Interview with Tom Saffer
U.S. Marine Corps
Q: What is it like for you to be back here at this site?
Saffer: I must say I never, ever, ever expected to be back here again. I was baptized a nuclear atomic veteran right here at this spot, or within a 100-yard radius of this spot. We Marines were brought here at 3:30 in the morning, the trucks disembarked us, we were left here. Hanging from a balloon two miles in that direction was a nuclear test called 'Priscilla.' None of us were prepared for any of the things that happened to us. Just being back here brings back a lot of bad, bad memories because this was the spot where a 22-year-old Marine Corps lieutenant, yours truly, was irradiated and became part of the population of 250,000 American veterans who were used in nuclear testing. The ostensible purpose of our being here was to learn what a nuclear war would be about.
I am afraid the enemy was our own government who put us here, without our knowledge or consent as to what the consequences could be and would be. As I said, I never thought I would ever be here again and I have this strange, strange feeling of deja vu because there is, or was, a terribly contaminated spot down there, Frenchman's Lake here in Nevada.
Approximately half an hour before this test was conducted, a voice from an unseen loudspeaker said, "Good morning, gentlemen, welcome to the land of the giant mushrooms. You are going to be closer to a nuclear weapon, or an atomic bomb, than anyone since Hiroshima." That left a very eerie feeling at the time I heard that.
Q: Priscilla was hanging from a balloon...describe that.
Saffer: Off in the distance was a balloon. It was somewhere between 700 feet and 800 feet in the air and it was tethered. Hanging from this balloon was a black canister. You could see it well because it was only two miles away and it was lit by searchlights that were on the ground. We knew that was Priscilla and we knew that what we saw was going to change form. We didn't know what it was going to look like but we knew it was going to change form and we sat there and stared at that for probably an hour and a half, two hours, before we got in the trenches.
Q: These were the trench lines.
Saffer: Yes. I am positive, where I am standing here, this indentation is where the trenches were. You can see that there are many of these going forward. We just stepped over old communications wire and I am sure that is what is left over here, from the Marine Corps being here, those 37 years ago.
Q: How deep were the trenches and what were you told to do when you were in them?
Saffer: The trenches were two and a half feet wide and five and a half feet deep.
We were told to kneel, put our forearms over our eyes and close our eyes tightly and then the countdown started. Our right shoulder was towards the blast. We were told not to look up and none of us dared look. Then the countdown started -- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... We heard a sharp "click" and this intense heat on the back of the exposed neck. And the most shocking part of this was you could see the two bones in your forearm, and a bright red light. Within a few seconds, shock waves from the bomb hit these trenches and I was immediately thrown from one side of the trench wall to the other. And I was frightened beyond belief.
What I didn't realize at that time was that that was a nuclear X-ray, which I had never heard anything about and didn't learn anything about until much, much later.
Within a few seconds the shockwave from the bomb, which had the explosive force of 38 tons of TNT -- it was called a "38-kiloton experiment " -- hit these trenches and I was immediately thrown from one side of the trench wall to the other -- back and forth, back and forth -- my feet even left the ground. I felt like I was going to be thrown right out of the trench onto the parapet and I was frightened beyond belief. Never had I ever expected anything like that and I learned later that this test exceeded the scientific projection by a factor of four. It was four times greater than what Livermore Labs estimated it would be. We were told it was going to be a 14-kiloton test, it was a 38-kiloton test. Two miles from here is where that bomb was exploded.
Q: What were the arrangements in the trenches?
Saffer: In the Priscilla experience, from what I have been able to determine ... I have read the official records ... there were 364 of us or 369, all officers of the United States Marine Corps. I didn't see any Army people here. By the way, the other people who observed Priscilla from our unit, staff noncommissioned officers, were back there, on a ridgeline seven miles away and they got knocked over. They were standing up when the blast went off ... they had to turn and then they turned back around. They didn't see the shockwave coming ... they were looking at the ascending fireball going up into the troposphere... they were really knocked down. Several of them were thrown against the bus so hard they put dents in it. They weren't prepared for it, no one said, "hit the ground!" At least we were kneeling when the shockwave came.
Now I am not surprised at what happened to us. The trench lines in front of us collapsed. They had to dig the people out. After the gyrating and the shaking stopped, we stood up and looked at the fireball escalating into the troposphere and there were many different colors in it from the gases that were burning, the nuclear gases.
