We are but a few of the Survivors of the 1977-1980 Enewetak Atoll Atomic Debris Cleanup Mission in the Marshall Islands.
Our main focus is to help each other with information and moral support during challenging times.
Our secondary focus is to urge Congress to change the current laws and recognize soldiers of the atomic cleanup mission as “veterans who participated in radiation-risk activities during active service.”
Enewetak Atoll Atomic Cleanup Mission Veterans rarely speak of the project since the mission ended in 1980.
Those who have spoken about it are usually looked upon with blank stares, disbelief, astonished or bored looks from their audiences.
Every once in a while we capture the ear of someone genuinely interested in hearing a Cold War Veteran’s memories of the now unclassified (secret) mission.
Several Atomic Cleanup Veterans have taken the time to write their memories and opinions of the mission and their lives since they left Enewetak Atoll.
Atomic Cleanup Veteran Kevin “Caveman” Bartlett asked me to publish his experiences and viewpoints. Here is his letter to you:
Hello, My name is Kevin “Caveman” Bartlett and first I would start by acknowledging God, my Maker, Father, Savior and only reason I am here today and able to write this post. So easy to believe and trust in God that even a “Caveman” do it!
I served in the cleanup project from Sept. 1978 thru Feb. 1979. I spent my first day there on Enewetak, returned there one day on a mid-week liquor run, another day during a typhoon and the last day on my way back to the world. The rest of the time I was literally tin-shacked up on Lojwa with a great bunch of guys.
I don’t have very many specific memories or even remember many names or faces. I have some photos I took there and have saved over the years and wishing we had the digital age back then.
The only concrete proof I have that I served there is my record of occupational exposure to ionizing radiation report that I received at home after I left the Army.
According to it I guess I didn’t really receive nowhere near what would be considered unsafe levels of radiation. Of course I don’t remember wearing a rad badge too often or in ideal working conditions.
I spent all of my time working on Runit. The first few weeks working on the rock crusher. The next 4 months working on the reef with a rock driller, drilling holes in the reef Monday and Tuesday. Setting explosives in the holes on Wednesday mornings and setting up the det cord.
Wednesdays were good because everything was set up it was rigged to go on a timer after we all left the island and had the afternoon off back on Lojwa. Then Thursdays and Fridays were the same and Saturdays the same as Wednesdays.
The last month or so I was there I drove a 20-ton dump truck for a couple weeks hauling stuff into the craters and the last 3 weeks I worked on building the key wall for the cactus dome. I will claim credit for the first 3-4 sections of it. That’s about it for my work experiences there.
My reasons for volunteering to go there were that I had less than a year to go on my enlistment with no plans of re-upping and I felt it would be good to get away for awhile and see something different. I was stationed at Schofield Barracks my whole time in the Army with the 65th Combat Engineer Battalion so it wasn’t really that big of a climate change when I got to Lojwa.
It was a great experience for me being there. I was actually able to do some real work. There wasn’t much of the regular Army go by the book discipline there. Didn’t have to shave or a get a haircut regularly and uniforms—-jungle boots, shorts, and maybe a t-shirt to start the day.
I don’t remember the short orientation we had at my unit in Schofield before I left so I don’t remember any warnings about the hazardous nature of the work we were to be involved in. And I never really felt like I was in any danger the whole time I was there except for the sharks and moray eels we would see when we were swimming in the lagoon.
Except for driving the 20 ton dump truck and working on the key wall all my time working on Runit was on what was considered the “cool’ side so I didn’t wear any kind of protection at all. I remembered wearing the rubber booties and having my badge read when I did work on the hot side but that was only for a short time.
As far as leisure time goes my memories definitely go blank except in generalities. There was a club run by Holmes and Narver I believe with cheap drinks and a good snack bar. There was an outdoor movie screen which I don’t remember what we saw.
We had a USO show out there one time, the only time I remember seeing any women come to Lojwa.
We had our club that some guys had built out behind one of the hootches where we would have our “Saturday Night Lives” rituals every Saturday night.
Booze, beer, t-bones on the grill until we got good and drunk and then over to Sally maybe to go rat hunting for awhile and then back to drinking until passing out in the wee hours of the morning.
Sundays were a day off to recuperate, swim, read and rest up for the week ahead. We all worked very hard while we were there and we rested and partied even harder.
Now for the serious side of this post. I found this group, Enewetak Atoll Cleanup Project Veterans, about a year and a half ago and joined up. I never forgot my service there in the 35 years since I left the “Rock” but had never thought about too much either until I found this group.
I don’t believe I suffer any health issues from my time there. I am 56 years old and yeah, I do have a lot of body aches and pains and a lot of arthritis in my joints but I have never really taken very good care of myself either whether it was through drug use or alcoholism or adventure seeking, I have heaped a lot of abuse on this body I was given and can only thank God that I am still alive and well today, relatively speaking.
But a lot of my brothers aren’t so well today. There are approx. 100 of us in the group and it looks like maybe half have had some form of cancer in their life !!!! And a lot of the rest have had lung, skin, joint or some other forms of illnesses.
I mean that’s a pretty large percentage of a group to have come down will all these health issues and for the government and the V.A. to continue to deny that any of it was caused by our service time at Enewetak !!!!
And I for one do not believe they are playing dumb about it. I believe they know exactly what has gone on and what is going on and do not want to own up to it and because they are the government, they think they can get away with it.
I pray that they won’t though. I pray that we as a group will continue in our efforts to be heard and that we will continue to search out and find voices in the government that will speak out for us on our behalf and for no agenda of their of own.
A rather long post here but hoping it will reach out to others who served with us and will jog their memories and get them to join with us in the fight and to enlighten anyone else who sees this site and get them to help us in some way.
Back to the beginning, “Caveman”, I was given that nickname when I first got to Lojwa by another guy there who’s name I can’t remember but was called “Animal”.
I volunteered to go to Enewetak with a friend of mine named Mike Chadwell whom I have been unable to locate, yet, and my nickname back in our unit was “ Barney” Rubble which I guess was sort of a play on my last name or my appearance, short and stocky and a lot of primitive grunting while inebriated.
But Mike would always call me Barney until Animal heard it and changed me into the “Caveman”.
That’s all folks except that I will repeat, it only by the grace and love of God and that I am here today and it is so easy to find God and have a relationship with Him that yea, even a “Caveman” can do it. <smile>
And may God bless and keep all of us , this group of Enewetak vets and their families and may His face always shine upon us and be turned towards our group and His grace given to us and may His peace be always in our hearts and upon our houses and families.
Thank you for reading this ! – Kevin Bartlett
We urge our supporters to encourage their politicians to create legislation which will include all Marshall Island Atomic Cleanup Veterans in the U.S. Government Veterans Administration’s definition of a veteran “who participated in radiation-risk activities during active service.”
Article written by Girard Frank Bolton, III. 1977-1979 participant with C Company and HHC S-3 (Operations) 84th Engineer Battalion (Combat Heavy) (Fwd) Enewetak Atoll, Marshall Islands.