TEXT ON SCREEN: July 1, 1946
NARRATION: Less than a year after Hiroshima, the military began a series of classified experiments.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, 1955):ANNOUNCER: You are here to participate in an atomic maneuver.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, 1955):ANNOUNCER: The moment of explosion is less than a day away.
FRANK FARMER (VETERAN, OPERATION HARDTACK): We could not tell our wives, our mothers, anybody.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS (VETERAN, OPERATIONS CROSSROADS): My commanding officer said a guy would have to be crazy to volunteer for that.
NARRATION: These atomic tests continued almost two decades, raising questions about the effect on soldiers and whether the government downplayed the risks.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, 1950):NARRATOR: Which puts the finger squarely on one of the major fallacies in the public attitude toward atomic weapons.
FRANK FARMER: Safety equipment? I dont even know what that is.
NARRATION: The story of the atomic veterans is still playing out today, 70 years after it began.
STEVE HARRISON (VETERAN, ENEWETAK ATOLL CLEANUP): Were falling sick, and theyre trying to tell some us that it never happened.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: The guys started saying we were guinea pigs, atomic guinea pigs.
ARCHIVAL (UNIVERSAL NEWSREEL, 1946):NARRATOR: The decks of the 73 test ships anchored in Bikini lagoon are scenes of feverish activity as scientists plot experimental programs designed to furnish data on radioactive rays, flash burns, and blast effects of the mighty atom bomb. Animals of many kinds are shipped aboard the target vessels to serve as proxies for human crews
NARRATION: In the summer of 1946, the first post-war atomic tests took place at Bikini Atoll. Military leaders tried to calm public fears.
ARCHIVAL:ADMIRAL WILLIAM BLANDY: It will not blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole
NARRATION: Operation Crossroads was designed to test how warships would hold up to a nuclear blast.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: Ostensibly they wanted to see what would happen to those ships, but they werent going to let the opportunity go by to see what happened to a bunch of men also.
NARRATION: Lincoln Grahlfs piloted a naval tugboat at the time.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: We were told, ok, when you hear the countdown. Put your arm over your eyes. Here I am steering the ship in single file following another ship and Im told put my arm over my eyes.
ARCHIVAL (SEPTEMBER, 1946):3 2 1 Fire!
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: It was the biggest damned set of explosions I ever saw. It was mind-bending.
NARRATION: Over the next 16 years, hundreds of thousands of military men would take part in nuclear test shots. They were made to sign a secrecy oath to never discuss what they saw.
FRANK FARMER: They said dont tell anyone or you can be tried for treason.
NARRATION: Frank Farmer witnessed 18 atomic blasts while his ship was in the Pacific.
FRANK FARMER: You feel the heat blast from it. Its so bright, you actually see your bones in your hands.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: Yeah, your natural instincts would say run away! but thats not what we were told to do. Four hours later we were in alongside target vessels with no protective gear whatsoever.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE):NARRATOR: Lingering radioactive contamination was an invisible menace to any form of life at Bikini.
FRANK FARMER: I was wearing a t-shirt and dungaree pants, and thats all.
NARRATION: Not told of the risks, the sailors were operating in fallout-contaminated water for weeks after the tests.
FRANK FARMER: You use that water to drink with, bathe with, wash your clothes in it. Its all just real dumb. For people as smart enough to become admirals and presidents, youd think theyd have enough sense not to put you into something like that.
NARRATION: As the Cold War heated up, atomic testing expanded to American soil allowing the military to assess new weapons quickly and develop strategies against possible nuclear war.
In Nevada, military personnel were stationed closer to the blasts than ever before.
ARCHIVAL (THE U.S. ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION, 1957):NARRATOR: Five military observers stood directly beneath the burst indicating the safety of interceptor nuclear rocketry to personnel on the ground below.MEN SHOUTING: It is tremendous. It is directly above our heads. It worked! It worked!
NARRATION: A range of things were assessed to see how they would stand up to nuclear explosions
A key concern for the military was how well troops could continue to function.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, 1955):NARRATOR: To avoid trouble, get down, fast! If you stay down, so that the flying debris can sail over you, you can protect yourself completely from atomic blast.
DEBRA PIERSON (WIDOW OF HOWARD PIERSON): My husband was in one of the front trenches which I believe was about a mile maybe from the blast. They were told not to look at the blast. And when the explosion went off, Howdy said that the shock waves had made part of the trenches crumble around them.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE):NARRATOR: Since the biggest value of the operation is for us to prove to ourselves that it can be done. Psychiatrists are with us to study our reactions before, during and after the experience.
DEBRA PIERSON: And then they were loaded up and taken to have lunch.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, 1955):NARRATOR: We have had proven to us that a soldier can fight and survive on an atomic battlefield if he protects himself adequately.
NARRATION: Over the next few decades, even after the nuclear test ban treaty ended atmospheric testing in 1963, the military would continue to insist that what the soldiers had been through was safe But among the atomic veterans doubt spread as some began to fall sick.
FRANK FARMER: More and more I heard about guys that had prostate cancer and lung cancer and all kinds of cancers.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: I got boils all over my body. Id get them here, Id get them here. One set of boils would go away, and Id get another set of boils.
NARRATION: Some veterans believed that their radiation exposure even affected their children.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: My daughter died of a malignant brain tumor at the age of 46. Her daughter was born with a deformed foot. I wish somebody had warned me that if I had children, they might be born with some defects. But, nobody did.
NARRATION: Whether the tests were to blame was nearly impossible to prove, but among vets and their families anger grew.
DEBRA PIERSON: I believe I wrote about 535 letters of anger to see if somebody wouldnt respond. I even invited all of the senators and congressmen out to Nevada to have a picnic. If it was so safe, maybe we should just turn it into a playground.
