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Native Veteran Recalls Wartime Radiation

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It was a perfect day in the South Pacific—it had to be, for the military operation to take place—when one Native man underwent experiences he relates to the nuclear catastrophe occurring now in Japan.

“It can happen anywhere,” said Logan Bear, Ponca/Omaha, of Denver, as he recalled his contacts with radiation in World War II. One difference between then and now is that contemporary Japanese people may have the knowledge and hazard equipment that they—and he—did not have then.

He’s an “atomic veteran”—exposed to radiation and lived to tell about it, at least for now—and he has a kinship with others in an association of survivors. He’s worried about radiation exposure’s effect on his DNA and on his wife and surviving children—one child has already died, of an autoimmune disease.

On that perfect day in the South Pacific in 1956, Bear as a young sailor was lookout on the aircraft carrier USS Princeton when a reconnaissance plane with a VW-size atomic depth charge lashed to its underbelly lumbered awkwardly off the deck, hesitated, then reluctantly became airborne. Fifteen minutes later the ship was stopped abruptly by the shock of a depth charge two miles below as the bomb exploded.

They measured radiation in dosimeters, and since he was a lookout, his was “really buzzing,” he recalled. There was a long line at the decontamination center, and he didn’t want to take the time to go through.

A half-century has passed since that day, and Bear doesn’t remember the radiation readings. Damaging levels can vary with weather conditions, distance from the source, time exposed, and other factors.

Firefighters in Japan’s current nuclear crisis were measured at a 24-hour level slightly above the yearly level allowable for nuclear energy workers in the U.S. and they underwent decontamination.

The test followed a year in which South Pacific bomb tests began to carry such names as Cherokee, Zuni, Yuma, Seminole, Flathead, Blackfoot, Kickapoo, Osage, Inca, Dakota, Mohawk, Apache, Navajo, Huron and Tewa.

It wasn’t his only brush with radiation. The ship’s crew was ordered, shortly after he entered the navy in 1954, to do a walk-through at Hiroshima, where some 100,000 had been killed by a U.S. atomic bomb in 1945, and some of the sailors, including Bear, toured Nagasaki, where slightly fewer Japanese people died.

Bear mentioned the walk-throughs in communications with the Navy, but officials misunderstood him to mean that he was claiming exposure to radiation during the actual occupation of Japan, well before his time. “It was a big mistake,” he said. People have urged him to re-apply for information about the possible results of his radiation exposure.

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“I am not after money—money’s the least of my problems,” he said, and his wife, Ida, who is Winnebago and suffers from crippling rheumatoid arthritis, nodded in agreement.

The couple’s daughter, Ireta, died of lupus in 2004, four years after diagnosis, and a son, Lee, has been diagnosed with Wagner’s disease, which affects the body’s collagen and is hereditary in European men.

Bear’s ancestry includes a French nobleman surnamed Fontanelle, but he feels his son’s disease could have been triggered by his own DNA changes from radiation exposure in the navy.

The couple, in their seventies, is anxious to find out whether radiation has played a part in their family’s severe health problems and the loss of their daughter. Bear himself developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and believes only prayers in sweat lodge ceremonies saved him.

Go to the VA, he was told. The VA Hospital sent him to a VA center, which sent him to the VFW, he recalls with amazement.

“They said they didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “They’re hoping I’ll go through this, get old and die, and they won’t have to do anything.”

Bear joined the U.S. Special Forces after he left the navy, and became a staff sergeant. A grandson of whom he is proud, Jordan Bear, is on his third U.S. Army tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Yet some bitterness shows. The military ban on talking about atomic testing was lifted in 1996, but they were “hoping most of the guys were dead,” he said.

“What’s affected me and my kids—will that affect everyone who was exposed?” he questions.

He can’t recall the names of the four other lookouts on the perfect day in the South Pacific when the atomic depth charge exploded and triggered massive shock waves that, for him, persist to the present day.