Atomic veterans reminisce about their secret duties

Greencastle veterans involved in the testing of atomic bombs recounted their experiences during Old Home Week. Pictured from left are Bill Pistner, Bob Shreiner, George Mace and Clyde Stair.

Several Greencastle residents were part of the testing crew for atomic bombs, conducted by the United States military in the Enewetak Atoll in the 1950s.

Clyde Stair, 80, and Bill Pistner, 74, were in the Army; George Mace, 75, was in the Air Force; and Bob Shreiner, 80, was in the Navy. They served at different times between 1950 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and only later found out about each other. They shared their stories Aug. 4 during the Reminiscing series of Old Home Week.

With no paperwork to prove their deployment to the top secret assignments, they have only their memories, side-effects and activism through local and national chapters of the Atomic Veterans Association to educate the public on that frightening time in America. With the Cold War in high gear, the United States authorized testing of nuclear weapons, with limited protection from radiation for the soldiers closest to the activity.

The Greencastle vets passed around scrapbooks of photographs and articles about the blasts, the mushroom cloud in particular demonstrating the size and power of the detonations. Between the panel, they were present for 35 tests, tapered down since the release of "Mike", the first fusion bomb on Nov. 1, 1952. That explosion literally vaporized Elugelab Island.

Stair particularly criticized the government for its recognition of the men whose lives were at risk, knowingly or not, during those years. "We were sworn to secrecy for 30 years. If we talked, we could go to jail," he said, and knew of a fellow who did. "To this day, the VA has no program to help atomic veterans."

None of the four spoke much, if at all, of their time on the island until as late as 10 years ago. That part of their military service was unknown to their families. They suffered physically along with everyone else exposed to radiation poisoning. The National Association of Atomic Veterans documents conditions of the Enewetak servicemen, including many cancers, spontaneous bleeding, ringing in the ears, and fathering children with health issues.

"My hair fell out. I was bald by age 25," said Mace.

On site

The four recounted their close encounter with the bombs. Shreiner assisted scientists who lived on a "floating hotel" miles from the tests. "I took them back and forth to the island before and after the blasts, to check damage," he said. "On that hydrogen bomb we had to move. It got too hot."

Water flowed across ship decks to wash off radioactive particles and the men showered long and frequently.

Pistner explained that his island was 2 to 3 miles long and a half mile wide. He slept in a quonset hut. Geiger counters were unreliable. "We got dark glasses and were told to wear them or a blast would make you blind."

The U.S. tested land, underwater and aerial bombs. While the explosions were "awesome", he added, the thought occurred to him, "My God, what are we doing here? We could destroy the world."

Mace could feel an electrical charge whenever a bomb detonated. He didn't have the glasses and simply turned away and closed his eyes. "It was like a flashbulb going off in your head," even though he was two to 10 miles away.

Stair said at the same time, "the scientists and bigwigs were in bunkers on another island."

Barbara Harnish, in the audience, said her dad, Stair, brought her shells from the island for her tropical fish tank. The fish kept dying for the youngster, and she now attributes it to radioactive shells.

Mace believes up to 300,000 vets took part in the testing, and maybe one-third of them are still living. The four would like more acknowledgement and support from the government on their dangerous mission, but appreciate the fellowship of their fellow NAAV members. They can speak now, after years of silence.

"You don't forget," Shreiner said of the experience he kept to himself for so long, "but your hands are tied."