National Bikini Day and America’s Atomic Veterans

Photo: Provided for public domain use by Mira Gane via Pixabay.

On July 1st, 1946, just 10 months following the 1945 attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States publicly relaunched its program of nuclear testing with “Operation Crossroads,” a set of three atomic detonations which took place in the Pacific Ocean near the Bikini Islands. Public worry spread across the United States and the world over the implications of conducting such operations. Four days later, at a public pool at the Piscine Molitor in Paris, French swimsuit-models showcased lingerie designer Louis Reard’s line of two-piece swimsuits which had come into fashion in response to fabric shortages during the war. At the end of the procession was 19-year old nude-dancer Micheline Bernardini displaying Reard’s scandalous “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world,” which he called “the bikini,” so named after the first atomic detonation of Operation Crossroads for being “small and devastating.”

Militaries have been devastated by scantily-clad women for all of time. Even George Washington had to worry about his troops frequenting the colonial brothels and contracting syphilis. But the military personnel who served at the Bikini Islands were burdened with a more insidious infliction than syphilis or beach-blanket whiplash. “Atomic veterans” were men who were purposely exposed to nuclear radiation during their time of service. In the documentary The Atomic Soldiers by Morgan Knibbe, a host of gray-bearded veterans describe the experience of being ordered to the periphery of a nuclear blast wearing nothing but uniforms, helmets, and gas masks. On detonation, some attempted to shield their faces and were horrified to find that they were able to see the bones in their bodies due to the saturation of x-rays. The following wave knocked them on their backs.  If you’re thinking oh my god, how could they be allowed to be so close to a nuclear blast, well, so were they. And they weren’t allowed to speak to doctors or the Department of Veterans Affairs about their activities in nuclear units until their oath of secrecy was repealed in 1996.

According to Knibbe’s interviews, the men have in time developed a myriad of cancers as well as other physical and mental issues, which were likely caused by exposure to nuclear radiation. Currently the VA claims that there are 21 cancers which, if diagnosed, entitle a verified atomic veteran to disability compensation. Yet some of the men who have gone ahead and applied for that compensation have been flat out denied. Thanks largely to the courage and persistence of those veterans, along with journalists and the global reach of the internet, the plight of the atomic veterans is gaining awareness. On that note, perhaps on National Bikini Day we could further this cause. Strings and straps are here to stay, but atomic veterans deserve help now.

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