The Plutonium Files

Eileen Welsome

Part 5

Report Chapter

Less than a week after Eda Schultz Charlton was injected with plutonium, Una Macke, a frightened and desperately ill woman, pushed through the doors of Chicagoas Billings Hospital. She was hoping to find a doctor who would help her. Instead she unwittingly delivered herself into the hands of Manhattan Project scientists who were on the lookout for amoribunda patients.1 A pet.i.te, thoughtful-looking woman, Una had traveled to Chicago from Ohio several months earlier to consult a hematologist after experiencing pain around her ribs, sternum, and the small of her back. The hematologist diagnosed her as having infectious mononucleosis, but the diagnosis didnat fit her symptoms. She began experiencing fevers at night, a raging thirst, and a loss of appet.i.te.

On December 3, 1945, she was admitted to Billings Hospital for diagnostic tests. Beneath the hospital gown, her body was shockingly frail. There was a faint bluish tint around her lips and nose and her face was deeply lined, making her look a full decade older than her fifty-six years.2 Una had no husband, no children. Her father, John H. Macke, was a manager of the John Shillito Company, a department store in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of a book on how to measure and cut carpets.3 The antiseptic smells and the polished corridors of the hospital might have seemed familiar to Una. When she was young, she had been extremely ill with tuberculosis of the spine and lungs. She had licked the disease and, with the exception of occasional sinus problems, had enjoyed good health since.

Soon after she was settled on the ward, doctors performed a biopsy, removing tissue from her head and left armpit. The results were ominous: Una had widespread cancer, which had probably originated in the left breast. As she tossed in her hospital bed, soaking her gown with perspiration, a solution called aUa medication was prepared by scientists at the Met Lab, a ten-minute walk from the hospital.

Christmas came and went. The scant records donat indicate whether she had any visitors. Two days later, on December 27, the aUa medication was started. Almost immediately Una began to vomit.4 She was unable to eat, unable to drink, unable to hold anything down in her stomach. Seventeen days later, on January 13, 1946, she died.

Two hours after her death, her body was whisked to an autopsy room. On the slab, she was hardly bigger than a child: five feet one inch tall and eighty-five pounds. aOn the head,a wrote a pathologist, ais a large quant.i.ty of graying red hair.a5 Her mouth and teeth were in good repair, the tongue covered by a dark brown coating. In her right armpit and groin, several walnut-size nodes were palpable to the touch. aThe muscles are thin, somewhat pale and poorly developed.a6 aThe emptied heart weighs 250 gms.a The cancer had spread to her liver, small intestine, spinal column, and pelvis. The bone marrow had been almost completely replaced by tumor. The pathologist examining the tissues also made a surprising but not unheard of finding: Una was suffering from a second cancer called lymphoblastoma. The pathologist compared postmortem tissues taken from Una with biopsy material removed before the aUa medication had been administered. He found lymphoblastoma in the biopsy tissue, a finding that ruled out the possibility that the second cancer awas induced by the medication.a Unaas organs were scooped from her body and placed into containers filled with a 95 percent alcohol solution.7 Alcohol was used because the Rochester studies had revealed that formalin tended to leach plutonium out of the specimens. The body parts later were dried, ashed, and converted into an acid solution. Then they were measured for radioactivity. The bone marrow was the hottest, emitting 1,399 counts per gram of tissue.8 The aUa medication administered to Una was not a medication at all; it appears to have been a code word for plutonium. A health physicist who reviewed Unaas medical records concluded the dose could have delivered enough radiation to Unaas liver to cause nausea. The nausea and the inability to eat may, in turn, have hastened her death.

The same day Una was injected, a young man suffering from Hodgkinas disease was also injected with plutonium. The man, who died about 170 days after the injection, is the only one of the eighteen plutonium patients whose ident.i.ty remains unknown. Una was a.s.signed the code number CHI-2 and the Hodgkinas patient, CHI-3. They were the last two people injected with plutonium in Chicago.

What distinguishes the injections of Una and CHI-3 from those that occurred at other Manhattan Project sites was the size of the dosesa"94.91 micrograms of plutonium.9 That was nearly one hundred times what scientists in 1945 believed that a healthy workeras body could tolerate without harm and equal to more than 1,700 times the radiation that the average person receives in a year from natural and man-made sources.10 It was out of envy of the superior data he thought such doses might yield that Wright Langham had written to Samuel Ba.s.sett asking him to be on the lookout for terminal patients whom they could inject with larger doses.

The records that have been made public so far do not reveal who authorized the doses. The lines of authority between the Met Labas Health Division and the Manhattan Project were fuzzy, and it could have been either Robert Stone or Stafford Warren who gave the go-ahead. As for the doctor who actually performed the injections, the scientists gave conflicting statements to AEC investigators many years later when they were asked about them. Scientists Edwin Russell and J. J. Nickson are listed as authors of a 1946 scientific report describing the injections and postmortem a.n.a.lyses of Arthur Hubbard and Una Macke. Leon Jacobson, R. Lesko, and W. Monroe are listed as a.s.sistants.

