Downwinders Interviews: Al Maxwell, Jackie Maxwell and their Daughter Robin

Atomic Veteran Al MaxwellA story within a story, the saga of Al and Jackie Maxwell and their six children is transitional between the experiences of the atomic veterans and those of the downwinders. During World War II, Al Maxwell was a prisoner of war who survived the Bataan Death March and was later whittled down to 82 pounds in a concentration camp hear Hiroshima. During the days after he witnessed the first use of an atomic bomb in the war until Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, Maxwell was utilized with his fellow POWs as a clean-up crew in what had been the city of Hiroshima. His route of return to the United States also took him through Nagasaki just days after it had been leveled. Unrecognizable at first as the 225-pound, 6′ 3″ soldier who left Utah to serve his country, after a few years Al Maxwell felt sufficiently healed to put it behind him and try to live a normal life by beginning his family.

Oh yes, we were right there in Utah all during all that mess, the testing. We lived in Ogden, then moved to Logan. Al was a car salesman and then a real estate salesman, and out of doors a lot. That’s what he loved about it. Our state was so stupid, they wouldn’t even admit the damage it was doing, I’ll tell you, until later on in years. I did a lot of work in the hospitals and we kept seeing case after case after case of leukemia. I asked the Dr. Powell why, did they just not report leukemia before? He said, “No, we’ve never seen anything like this.” When you have leukemia so many times higher than any other place in the world, it’s just ridiculous. Even so, they would not connect it with testing, they’re so afraid to go out on a limb, anybody in the medical community. We were hyper-trusting because we are taught to trust authority figures. Another section of the country might have questioned a lot more. I’ve never known anyone more patriotic than Al, but he said if they have to do it, why do they have to do it here? Why can’t they do it in the middle of the Gobi Desert? Al was a conformist, it took a lot of mind-searching and changing of his whole personality for him to come to that. He believed and I used to believe that there was Godliness and cleanliness in the government. It took him an awful long time to wake up to the fact that we were just being used as guinea pigs.

There was nothing normal about life in a fallout zone, especially for a man already heavily exposed to the radiation of Hiroshima. Of the six children conceived by Jackie and Al Maxwell, only one daughter, Robin has survived to this day. Any fetus or infant already at risk due to radiogenic birth defects was mortally susceptible to the radiation from downwind fallout, but since Mormons believe that big families are truly a gift of God, the Maxwells kept on trying. Utah during those years was the living and dying proof of “the survival of the fittest.” Perhaps this is why many downwind mothers of children with birth defects now believe they live in a “national sacrifice area.”

I was pregnant six times, lost one, miscarried at five months and had five babies. The fetus I lost, it was so abnormal they couldn’t even tell what it was. It took me three days to miscarry, parts of it coming out a piece at a time. It just disintegrated. The doctor couldn’t even see anything you could identify. My first little girl, Paulette, had four different abnormalities in the four heart chambers. She was also hydrocephalic, and she had a misplaced rectum which they had to correct surgically. If there’s one anomaly there’s usually more than one. She lived for thirteen months, a darling girl. Paulette weighed about seven pounds but looked about five or six pounds, tiny, dainty, like a little china doll.

The second one was a little boy, Michael, and he was exactly the same medical diagnosis, but he was a husky little guy. He had his dad’s build, a little chesty thing, but by the time he was three months old they could tell he was hydrocephalic so they operated on him and corrected it. He had the same type of heart condition, and one undescended testicle. He lived to be five. Michael didn’t talk for so long that we were really worried. He couldn’t walk until he was three, he just wasn’t strong enough. His coordination was just terrible, but once he did walk he wouldn’t walk, he’d run, just run everywhere. When they operated on him they put a catheter in to drain the fluid from the brain off, and we knew they’d have to go in and do that over again eventually. And during the first year of his life he had 17 bouts with pheumonia. But that little guy, he made everybody just absolutely adore him. He could only speak just a few words until he was four. He really didn’t talk until right before he died. He looked just like Al, which was really hard on me after we lost him, because every time Al would look at me and smile I would just die, these big deep dimples and that great big grin and a happy disposition, he’d hardly ever cry. There have been fifteen boys in our family and friends named after him. He was just that type, you’d never forget him.

The third baby was Michelle, and she was just perfect all over, absolutely perfect, but she had an atelectasis of the lungs, another anomaly. She only lived 40 hours. She just smothered to death, a problem with the lining of the lungs. The same with my number six child, Rebecca, they were exactly the same, lived the same number of hours, weighed the same, 5 pounds 14 ounces. The fourth child was Robin, never ever a problem with her at all. And the fifth was, as I said, a miscarriage.

After Paulette was born, they told us it was just one of those things and it couldn’t happen again. Right after Michael was born the way he was, in 1950, the doctor asked us both to come to the office. He wanted to talk to Al, trying to find out what was causing the birth defects, what childhood diseases he had had, and so forth. He talked to him for the longest time, and asked him where he was while in the service, and Al told him. The doctor said, “And you were a prisoner of war?” Al said yes. “Were you anywhere near Japan?” “I was two years in a prison camp there.” “Were you there when the bomb was dropped?” Al said yes. “Were you anywhere near it?” Now this was in 1950, and the doctors back then didn’t think anything about this. In fact, the whole medical community just said it was a whole lot of bull, but in any case he questioned and Al said he was out on detail at the Hiroshima clean-up. “Did you eat anything there?” “Whatever there was. We had a little rice, and water, and fish juice.” “You injested it right there?!” All of a sudden he just threw the file on the desk and just leaned back and said to Al, “Well, there you have it.” “What? There I have what?” “You’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Then you’re going to do what you want to do because I know you and jackie want more children, but I’m going to tell you one thing. If you were to have ten children, nine of those children would have anomalies.” I was just stunned. I said, “What are you saying?” “I believe that he’s been exposed and that radiation has affected him, and his sperm. In the first place, his body was in such a state of malnutrition that he would be affected even more. No other doctor’s going to agree with me, and you’re going to say you want children, but I know what this is going to produce.”

