Memorial day is a federal holiday in the United States, started as an event to honor Union soldiers who lost their lives during the Civil War. It has since become a day to honor those who lost their lives serving in the military. This Memorial day it is imperative that we remember the atomic veterans whose bodies bear the weight of the nuclear age.
From July 1945 to September 1992, the United States conducted a total of 1,032 nuclear tests. An estimated 400,000 servicemen in the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines were present during these tests, whether as clean-up crews, technicians, or witnesses. During this time, many of these veterans were simply unaware of the harmful effects that radiation from nuclear fallout has on the human body, and did not know that their health was at risk. Additionally, many of these veterans were not provided proper protective gear, and any grievances they had were often covered up under a forced oath of silence. To break this oath of silence, even to talk among other atomic veterans, would be considered treason and would be punishable by prison.
Francis Lincoln Grahlfs is an atomic veteran, pacifist, and an anti-nuclear activist. Every email or correspondence he sends is followed with one short phrase: “In war, everyone loses.” He is a veteran of World War II, who witnessed multiple nuclear tests and the effects of a nuclear weapon first hand, and most importantly, he never willingly volunteered to be a part of these tests. He also spent most of his life as a college professor of Sociology, passionate about studying society and trying to make the world a little better then how he found it.
Lincoln has worked hard for the rights of all people, especially atomic veterans, actively serving in the past as Vice Commander for the National Association of Atomic Veterans and as a board member for Veterans for Peace. He stays active to this day because “I believe that if we aren’t careful we can kill everyone off with an atomic bomb. We have to do something to make sure that those things are illegal.” He doesn’t do this work to elevate himself or his status, but because it is the right thing to do.
This is his incredible story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My name is Rachel Traczyk, and I work with Beyond the Bomb, a people-powered campaign focusing on young people working to free our planet from nuclear violence. As the next generation to learn about nuclear weapons issues and work towards disarmament, thank you for sitting down to talk with me to talk about your experiences and how nuclear weapons have impacted your life. It is so important to prevent these weapons from harming future generations as well. I know that you’ve been advocating for nuclear disarmament for 70 years – which is amazing!- what set you down the path of that activism?
“From the time I was in highschool, I have been a pacifist. Then World War II came along, and I realized that I was going to be drafted anyway, so I joined the Navy to avoid getting drafted in the Army. Essentially by that time in history, I was upset with the Hitler regime, and I joined the Navy to fight against Hitler, but then it loomed into something bigger.
I joined the Navy in 1942 for six years, and three years later the war was over. As you know, they had begun to have these big atomic bomb tests, and they were looking for volunteers. They couldn’t get enough volunteers, so they started sending guys there who didn’t volunteer, I was one of them. It was kind of amusing in a way, we’d go around the ship and say: “Did you volunteer?” “No, did you?” They’d tell us that we were all volunteers, but none of us actually were.
That’s how I got involved with the nuclear bomb. I had decided from the beginning that it was a bad thing, but I got caught up in it. At that time, I was on a rescue tug, and we were sent in part of what was called the ‘Salvage Crew.’ We were approximately 10 miles off when the bombs went off and within four hours of detonation, we were right back in the lagoon where the explosion had been.”
I know you talked about how you didn’t volunteer for this, and how so many other people were roped in even though they also hadn’t volunteered. I was wondering if you could talk more about your experiences witnessing something like a nuclear weapon as close as 10 miles away and not volunteering for it, that sounds terrifying.
“We were on what was called the ‘Salvage Crew’, we were sent back in after each explosion. There were two bombs that were set off and I was in operations crossroads. There was one that was an airdrop that was on the 1st of July in 1946. The second one was on the 24th of July that was 60 feet down under the surface. There was supposed to be a third bomb, but there was so much damage from the second one that they decided to call off the third one. We had a lot of firefighting gear on board and we were back within 4 hours of each explosion putting out fires on the ships and towing ships that had been disabled to shallow waters to stop them from sinking.
I have to tell you, we had no protective clothing. We had no goggles, we used to joke that all the goggles were on the press ships so that the reporters could see what was going on. But we had none of that.
The main thing that I can say is that it was one hell of an explosion, but after the explosion was over was the contamination in the air. I read one report recently that was made by an observation group that said that the main damage to most of us was done from breathing the contamination and drinking the water.
There was contamination in all of the water of the lagoon, and we were pumping the water aboard the ship, running it through the evaporators, the water that we washed our dishes with, washed our clothes with, took showers with, and drank was all out of the contaminated lagoon. If you look at most of the reports, it talks about how far we were from the explosion, and how much damage there was to someone being so far from the explosion. The fact that we inhaled it, we ingested it, and that’s stayed in our system for the rest of our lives. They didn’t take that into consideration at all. You can look at most of the studies done by the government, and they don’t talk about those things.
I ended up having an abscess on my face that developed nine months after the testing finished and we had been back in the States. With this big abscess on my face, I reported to the Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, and they gave me massive doses of penicillin that didn’t do any good. Finally, after I’d been in the hospital for several days, and doctors came in and out of my room, I knew there was something wrong when they put me in a private room. An enlisted man in a private room in a Naval Hospital. Finally, an aid came in and wheeled me down to x-ray. They put a shield over my eyes, to protect my eyes, and this Navy doctor said to me, “Well son, we call this a hair of the dog that bit you.”
Xray “a hair of the dog that bit me.” That was his way of not telling me but really telling me that what they thought was a result of my exposure to radiation. They gave me a shot of two x rays, and they came back two days later with another shot and it started clearing up. I was in the hospital a little while, until my white blood count got better, and then they sent me back to duty.”