Edwin Russell told AEC investigators that he prepared the plutonium solutions and that Leon Jacobson injected the material into the patients.11 But Jacobson, who went on to become chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicagoas Pritzker School of Medicine, denied any involvement in the experiment. He said he aknew very little about it, next to nothing.a12 In 1946 six Met Lab employees drank a plutonium solution concocted by Edwin Russell.13 The study was probably done so scientists could confirm that plutonium was not readily absorbed by the GI tract. One of the volunteers was Robert Carr Milham, of Augusta, Georgia. Now in his seventies and in good health, Milham said in 1995 he was clearly informed about the nature of the experiment. The drink tasted like alemonade,a he added.14 aSome people who were near terminal death, I believe, preceded us.a



Joseph Hamilton was in the Sierra Nevada panning for gold with his wife and sister-in-law when a neighbor came running up and breathlessly informed them that some kind of fantastic weapon had just been dropped on j.a.pan. Hamilton knew perfectly well what kind of weapon his neighbor was talking about, but like virtually every other scientist on the Manhattan Project, he had been so indoctrinated in the ways of secrecy that he had not told anyone about the bomb, including his wife, Leah. At last, the secret was out. He turned to his wife and sister-in-law and said, aThatas been my work.a The women began talking excitedly, but Hamilton soon returned his attention to the trout-filled creek and the glittering pan of rocks in his hand.1 As he breathed in the brisk mountain air, Hamiltonas mind no doubt raced ahead to the postwar period. Although he knew there would be changes, Hamilton acted as if the war was not over when he returned home to Berkeley. In the days and weeks to come, he continued to run the Crocker lab, the heavily guarded facility that he oversaw, with his usual secrecy, locking his papers each evening in a heavy office safe. Like clockwork, he filed his dry, technical reports with the Manhattan Engineer District, updating project leaders on ongoing experiments and informing them of the additional studies he was planning. In September of 1945, the month that Wright Langham went to Rochester and Stafford Warren and Hymer Friedell were in j.a.pan, he sent the Manhattan Project the following memo on his next study: The next human subject that is available is to be given, along with plutonium 238, small quant.i.ties of radio-yttrium, radio-strontium and radio-cerium.2 This procedure has in mind two purposes. First, the opportunity will be presented to compare in man the behavior of these three representative long-lived Fission products with their metabolic properties in the rat, and second, a comparison can be made of the differences in their behavior from that of plutonium.

Hamilton hoped to perform his next injection within two months, but for unknown reasons, the experiment was not carried out until April of the following year. The patient targeted to receive the multiple injections was Simeon Shaw, a four-year-old boy who arrived in the United States on April 16, 1946, on a U.S. Army Transport Command plane from Sydney, Australia.

Simeon, or aSimmya as he was called, was the youngest of three children, a lively little boy with sparkling eyes and dark hair. He was from Dubbo, Australia, a small farming community in western New South Wales, 260 miles northwest of Sydney. Around January 6 of that year, Simmyas six-year-old sister, Helene, was rocking him in a hammock on their front porch when he tumbled out and onto the ground.3 Simmy began to cry loudly, alarming his father, who came out to the porch and scolded Helene severely for her carelessness. The commotion so frightened Joshua, the oldest child, that he ran into the garden and stood in front of a green chili bush. Then he plucked off a chili and ate it. aThere is a whole blank from there,a Joshua recalled.4 Simmy complained of pain in the right leg, but in a few days he was careening around the farm again with his usual, wild happiness. A week or so later his mother, Freda, noticed a tender, swelling ma.s.s on the inside of the boyas knee. She took him to a local doctor who diagnosed the injury as a fractured femur. Simmyas leg was placed in a cast and the X rays forwarded to a radiologist in Sydney.

After carefully studying the film, the radiologist came up with a shocking finding. Simmy appeared to have an osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, and probably would not live for more than nine months. Desperate and disbelieving, the Shaws sought other medical opinions. Eventually they decided to take the child to the University of California Hospital in San Francisco for treatment.

How the family learned of UCSF or who in Australia referred them remains a mystery. An Australian doctor, whose name has been deleted from medical records released by the Department of Energy, had consulted his counterparts in the United States.5 Perhaps contact was made through this conversation. A note in Simmyas medical records states that the child was referred from Australia by a aMajor Davis through the Red Cross.a Once the decision was made to go to the United States, events moved at lightning speed.6 Freda applied for a nonimmigrant visa, and within a matter of hours, the two were boarding the U.S. Army plane in Sydney. So grave was the plight of the small boy that American troops headed home from the Pacific campaign had been off-loaded to make room for them.7 Once they were in the air and the roar of the engines had lulled Simmy to sleep, Freda, a young woman with long dark hair, may have begun playing and replaying in her mind the blurred events of the last four months, searching for an explanation for the unthinkable prognosis her son had just been handed.

Fredaas husband, Samuel, was a wool buyer from Gorki, Russia, who had immigrated to Australia years earlier. Freda, who was fifteen years younger than her husband and a British citizen by birth, was a gifted musician. She had a lovely singing voice and played the piano, cello, and violin. Although she was only thirty-two years old, the extra flesh she carried around her shoulders and hips had dragged her into an early middle age.

