. He says: “One of the other things that we're doing on the state level is we're working on getting Atomic Veteran memorial highway designation and Oregon was successful this year at getting part of the highway, Highway 5, a memorial Atomic Veterans Highway.”
I’ve been driving to and from Portland and Corvallis on this highway, where you pass the signs demarcating the Atomic Veteran Memorial portion of the road, for the last two years. I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but I remember the first time I recognized what it meant. These signs recognize: the notion of the existence of Atomic Veterans, a memorial for those who lost their lives while being part of nuclear testing, and that there are still Atomic Veterans around us fighting the fight.