Fitz T-e to The Coloradoan
February 9 ·
Enewetak, Marshall Islands
If a subject is not required by Common Core Curriculum, portions of American History are conveniently left to be forgotten. If a classroom of kids reciting/regurgitating select, force-fed information doesn’t garner the school federal funds for operation, then that information doesn’t get taught. Seems pretty standard these days.
Among numerous events of history that are forgotten by all but the people who lived them is one particular Pacific Battle Campaign of WWII; ‘The Battle of Enewetak Atoll’ in the Marshall Islands. The anniversary of that battle is February 17-24 (1944) but perhaps the event most conveniently forgotten concerns a group of men called the Atomic Clean-up Vets who found themselves stationed on these very same islands between 1977 and 1980. Never heard of these guys? Chances are, you’ve probably don’t remember The Cold War or the Nuclear Arms Race as well.
In 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the event that on the very next morning introduced America to the Second World War. After WWII, the Marshall Islands were commandeered by the United States and turned into what became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds for nuclear weapons testing. Between 1946 and 1958, the US carried out 67 nuclear tests on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. (To this day, coconuts on Bikini Atoll are still radioactive.)
This is not referring to the Atomic Veterans of the 50’s and 60’s: men who actually saw the ‘flash and bang’ of various nuclear devices or who walked the original Ground Zero of Nagasaki or Hiroshima, Japan. THESE men are veterans who enlisted and performed their duties during a period of history when it wasn’t popular to be in the military; post Viet Nam. These men were not combat vets but instead served during the Cold War Era cleaning residual effects of super powers’ ‘Dog and Pony Shows’…”My bomb is bigger than your bomb. Watch me blow this island away.”
A few decades later, between the years of 1977 and 1980, the United States was finally pressured into performing a clean-up operation of radioactive material. Men who came to be known as Atomic Cleanup Veterans were flown to the remote atolls of the Marshall Islands to theoretically “clean and reappropriate radioactive contaminated material” left from the previous decades of nuclear testing. It took the United States 40 years to admit all the nuclear testing unfavorably affected the indigenous people of the Marshall Islands/Atolls. Soaring cancer rates, severe birth defects and genetic mutations were some of the remunerations the Marshallese received. But what about the men who were assigned to clean up the mess decades later? In disease processes taking years to manifest, these veterans are currently beginning to experience health issues related to exposure to that radiation. Many Atomic Cleanup Vets have already died.
Despite living 24/7 for months at a time; eating, drinking, swimming, working, and existing in the same nuclear contaminated environment the Marshallese people were exposed to, our government has only begrudgingly admitted these men were stationed on these remote atolls in the South Pacific. These veterans aren’t even classified as Atomic Vets; due to specific wording on any paperwork calling theirs only occupational exposure. But let’s look at some facts…
This isn’t the first time in our history the military has opportunely ‘lost’ records or failed to recognize health issues related to groups of veterans. Remember Agent Orange? Gulf War Syndrome? PTSD? Add to that list these forgotten veterans of the Cold War Era who now have illnesses manifesting decades after exposure to a heavily radioactive environment.
Many Atomic Vets went to their graves quietly. Their duty was sworn to secrecy and they could never discuss what they were involved in or had seen. Since the 50’s and 60’s, the government has declassified many atomic operations, so now the Atomic Cleanup Vets of the 70’s and 80’s are rising up, seeking acknowledgement from the government they served…seeking to gain access and treatment for health conditions attributed to mass exposure to radiation, but having a tremendously difficult time doing it. Records have come up conveniently lost or missing. Why? “All to save a corrupt nuclear defense industry, to protect the remnants of the Nuclear Arms Race- to save a military industrial complex that continues to profit from the deaths of men who proudly served.”
Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not the only places contaminated by radioactive fallout. By definition, Atomic Vets are men who served between the years 1945 and 1962. But on May 15, 1977 the United States government directed the military to decontaminate Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. What about the men who lived, breathed, ate, work, slept, swam in the decades of nuclear/radioactive fallout? The men who decades later are slowly all dying from diseases attributed to that exposure? For decades these men have been attempting to get a bill like the state of Hawaii has and be added to the VA definition of Atomic Veterans so as to have their conditions labeled as service connected. These men served during the Cold War but certainly deserve to be taken care of as much as the combat vets of today.
You may never see the Battle of Enewetak Atoll in Common Core Curriculums. You’ll be lucky if you see anything about nuclear weapons and defense lest it should offend some sensitive soul. But maybe by publishing this article, these men will get to see the recognition of their work become a part of today instead of remaining conveniently lost in history. We owe it to these men. They deserve to be heard.
- Who's Your Daddy?
- Pacific Proving Grounds
- USS Estes - 1952-1961 - PPG >
- 1946 - OP Crossroads
- 1948 - OP Sandstone
- 1949-1951 - AEC Oak Ridge - Atomic Prep
- 1951 - OP Greenhouse
- 1952 - OP IVY >
- 1954 - OP Castle-Bravo
- 1954 - OP Wigwam
- 1954 - OP Passage to Freedom - N. Vietnam
- 1955 - OP Pull Out - Tachen Islands Evacuation
- 1956 -OP Redwing
- 1757 - OP Far East Tour - Hong Kong / Yokasuka OPs
- 1958 - OP Hardtack
- Hunters Point Rad Labs
- Treasure Island Naval Base
- Navy Terms, Slang & Trivia
- Strange Attractors