Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the Pentagon detonated dozens of nuclear bombs in the American Southwest and in the Pacific Ocean. It had “Atomic Soldiers” witness, work on, or monitor the explosions to see what would happen if they were exposed to radiation—in total, hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers were exposed to nuclear bomb blasts. Now, almost 60 years after America’s last open air nuclear test, the Pentagon is honoring the soldiers with a medal.
The soldiers who were exposed to radiation during the course of nuclear testing or cleanup are called Atomic Veterans. The Secretary of Defense announced the medals in a press release that noted the service and sacrifice of the atomic soldiers. “The Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal recognizes that the service and sacrifice of the Atomic Veterans directly contributed to our Nation's continued freedom and prosperity during the period following World War II, and was pivotal to our Nation's defense during the Cold War era.”
“Notably, the dangerous and important work these veterans performed was often done in secret due to national security requirements,” the press release said. It’s impossible to know just how many atomic veterans there but estimates from advocacy groups put the number at around 225,000 people.
Poet Paul Zimmer was a 19 year old in the U.S. Army when he saw an atomic bomb go off in 1953. “They didn’t tell us anything about what was going to happen, no initiation, no training,” he said, recalling the event for This American Life. “We wore our steel helmets, but were not issued earplugs, eye covers, or any protective clothing.”
Motherboard previously interviewed soldiers who survived the atomic tests of their own government. “When the flash hit you, you could see the x-rays of your hands through your closed eyes,” one said. “Then the heat hit you, and that was as if someone my size had caught fire and walked through me. It was an experience that was unearthing. It was so strange. There were guys with bruises and broken legs. We couldn’t believe it. To say it was frightening is an understatement. I think it all shocked us into silence.”
The most horrifying of America’s nuclear experiments were conducted on the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. The 1954 Castle Bravo explosion was predicted to be a 5 megaton blast, but the yield was 15 megatons. Sailors watching the blast from nearby Navy Ships were cooked in their vessel. Though they survived, many would deal with health concerns for the rest of their life related to witnessing one of the largest nuclear detonations ever conducted.
The people of the Marshall Islands were also coated in nuclear fallout from the repeated atomic testing. The people of the islands have experienced failing health and increased birth defects after decades of U.S. atomic testing, but America has largely ignored their plight and dismissed their concerns.
Now the soldiers who witnessed these explosions can apply online to receive a medal decades after their service ended. Veterans eligible for the medal must have served from July 1, 1945 to October 1, 1992. They also must have directly participated in the detonation of an atomic weapon, the cleanup of radioactive material after a detonation or accident, or have been hit by the ionizing radiation from Fat Man or Little Boy.
The Pentagon will honor some of the atomic veterans in a ceremony near the end of the year. Veterans or next of kin can apply for the medals online “in the near future,” according to the press release.