All of a sudden the fallout started. We were in the fallout, which was not supposed to happen. Standing right next to me was our battalion commander, a Major, and he had a thousand-yard stare. He was in shock, just like I was, but I walked up to him and said, "what do you think, sir?" He didn't answer. I walked a little closer, he had this stare. I said, "what do you think?" This man was a veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War, but he had never experienced anything like this. He said, "I am very concerned about this fallout." Sure enough, there it was coming down in white grey ash. Definitely not a safe place to be. This is a windy spot, the winds are constantly shifting, they blow east, west, many different ways. I am sure we were not supposed to have fallout.
Shortly after that time we were put on military armored vehicles -- enclosed -- and we were taken across the desert down to within 300 yards of Ground Zero. We had a rough, rough ride across the desert and then the vehicle stopped and the back of the vehicle opened and we filed out into the desert. It looked like a place where time began. It was hot under our feet and there was nothing there. I mean nothing, just dust devils, storms, dirt, dust flowing in balls around us, twisters, little twisters and we were standing there dumbfounded. It didn't seem right, everything seemed wrong, ominously wrong. Nobody said a word because we were all in a state of shock. I was thinking, "what are we doing here?" Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this white form and this white form kept getting closer. It was as though he was skiing across this powdery dust. It turned out to be a field worker from the Atomic Energy Commission attired in white clothing with a hooded respirator. He came right up to where I was standing, because I was still standing next to the Major. His eyes were this wide and he was pointing with this radioactive measuring instrument he had, pointing like this, and then gesturing to us to get out of the area. It was obviously highly contaminated
We were standing around in our military field uniforms -- like people on a picnic, no protection, no warning. The major said, "gentlemen, we have seen enough, lets go," so we got back into the vehicles and came back to the trench line. Then we were put on buses and taken back to Camp Desert Rock, our original base.
Q: Were you contaminated?
Saffer: The radiological safety person from the Army came up with a Geiger counter and put it over us and we could hear it clicking, clicking, clicking. Then one man on each side dusted us off with a broom because the prevailing thought was if you get rid of the dust you get rid of the radiation. So we were "decontaminated." I didn't even know at first that I was contaminated. Secondly, if this was decontamination, hooray... The animals at a test site that I went to much later got better treatment than we did. They got washed and scrubbed with soap and water; we didn't even take showers for hours after that event.
That was my beginning as a nuclear veteran and if I had my life to lead over again I would probably have spent it in a military prison, because knowing what I know today would have refused to come here.
12 miles off in that direction was the control tower where the scientists detonated the bomb. It blew the steel door off its hinges and imbedded it in the wall. That is all a matter of record. I have learned that from my research. That is how powerful this thing was -- the control tower is 12 miles away and we were only 2 miles from it.
To this day I don't see any reason why we were ever taken that close within 30 minutes after Priscilla was detonated. What was the ostensible purpose of taking us there? I have no idea. It was dumb. It was absolute sheer stupidity and there was no reason why we should have been put in these trenches here either, two miles from Ground Zero. Many years later, when I started researching and writing a book, I discovered why we were put here -- to test the effects of the weapon on us -- just like the equipment, just like the animals -- they were in cages out there -- to see how we would perform physiologically and psychologically.
This Priscilla test for the Marine Corps was a familiarization test for us officers. We were supposed to, quote, "get the feel of an atomic explosion." We got more than a feel; we also got the effects. But we were put out here as observers, albeit two-miles-from-Ground-Zero-observers and then we were supposed to go back and swamp any fear that our troops may have had.
At the time I was a platoon leader. I had 27 men in a platoon and I had to go back and tell them that there was nothing to fear. In my mind my fingers were crossed; it was the biggest lie I ever told in my life, but I had to exude confidence to my men because we had an exercise coming up with 2100 Marines involved. My unit was called the Fourth Provisional Atomic Marine Corps Exercise Brigade.
Other troops came out here for other tests. Frenchman's Lake or Frenchman's Flat out there became so contaminated in 1957 they stopped testing. They moved everything over to Yucca Flats. That's it.
Q: After the Diablo failure the next explosion was Hood -- tell us what you went through then.