The large plane flew east for eight thousand miles across the blue wrinkled expanse of the Pacific Ocean, stopping for fuel in Brisbane, New Caledonia, and Fiji. When they reached Honolulu, Red Cross officials took mother and son sightseeing and then prepared a fresh bed for the childas last lap to San Francisco.8 The ragged brown edge of a new continent appeared in their plane window just four days after Freda had applied for the visa.

The transport plane touched down at a small airfield north of San Francisco. A Red Cross ambulance was pulled up nearby and a knot of reporters and photographers were milling about. Freda tottered down the ramp with her child. She was wearing an old-fashioned hat, a print dress, and a dark coat. Draped around her shoulders was a slender braid of mink.

Simmy looked like a character out of a Charles d.i.c.kens novel, skin and eyes glittering with fever, his right leg swaddled in a cast. The photographers moved in with their boxy cameras. The boy giggled, reaching for the spent bulbs. Someone gathered up a whole bag of bulbs and shoved them into his hand. Freda, exhausted and disoriented, was br.i.m.m.i.n.g with grat.i.tude. She thanked the Army and the Red Cross for helping to arrange the flight. The doctors in Australia, she said, had told her it was urgent to get to UCSF within a week. aInside of one hour, American Army officers and Red Cross workers had arranged priorities for us as paying pa.s.sengers,a she said.9 aI want everybody to know how kind they have been.a Freda refused even to acknowledge the possibility that UCSF would not be able to help her son. aIam hopeful,a she said, abecause I have to be.a The next day the story of the arrival of mother and son was carried in newspapers around the United States: aMercy Flight Brings Aussie Boy Herea; aSydney Boy Admitted to U.S. Hospital After Flighta; aSpecialists Hope to Cure Boy, 4.a Then the reporters moved on to the next a.s.signment. For Freda and Simmy, though, the story was just beginning.

Once he was in the hospital, the experiment on Simmy had to proceed quickly. Ships and men were already ma.s.sing in the Pacific Ocean for Operation Crossroads. Many of Hamiltonas a.s.sistants would be going. Even Hamilton himself, on one occasion toting a bottle of bourbon for the sweaty troops, would be flying back and forth.

Still carrying the bag of spent flashbulbs, Simmy was placed in a wheelchair and rolled to his hospital bed. The admittance office waived a lot of the paperwork. aTheir traveling expenses, previous specialists, etc. have been tremendous,a one official hurriedly noted. Freda gave the physicians the X rays and medical reports she had carried with her from Australia. Curiously, there was no letter of referral or summary of Simmyas illness.

The child was given a detailed physical examination. Codeine and aspirin were prescribed for his pain and an elixir of phen.o.barbital was ordered to help him sleep. Freda stayed at the Parna.s.sus Guest House across the street from the hospital. Her joy at arriving in the United States evaporated quickly when doctors allowed her to see Simmy only three times a week. aThey say if I go more often they will not be able to do anything,a Freda told her husband in a telephone conversation.10 Simmy was also distraught by the separation. aHe wants to see his mother continually,a an entry on his medical chart states.

Simmy began to grow more feverish a few days after he was admitted. Additional aspirin was ordered. Ice packs were placed on his forehead. Alcohol rubs were administered. A severe infection materialized in his middle ear, and ten days after his arrival, his left eardrum was punctured so pus could drain out.

Incredibly, on April 26, the same day his ear was punctured and his temperature was hovering at 104 degrees, Simmy was injected with three radioisotopes: plutonium-239, cerium, and a third isotope believed to be yttrium.11 He was the youngest of the eighteen plutonium patients and the only foreign citizen. CAL-2 was his code name.

The radioisotopes injected into Simmy were slightly different from the ones Hamilton outlined in his memo. Instead of plutonium-238, plutonium-239 was injected. Radioactive strontium was eliminated, and one of the scientists involved in the experiment suggested the yttrium injected into Simmy may actually have been rubidium.

Simmyas fever continued to seesaw after the injections. It dropped to normal a day later, and then rose again to 104 degrees. The infection spread to the right ear, which was also drained. Although his temperature kept fluctuating, surgeons decided to go ahead and do a bone biopsy. Australian doctors had specifically recommended against a biopsy, but the reason for their objection is not clear. After Freda signed a consent form for the anesthesia, the child was wheeled into surgery and a rubber tourniquet was wrapped around his upper leg. Surgeons removed an aoblong sectiona of bone.12 aThen with curved gouges more material was removed from the center of the tumor for radioactive studies as well as biopsy.a Small bits of muscle and tissue were also taken out for study. Finally the incision was closed and the child was returned to the ward.

A note in Simmyas medical records states that some of the specimens were sent to Earl Miller. Another doc.u.ment states that the data on the uptake of the radioactive materials could be obtained from Miller by aresponsible individuals.a But Miller said in an interview shortly before his death that he was not involved in Simmyas case.13 aIf I had any contact with this kid it might have been through reading his films.a14 Freda placed two calls to Australia, the first on April 25 and the second on May 9. Samuelas secretary listened to the conversations and transcribed them. Simmyas brother, Joshua, said this was probably done because his Russian-born father didnat speak English well and the phone connections were terrible.15 Some of the transcripts contain blank s.p.a.ces, which Joshua said probably represented words the secretary couldnat understand. The transcripts are filled with a poignant sense of confusion and urgency. They were kept by Simmyas father for decades and were handed down to his surviving children after he died.

