Atomic Vets

The story of the veterans who witnessed secret atomic testing and how their decades-long struggle for recognition affects soldiers today. This story is a coproduction with Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Reveal: America’s atomic vets: ‘We were used as guinea pigs – every one of us’

by Jennifer LaFleur

The USS De Haven sailed from Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on May 5, 1958, carrying 240 men deep into the Pacific on a secret mission.

Gunner’s mate Wayne Brooks had only a vague idea of their destination. But within a few days, he would experience an explosion so immense and bright that he could see his own bones. He and his crewmates had been assigned to witness Operation Hardtack I, a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The De Haven, a destroyer, was one of dozens of ships assigned to the operation at Enewetak Atoll, Bikini Atoll and Johnston Island. It would be their crews’ initiation into the ranks of hundreds of thousands of service members now known as “atomic veterans.”

What seems like a story long tucked away in history books remains a very real struggle for those veterans still alive, the radiation cleanup crews who followed and their families – many of them sick and lacking not just the federal compensation, but also the recognition they believe they deserve. Continue reading…

Related: Veterans of Atomic Test Blasts: No Warning, and Late Amends by Clyde Haberman

For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: David Ritsher
  • Producer: Amanda Pike
  • Editor: David Ritsher
  • Associate Producer: Rachel De Leon
  • Associate Producer: Victor Couto
  • Reporter: Jennifer LaFleur

For Educators


As America rose to global power at the dawn of the atomic age, some American soldiers paid a heavy price for America’s nuclear experiments. This 13-minute video shows students how the U.S. government exposed soldiers and sailors to radiation during early atomic testing, then later denied compensation and recognition to veterans who experienced a range of illnesses. A useful video for showing students a little-known aspect of America’s rise to power, this story also helps students compare the treatment of returning veterans in America’s recent wars (Afghanistan, Iraq) to the plight of veterans in the past.

Background reading

As the Cold War heated up, fear of a nuclear war rose, the U.S. government was determined to develop weapons to meet any threat from the Soviet Union.

So it began testing nuclear weapons on land and at sea, exposing its own troops to the atomic blasts to determine how they would perform in nuclear combat.

The U.S. conducted some 200 tests from 1946 to1962, exposing thousands of military men to nuclear explosions, often with little if any protective gear. The government told troops the tests were safe but kept them secret from the public.

By the 1980s, however, some atomic veterans were getting sick, suffering from a variety of ailments, including various cancers. They blamed their health problems on the secret atomic tests and demanded federal compensation for their medical expenses.

The government initially refused to address the problems, saying it was impossible to connect military duty to a specific illness or cancer. But as some veterans spoke out, risking jail by breaking secrecy oaths they were forced to sign, Congress stepped in to establish a compensation program in 1988 that eventually covered some 21 cancers.

Today, the issue raised by the atomic veterans– when is the federal government responsible for exposing its soldiers to life-changing illness? – continues for many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lesson Plan 1: Atomic Fears and the Arms Race: Nuclear Testing

Students will learn how the nuclear arms race impacted different aspects of society – including soldiers who were exposed to radiation during early atomic testing – and how it continues to impact them today.

  • How some U.S. soldiers were affected by the atomic age and America’s rise to global power.
  • How the U.S. government’s estimate of the dangers of nuclear weapons has changed over time.
  • How the Cold War and America’s rise to power coincided with a rise in government secrecy.
  • How the U.S. government and its citizens failed to accurately appraise the danger of nuclear radiation at the beginning of the atomic era.
Essential questions
  • Why did the US government think it seemed reasonable and justified to order soldiers to participate in atomic testing?
  • How did the context of the Cold War affect this justification?
  • Why do “atomic veterans” today believe the government mistreated them?
  • What led the Congress to finally pass a compensation bill for veterans affected by nuclear tests?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D3.2.9-12.Evaluate the credibility of a source by examining how experts value the source.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 8.2: The Cold War from 1945 to 1980

      Skill 3.A: Identify and describe a claim and/or argument in a non-text-based source.

      Theme 6: America in the World (WOR).