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Peabody native was guinea pig for nuclear testing

Staff writer

Nineteen-year-old Gary Thornton had no idea what he was getting into in June 1962 when he signed a form swearing to secrecy about the U.S. government’s involvement in a secret nuclear weapons testing program. The penalty for speaking out was a $20,000 fine or 20 years behind bars.

As an enlistee in the U.S. Naval Reserve, he spent two years on a ship in the South Pacific and Far East and had many interesting experiences at various ports along the way.

One day, his ship was diverted to a small island named Johnston Island, where he and many others became guinea pigs for the U.S. government in its efforts to advance nuclear technology.

During a 10-week period he was exposed to at least eight test launchings of nuclear warheads.

He and six other sailors were selected to take the roles of living test subjects in order for scientists, researchers, and government policy-makers to find answers to questions posed by ionizing radiation.

The men were outfitted with special gear including face masks with an air-filtering system. Their ship was anchored 500 feet from the island.

While most of the crew went below deck, these men were left on deck to be exposed to the effects of the blasts and to recover remnants for testing.

Thornton explained what it was like. When the launchings took place, the young men lay down face-first on the deck. One of the first launchings knocked them out, and another launching blinded their closed eyes and caused blood vessels in their faces to burst.

They ripped at their face masks, gasping for air. When their vision cleared, they went about their recovery mission.

They were called below deck one at a time, where they were checked with a Geiger counter, their clothing marked at spots which indicated radioactivity. The clothing then was removed and placed into a bundle which was cast out on deck.

Because they were locked into their suits for many hours at a time (one time for three days), the men ate and drank very little. On deck, they were exposed to high temperatures with little shade. They sat still most of the time and didn’t move much to prevent dehydration.

These men later became known as “atomic veterans” and experienced many health problems, including various forms of cancer.

Atomic veterans include all servicemen who were POWs in camps near Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan when atomic bombs were dropped, those troops who went into the area afterward, and those involved in nuclear tests.

Seeking recognition

According to Thornton, from 1945-1963, a total of 225,000 servicemen in the three branches of the military were exposed to radiation, and more than 75 percent have died.

Because the mission they served was top secret, their military service was not recorded and they did not receive any recognition from the federal government or the U.S. Military.

“We received no honor, no medals, no recognition,” Thornton said. “Everyone was compensated but atomic veterans.”

In 1979, one atomic veteran took action and helped establish the National Association of Atomic Veterans.

In July 1983, Congress authorized President Ronald Reagan to proclaim July 16, 1983, as National Atomic Veterans Day.

Thousands appealed to the government for medical benefits, and in 1988, the government relented but required proof of service, which almost was impossible because of lack of records.

In 1996, William Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense, released the atomic veterans to speak of their experiences.

Thornton became involved about five years ago in the effort to gain recognition for these unique veterans. He is commander of the Kansas Atomic Veterans.

He said there were 1,825-1,850 atomic veterans in Kansas in 1980. About 100 remain.

After repeated contact with Kansas legislators and Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Thornton was successful in having July 16 designated as Atomic Veterans Day in Kansas.

During the current Kansas legislative session, legislation was passed to name a portion of U.S.-400 in honor of atomic veterans. Governor Sebelius signed it in April.

The designated stretch of highway begins at the junction with U.S.-77/54 and extends to the eastern edge of Butler County. It is close to Thornton’s home in Leon.

A private, fund-raising drive is in progress to purchase signs.

Thornton also was successful in having legislation written on the national level. It asks the U.S. Congress to strike a medal recognizing atomic veterans. The legislation still is in committee, sidetracked by the Boeing blow-up and economic situation.

Thornton hopes to see the legislation re-introduced in the next Congress.

He said he doesn’t regret his years in the Navy and he isn’t bitter, but he wants people to recognize that these veterans suffered to give us what we have today in nuclear technologies.

“Now the U.S. has the safest nuclear generating power plants,” he said. “The technology is modern and safe. We have x-rays, MRIs, sonograms. We provided our country with answers. We put an end to the Korean War. MacArthur had three atomic bombs in Korea and when Korea found out, they backed off. Kennedy had the upper hand in Cuba because of the bomb. We have the safest nuclear aircraft carriers and Trident submarines — still derived from what we provided.”

Early life

Thornton’s family moved to Peabody when he was in fifth grade. They opened a restaurant where Sharon’s Korner Kitchen is located on Main Street.

He hated school and gained a reputation for giving grief to teachers and administrators, but he made it through the system with the help of tutors and his father’s insistence, graduating in 1961.

Thornton loved physical challenges and became an expert in many outdoors activities including fishing, hunting, baseball, and even oil field work.

This rigorous upbringing may have something to do with the fact that he so far has survived the nuclear-testing ordeal in better shape than a lot of other atomic veterans.

He and his wife, Velma, have been married for 43 years and have three children and three grandchildren. He is a retired journeyman toolmaker and a 26-year veteran of the U.S. Navy.

Thornton has written about his early personal experiences in a newly released book, “Getting Closer.” It is available online at Barnes and Noble and Tower Books. It also is available at Marion City Library.

Last modified Nov. 6, 2008

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