As the third plane carrying engineers and soldiers landed on Enewetak Atoll, Mobile native Frank Bolton III contemplated the history of the land and the reason for his presence there.
Nearly three decades earlier, in 1945, the threat from Nazi Germany was alive and well in the hearts and minds of Americans. This threat multiplied exponentially as rumors of the Nazis’ rapid advancements in the development of nuclear weaponry grew within the scientific community.
The United States had assembled some of the brightest minds in the world and given them but one task — to develop a nuclear bomb and do so as quickly as possible. The country was on the cusp of one of the deadliest creations ever imagined.
On July 16, 1945, “Operation Trinity,” named after a John Donne poem, took place on Nevada’s White Sands Proving Ground. It was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. Three weeks later, the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, Japan, with a uranium-based device called “Little Boy.” Three days later that, another was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan — a plutonium-based device called “Fat Man.”
Four months after the first explosion, 225,000 Japanese had died from either the blast itself or illness that followed.
These two devices effectively brought Japan to its knees and by Aug. 15, it had surrendered. But the U.S. advancement in nuclear weaponry required additional testing. The military and scientists were interested in needed improvements, atmospheric effects and population impacts. The U.S. needed an isolated offshore testing area.
This search brought military leaders — and eventually Frank Bolton — to the South Pacific Ocean. The Pacific itself is a vast body of water — roughly 63.8 million square miles and larger than all of the world’s land combined. In the Southern Hemisphere, there are islands and atolls galore. Within the rings of coral atolls are often partially or completely closed lagoons, formed over millennia by dormant volcanoes or seamounts. Within the Pacific’s vast area, the U.S. found a region perfect for its testing, the Marshall Islands of Enewetak Atoll.
The native Marshallese people — in villages of dozens or hundreds — were relocated to neighboring islands or regions. An area of operation was quickly developed, and scientists and soldiers were ferried in by boat and plane, making the Pacific Proving Ground ready for testing.
All in all, 43 nuclear bombs were detonated between 1948 and 1955, leaving Enewetak a heavily contaminated mess. To put it in perspective, those 43 bombs of varying yields were comparable to a Hiroshima-sized bomb being detonated every day for 19 years.
After repeated reminders to the U.S. from the Marshallese people that they were promised a return to their homeland, in May 1977 the U.S. government assigned a military coalition of engineers and soldiers to clean up and decontaminate Enewetak Atoll. This mission is what drew Frank Bolton III.
“I was transferred to the 84th Engineer Battalion as soon as I finished [training],” Bolton recalled recently. “Shortly after I got to Hawaii, the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Mission started. I worked as a clerk in C Company Headquarters. I was trained as a combat draftsman. When the captain asked me if I wanted to volunteer to go on the Cleanup Mission, I asked him if I would be able to work as a draftsman, he assured me I would, so I agreed to go.”
Bolton says a distinct duality existed on Enewetak. It was a place of unparalleled beauty, but within its picturesque splendor existed a high concentration of radioactive nuclear waste.
“When I stepped off the plane, I remember the heat and glare of the sun. Then I noticed the ocean and lagoon. The island was barely wide enough for the airstrip our C-141 landed on. The air was salty and fresh. I’ll always have my memories and photo albums. I remember Enewetak to be the most romantic place I’ve ever visited without a woman to enjoy it with,” Bolton said.
He described the beaches, fishing for sharks, eating coconuts and the indigenous life. The stars at night were brighter and more numerous than any he had seen and the ocean was full of phosphorous, giving the waves a green glow. But it was no vacation.
“Even though most of what I describe sounds like a dream vacation, the morale of most of the troops would not agree. Some grumbled that the government could not send prisoners to do the work because that would be inhumane. The heat, the sun, the long work hours, the lack of air conditioning, the lack of female companionship and the [resulting] divorces. You get the idea.”
If Bolton expected the military to train these men on how to safely gather and dispose of the radioactive waste created by nuclear testing, he was disappointed. He says beyond boot camp and the specialized job training for each soldier and engineer, the men received no training on the proper handling and disposal of “hot” materials.
“Once I arrived at Enewetak Island, our group was shown a video explaining the radiation issues. The video was created to explain the situation to the dri-Enewetak people.”
Bolton says the video was created as a public relations tool for the citizens of the Marshall Islands and was the only preparatory training he and his colleagues received.
He said the availability of proper hazmat gear and its usage was also lacking. Supplies were beyond scarce. In fact, many of the men had to roll up their work pants for pillows at night. What little hazmat gear existed could easily be left on a shelf. Bolton said the superior officers told engineers and soldiers they were not in any danger from the elements they worked, ate, recreated, rested and lived in.
Also, the temperature on Enewetak Atoll could easily eclipse 100 degrees by midday, Bolton explained. At times, required pieces of hazmat equipment like face masks were not available to keep radioactive dust from being ingested. They were told they were on backorder. With such complications in the supply chain and assurances from superiors of no radiation danger in their work areas, Bolton said men continued to labor in contaminated work environments — moving soil and debris polluted with fallout — wearing nothing more than short pants and boots.
As the men worked in the unrelenting heat, superiors and officials would come to visit and monitor their progress. Bolton says he and other soldiers were shocked to see the military brass and government officials in full hazmat gear.
“I never questioned the harm the government exposed us to. I feel many of my fellow ‘atomic cleanup vets’ have been cheated and lied to,” Bolton said, using a phrase that he’s since spun off into a website and support group.