Saffer: Hood kept getting postponed because of the fact that the wind conditions weren't right. Every day we would get ready to go and it would be called off. There were two lights out at Camp Desert Rock, one red and one green. When the light was red that meant "no shot" and when the light turned green, you knew it was the day of the shot. I had tremendous trepidation about that because we were told that it was going to be a 77-kiloton test, the largest ever conducted within the continental limits of the United States. My private thoughts were "if we have to be subjected to this test, twice the size of the Priscilla test, what is going to happen to us?" I truly thought we would all be killed because of the horrific experience we had with Priscilla. I remember going into the trench Iine at Hood and I was hyperventilating so badly, I thought I was going to faint. I was perspiring like I never perspired in my life. I was literally soaking wet from my skin perspiring so profusely. I remember the water running down the sides of the gas mask I was wearing. I could feel it dripping on my hand, that is how much I was perspiring because I really thought "this is the end of my life." I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't the end of my life.
Hood was a huge explosion all right, there is no doubt about that, but they predicted it to be somewhere between 75 kilotons and 77 kilotons, they planned for that. Fortunately the trench Iines were three miles away -- the scientists had a pretty good idea what the yield would be. At PrisciIla they underestimated the yield by a factor of 4. Hood was much more of a gentle experience. The ground shook certainly; it moved back and forth as though we were in an earthquake, but we didn't have all the gyrations of being thrown from one trench wall to the other, none of that happened, and the noise was about the same
The effects on us were less than Priscilla. I mean I don' t know how much radiation we received from Hood, none of us wiII ever know, maybe we received a lot, maybe we didn't, I don't know. But as far as the blast effects were concerned, there was a marked difference. They weren't as severe as Priscilla.
After Hood we had a mission; the whole brigade had a mission. This mission was to occupy the hill on both sides of the valley and then ostensibly annihilate anybody who might be running from Ground Zero towards us. Of course now we know that nothing is going to survive down there so that part of the military exercise was sort of a joke. We were all laughing about it, the fact that we were supposed to be mop up troops to get people running from Ground Zero, out towards us.
Q: Hood was the last one in the series of tests that you experienced. When did you discover that there was a longer-term legacy from those tests for all of you?
Saffer: In the seventies there were some veterans in Orange County -- Marine Corps veterans -- who had participated in the same series of tests that I had and they were dying. One of the widows was publicizing the fact that she felt her husband had been killed because of this exposure, or had become ill and then died because of his exposure to this series of tests. I started paying attention. I was having some neuro-muscular disorders myself and I just didn't know what might be happening with me or if it was something that was subsequent to radiation exposure.
I started understanding that there were veterans who were becoming ill as a result of their exposure to radiation at test sites. In the late 70's I began to research this and determine, "yes, this could well be happening."
Q: As part of your research, you tracked down the test site director, a civilian. You asked him about the relationship between the areas he had under his control and what control he had over the military. What did he tell you about that?
Saffer: Well, the test site director had one responsibility and that was to ensure that the conditions were right for the test and that the tests occurred as close to schedule as possible. He told me that he was told not to interfere with any of the military operations or military maneuvers... he was told to leave the military alone, that they do not report to him. That is when I realized that civilian control was absolutely lost during the time that military personnel were sent to the test sites
Another interesting thing he told me was, "None of you fellows could possibly have been harmed by any of the radiation from those bombs. If you had any illnesses, it must have been caused by a bad hamburger you ate." I thought, well, that's a real good statement to hear.
Q: Did you ever get a sense of competition between the Army and the Marine Corps?
Saffer: Well, we weren't there with the Army... each unit came under separate services. The Army personnel that we saw were all permanent personnel assigned to Camp Desert Rock. This was a time when the Marine Corps and the Army were competing to see who could get the closest and withstand the effects and still function. The Marine Corps was really, really happy that Diablo misfired, that put us in line for Hood. There was never supposed to be any troop involvement in Hood... it was not designed that way, but we got that assignment.
Then later, in August, the Army sent the 81st Airborne out and they were exposed to a 55-kiloton test called Smokey which was the biggest tower shot at the time, keeping in mind that both Priscilla and Hood were detonated from balloons. Smokey was detonated from a 700-foot tower and a lot of the Smokey veterans contracted leukemia. There was an epidemiological study done and they had something like four times the number of leukemias in that group of people, versus people who were not exposed to radiation. Both the Marine Corps and the Army had to excel in 1957. It was well publicized by the Marine Corps that we were going on an atomic exercise. The Army I do believe made a film about Smokey that they called The Big Picture -- it showed how combat troops could still function in this environment.