The day after the radionuclides were injected, Freda placed the first call to her husband. aThey have given him an injection and will be giving him another one on,a she reported.16 There is no further information about what Freda was told about the injections; nor has any evidence made public so far indicated that Freda was informed about the plutonium.

Simmyas diagnosis, unlike Albert Stevenas and Eda Schultz Charltonas, was accurate. X rays showed the child had two additional lesionsa"one in the upper thigh and one in his left arm. The disease probably had nothing to do with the fall from the hammock.

Fredaas agitation, meanwhile, continued to mount. In the second conversation with her husband, she said, aThis afternoon they said they have not any hope at all.17 The resident specialist has told me there is no hope.a Simmyas fever continued to fluctuate during the rest of his hospital stay. He was given large doses of penicillin and more aspirin for the pain in his leg. There was a debate about whether to administer adeep X-ray therapya or to amputate the leg. Both options were discarded because it was felt that the cancer was too far advanced. Freda was advised, however, that if Simmyas tumor became excessively large or ulcerated through the skin, amputation might be necessary.

A fresh plaster cast was placed over Simmyas leg and he was discharged on May 25. The child seemed improved and was trying to put weight on the injured leg. Ominously, though, an X ray done four days after the discharge suggested the tumor actually was increasing in size.18 Six weeks had elapsed since Fredaas joyous, hopeful arrival in the United States. aSailing June 14th Need Money Cable Immediately Love,a she wrote in a telegram to her family.

Simmy and Freda took a slow boat back to Australia. The journey took a month, and the two may have pa.s.sed some of the Navy vessels transporting scientists and sailors to Operation Crossroads. Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Simmy celebrated his fifth birthday. When they reached Australia, Simmy and his mother took up residence in the Riverview Hotel on the outskirts of Sydney. Simmyas father joined them there. The eight-room hotel, which is still standing, was owned by Samuelas sister. Joshua, the eldest son, said the family probably stayed in Sydney because they were strapped for cash.

Through the summer, fall, and winter, Freda, Simmy, and Samuel were together, sharing a large room in the front of the hotel. There were cooking facilities, perhaps a hot plate in the room. Simmy slept in the only bed.

Freda, who had had her fill of doctors and mercy flights, used homeopathic remedies in a desperate attempt to ease the childas pain. Mrs. O. S. Adams, a Californian who may have befriended Freda while she was in the United States, sent her a packet of clover bloom. aAt last I have the clover bloom for your little boy,a she wrote.19 aCover with water, boil two or three minutes strain and serve when cool enough.a The letter and the envelope, with its six centsa worth of stamps, were also kept by Simmyas father.

The clover bloom was fragrant and full of hope, but no match for the bone cancer. The disease did its work, brutally and efficiently. Finally there was nothing left to do but hold Simmy. aThe last time I went into his room, Simmy was screaming with pain.20 I couldnat stand it,a said Joshua. aThe next thing we were driving back to Dubbo. I was sitting in the backseat and I asked my mother where Simmy was. She said he was staying in Sydney for a while. I could see she was very upset.a Simmy died on January 6, 1947, a year after the fall from the hammock. His death deeply affected the Shaw family. Samuel never mentioned Simmyas name again and shut himself off from his two other children. If Joshua or Helene touched him, he went to the sink and washed his hands. aFrom Simeonas death onward, there was a void.21 I canat remember one happy moment,a Joshua said.

A couple of years later, a secretary for Bertram V. A. Low-Beer, the UCSF radiologist who conducted the TBI experiment for the Met Lab, wrote to Freda. Low-Beer was interested in how Simmy was feeling. aWe realize you may have been busy and overlooked the letter, but we are very interested in knowing how your son, [name deleted], is feeling at the present time.a22 Low-Beeras secretary told Freda she was welcome to use the bottom of her letter for her reply. A stamped, self-addressed envelope was enclosed. aHoping to hear from you soon,a she added. Freda never responded.

Soon after the experiment on Simmy was completed, Joseph Hamilton and his colleagues headed to the beautiful lagoon in the Pacific Ocean where the worldas first peacetime atomic bombs were detonated during Operation Crossroads. But his human experiments were not over yet. In November of 1946, some five months later, he was again pleading with the Manhattan Engineer District for small amounts of plutonium-238 so he could continue his studies.23 The next human guinea pig in Berkeley was injected not with plutonium, but americium, a radioactive element discovered by Glenn Seaborg in 1944, which is created by bombarding plutonium-239 with neutrons. The subject was Hanford Jang, a sixteen year-old boy from Canton, China, who spoke no English. Often referred to as CAL-A, Jang was suffering from the same disease as Simmy: an osteogenic sarcoma. The cancer was located in his left femur and had spread to other parts of his body.

