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2015-05-06 / News

Going nuclear: The fight for ‘atomic’ veterans

By Michael Buettner
NEWS EDITOR


An atomic bomb explosion spreads to engulf a fleet of mothballed ships at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in a 1946 weapon test. A Midlothian man later served as a guard on one of the ships exposed to radiation in the blast, the USS Independence, after it was towed to San Francisco for scientific study. 
Library of Congress An atomic bomb explosion spreads to engulf a fleet of mothballed ships at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific in a 1946 weapon test. A Midlothian man later served as a guard on one of the ships exposed to radiation in the blast, the USS Independence, after it was towed to San Francisco for scientific study. Library of Congress It isn’t true that Gillie Jenkins glows in the dark. But it’s a joke he likes to make when he tells people about his 16 months of service in the Navy aboard a ship that had been flooded with nuclear radiation during an atomic bomb test.

Nearly 70 years later, Jenkins has become something of an activist on behalf of the surviving members of a group that once numbered nearly 200,000 – U.S. service members who participated in nuclear weapon tests from the 1940s to 1960s.

As a result of his efforts, and the help of a local legislator, July 16 will be marked as National Atomic Veterans Day in Virginia. Jenkins hopes the Virginia commemoration will help spur lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to make the annual observance a national one.

What got him involved, Jenkins said, was his first visit to the national convention of the National Association of Atomic Veterans several years ago. “I had never seen so many men so bad off,” he said.

Exposure to radiation during and after the nuclear tests left atomic veterans with high rates of debilitating diseases, mainly cancer of various kinds. And many of those veterans were having a hard time getting any help from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jenkins, a Midlothian resident who remains remarkably spry at 85, felt a need to try to help bring attention to his comrades’ plight. “I feel like I was lucky,” he said. “I’ve been empowered by a lot of gentlemen in this organization.”

Lucky indeed. From April 1948 to August 1949, Jenkins was part of a crew assigned to take care of the USS Independence, a light aircraft carrier that had seen action in the Pacific during World War II. Afterwards, the carrier was put to use as part of a fleet of mothballed ships taken to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands for a pair of atomic bomb tests.

The fleet, which also included three surrendered German and Japanese ships, was staged inside the atoll’s lagoon, and in July 1946 two atomic bombs were detonated there, one above the target area and the other (about three weeks later) just under the sea surface.

In the first test, five ships were sunk, and 14 were seriously damaged, including the Independence, which was just 560 yards away from the 23-kiloton blast. In the second, 10 ships sank, and virtually every ship in the target fleet was drenched with highly radioactive water.

The Independence remained afloat and was later towed to the San Francisco Naval Shipyard for study, and that was where Jenkins encountered the scarred ship. (It was eventually towed off the California coast and used for target practice until it finally sank in 1951.)

Jenkins said safety precautions for his crew were minimal. A hardhat and work shoes, and “clothes with red marks” qualified as protective gear. After each 3 1/2-hour stint aboard the “hot” vessel, crew members “had to strip to the bone,” then “take a shower and go through a Geiger counter,” a device for measuring radiation.

As for security, Jenkins and his crew, like all other atomic veterans, were sworn to secrecy about their duty, a restriction that wasn’t lifted until 1996.

That shroud of secrecy contributed to the difficulties the atomic veterans have faced over the years in trying to get help from the government with their service-related health issues. For too long, Jenkins said, officials’ attitude has been “Delay, deny until they all die.”

The National Association of Atomic Veterans was created in 1979 in large part to increase awareness of the veterans’ stories and their health issues, but as the clock keeps ticking, the group’s membership keeps falling. (The organization’s website, naav.com, provides information and forms for veterans who need to file government disability or other health-related claims.)

Jenkins has been especially persistent in trying to get lawmakers to give the veterans recognition with a national day commemorating their service – on July 16, the anniversary of the very first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945.

For years, he said, all he got was the brush-off from virtually every state legislator, including Virginia’s U.S. Senate and congressional delegations – and his anger over that treatment still shows when he talks about it.

But finally this year, Delegate Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield) sponsored a resolution designating July 16 as National Atomic Veterans Day, and it passed both houses in the General Assembly without opposition.

If the recognition helps more of his comrades-in-arms get help, Jenkins says he’ll be happy. Many of them went through much worse experience than he did. “A lot of them went through multiple tests,” he said. “Some were just a few hundred yards away when the darn bomb exploded. And then they had to go in and do cleanup.”

And besides, he added, he just isn’t the kind of guy who can really retire. “I just can’t sit still,” he said.

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