Thousands of soldiers and marines exposed to radiation at nuclear weapons tests in Nevada in the early 1950s wore no badges to record their individual doses because the Army surgeon general's policy was that "one-time exposures need not be reported," according to an official Army report of July 1953.
Hundreds of participants in those tests are now saying they have cancer, and many have applied to the Veterans Administration for benefit payments claiming their illnesses are a result of exposures at the tests.
For favorable action on a claim, VA has been requiring proof of exposure which many applicants cannot supply because there are no individual exposure records.
The decision not to put badges on each military test participant was based also on a lack of enough trained personnel at the tests to develop and read radiation dosage data, according to the 1953 report.
With some 15,000 troops scheduled to take part in 10 shots during the 1953 test series, "the work load on the photo dosimetry organization was excessive," the Army report said.
As a result, only one badge was issued per platoon of about 35 men. The dose reading from that badge would be used as "the average dose received by the group . . .," the report said.
Dr. Shields Warren, who headed the Atomic Energy Commission's division of medicine and biology in the early 1950s, says he was unaware at the time that not all the soldiers had badges.
"That is contrary to all radiation protection standards I'm aware of," Warren says.
All AEC personnel and guests on the Nevada test site had to wear badges.
In 1951, the Pentagon's first year of troop participation in post-nuclear-shot maneuvers, AEC controlled radiation safety. Each soldier wore a radiation badge, and after the explosion they had to march toward ground zero in single file behind AEC monitors.
In the fall of that year, the Pentagon asked to have the system changed for the 1952 tests, saying it was not realistic enough for a maneuver.
"It was rather characteristic of the Army to downgrade the importance of radiation," Warren says. In late 1951, he refused to approve a Pentagon request to exceed AEC's permissible dose level of 3,900 millirems at the 1952 Nevada nuclear tests.
The Army surgeon general from 1951 to 1955 was Maj. Gen. George E. Armstrong, who went from the military to a distinguished career with New York University Medical Center.
Contacted recently by telephone, Armstrong, near 80 and retired in Florida, said "I can't help you one bit" in recalling what went on more than 20 years ago. His wife added that Armstrong is not in good health.
In 1949, according to an article in the New York Herald-Tribune, Armstrong, then deputy surgeon general, said that death-dealing radiation from an atomic explosion lasts only a matter of minutes.
He also declared untrue the belief that Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the two Japanese cities struck by atomic bombs in 1945-remained dangerous to rescue workers long after they were hit.
One of the reasons the Army sent troops into maneuvers after an atomic shot was to test their fear of nuclear warfare, according to official Army reports.
After the 1952 tests, the Pentagon sought and was given total control over radiological safety. It set a 6,000 millirem permissible dose level for soldiers in the 1953 tests.
AEC's medical director in 1953, Dr. John Burgher, reiterated Warren's objection from the previous year. This time, however, the commissioners overruled the doctors, empowering the Pentagon to set its own standards and, at the same time, making it responsible for the troops' safety.
The Army promptly moved the troops out of trenches 7,000 yards (3.9 miles) from the shot into trenches 3,500 yards from ground zero,. For three shots, volunteers were placed even closer.
One group of eight was entrenched 2,000 feet from ground zero for what was supposed to be a 35-to-40 kiloton shot. In fact it turned out to be 51.5 kilotons-25 percent higher than expected. The Hiroshima bomb was 12.5 kilotons.
The volunteers had a measuring device that recorded 100,000 millirems per hour immediately after the shot, dropping to 20,000 millirems in five minutes.
Each volunteer at that shot also wore a badge and carried a dosimeter measuring device. According to the Army report, the badges "registered total dosages ranging from 11,700 millirems to 16,300 millirems."
The Pentagon is now looking for those volunteers.
During the nuclear tests of 1952, 1953 and 1955, while Armstrong was surgeon general, the badging of maneuver troops was limited to one per platoon. When the tests resumed in 1977, and a new surgeon general was in office, the Army badged all soliders at the shots.
According to Pentagon sources, over 600 veterans of the unbadged tests say they now have cancer. No figures are available from VA to determine how many of those are seeking service-connected benefits for their illnesses.
A Pentagon source said, however, that searches are being made to provide some exposure range for servicemen who say they were at a test but cannot produce a dosage record. In some cases, Pentagon contractors are reconstructing radiation levels for a shot, in order to provide a range of possible exposures that could be used in seeking benefits.