According to the scant records on the case, Jang was injected with americium on June 10, 1947, at the Chinese Hospital in San Franciscoas Chinatown. On the day of the procedure, a note in his medical records states: aAn injection has been given this patient at 10:30 a.m. today, henceforth all urine and feces shall be collected separately daily in individual containers provided to be collected daily at 9:00 a.m. by messenger from the radiation laboratories of the University of California at Berkeley.24 Please date all bottles.a Another note in his records states: aKeep clear of urine. Keep cool. Keep in container and in bucket of ice.a Scientist Kenneth Scott instructed researcher Josephine Crowley to amake arrangements for daily car trips to S.F. for excreta for first two weeks.a25 He continued, aWe will use the same procedure as with Mr. S. See JGH for particulars.a aMr. S.a was probably a reference to Albert Stevens. aJGHa was Joseph Hamilton.

Although doctors had decided not to amputate Simmyas leg because the cancer was too widespread, they went ahead and amputated Hanford Jangas leg despite the fact that his cancer, too, had metastasized. The amputation was performed two days after the injection. The limb was then sent to Berkeley, where it was dissected and the americium measured in the bone, tumor, connective tissue, and muscle.26 The teenager died eleven months later, on June 15, 1948, and was buried in the Six Companies Cemetery, a Chinese cemetery in San Francisco. The Department of Energy admitted years later there was ano evidence of disclosurea about the experiment in Jangas medical records.27 Although Hamilton certainly supervised the human experiments, itas not clear whether he actually injected the patients. aI donat think Dr. Hamilton, himself personally, ever injected anybody with anything.28 I donat think he ever wanted to practice medicine after he finished his internship,a Patricia Durbin speculated in an interview with government officials in 1994. aHe basically turned [away from] medical practice and became a laboratory bench scientist. He was terrified of patients. He was terrified of people.a Hamilton was so afraid of human touch, Durbin added, that he once wanted to fire one of his pregnant secretaries because he was worried he would have to deliver the baby himself.

Within weeks of the Hanford Jang injection, Joseph Hamilton and his a.s.sociates began looking around for another human subject. They eventually set their sights on Elmer Allen, an African American railroad porter originally from Texas whose life had been turned upside down by an accident. Code-named CAL-3, Elmer was the third and last patient injected by the Berkeley group and the final subject used in the entire experiment. Elmer outlived the other seventeen patients and the doctors who injected him, succ.u.mbing to pneumonia in 1991. But his was one of the most tragic stories of all.

*** You are reading on ***

As the fog streamed in over the hills of San Francisco, blanketing the city in a cloud of swirling whiteness, Elmer Allen hobbled from doctor to doctor, hoping to find somebody who could help him get back on his feet again. He and his young wife, Fredna, had moved to Richmond, California, in the East Bay area after World War II. The color of their skin didnat seem to matter as much in California as it did back home in Texas, where segregation was still rigidly in place. They had met in a bustling train station in El Paso. Fredna had missed her connection and was crying when Elmer, his eyes serious and thoughtful beneath the porteras cap, appeared at her side. aI can get you on the next train,a he said. He followed Fredna back to her hometown of Italy, Texas, where they were married.

While the military branches began planning for Operation Crossroads, several bills were introduced in Congress that would establish and define the parameters of the Atomic Energy Commission. The first major piece of legislation, the May-Johnson bill, was introduced in October of 1945 by Democrats Andrew J. May of Kentucky and Coloradoas Edwin Johnson.5 Using a corporate model, the bill called for a general manager with sweeping powers who was not subject to removal by the president, and nine full-time commissioners who could be either civilians or retired or active military officers.

The May-Johnson bill alarmed many atomic scientists. They were disturbed by the severe restrictions imposed on the dissemination of information and the heavy penalties for inadvertently disclosing atomic secrets. Above all else, they believed the legislation was nothing more than a power grab by Leslie Groves, who would eventually succeed in installing himself as the general manager.