NARRATION: In the 1970 and 80s, risking prosecution by breaking their silence, some veterans went public with their concerns.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 7-16-85):PETER JENNINGS: Some of the military men who participated in atomic testing were up on Capitol Hill saying again that they were the victims. Theyre again asking for compensation.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 6-13-82):REPORTER: Policy forces the so-called Atomic Veterans to prove that radiation suffered in the military caused their illnesses and thats not easy.
NARRATION: The government initially denied all compensation requests, insisting the radiation dose at the test sites was low enough not to cause harm.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 7-16-85):PETER JENNINGS: The Veterans Administration says the level of cancer among the veterans is not any higher than that for the general population.
NARRATION: Some vets felt the government was covering up what it knew about their exposures using pervasive secrecy and spotty service records as bureaucratic obstacles.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: Theres a big joke among atomic veterans. Oh, they will wait until enough of us die off and then theyll pay compensation to the few that are left.
NARRATION: The fight for compensation would last almost as long as the Cold war itself.
In 1988, political pressure from atomic vets got Congress to finally pass a compensation bill. And while it applied only to a limited number of diseases and covered a finite period of time, the U.S. was starting to take a closer look at its nuclear past.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 12-7-93):PETER JENNINGS: Today the Secretary of Energy, Hazel OLeary, has begun to release some of the governments most closely guarded secrets about nuclear testing.
NARRATION: A presidential commission was formed to make public the hidden history of radiation experimentation which included secret tests on civilians as well as those on atomic vets.
RUTH R. FADEN (FORMER CHAIR, ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RADIATION): We were stunned, just stunned at the challenges that had been put in the paths of people who were just trying to find out what happened to them.
NARRATION: In 1995, the committees report was ready for release.
ARCHIVAL (CSPAN, 10-3-95):RUTH R. FADEN (CHAIR, ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RADIATION EXPERIMENTS): We worked extremely hard over the last 18 months in order to inform you and the American people about what really happened to radiation research subjects in the Cold War period.
RUTH R. FADEN: We went out, we had this extraordinarily moving ceremony, the President made his remarks.
ARCHIVAL(CSPAN, 10-3-95):PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: 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.
RUTH R. FADEN: The Presidents apologizing for the wrongdoing was very significant. Presidential or national apologies are actually relatively few and far between. But it is true the reports release was completely trampled by the O.J. verdicts coming out.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 10-3-95):DAN RATHER: The trial of O.J. Simpson is over.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-3-95):NEWS REPORT:On television about the only station not carrying the verdict, the Weather Channel.
RUTH R. FADEN: We were supposed to have been the entire segment of Nightline and we ended up being the last maybe 45 seconds and in addition today the advisory committee on human radiation experiments released its report.
NARRATION: It had taken fifty years for the government to come to this public reckoning, but even among the veterans themselves, few noticed.
LINCOLN GRAHLFS: I wasnt aware of any apologies, not until you mentioned it just now.
FRANK FARMER: I did not hear about it. I had people telling me Well, they put it out over the radio and TV. I said, not on mine, I never heard it.
ATOMIC VETERAN (SPEAKING TO GATHERED AUDIENCE): The United States government to this day
NARRATION: Despite the governments new openness, the battle is far from over.
A new generation of veterans is now fighting for recognition. In the late 1970s, army engineers were sent back to the Marshall Islands the original atomic test site.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, NIGHTLY NEWS, 3-13-85):TOM BROKAW: Bikini Atoll isnt anybodys idea of a South Pacific paradise. After all, it is still radioactive.
STEVE HARRISON: They sent myself and thousands of others to ground zero, to try to clean up their mistakes.
NARRATION: Since the atomic tests, some Marshall islanders had been displaced, while others living nearby suffered from high cancer rates, thyroid problems and birth defects.
The U.S. government promised to make some of the contaminated islands habitable again.
STEVE HARRISON: We were the rock and rebar crew, thats what they called us, because we picked up concrete blocks, rebar, anything man-made.
ARCHIVAL (DEFENSE NUCLEAR AGENCY, 1976):NARRATOR: Runit Island is now not only littered with large amounts of debris, but is also the island having the highest residual radioactivity.
STEVE HARRISON: They told us that it would be basically, like getting an x-ray done, they didnt talked about the six months, 24-hours a day that were exposed. My gut is that we were just expendable.
NARRATION: The radioactive remains from the atomic tests were encased in a concrete dome. The clean-up vets feel theyre similarly being swept under the rug.
STEVE HARRISON: The V.A. does not acknowledge us as atomic veterans though we went in and cleaned up the mess of their testing.
NARRATION: While the V.A. has maintained that the clean-up vets radiation exposure was minimal, two bills are before Congress to extend compensation to them.
And while nuclear weapons experiments continue, they are now done in highly secured facilities with minute quantities of weapons-grade plutonium.
But the country still grapples with how to handle soldiers exposed to toxic materials in the line of duty.
DEBRA PIERSON: Whether it was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia. They wore the uniform. The least we can do is take care of our men and women when they come home.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 6-8-93):PETER JENNINGS: Mysterious illness called Desert Storm Syndrome
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 6-8-93 ):REPORTER: The depleted uranium shell
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-9-13):REPORTER: Exposure to open air burn pits
STEVE HARRISON: I think that thats the insidiousness of it, is that its still going on today. Its just a new day, its just a different war.
FRANK FARMER: Cause I mean we did it for the country. If it was for me I wouldnt have gone over there. When you sign up, you sign your life away and they should be able to recognize people for that regardless what era they were serving in.