It wasn't until 1991 that one of the crewmen of the Neptune reconnaissance aircraft, Mike Michael Thomas, by then 49 years old and an air freight executive. began to worry about his deteriorating health. He was reading the Chicago Tribune one morning and found a fairly big investigative piece by David Evans that showed an inset map of Johnston Island with the caption “Johnston Atoll plutonium contamination from launch mishap in 1962.” The investigative reporter, who was a Marine veteran, was later fired by his boss.
He began to investigate. At that time all the men who had been involved in Dominic 1 were bound to absolute secrecy. If they went to a VA hospital, they couldn’t tell their doctors anything. Taking some risks, he went to Argonne and Fermi laboratories and befriended some physicists.
“When I first introduced myself they couldn’t believe there were any survivors of Bluegill Prime. They gave me enough information and some recent soil tests that convinced me that I needed to do more: find survivors of my group and get them into hospitals.”
He had only been in touch with one or two of them, but the news spread rapidly. The first person he tried to contact was his captain, the commanding officer of VP-6 and the leader of his crew, _________. His daughter answered the phone and he found out that he had died the year before of fast-moving non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He told his daughter before he died that he was sure that it was our plutonium exposure that caused his cancer. Then he began to do some research. He talked with specialists at Argonne and Fermi labs and they told him that he should work to get his fellow veterans into hospitals.(letter to the author) He started calling his fellow crew members, and getting the bad news. They were succumbing to various radiogenic diseases. David Masters had flown sixteen flights. On July 8th, the A-drop's detonation "was almost on top of orbit point. When we landed we were so hot they taped the plane openings up and washed the plane with water tanker trucks. When we were released the ABC (atomic/ bacteriological/ chemical control officer took my pencil dosimeter from my flight suit and looked at it and said "This won't tell us much, it's off the top."
Mike contacted legislators and through adroit lobbying and the help of other veterans managed to get the law changed so the casualties of Johnston Island were no longer bound by the law binding them to secrecy, and cleared the way so that they could be treated for a service-connected disease by the VA. Nobody from the government had ever made any attempt to contact them, despite the passage of Public Law 100-321 Not even in 1998 had the VA Hospitals been advised of the Law. In several cases VP-6 personnel attempted to get medical care and the VA hospitals in Orlando and San Antonio turned them away. They had “no protocol” regarding Veterans exposed to nuclear radiation.
The Squadron members of ‘VP-6’ present during that episode suffered an 85% casualty rate of illness and cancers in subsequent years: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the biggest killer plus thyroid cancer, throat cancer, oesophageal cancer, kidney cancer, multiple myaloma, and various skin cancers. 30% of the crew experienced reproductive inefficiency up to and including stillbirth and deformities.[i]
g up Johnston Atoll, letter from Thomas to Nic Maclellan, Pacific News. 28 November 2000
In 1972, the US Air Force (USAF) brought approximately 5.18 million liters of unused Herbicide Orange (HO) or “agent orange”), from Vietnam to JA for storage. During re-drumming operations an estimated 113,400 kg accidentally leaked onto the soil of the former storage site on the northwest corner of Johnston Island (VERSAR 1991). The HO stored at JA contained two active ingredients, the n-butyl ester of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), as well as the contaminant 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). This stock of agent orange was incinerated at sea in 1977 aboard the Dutch ship Vulcanus. Dioxin contamination of marine sediments was presumably caused by soil transport (wind or surface water runoff) and liquid seepage into the adjacent reef area. A newly constructed seawall (1995) surrounds the former HO storage site and was designed to prevent further transport from the soil to the lagoon. There have been reports that C-130 crews have come down sick from their exposure to the dioxin. compounds.
Only in 1984 would the launch complexes be demolished fenced off and their buildings and equipment shipped secretly to the atomic test side in Nevada for burial. And even when all the contaminated soil was processed, and "Mount Pluto" torn down, a final study found that there was still substantial plutonium and americinium in the settling ponds. The AEC and the Defense Nuclear Agency continued to use the island for storage and disposal of agent orange, and chemical warheads, and sited an incinerator there to dispose of obsolete weapons. More than a thousand civilians and military personnel were stationed there as late as 2000. In the 2003-2004 period, all contaminated soil was put in a sealed landfill, and all the buildings on the island torn down. Now only the shadows of the small town and military post remain. It takes special permission to visit the island. It had filled its purpose and was better left uninhabited and unremembered, the place where the U.S. undertook experiments and programs that it could do nowhere else.
A final note from out there:
Cbh0402Caplank007•2 years ago Caplan, I just received your message and thought I would share my info. My husband was stationed on the island 79-80. He was senior staff sgt EOD. He became sick in August 2010 and January2011 passed away from testicular non hodgkins lymphoma. he sounds like a very similar situation that your dad was in which before Aug. was perfectly healthy and within the 5 months became totally paralyzed, limbs, body, voice eyes etc. I have certificates that recognize that he blew up plutonium bombs, nerve gas and of course as we all know agent orange. however while the VA recognizes that non hodgkins lymphoma is part of their protocol that they will support but they are trying to tell me because he was there those years he was not affected so they will not honor any survivor benefits.I continue of course am fighting this but always welcome any support from other people in similar situations.