Still smarting from Grovesas wartime policies of secrecy and com-partmentalization, the atomic scientists began traveling to Washington to lobby against the bill. Although Groves repeatedly denied that he was trying to set himself up as the atomic energy czar, many of the Manhattan Project veterans didnat believe him. Silenced for too long, the atomic scientists were an exceptionally eloquent and effective lobbying group that became known as the areluctant lobby.a On November 1, 1945, they established the Federation of Atomic Scientists in a warren of poorly heated offices in downtown Washington.6 When they began attracting support from scientists in other disciplines, they changed their name to the Federation of American Scientists, an organization that still exists today and continues to closely monitor nuclear issues. William Higinbotham, the federationas executive secretary, said in an interview in 1946 that the scientistsa lobby had no interest in politics: aThe question is: Are you pro- or anti-suicide?a The earnest young men soon became the toast of Washingtonas social scene.7 David Lang, who was covering atomic issues for the New Yorker magazine at the time, wrote, aThe scientists quickly discovered, to their embarra.s.sment, that aatoma was a magic word in Washington and that they, the only ones who fully understood its meaning, were looked upon as glamour boys.a8 But the scientistsa curmudgeonly boss, Leslie Groves, did not fare as well. Anti-Groves sentiment began to spread through Washington, and many a social gathering ended with an obligatory excoriation of the general. Wrote one scientist after a typical outing, aHis nibs (G.G.) took quite a beating.a9 As opposition mounted to the May-Johnson bill, Senator Brien Mc-Mahon, the ambitious Democrat from Connecticut, proposed the creation of the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy. McMahon, who had introduced the first piece of atomic legislation, also had quasi-religious sentiments about the bomb and often told his fellow senators that the bombing of Hiroshima was the greatest event in world history since the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Senate soon approved McMahonas idea and made him the chairman of the committee he had suggested.10 When it became clear that the May-Johnson bill would not pa.s.s, the action shifted to McMahonas committee, where a new atomic energy bill would be hashed out over the next few months. The Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy began its work in November of 1945 by first trying to educate itself about the Manhattan District. It took trips to the bomb projectas production sites and invited a remarkable number of the projectas stars and supporting cast to Washington to testify. From Philip Morrison, for example, the committee learned the new weapon resembled a asmall piece of the sun.a From Leslie Groves, it heard that radiation was a apleasant way to die.a The McMahon committee, composed of mostly conservative senators, supported a strong military involvement in the new Atomic Energy Commission. But committee staffers, as well as McMahon himself, wanted an all-civilian commission that would have absolutely no military representation. The atomic scientists threw their support behind the McMahon bill. aThey felt that an army, being an agency for waging war, would naturally and properly concentrate on the improvement of atomic weapons,a wrote David Lang.11 While the members of the McMahon committee were thrashing out details of the new legislation, other officials in Washington were engaged in the equally demanding task of trying to formulate a policy on international control of the atomic bomb. As early as 1944, scientists such as Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr recognized that an arms race was inevitable unless some kind of agreement could be reached among all the nations of the world. Such a pact would require that all countries renounce the bomb, open their borders to inspections, and be willing to accept heavy penalties for violationsa"including an atomic attack if necessary.

President Truman had expressed his support for putting the bomb under international control. As a result, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson had appointed a committee of consultants to develop a workable plan. Among the consultants were J. Robert Oppenheimer and David E. Lilienthal, who would eventually be appointed the first chairman of the new Atomic Energy Commission.

Working eighteen hours a day for nearly two months in early 1946, the group had developed a detailed plan that became known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. aThe study was a peculiar one,a wrote Lang, because the consultants, working in almost complete secrecy, were trying to come up with aa way for the nations of the world to get along together without the dread of being blown up at any moment.a12 The plan the consultants came up with called for the creation of an international commission that would control the worldas supply of uranium sources, aggressively support the peaceful uses of atomic energy, and conduct inspections to make sure rogue nations werenat surrept.i.tiously trying to build a bomb. Bernard Baruch, a seventy-five-year-old Wall Street businessman, was appointed by President Truman to present the plan to the newly formed United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. Both Oppenheimer and Lilienthal were appalled by the choice; they had wanted someone younger and more dynamic to lead the U.S. negotiations. The elder statesman supported the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, but he wanted to make sure violators would face swift and certain punishment. Over time, the Acheson-Lilienthal proposal became known as the Baruch plan.

Under the terms of the plan, the United States would stop making nuclear weapons, destroy its existing weapons, and transfer its nuclear materials to an international authority after the Soviet Union had agreed to an in-depth inspection and verification program.13 But the Soviets, who were secretly engaged in their own bomb-building effort, didnat like the idea of U.S. inspectors snooping around. Andrei Gromyko, the young Soviet negotiator, offered a subst.i.tute that turned the U.S. proposal on its head and effectively challenged whether the United States was sincere about handing the bomb over to an internationally respected authority. The Soviet Union, Gromyko said, would be willing to subject itself to an intrusive system of inspections and controls provided the United States first agreed to halt its bomb production program and destroy all of its existing weapons. In other words, the United States wanted controls first, then disarmament; the Soviets wanted it the other way around.

The Baruch plan and legislation that would provide the blueprint for the domestic Atomic Energy Commission were both in their most delicate stages of negotiation when Operation Crossroads began. Unlike the Trinity test, which was conducted in complete secrecy, Crossroads was to be a highly publicized event. Scores of journalists, foreign observers, and congressmen were invited to witness the two detonations. Many people in other countries viewed the upcoming event with a mixture of horror and confusion. On the one hand, the United States was claiming that it was willing to destroy its atomic a.r.s.enal once proper controls were put into place. On the other, it was preparing to host a military extravaganza unlike any the world had ever seen.

