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Veterans of all sorts frequently visit the National D-Day Memorial. Last Friday, John Fatino, an atomic veteran, took a tour.
An atomic veteran refers to a veteran between the years of 1945 and 1963 who was part of a US Atmospheric Nuclear Test Program; some 500,000 veterans participated in the program.
Fatino, who was in town last week visiting a family friend, is a former Marine. He joined the Corps on Nov. 11, 1952, as a patriotic 18-year old. The Korean War was in progress and fighting for his country was what motivated him to join.
After completing his training, Fatino, who now lives in Pennsylvania, was assigned to a Marine division that was shipped to Hawaii, with Korea as its ultimate destination. The armistice that ended the war was signed before the division got to Korea, so the Marines ended up in Japan instead. Fatimo was assigned as a cook in the officers’ club at the base where they were stationed.
Fatino had learned his culinary skills as a teen. His father was manager of a country club in Kansas City, Mo., and Fatino, who became interested in cooking, had the opportunity to learn from some top quality chefs.
The kitchen staff at the officers’ club consisted of three Marines and a dozen Japanese civilian employees. A sergeant, who handled all the paperwork and ordering, was in charge. Those were his official duties, but he also had one that wasn’t in his job description.
“He took all the heat,” Fatino said.
There were two corporals under the sergeant — Fatino was one of them. Each supervised one shift of Japanese kitchen workers.
On returning to the States, Fatino was assigned to a Marine Corps test unit. All these men had to be at least a corporal. After he got to the unit, Fatimo noted one other apparent requirement—nobody in the unit ever ran across another Marine from his home town.
He ended up being one of 2,929 Marines who were used as human guinea pigs for above ground nuclear tests in Nevada. Only three of these men, Fatino included, are still alive today, as far as he knows. Most died before they were 50.
On March 22, 1955, Fatino was with a group of Marines who were posted, in the open, 2,600 yards from a 10 kiloton nuclear blast, the same size blast that destroyed Hiroshima. The bomb was exploded at the top of a 500-foot steel tower.
The men walked about the Nevada desert test site where the blast would take place, the day before the blast, and Fatino recalls that the bomb, at the top of the tower, was in a structure that looked like a garage. There was a large amount of military equipment — jeeps, trucks, half-tracks, and a tank — parked around the site.
“It looked like a big government yard sale,” Fatino recalled.
The men knew they there was going to be an atomic bomb blast, but they didn’t know how dangerous it was.
“I had no concept,” Fatino said.
In fact, the men were told they didn’t have to worry about radiation from the bomb.
“They just weren’t honest with us,” he said.
The day of the blast, the men took up their positions.
“When that bomb went off, we were down on one knee facing away,” he said.
They were told to put their hands over their eyes.
Fatino recalls a brilliant flash of light when the bomb went off. He said he could see the bones of his hand, and the skeleton of the guy in front of him like an X-ray.
He suffered flash burns on his ears.
The flash of light was followed by a shock wave and the men were covered with dust.
There was also a sound that Fatimo would later hear in nightmares. Pigs were placed 1,000 yards from the blast.
“You could really hear them screaming,” he said.
After the blast, the men boarded helicopters and flew to ground zero where they got out and walked around.
The tower that held the bomb was made of steel beams 24-inches in diameter. Only the bottom four feet of the beams remained. Their tops were melted to a point and the beams were bent outward. The tower’s 12-foot-thick concrete base had a six- to 10-inch wide crack in it that ran from one corner to the other. The sand within 20 feet of it had been fused into yellow glass. Most of the military hardware that was within 300 yards of the tower had been vaporized and a tank had been thrown 200 yards. Fatimo said the tank’s metal was crumbly and a man could easily stick his finger through it.
That evening, one man in his unit started bleeding out of his nose. He was taken away and none of them ever saw him again.
Fatino credits good genes — his family includes a number of centenarians — to his ability to survive to the age of 79 after being exposed to the blast’s radiation.
“Anything you are genetically pre-disposed to, the radiation enhances it,” Fatino said.
However, the ionizing radiation took its toll. He has severe swelling in his legs and his lower legs are twice the size they should be. Fatino said the swelling first started not long after the blast and got worse over the years, reaching the point where he now has difficulty walking. He has to take a blood thinner because his blood clots easily and he’s been frequently treated for this condition, one of the consequences of the effect the radiation had on his body.. He also has to wear a patch on his back that continuously delivers pain medication through his skin. The need for this is the legacy of radiation burns he got on his back. He’s also had cataract surgery. Fatino said all the men who were exposed to the blast ended up having cataract surgery at an earlier age than most people have it.
The blast also affected subsequent generations. Fatino said that medical problems, the result of his exposure to radiation, have popped up among his children and grandchildren.
He’s had a constant battle with the Veterans Administration to get treatment for his service related health problems. Early on the problems stemmed from the fact that the men were sworn to secrecy and what they had been through had never happened, officially. Now his problems are due to the bureaucratic struggles that many veterans have with the VA.
Battles with the VA, frustrating though they are, aren’t his biggest concern.
Fatino said that atomic veterans deserve a service medal. Men who serve in various military campaigns receive a service medal that shows they were there.
“That’s the only thing we want,” he said. “It’s a service medal.”
Fatino’s hope is that a service medal for atomic veterans will be created while there are still any of them left alive to receive it. Time is running out.