Las Vegas Sun

April 28, 2016

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Personal stories bring Test Site history to life

As John Campbell, 61, and a car full of fellow miners came over the ridge known as Control Point Hill at the Nevada Test Site on the morning of Dec. 18, 1970, he said he could see the desert "begin to bubble."

Seconds later, the Banbury shot burst out of the earth, a major mistake in the days of mandated underground testing.

"It was pandemonium," Campbell recalled as he sat on the arm of a couch in his Las Vegas home. "Some miners caught got in the tunnels underground and a lot of people were exposed to radiation."

To avoid contamination himself, Campbell said he and his buddies did a U-turn, drove to Cactus Springs and got a "cold one."

The incident was atypical of what Campbell, a miner and then mining superintendent at the Test Site for 26 years, said was one of the safest mining jobs in the industry, but it was illustrative of what Campbell said he both loved and feared about his work.

"I loved the romance of the job, the people, the adventure, the danger -- doing things that had never been done before," Campbell said.

But having said eulogies for five miners who died of radiation or lung diseases and having served on worker's health advisory panels since his retirement in 1994, he also said he resents the government for not informing them all of the danger.

"They didn't really tell us what we were working on and we didn't really ask," Campbell said. "They would tell you (only) what you 'needed to know.'

"I think most of the men should have been given a choice: 'If you do this, this could happen to you.' "

Campbell, who remains free of any serious health problems, said his choice would have been to continue working.

"We won the Cold War," Campbell said. "And these are the men I want to tell the story about. We brought Russia to its knees with our technology."

Young Utah victim

The signs were there months before doctors finally diagnosed 7-year-old Eugene Lamont "Lonnie" with an adult form of cancer and leukemia.

In the summer and fall before his December death in 1956, Lonnie suffered "difficult" nosebleeds that would "fill a dishpan" and make him throw up, his mother, Zenna Mae Bridges, said. He also couldn't get on his bike because a growth in his stomach made it painful to lift his leg.

"The nosebleeds were characteristic of radiation, and we had no idea," said Bridges, who moved with her husband, Eugene, from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas a few years ago.

Lonnie died less than a month after being diagnosed.

"The autopsy showed that everything disintegrated and exploded in his body," Bridges said.

More than 40 years later, the Bridges began to put the pieces together, tying the death of their son and dozens of other children who had died of leukemia at that time to the radiation fallout they saw over Salt Lake City repeatedly during the early 1950s.

Eugene Bridges' research into the Test Site and the radiation fallout has produced three file drawers of notes and an as-yet-unpublished book attributing his son's death and other illnesses plaguing Utah residents to that radiation.

But instead of answers to why their son's life and that of hundreds of others were sacrificed in the interest of "national security," the Bridges said they have just been left with more questions and personal theories that make them tremble.

Most troublesome for Eugene Bridges, he said, is why the government has repeatedly denied the dangers surrounding the Test Site or that the fallout even strayed as far as Salt Lake City. And, if they allegedly didn't know the full danger, why government officials only chose to do tests when the wind was blowing north toward the less populated Utah farm towns.

"I personally think we are still being exposed," Eugene Bridges said. "We have poisoned our country. What government wants to be known as having poisoned all of its citizens?"

Secretary's secrets

For Marie Daly McMillan, 78, the drive to the Test Site was far scarier than any thoughts of radiation exposure.

"The only thing we every worried about was driving fast on that two-lane highway," said McMillan, who worked as an administrative secretary first at the University of California Berkeley Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and then for a contractor at the Test Site. Her first husband, Elisha Junius Daly, worked for Livermore as an electrical engineer and for Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier as a senior scientific executive.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, nuclear testing was conducted by a tight-knit group of workers and scientists, and McMillan said she met many of the major players, such as Herb York and Edward Teller.

Her job was primarily filing all of the "secret stuff" and she studied Russian while at Livermore in an attempt to be able to help translate the secret Soviet documents obtained by U.S. officials, said McMillan, widow of the Las Vegas civil rights leader James McMillan.

"You had to keep it secret because you don't want to have other countries having it before your country," McMillan said. "It was important for the United States to have it first."

Prime opportunity

For many workers, the Test Site provided employment opportunities and a quality of life they say they couldn't have found anywhere else at the time.

That was true for Nick Aquilina, 67, the manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Nevada Operations Office from 1987 to 1994 and Linda M. Smith, Aquilina's second-in-command.

Both started at the Test Site in its early days, Aquilina in 1951 and Smith in 1965, and then worked their way up to the top. For a woman in the 1960s, that was almost unheard of, Smith said.

Both remembered the deep sense of community that held all of the Test Site workers together.

Aquilina lived in a trailer out at the Test Site in his early days. He remembers the "great food" the cafeteria served, and the socializing at night, including softball games, bingo and dances. The Nevada Test Site Bears, a fast-pitch softball team sponsored by the workers, were even state champions nine out of 11 years, Aquilina said.

"No matter who you worked for (all of all the various contractors at the site), you used to to refer to it as a family," said Aquilina, who met his wife at the Test Site.

In his mind, the testing and the United State's policy of nuclear deterrence, "that I'm as tough as you, so you better not do anything," was essential in the midst of the Cold War with Korea and with Joseph Stalin in charge of the Soviet Union, Aquilina said. That another bomb has never been used in anger since World War II, despite the capability possessed by Russia and China, shows the success of nuclear testing.

"I believe the Test Site was truly one of the battlegrounds of the Cold War, and I think what people forget is that it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but if you look back to the 1950s, there was a great deal of concern about the Soviet Union."

It's a line of thinking Smith also endorses.

"You don't ever want to be in the position to see them used," Smith said of the nuclear weapons she helped test. "Right or wrong, what I felt we were doing was keeping them from being used."

Moved to protest

For Franciscan Sister Rosemary Lynch, 87, the arms race was not a means to maintaining the peace, but a means to "mutually assured destruction."

Nuclear weapons, Lynch said, "are a great enemy to peace. They cannot protect."

She began protesting at the Nevada Test Site on Aug. 7, 1977 -- the anniversary of the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, after discovering that officials there were already testing the neutron bomb. A bomb, Lynch said, that was designed to "kill people but leave buildings standing."

A Phoenix native, Lynch said she was enthralled with the "beauty of the desert" and the "tragedy of the bomb" and so she founded the Citizens Concerned about the Neutron Bomb. She and her small band of followers would go to the site or the federal building in Las Vegas to protest and pass out information on the bomb whenever energy officials announced a test, Lynch said.

The movement grew to the point where on some occasions, the "people arrested (for trespassing) exceeded the jail space," Lynch recalled. In 1982, her group and others spent all of Lent at the gates of the Test Site, in honor of the 800th anniversary of St. Francis of Assisi.

Assisi is famous for having visited a Muslim sultan during the crusades, not as "a warrior but as a brother," Lynch said. After a week with Assisi in his tents, the sultan reportedly said that if all Christians came armed only with love, as Assisi had, then their would be no way to combat them. But if they continued to come with weapons the Muslims would defeat them.

As a peacemaker in that tradition, Lynch said she similarly made friends with many of the workers at the Test Site and the police who arrested her. The Test Site leaders provided portable bathrooms and water for the protesters and instructed workers to leave them alone, Lynch said.

Later, Lynch's group held joint rallies with Russian protesters, both at the Nevada Test Site and in the then Soviet Union.

"They taught us how to say, 'No to the Test Site' in Russian."