GLENS FALLS — Bill Jones went to paradise for 13 months in the mid-1950s, and it wasn’t until many years later, when he and others were finally released from their vows of secrecy, that he found out what a hell it really had been.
Jones lives with his wife, Charlotte, on Morton Street, in the house he grew up in. He raised five kids there, and they all graduated from Glens Falls High School, just a block away.
Two of his children have suffered from skin cancer, as he has, and one of his grandchildren had multiple birth defects, and he worries that his military service more than 60 years ago could have something to do with all that.
But he doesn’t know for sure, and the government isn’t telling, which is what really bothers him.
“This stuff accumulates in your body. It can cause birth defects. That’s what frosts me. They never told us about this,” he said.
Bill and Charlotte were sitting at the dining room table in their cozy house and talking about the atomic bomb testing the U.S. government performed in the 1950s on the Marshall Islands, a collection of atolls far out in the Pacific Ocean.
Jones had enlisted with three buddies from Glens Falls, going through basic training with them before he was sent to Technical Intelligence School in Aberdeen, Maryland. It was the depth of the Cold War and a search for soldiers with security clearances swept him up for an unexplained assignment. In the fall of 1956, he disembarked on Enewetak Atoll.
“You’re on a Pacific island. Here it is. First thing, you put your duffel bag away, put on shorts and a T-shirt. There’s no reveille, no marching. We had steaks every Saturday night,” he said.
It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes he had to pick a bug out of his pancakes, because they had infested the flour that was shipped in. But he could swim in the lagoon, soak in the equatorial sun, and as it worked out, he didn’t even have to witness a nuclear bomb test.
The U.S. had dropped 12 bombs already that year on Enewetak, each one named after an American Indian tribe (Seminole was dropped on June 6, for example, and Mohawk on July 3). The testing wouldn’t resume until after Jones left, in April 1958, but over time (even as he kept his secrets), he would learn the radiation lingered in the air and water, planting seeds in many of the soldiers that would bloom into cancers and kill them.
The water they drank was drawn from the lagoon and desalinated for drinking.
“We cooked with it, drank it, swam in it, bathed in it,” Jones said.
He has scars on his scalp from having growths removed, but at 84 considers himself fortunate.
Benefits are available for atomic veterans, and Jones called the Department of Justice about qualifying for them.
He was told, “As soon as I get a terminal illness, call back.”
Others, after years of keeping quiet, never seek out help they might qualify for.
“There’s not an awful lot of these atomic veterans left. There’s a lot that don’t know about the program, so they waste away, shall we say,” he said.
Fred Schafer, an officer with the National Association of Atomic and Nuclear Veterans, says the soldiers were guinea pigs.
“They wanted to see what happened,” he said, referring to the U.S. military establishment, which was monitoring the soldiers’ reactions to nuclear radiation. “They wanted to see how fast they could get in after using these bombs.”
The organization has the names of about 1,500 veterans in its database who were part of the nuclear testing program, but Schafer estimates at least 40,000 are still alive who don’t know about the organization. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers participated, but many have died.
Jones wasn’t allowed to tell Charlotte what he was doing on Enewetak. He couldn’t take photos, he could make only one phone call every two or three months, and his letters were reviewed. Anything he sent home, like a sea shell scooped up from the sand, had to be checked with a Geiger counter first.
“They were aware,” he said. “I can’t prove it, but they knew the radiation caused birth defects.”
Jones came back to Glens Falls, worked as a plumber with his father for a year, then went to Scott Paper for 35 years. He and Charlotte had a cabin in Raquette Lake, and the family went there for the warmer months every year.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the Defense Department allowed atomic veterans to talk about taking part in the testing of the most destructive weapons in history. Bill and the others sent to the Marshall Islands considered it a tropical vacation at the time, but they didn’t know — and no one told them — the exposure could be deadly.
Jones shook his head.
“Oh … thank God they stopped,” he said.