Through the spring and early summer months of 1946, ships loaded with men and supplies sailed from California toward Bikini Atoll, a tropical paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean some 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. On May 29, the USS Haven, a ship that had been converted into a floating laboratory, departed from San Francisco, her hold filled with medical supplies, Geiger counters, and test tubes. On board were Stafford Warren and several hundred other men who would serve as radiation monitors. Warren may have had a little more swagger in his step as he ambled over the shipas wooden decks. He had been a member of the supporting cast only during the Manhattan Project, but would have a starring role during the joint Army-Navy exercise. Warren was the chief radiation safety officer for Crossroads and had orders from President Truman himself to make sure that no one was harmed by the aspecial attributes of the atom bomb.a Considerably older than the rest of the pa.s.sengers, Warren celebrated his fiftieth birthday aboard the Haven and was given a aMark IIIa lead jockstrap.15 Warren had begun recruiting radiation monitors for Crossroads soon after he returned from j.a.pan.14 But with the rapid downsizing of the armed forces and the desire on the part of many civilian scientists to return to academia, he had run into problems. Warm bodies were so hard to come by that he had pressed his own son into service: aI had to practically browbeat Dean to do it,a he told a historian.16 Warren also had to do some fancy talking to get his Manhattan Project colleagues to sign on. Louis Hempelmann reluctantly put aside some pressing problems he was working on to help out. Wright Langham shelved his chemical a.n.a.lyses of the Rochester patients. Samuel Ba.s.sett left his a.s.sistants in charge of the metabolic ward. And Joseph Hamilton and Kenneth Scott temporarily halted their a.n.a.lyses of the data gathered from Simeon Shaw. In return, Warren tried to spare his medical colleagues from the rigors of daily work. aI felt they might be kind of soft, physically, and that it might be kind of hazardous, so I didnat want them to get hurt.a17 As the floating laboratory plowed west across the blue ocean, lectures were held on the balmy navigation deck. The first talk, on security, so intimidated many of the men that they threw their scientific notebooks and cameras overboard.18 The slow somnolent days were filled with lessons on nuclear physics, radioactivity, and the intricacies of the detection instruments. The evenings were filled with murder mystery films, poker games, and coffee drinking.

On June 12 the bored and restless pa.s.sengers on the Haven spotted the gray silhouettes of ships and the low line of Bikini Atoll. aA little eggsh.e.l.l of coral, like hundreds of others out here; hitherto unknown, unremembered for glamour or sorrow, it now suddenly becomes a pinpoint in the sea of human affairs, truly a crossroads,a wrote David Bradley, one of the radiation monitors.19 One of the twenty-nine atolls and five islands in the Marshall Islands, Bikini Atoll consists of a circular chain of small, low-lying islets surrounding a gorgeous blue lagoon. The atoll began forming hundreds of thousands of years ago when a coral shelf began growing on top of a submerged volcano. The coral eventually protruded beyond the sea and attracted vegetation. Approximately 160 people lived on Bikini when the Americans arrived. In short order they were moved off, the palm trees bulldozed, and the low-lying islets sc.r.a.ped smooth as a aporcelain table top in a physics laboratory.a Tall metal towers were erected where the palm trees once swayed, and cameras and radiation detection equipment were mounted atop the towers.

But it was the sepulchral collection of ships anch.o.r.ed in the middle of the lagoon that was the real focus of this vast exercise. This was the ghost fleet, ninety-five doomed vessels that were soon to experience the fury of two atomic bombs equal in size to the weapon dropped on Nagasaki. Bobbing on the gentle currents were American aircraft carriers, j.a.panese battleships, and a German cruiser. On the decks of the ships were cages containing goats, sheep, pigs, and rats.

Despite the manpower shortages, the mighty armada that was eventually a.s.sembled at Bikini consisted of 42,000 men, 156 airplanes, and 242 ships. Crossroads was so extravagant that it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime event, but actually it turned out to be the first of a series of lavishly expensive bomb tests that would continue for more than fifteen years at both the Pacific Proving Ground and at a second proving ground in the United States, which came to be known as the Nevada Test Site.20 In the days leading up to the first atomic detonation, the men checked their equipment, attended briefings, and undertook dress rehearsals. In their off hours, they hunted for, went snorkeling, and swam in the warm lagoon. They ate steak three times a day, washing it down with a foul-tasting coffee called ascald.a To clean their clothes, they simply hung them out in the frequent rain squalls.

Shot Able, the first atomic test, was detonated on July 1. Dropped from an airplane, the bomb missed its target by a half mile and sank only a few ships. The general response among the observers was one of disappointment. But those who stuck around for the second detonation saw an unforgettable sight, a foaming, white mushroom cloud that would forever be seared in the publicas mind as the archetype of an atomic bomb explosion.

On July 25, a little more than three weeks later, Shot Baker was detonated ninety feet below the water. On the deck of the Haven, the Manhattan Project doctors watched in awe as a mighty geyser of water burst from the sea. When the white plume was a mile high, it suddenly collapsed and dropped a million tons of radioactive seawater onto the fleet of target ships anch.o.r.ed in the middle of the lagoon. Instantly a cloud of radioactive steam and spray surged out from the base of the explosion and enveloped the vessels. When the roar of the bomb had subsided, the doctors heard the faint cries of the animals that had been sheared of their coats and placed on the decks of the doomed vessels. The animals were alive, but not for long.

Through his binoculars, Stafford Warren watched a launch carrying Louis Hempelmann and Rear Admiral T. A. Solberg speed toward the Saratoga, a venerable Navy carrier anch.o.r.ed only 350 yards from where the bomb had been detonated. The ship was listing badly and the admiral, who was in charge of salvage operations, wanted to cut the anchor and save her. Remembered Warren: Through the you could see this tug going like mad with a big bow wave toward the [Saratoga], and all of a sudden it looked as if it put its heels in the water, slowed down, stopped, and then backed up furiously.21 Dr. Hempelmann had been standing on the bow with a Geiger counter and had suddenly run into this contaminated water which was quite high in radioactivity. We got out without any trouble, but this was the way the rest of it went. You couldnat get near these ships.

