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Atomic Veterans Were Silenced for 50 Years. Now, They’re Talking.


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Apr 2, 2010
Video by Morgan Knibbe
Nearly everyone who’s seen it and lived to tell the tale describes it the same way: a horrifying, otherworldly thing of ghastly beauty that has haunted their life ever since.
“The colors were beautiful,” remembers a man in Morgan Knibbe’s short documentary The Atomic Soldiers. “I hate to say that.”
“It was completely daylight at midnight—brighter than the brightest day you ever saw,” says another.
Many tales of the atomic bomb, however, weren’t told at all. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an estimated 400,000 American soldiers and sailors also observed nuclear explosions—many just a mile or two from ground zero. From 1946 to 1992, the U.S. government conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests, during which unwitting troops were exposed to vast amounts of ionizing radiation. For protection, they wore utility jackets, helmets, and gas masks. They were told to cover their face with their arms.
After the tests, the soldiers, many of whom were traumatized, were sworn to an oath of secrecy. Breaking it even to talk among themselves was considered treason, punishable by a $10,000 fine and 10 or more years in prison.
In Knibbe’s film, some of these atomic veterans break the forced silence to tell their story for the very first time. They describe how the blast knocked them to the ground; how they could see the bones and blood vessels in their hands, like viewing an X-ray. They recount the terror in their officers’ faces and the tears and panic that followed the blasts. They talk about how they’ve been haunted—by nightmares, PTSD, and various health afflictions, including cancer. Knibbe’s spare filmmaking approach foregrounds details and emotion. There’s no need for archival footage; the story is writ large in the faces of the veterans, who struggle to find the right words to express the horror of what they saw during the tests and what they struggled with in the decades after.
Knibbe told me that he has long been fascinated with the self-destructive tendencies of mankind. When he found declassified U.S. civil-defense footage of soldiers maneuvering in the glare of the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb, he was “absolutely amazed and wanted to learn more about their stories.” His efforts to dig deeper were curtailed by the fact that most of the information about the nuclear tests was classified—including reports on the illnesses the veterans suffered and the radioactive pollution that was released into the environment around the test sites. “I was baffled by the lack of recorded testimonies available,” he said.
Knibbe began trying to contact veterans through the National Association of Atomic Veterans, eventually traveling across the United States to meet them and hear their stories. He was stunned and saddened by what he learned. “They were confronted by such an incredible destructive power that they were immediately shocked into an existential crisis,” Knibbe said. “It was like they saw the creation of the universe. They were confronted with an enemy they could never defeat. It was something really difficult for them to describe.”
What appalled Knibbe the most was how the U.S. government failed the veterans. “Until this day, a lot of what has happened—and the radiation-related diseases the veterans have contracted and passed on to the generations after them—is still being covered up,” Knibbe said. “The veterans are consistently denied compensation.”
“For 10 years now, I’ve been trying to get compensation, but the government does not want to admit that anybody was harmed by any radiation,” says one man in the film. Knibbe said he has spoken with more than 100 U.S. atomic veterans, all of whom share similar stories of the government’s intransigence. One of the few studies conducted on atomic veterans found that the 3,000 participants in a 1957 nuclear test suffered from leukemia at more than twice the rate of their peers.
Bill Clinton relieved the veterans’ oath of secrecy in 1994, but the announcement was eclipsed by news from the O. J. Simpson trial. “Most of the atomic veterans didn’t even know the oath of secrecy was lifted,” Knibbe said. Most went on to believe that they were not allowed to talk about their experiences, even to seek help for their health problems. Many took the secret to their grave.
“It haunts me to think of what I had witnessed,” says a man in the film, “and not realized at the time the import of what we were doing … serving as guinea pigs.”


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Apr 13, 2011
Fascinating how, 50 years later, there are Veterans who experienced this 'drama':
writ large in the faces of the veterans, who struggle to find the right words to express the horror of what they saw during the tests
First Hand, and are being recorded regarding those events, TODAY!


it's good to know the truth, but to dramatize the truth is not necessary, to make it something it isn't, wasn't, isn't being honest

Watching a mushroom cloud erupt is horrible?
Getting 'blown over' from an explosion is horrible?
Caused lots of PTSD, did it?

Sounds like a wet dream for most men i've encountered:
Explosives - Check
Getting to Watch those Explosives blow some shit up - Check
That EXPLOSION was so large, the Largest I've Ever Seen!, bad asss, can't wait to see the trees it blew up...etc... - Check
Radiation? What's That? - Check

and now:
snowflakeville, we get the whinning...

Oh The Horrors, The Humanity,
"Today we have 91 year old Humphrey who was in the first ditch, front line, tell us all about it and describe how you felt last year, burying Larry who at 92 was the oldest one in the ditch along with George, who's with us today..."


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Mar 31, 2010
I knew a Korean War vet that was involved in the 1st Hydrogen Bomb test. He said all his medical records were sealed.

After the test, all the Navy men were taken to Hawaii, where big hangars were transformed into medical facilities. The men were stripped down and shaved head to toe, then they were scrubbed with a solution and all their skin was removed. They were put on a diet of raw meat and spinach only.

Fred was never able to have a family because the bomb test made him sterile. He had a successful career as an architect and was never sick until he was at the end of his life.

He had no heirs and left his substantial estate to National Geographic magazine!