Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 06 November 2012 15:14
When Gary Thornton was called to active duty in the U.S. Naval Reserve in September 1961, only months after his graduation from Peabody High School, he knew he would see the world and that he might find himself in harm’s way someday.
Thornton was right on both counts, but what he didn’t know was that his most serious encounter with harm would come from radiation as a guinea pig with the U.S government’s secret nuclear weapons testing program in the South Pacific.
Thornton’s heroism didn’t stop when he left the Navy. Between 2002 and 2010, Thornton, now a resident of Leon, joined the battle to secure government recognition and benefits for the thousands of “atomic veterans” like him in Kansas and beyond.
It was late September 1962. Thornton thought his ship was making a routine return to the States when suddenly it changed course. It sailed for three days without explanation before reaching tiny Johnston Island, located about 860 miles west of Hawaii.
“Even when we got there, nobody knew what was going on,” Thornton said. “The captain had sealed orders.”
The next day, a team of scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission boarded the small minesweeper called the USS Engage. The team confiscated the crew’s cameras, materials—anything that could be used for recording or communicating.
“All we were ever told was we were going to participate in a test,” Thornton said. “We all signed this 20-year agreement not to disclose anything we’d seen or done.”
The following day, the scientific team was back on board with big boxes containing protective gear. Thornton and six fellow crew members were drafted to be the test participants.
The seven men were carefully dressed in multiple layers of clothing, taped shut at each opening. They also were fitted with face masks and rubber goloshes and gloves. The men, despite the heat, were ordered to wear their gear 23 hours of every day.
“They knew they were going to detonate one, but they never had the exact time,” Thornton said. “The first afternoon we were out there and found out real soon that if you had to go to the bathroom, you just went to the bathroom.”
The following day, Thornton and his mates finally realized the purpose of the test. The United States was attempting to put nuclear warheads on guided missiles.
He and the six other “volunteers” were going to be left on deck to be exposed to the effects of the blast, and then recover remnants of the missile for testing.
That night, the first missile was launched. But something went wrong with the second-stage rocket; the missile was detonated 65 seconds after launch and roughly 51?2 miles in the air.
Thornton found out later the blast lit the night sky like mid-day 800 miles away in Hawaii. It broke out windows and set off alarms.
Meanwhile, the USS Engage was anchored a mere 500 yards from Johnston Island.
“It lit up everything, just like having a bunch of 1970 photographers getting in front of your face and all clicking at the same time,” Thornton said the explosion.
The protective gear the seven seamen was wearing had little effect.
“You couldn’t see anything,” he said. “It was seven minutes before you could start seeing even the outline of anything.”
Thornton was knocked out by the force of the blast.
“When I came to, I heard the guy next to me was crying, ‘I’m blind, I’m blind.’ The aftershock smashed my face into the deck so hard that blood came down both nostrils. It sealed off my breathing in my nose, drained down my mouth and I was choking on it.”
Thornton finally managed to get the mask off his face so he could breath. For the rest of the night, the seven men sat against the bulwark holding their sides to relieve the intense pain.
Problems and benefits
In all, Thornton and the crew experienced eight nuclear tests during their involvement in Operation Dominic.
The personnel who participated in these and other nuclear tests came to be known as “atomic veterans.” From 1945 through 1963, some 225,000 servicemen in three branches of the military were exposed to radiation, according to Thornton.
Many of them experienced severe health problems, including multiple forms of cancer.
Because their mission was top secret, the military did not record their service and they did not receive compensation or even recognition from the federal government or the military.
Yet, Thornton said, the lessons learned during those tests have resulted in the modern nuclear technologies society enjoys today.
A more immediate benefit was the message the tests sent to the Soviet Union.
“This did prove to the Russians that we finally had the capabilities to launch intercontinental ballistic nuclear warheads, and immediately brought a conclusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Thornton said.
Working for recognition
Recognition for atomic veterans was slow in coming.
A breakthrough occurred in 1979, when one of them helped establish the National Association of Atomic Veterans. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan was authorized to proclaim July 16, 1983, as National Atomic Veterans Day.
With initial acknowledgement, thousands of atomic veterans appealed to the government for medical benefits. The government relented in 1988, but required proof of service—which was almost impossible because of the lack of records.
In 1996, then-Defense Secretary William Perry finally lifted the government’s “cloak of secrecy” oath. But even today many veterans still do not know they are free to speak, Thornton said.
“When I was trying for recognition, starting back in 2002, I had a lot of atomic veterans not even talk to me because they were afraid of going to Leavenworth (prison) for 20 years,” he said.
Thornton said his efforts to assist atomic veterans at the state level have been motivated less by financial compensation than simply to have these veterans be officially acknowledged by their government, and receive the medals they should have earned.
“England, New Zealand, Australia and Canada have all given their atomic veterans medals of recognition with a certificate to go with it for their service,” Thornton said.
“That’s what I was trying to do for atomic veterans in the United States, so they could stand in line with any other veteran, shoulder to shoulder, with honor and recognition—and so any of the widows of the veterans would have something to show for their husband’s service.”
Progress in Kansas
With the help of other atomic veterans and a few sympathetic public officials, Thornton was instrumental in having Gov. Kathleen Sebelius designate July 16, 2004, as Atomic Veterans Day in Kansas.
He also helped get legislation passed to name a portion of U.S. Highway 400 in honor of atomic veterans. The 18.5-mile stretch of roadway runs close to Thornton’s home in Leon.
At the national level, Thornton wrote House Concurrent Resolution 5018, urging Congress to authorize the striking of a special medal for atomic veterans. It was passed by the House March 12, 2007, but became stuck in committee.
In part because of his own health issues, Thornton ended his leadership role in the atomic veterans movement in 2010.
Though frustrated by the way the government has treated atomic veterans over the years, he holds no regret about his decision to sign up with the U.S. Naval Reserve when he was a Peabody High School junior.
“I’m very happy as an American to be able to serve my country,” Thornton said. “I love the experience I had in the Navy and the places they showed me.
“At the present day, I can’t really say I’m bitter anymore. You kind of grow out of that and accept what you got.”
A slightly abridged version of this article is one of 11 profiles of Marion County veterans to be included in the new book, “Our Nation Called.” The 188-page book, produced by the Hillsboro Free Press, is set for public release this Sunday in Pilsen.