Shot Baker turned the beautiful and pristine Bikini lagoon into a radioactive stew. The bomb destroyed nine ships outright, and the highly radioactive water that crashed back down into the decks essentially put the remaining vessels out of commission. Neutrons from the detonation converted the salt.w.a.ter in the lagoon into radioactive sodium and radioactive chlorine. Algae, small marine animals that lived on the coral reef, and larger fish soon became radioactive. Neutrons from the blast even made the soap on the ships radioactive. Alpha and beta particle contamination stuck to ropes and rusty metal and became embedded in the wooden decks. Despite these hazards, the first patrol boats were recovering instruments forty-one minutes after the blast, and salvage groups were working in the area two hours later.22 Forty-nine ships carrying 15,000 men had returned to the lagoon by the end of the first day.

The Navy tried to decontaminate the target ships by blasting them with seawater, coffee, rice, cornstarch, lye, boiler compound, diesel fuel, ground corncobs, coconut, barley, soap, sulfuric acid, flour, and charcoal. Oftentimes wearing little more than shorts and sailor caps, thousands of young enlisted men boarded the ships with mops and soap and water to scrub the decks. They also sc.r.a.ped radioactive paint from the hulls, radioactive rust from the propellers, and recovered underwater monitoring equipment and gauges.

The Navyas cleanup efforts were no match for the tasteless, odorless, and invisible contamination that engulfed the target vessels. Soon the contamination spread to support ships where the sailors, scientists, officers, and journalists slept and ate. It got so bad that Stafford Warren began confiscating shirts and shoes. aThey might have pa.s.sed under a bit of superstructure and have water drip down their backs or something; so their clothes were all contaminated and so was the skin of their back.23 They would not wear gloves, so they would get the palms of their hands contaminated.a The radioactive mist and water seeped into shipsa ventilating systems and into boilers that converted the seawater to drinking water. Soon even the scientists on the Haven were finding minute doses of radiation in their food. aOur cook had never been off the ship; but, apparently, somebody had contaminated the handrails of the ladders and other places in such a way that he and his helpers had gotten their hands contaminated so that when they peeled the potatoes, it got into the mashed potatoes,a Warren remembered.24 The Geiger counters did not work well in the tropical humidity. Whatas more, the counting instruments had trouble detecting alpha and beta particles. Only 15 percent of the task force, or about 6,000 people, were given film badgesa"and these also failed to register alpha and beta particles. The target vessels, with their uneven surfaces, gave off wildly fluctuating exposure rates. To make matters worse, many Navy officers were uncooperative and began ignoring the monitorsa advice about how long cleanup crews could remain on the contaminated ships. aSince they couldnat taste, feel, see etc. anything, the officers then began to take advantage of their numbers and my green men,a Warren confided in an August 11, 1946, letter to his wife, Viola.25 The relationship between the monitors and the Navy men grew so strained that one day Warren was called before 1,400 officers and petty officers. He told an interviewer later, aYou could just feel a kind of wall of hate when I walked in; the tension was terrific a I was just a dirty stinker, you know.a26 The Navy bra.s.s were finally convinced Warrenas concerns were real when they saw some of the radioautographs he made from the fish. The fish were sliced longitudinally down the middle, dried in a warm blast of air, and then placed facedown on a piece of film. Several hours later their gills, coiled intestines, liver, and gonads could be clearly seen on the film.

Ever conscious of litigation, Warren created a aMedico-Legal Boarda for advice. Its members included Louis Hempelmann, James Nolan, and Joseph Hamilton. According to doc.u.ments, the boardas function was to area.s.sure Col. Warren that the safety measures adopted by RadSafe were such as to attract no justifiable criticism and to give what a.s.surance was possible that no successful suits could be brought on account of the radiological hazards of Operations Crossroads.a27 Warren also prepared a paper trail of cla.s.sified memos that would exonerate him from any future blame. He described the radiological hazards in detail and advised the task force leaders to halt the operation. In one memo he wrote that many of the men had exceeded the 0.1 roentgen per day atolerance limit.a28 Alpha particles were ainsidiously toxic in very minute quant.i.ties,a he cautioned in a later memo.29 Speaking of a alethal dosea as an amount that could be deadly if inhaled or ingested by one person, Warren wrote: Where only one or two lethal doses are spread over a whole ship the problem is small and of no consequence. However some of the most important ships have had many lethal doses deposited on them and retained in crevices and other places involved in the final clean up stages where and other dry methods of removal will be used. Here the inhalation hazard will be extensive and unpredictable.

He also pointed out to Navy officials that as little as 0.5 roentgens per day for three months or less could result in defective children in successive generations. aThe majority of personnel exposed at Bikini are young, and their heredity is of prime importance to them and their families.a30 Dale Beaman, just s

*** You are reading on ***

Popular Novel