Recognizing Atomic Veterans

Ralph Pelliccio, a U.S. Army veteran, was part of an atomic test in Nevada in the '50s

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Ralph Pelliccio in his service uniform
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Pauline (his wife) and Ralph Pelliccio
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Ralph Pelliccio in his service uniform
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Pauline (his wife) and Ralph Pelliccio

Ralph Pelliccio, a lifelong Bayonne resident, is what is known as an atomic veteran, essentially a guinea pig during the testing of atomic or nuclear weapons by the U.S. government in the 1950s.

“I was what they called a guinea pig for the atomic bomb test, part of Operation Upshot-Knothole in April of 1953,” Pelliccio said. The operation involved a series of 11 nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site. Pelliccio, who served in the Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, took part in the test dubbed “Dixie” on April 6, 1953.

“It was an airburst, and we walked within ground zero,” Pelliccio said. “They dropped the bomb over a desert, and it was like walking through powder when we got closer.”

Into the trenches

While Pelliccio was present at the test as a member of the Army, other branches of the military were there too.

“There was quite a few, because we had guys from the Navy, the Marines, the Army,” Pelliccio said. “It had to be 1,500 of us, maybe even more.”

Pelliccio was a paratrooper, but he did not parachute from a plane during the test.

“We were bussed in from where we were, [Camp] Desert Rock,” Pelliccio said. “We climbed into trenches about six foot deep. The day before we had classes.”

Pelliccio said that when the plane with the bomb took off, there were speakers set up so that the pilot could communicate with the participants as to where he was and how long until the bomb was going to be dropped. He said the pilot counted down to zero, and the bomb dropped.

“When the bomb was dropped, and the mushroom came up, we got out of the trenches,” Pelliccio said. You could see the blast coming across the desert. Once it got close, they blow horns for us to jump back into the trenches, which we did. You could see the blast blew over us. You could see it was pretty powerful.”

Walking into ground zero

Afterward, Pelliccio and the other participants walked the perimeter of the site.

“We walked within 500 yards of ground zero,” Pelliccio said. “It was an airburst, it wasn’t a ground burst.”

Air bursts of atomic or nuclear weapons typically produce less radioactive fallout than ground bursts. But due to the burst, Pelliccio and the other servicemen were coated in dust or ash from the blast.

“That’s even a comical thing because the only thing we did was just dust each other off,” Pelliccio said.

Pelliccio said they wore regular gear, except for patches that were taped to the palms of their hands as part of the test. He thought they were intended to measure radiation, but he doesn’t fully remember except that they were collected at the end of the test.

Following the walk to ground zero, Pelliccio said the test was over and they headed back.

“They had a Geiger counter, and we got back in the buses for a review on what we’ve seen,” Pelliccio said.

Residual radiation?

After the tests, Pelliccio said he was sent a copy of how much radiation that he and others incurred that day, which was “under the safety limits.” Pelliccio has not suffered any health issues as a result.

“They watched us for years after the bomb test,” Pelliccio said. “When we got out of the service, they took care of us, the government. In fact, we used to get calls from Washington, the doctors checking up on us.”

But not everyone involved has been as lucky.

“When we got out of service, they contacted us because they found out a lot of ex-servicemen that were involved with the atomic bomb and used as guinea pigs were dying of cancer,” Pelliccio said.

According to the National Association of Atomic Veterans (NAAV), these veterans “were the unwilling victims of nuclear experiments.”

“They were in the trenches and walked to ground zero in Nevada,” said Robert De Blasi, New Jersey Commander of the NAAV, in a letter about Atomic Veterans Day. “They were exposed to ionized radiation and radioactive fallout in the government’s efforts to find out the effects on humans, animals, ships, planes, and military equipment in the event of nuclear war on land, sea, and air.”

In need of recognition

Despite the adverse health effects, atomic vets are still not recognized at the same level as other veterans.

“There were no walls or monuments to honor the Atomic Veterans,” De Blasi said. “There were no medals or service ribbons awarded to them. There were no parades, or their names read at Memorial Day services. Yet, the lingering effects of exposure to ionized radiation and radioactive fallout still persist in many today… Some of the children of Atomic Veterans and their grandchildren have experienced birth defects. No amount of exposure to ionized radiation is safe.”

“We really don’t get any recognition,” Pelliccio said. “Our group, the National Association of Atomic Veterans, was trying to get both houses [of Congress] to pass a bill for a medal of some kind of recognition. We never got anything… We had the bomb dropped on us.”

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