After I started researching this I felt that if there was ever a year that you didn't want to be at the Nevada test site, it was 1957 -- for several reasons. First, this country, America, was in a state of mass hysteria about Russia's nuclear proliferation. Secondly, you had two laboratories -- Los Alamos and Livermore -- competing against each other to see who could build the biggest, most destructive weapon in the smallest package. Livermore hadn't had many successes so '57 was their year to either prove themselves or do something else, change their direction. Priscilla was Livermore's first big success. As a matter of fact, the scientific test director told me when I interviewed him, he said, "After Priscilla I said to myself 'I am no longer going to be looked at as a second-class citizen.'" That was a real successful test for them. All those things were going on in 1957.
I have said to myself many times -- had I reported a week or two later or a week or two earlier, I probably would never have been assigned to the unit that became the Fourth Provisional Marine Corps Atomic Exercise Brigade. It was just a matter of timing. I got there on the wrong day in April 1957, and I went into the wrong unit.
Q: During your research, what picture began to emerge about the health of the Marines involved in the tests?
Saffer: Well, there was a mixture of about 60% healthy, 40% having some sort of physical ailment. Maybe it was 70/30. Nonetheless it was still too high in my opinion. I found a lot of widows, women whose husbands had died five to ten years before I started researching. That was pretty alarming to me.
Q: What sorts of things had they died of?
Saffer: Cancer predominantly, blood-related cancers or bone types of cancers, bone marrow types of cancers, lymphoma, lympho-sarcoma, those types of things.
Q: What efforts were made by atomic test veterans to get some form of recognition of their problems from the government?
Saffer: Well, the unfortunate thing is the only way a veteran can get any relief in this country is to apply for a service-connected disability through the Veterans Administration and the Veterans Administration has not been all helpful to the cause of the atomic veteran. The causal effect is very difficult to prove. But the United States Congress got involved and they helped us quite a bit. They had bills passed that became laws. They forced the Veterans Administration to administer care to any one of us who contracted one of t he 11 forms of known radiogenic cancers. So that has happened, but it took 22 years -- from 1978 to 1990. It took 22 years for that to happen in this country. In the meantime a lot of veterans died.
Q: During the progress of Congress's investigation into this, you testified before them. What did you say and what did it mean to you?
Saffer: I testified before Congress. It was very difficult for me because I came from a very principled and conservative family in North Virginia, not far from Washington D.C.. I aIso went to a military prep school and a military coIIege. I had been in a military environment for a long, long time. Becoming a Marine Corps officer was a very prideful thing for me and to say derogatory things about my government was difficult. But, nonetheless, I had to talk about the facts and the facts of the matter were that we truly were treated like radiation fodder; that is basically why we were sent to the test sites -- to see how we would react and to test our physiological and psychological ability to perform in the face of these terrible tests and the radiation exposure that we had received.
Q: Why, as somebody who had joined the military, whose job was to fight for his country, do you and your colleagues find that offensive?
Saffer: If you go into combat and you are defending your country, that is one mission. All of us gladly accepted that. But to be sent to a place where no human being should have ever been, except for the scientists who were well-protected, and to be exposed to radiation without being briefed as to what the consequences could be... I think that is absolutely wrong and should never have occurred in this country.
Q: What feelings has it left you with about those who organized this?
Saffer: I feel betrayed. I feel as though I was deceived, that is how I feel. I am not debating the fact that Livermore Labs and Los Alamos had to develop nuclear weapons. I am not going to ever state whether that was right or wrong. This country had a reason to do that and I won't debate that, but I will debate sending young men to within two miles of Ground Zero of some devastating nuclear tests. There was no need for that and I would never, ever allow that to happen again; hopefully it will never ever happen to any living human being anywhere in the world.
Q: How has this caused you to readjust your attitude towards government?
Saffer: There is a definite mistrust of government. We know that we were lied to and millions and millions of dollars have been spent to defend the government's position. I think every atomic veteran would be real happy with nothing more than an apology saying, "gee, we made a mistake, we should have never put you there," but the government hasn't even apologized. I would be happy with a simple apology, I am not looking for compensation, and I hope that I continue to enjoy reasonably good health. I am one of the fortunate ones because I am still here to talk about it, but I feel very badly about those who are not here to talk about it.
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