The soldiers and engineers did what military personnel do — they followed orders — and Bolton says each was exposed to the radioactive and contaminated elements of the environment. There was plenty to go around. In fact there was nowhere to go to escape this omnipresent and lethal enemy. Following a hard day of work, a soldier would clean up and rest in his barracks. Bolton says the barracks were bunkhouses built on concrete slabs produced using contaminated coral reef aggregate and beach sand. Radiation was everywhere.
The engineers and soldiers reduced radioactive levels by scraping layers of the island’s soil, transporting radioactive debris to the containment area and sealing it inside a concrete Cactus Dome. However, even with the best of decontamination work, there were many areas that remained “uninhabitable” or “restricted” and would remain so classified due to the generations of half-lives in the radioactive elements so thoroughly scattered throughout the atoll during the testing. After all, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years and it has been less than 25 years since the last explosion.
Bolton had nearly completed his contract with the Army as he left Enewetak Atoll following his second tour.
“My military contract with the Army spanned from 1976 to 1980. I served two tours at Enewetak Atoll for a total of 14 months. When I left Enewetak Atoll, I finished my assignment at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and was transferred to Fort Carson in Colorado for my final six months … ,” he said.
With the skill sets he acquired while in the Army, Bolton quickly found both employment and success.
“When I returned home to Mobile, I worked in several architectural and engineering firms and was also self-employed and in partnerships,” he said.
Bolton’s name and reputation for exemplary work grew steadily. He became a valuable asset among his peers, an active member in the community, a devoted husband and father and is currently a dedicated employee at Heritage Homes of Mobile Inc. LLC.
Thirty-five years following their mission, Bolton says many of the veterans of Enewetak are getting sick and dying. They are suffering from all types of cancers, neurological disorders, incapacitating arthritis — just to name a few of the more common ailments. The Atomic Cleanup Veterans are certain their afflictions can be easily linked to their exposure to the soil and debris contaminated with cesium-137, plutonium and other heavy radioactive elements.
Particularly galling to Bolton and his compatriots is they are not being supported by the military they served.
These men are unable to get treatment at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals, Bolton says. It all comes down to a simple matter of classification. The Enewetak workers are not considered to be “Atomic Veterans.” By definition, “Atomic Veterans” are personnel who served in the military between the years of 1945 and 1962 and worked in “Radiation Risk” activities while serving.
Because Bolton and his colleagues are not classified as “Atomic Veterans,” they are not entitled to a VA health care service they desperately need. For those who are “Atomic Veterans” as designated by the official definition, VA health care of the highest standard — classified as “Priority One” — is available. There is even a cancer compensation fund for them. The “Atomic Veterans” do not have to prove their illnesses are caused by radiation.
The veterans of the Enewetak cleanup effort are termed as “Occupational Exposure to Ionizing Radiation.” This carries a classification of “Priority Six” and effectively closes and locks the door to the same treatment, Bolton says. Ironically, the people responsible for generating the contamination on Enewetak are covered by the VA’s plan, but the engineers and soldiers who cleaned up the contamination are denied it.
In 1996, the Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Mission was declassified by the Clinton Administration and for the first time soldiers and engineers were allowed to talk freely about what they did and where they did it. Prior to that, Bolton had already been using the Internet as a means of searching for and contacting his fellow veterans.
“I’ve been actively looking for people who participated in the atomic cleanup mission back when the Internet was a bulletin board using DOS, before it evolved into the modern-day resource it is now. I found a site one of our guys created for those who participated in our mission,” he said.
As the men began to communicate with one another, commonalities quickly emerged in their experience with health issues. And as they shared information, the source of their illnesses became more suspect. Two-thirds of the men who have reconnected with their fellow soldiers and engineers believe they have health issues that are the direct result of exposure to ionizing radiation at Enewetak Atoll.
A relatively new and powerful tool emerged as Bolton continued his search for more brothers in arms — social media. He set up a website where communication among those who served could be easily accomplished. The mission statement of the website he designed is twofold: “To help one another with sharing information and providing moral support during difficult times” and to “urge Congress to change current laws and recognize the soldiers of this cleanup mission as ‘veterans who participated in radiation risk activities during service.’”
The website, atomiccleanupvets.com, offers an array of information and photos from the Enewetak Atoll mission.
Bolton believes he did not escape Enewetak Atoll without being affected by the radioactive fallout that was scattered across the region.
“Not all of my health issues are because of my time at Enewetak Atoll, but I believe the health issues from my exposure to ionizing radiation involve digestive tract issues (stomach ulcers and diverticular disease), neurological issues (tingling and numbness in hands and arms, and fibromyalgia-type pain in my feet and calves), rheumatoid arthritis, calcium issues with my bones (degenerative disc disease) and teeth, and some memory loss.”
Bolton believes it is only fair that as the soldier protects his country, the country in turn protects and provides for the soldier. He and others say they are holding tight to the belief they will not be left behind.
Bolton urges those who served at Enewetak, as well as their families and friends, to contact their federal representatives and tell them simply that the veterans of the Enewetak Atoll cleanup need to be included in the classification of “Atomic Veterans” so they can receive treatment from VA health care facilities.
Several efforts were made to contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concerning the classification of these soldiers and the lack of available medical care, but as of the publication of this article, the agency has not responded to the messages left for them.
Bolton remains optimistic in his activism for “Atomic Cleanup Veterans,” and has dedicated himself to getting all those who served on Enewetak Atoll the recognition and medical coverage they deserve.