Thousands of soldiers and marines were exposed to radiation that may have exceeded permissible limits in 1953 Nevade nuclear maneuvers in order to evoke their "fear responses" to nuclear war.
Documents obtained from the Army and other government sources revealed that before the test series began, the Atomic Energy Commission warned that the troops might be endangered by harmful radiation. Responsibility for their safety was assumed by the Pentagon, according to official notes on the tests.
Today some of those troops are contending that their illnesses, such as cancer and genetic problems, stem from the radiation absorbed at the test shots 26 years ago.
The documents showed that the troops were moved closer to ground zero after a 1952 test series proved "not realistic enough to evoke fear responses among the participating troops."
In 1952, when the maneuvers were found by a study to be "not realistic tactical exercises," troops were in trenches or tanks 7,000 yards, or 3.9 miles, from the explosion when it went off.
In 1953, combat battalions were placed in trenches half that distance-just 3,500 yards-from one shot. Volunteers were allowed to be only 2,000 yards from another.
Documents from the early 1950s indicate a major purpose for using troops at actual nuclear tests was to determine what fear of nuclear warfare existed.
"The psychological implications of atomic weapons used close to our own front lines in support of ground operations are unknown," was the way the Military Liaison Committee to the AEC put it in a July 1951 document describing reasons for placing troops at tests in the fall of that year.
At the 1952 nuclear shot series, the Operations Research Office of The Johns Hopkins University was hired by the Army to test soldiers who participated in maneuvers during three nuclear explosions.
The ORO study included giving lie detector examinations to individual soldiers before and after shots to determine whether their attitudes toward nuclear weapons had changed because of their experiences.
To find out if the indoctrination information on nuclear weapons and any impact on troops, the Army, at ORO's request, withheld from one company of soldiers all briefings on nuclear weapons and their effects except a short "safety instruction at a forward area on rehearsal day."
The ORO study found, overall, that soldiers at the tests showed "a lack of changes in . . . emotional reaction."
From that finding, the researchers concluded, "either the psychological effects of atomic weapons are somewhat overrated and excessive fears of these weapons are not characteristic of Army troops or that the . . . maneuvers with their emphasis on safety precautions and the virtual elimination of possible elements of danger were not realistic enough to evoke fear responses among participating troops."
The ORO report suggested "the effectiveness of training might be increased and the troops might be given more realistic and adequate preparation" if the maneuvers were "more realistic, if some actual danger existed or if the troops were led to believe they might be in danger."
At the 1952 tests, the AEC had to approve the location of troops and the radiation level to which they were exposed.
For the next series of nuclear tests, the 1953 Upshot-Knothole series, the Pentagon sought full control over the positioning of troops and the rights to establish radiation dose standards, "less conservative than those established by the AEC," according to the Defense Department plan presented to the AEC.
The AEC standard for an individual was 3,900 millirems over the entire test period. The Pentagon established a 6,000-millirem-per-test-shot standard-3,000 millirems of prompt radiation directly from the explosion and another 3,000 millirems from fallout.
Today, the annual federal permissible dose for employes in the nuclear industry is 5,000 millirems over a year, and 3,000 millirems in any three months. The 12-month dose to the general public is 500 millirems.
In 1953, the Pentagon also sought to have relief from the AEC safety standard on blast which was put at two pounds per square inch of pressure.
Troops were asked to volunteer during the 1953 tests so that they could be put in trenches where they could receive five pounds per square inch of pressure.
The AEC medical director in 1951, Dr. Shields Warren, had refused to grant the military a request to exceed AEC radiation levels during the 1952 tests.
"It would seem," Warren wrote at the time, "that in most cases, a short wait or redeployment of forces would enable the job to be done within permissible levels of exposure."
Warren was gone when the 1953 tests came up for discussion. His replacement, Dr. John C. Burgher, initially suggested to the commissioners that they retain the 3,900-millirem standard which "should reduce only slightly, if at all, the realism of the maneuvers . . . a maneuver where individuals are exposed to 3,900 millirems would be no less realistic from a radiological point of view than one where they received greater amounts."
The AEC, however, overruled Burgher.
According to notes of the AEC meeting of Dec. 23, 1952, the then-chairman, Gordon Dean, "observed that since the DOD apparently considered it necessary to conduct the exercises in this manner, the AEC was not in a position to recommend that the normal limits be observed."
In a January 1953 letter to the director of the Pentagon test program, AEC General Manager M. W. Boyer wrote that permission was given for the military to set its own radiation standards "in recognition that doctrine on the tactical use of atomic weapons, as well as the hazards which military personnel are required to undergo during their training, must be evaluated and determined by the Department of Defense. . ."
The AEC did require, however, that a public statement be prepared "clarifying DOD responsibility for the safety of troops at the exercise. . . ."
The official Army report on the 1953 tests reported as "advances" in the art of nuclear warfare that:
Two battalion combat teams "were positioned at 3,500 yards from ground zero . . . which is the nearest any known large body of troops has been deliberately exposed to date."
Volunteers were in trenches 2,000 yards from a 51.5 kiloton shot, "the closet any known personnel" had been since the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan; (The Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 kilotons).