It wasn’t until I got out of the Navy that I started having problems with falling asleep all of the time, for no good reason. I finally had an examination and they decided that I had trouble with my thyroid glands. So much later, I went to the hospital, and I had cancerous growths on my thyroid. That was affecting my sleep patterns and my concentration. They put me on potassium iodide, and it stopped the progress of that affliction, but I was already to a point where my thyroid had been affected, and I still have to have examinations to make sure it hasn’t gotten worse.”
Thank you for sharing your personal story with me, there aren’t any words for what you experienced. On Memorial day we reflect on those who gave their lives for the United States but we often don’t think about how veterans who were part of the nuclear system factor into that. What does being an atomic veteran mean to you? Do you consider yourself one?
“I’m an atomic veteran, I’m very active in the atomic veterans’ affairs. To me, I don’t want anything for myself, what I want is to convince people that we have to stop this nonsense. It’s just crazy, no good comes from it.
When I was a little bit younger, maybe 40 years ago, I said I would go anywhere where people would pay my car fare to and speak to any group about my reasons why we should do away with nuclear weapons and nuclear power. I used to travel around and I gave talks about my experience and why I thought we should outlaw nuclear weapons.”
I know that atomic veterans sadly aren’t always talked about, especially within our society. How would you define an atomic veteran to someone who didn’t know what it was?
“An atomic veteran is somebody who took part in a military operation involving nuclear weapons, the testing operations, the people who carried them onboard airplanes or ships.
The government is very narrow about it, in that you have to be someone who was present at an explosion. For instance, organizations for atomic veterans [like the National Association for Atomic Veterans (NAAV) and Veterans for Peace (VFP)] have been very active lately incorporating the people who did the clean up on the islands. We got to the point where the government begrudgingly is providing aid for them as well. They didn’t want to include them, they just wanted a narrow definition of who was an atomic veteran.
Actually there were a lot of civilians that were affected. I took part in a study a few years ago when I was living in Missouri of people who had been affected by nuclear fallout in the air. They were affected by some of the fallout from nuclear weapons in the air from explosions that had been blown across the country and had affected people. Often, there were hotspots East of places where tests had taken place where people had developed sicknesses related to nuclear isotopes. It isn’t only military personnel. There are a lot of people downwind of the explosions who have been affected too.”
That leads me to my next question, speaking of nuclear downwinders. I’m from New Mexico, and learned about the Trinity test. I was horrified to learn the impacts the test had on my local community, and the secrecy that surrounded it until recently. I’ve read that atomic veterans were sworn to secrecy. As an atomic veteran, what were you told, and were you sworn to secrecy?
“Yes, we were made to sign a statement before we went out to the test that we wouldn’t tell anyone anything. Which is ridiculous because we didn’t know what was going on ourselves! My father at the time was working as a copy editor at the New York Times, and he knew more about it then I knew from the reports that came into the Times. He could tell me things that I didn’t know about it.
Swearing us to secrecy was a ridiculous thing I think. I didn’t know anything that anybody would want to know. I frequently said that “I’ll tell anyone everything that I know, and they can make as much trouble for me.” I signed that statement [pledging silence] under duress, I had no choice.
But the broader question that you asked, we were just the victims because we were in a position where we had to do what we were told. I don’t feel that I was doing anything special, at least not voluntarily. I don’t look for any glory over being there.”
I know you’ve mentioned being a pacifist, and we’ve talked about the danger of these nuclear weapons. I think that when people talk about ‘nuclear tests’ and ‘nuclear testing,’ they don’t take into account that that is literally detonating a nuclear weapon. We still don’t have a way to contain things like nuclear fallout or radiation. This impacts people in nearby communities or the people conducting these tests and how wide ranging these tests are. This Memorial day, is there anything you wish people would remember about those who served, who were impacted by nuclear weapons?
“It’s been enough time that it’s not on people’s minds, I think that we have to keep reminding people that these things are dangerous. People don’t understand the degree of danger. They talk too lightly about it and don’t take it serious enough.”
When we are talking about nuclear weapons, I really do want to highlight that these are weapons that can destroy entire cities in one blast, and when we talk about that, more so there are people that are being impacted by them. Whether it’s the original blast or the lasting effects of that. The amount of power these weapons have and to witness that is crazy.
“The explosion obviously if you are near enough will kill you. But, what people have difficulty getting their minds around I think is the fact that with nuclear weapons, it poisons your system, and you can die long afterward. I know that I have the results of this because we were breathing that air with all of the particles of nuclear fallout in it, we were drinking that water, and that stuff gets into your system and it stays there. The half life of that stuff is thousands of years.
We’ve fought with the government over this, and at first they said: “No, can’t be.” Then later on, after not doing anything about it, now their answer to us is “Well, it’s too late, we can’t do anything about it, because we can’t trace all of this generation, and the next generation, and the next generation…”
I just lost a son two months ago who had long term problems with his endocrine system. I lost a daughter back in 1996 to the same thing, she had problems with her endocrine system. I’m completely convinced that those two children of mine died because they got these problems with their endocrine system they got hereditarily from me. These are things that the government doesn’t take into consideration.”
Is there anything you’d like to share with the next generation of anti-nuclear activists like me? As a young person wanting to work in this space, wanting to make a difference, wanting to make sure these weapons don’t harm anyone in the future and wanting to work towards restorative justice for those it has impacted?
As an educator, I’d like to see our education system include some of these considerations. Give kids in school and growing up an awareness that this is dangerous, let’s not treat it lightly and acknowledge the harm done by nuclear weapons. The trouble is in the details.