Perhaps it was fortunate that Al and Jackie Maxwell had a family physician who had some experience with radiation, if only for moral support and truthfulness. While a medical student at Columbia University, Dr. Wendell J. Thomson came down with mononucleosis and was at home, bedridden, when his class was irradiated during a serious accident.

“Just to give you a frame of reference,” Dr. Thomson remembered, “five of my closest friends from the class got leukemia within five years. Three of those five had children with deformities, all the sets of kids were affected by it. Within ten years all those friends were dead. Believe me, it gave me a healthy fear of the atom bomb. If X-rays can do that, imagine what the atom bomb has unleashed.” The doctor said, at the time, that about one percent of the medical community believed that radiation could hurt you. “But I’d be willing to venture a guess that within 19 years from now you’re going to have some kind of cancer in your body, I’d suspect leukemia. I want you to be prepared, be on the lookout and take good care of yourself.” I kept going back to him because he was a good doctor, our family doctor. It turned out Dr. Thomson was right, almost to the day. He was one of the best diagnosticians I’ve ever seen in my life, a brilliant doctor. After Al got sick he’d just break down each time I’d see him and say, “Oh, Jackie, I just prayed I’d be wrong, all the time.”

It was September of 1969 when they diagnosed Al’s multiple myeloma. At first they thought it was leukemia, though. His white blood count was up over 150,000. They gave him 52 blood work-ups. It took three months. The whole time Al had these sores on the back of his legs, big black spots and gray spots, two kinds. His skin was gray. He’d try to get up to go to work and he’d just collapse back into a chair and say, “Jackie, I just can’t. I’m just too tired.” Then Al started to feel better and the doctor told us his blood count was down to 9,000. “I don’t know what the hell it is,” the doctor said, “it’s a probability this will reoccur, not a possibility. For three months I thought he had leukemia, but it’s a blood disorder.” At the top of Al’s chart he wrote in big red letters, “Feel like this entire episode was caused by Al’s exposure to atom bomb.” Later, when we tried to get his records from that VA hospital, they were all gone, probably because he wrote that on the top. All those medical records, the 52 blood tests, and everything was gone.

Al said in his diary that he thought his prisoner of war camp was 160 miles from Hiroshima, and they took him in to work there in an open-bed truck. They were sent in to Hiroshima on the day that Nagasaki was bombed. From the way he described it, he said there were a lot of rivers, and a railway that went in a complete circle around the city. They were clearing all the debris so people could get to the hospital, but they didn’t realize that the hospital was almost at the epicenter. They’d see rooftops lying on the ground. They’d see places where he thought bodies had been, but he didn’t realize that the bodies had been burned into the ground. Outlines of the bodies, they thought that’s where they had been and had been removed, but it was the actual body burned into the ground. When they were released from the prison camp, they came back through Nagasaki. They said he had never been there. He was picked up in the port there by the hospital ship Hope. The veterans board said it didn’t exist.

Did the feds tell you that he had never been in Hiroshima?
Oh, yes. They said he was never there at Hiroshima, and that he just imagined he was in a prison camp. And the radiation levels they were basing all their summaries on were not taken until 100 days after Al was exposed. It was the only time I heard him swear in his whole life. He just threw the letter across the room and said “Damn, call Gordy, I’m going to join the lawsuit.” [Gordon Erspamer was an attorney for a number of atomic veterans.]

Did he write in his diaries that he had seen or heard the bomb go off in Hiroshima?
Oh, sure! they saw the mushroom cloud. The Allies had really been bombing the coast of Japan, up and down, but this one morning they found particularly loud. Now if you’re on the water, sounds carry, and they heard this reverberation, and they all rushed to look. All of a sudden they saw a humongous cloud facing them, and he said he couldn’t imagine what in the world it was. Then about an hour or two later they had a terrible storm, just terrible, and it was all black. So what was it? The black rain. It was all over where they were. [The black rain had occurred when radioactive debris from the atomic bomb was sucked up into an approaching storm front. The residue rained out over Japan during the afternoon following the nuclear attack, heavily contaminating wherever the isotope-ridden showers fell. This was even more deadly than a fallout cloud because the radiation could be more concentrated in liquid than in air.] He and his friend made a buddy statement about that, had it notarized and put in into the request for veterans’ benefits too. But they didn’t give any credence to anything.

Did he see the Nagasaki bomb also?
They left early that morning that day, before light, to go to Hiroshima. The guys in the camp said they could feel it. They said you can’t 200 miles away but that’s baloney. You could feel it in Salt Lake City when they set them off in Las Vegas, so I know darn well you could feel them on the ground. They knew something terrible was happening. They did an awful lot of clean-up of debris and in his diary he said, “I can’t believe this devastation here. Nothing natural could have caused this. I’ve never seen such devastation in my life.” They worked from dawn to dusk. the thing that really got to him, well, he thought it was because they had been out in the sun all day working, but he had the worst sunburn he’d ever had in his life. Of course, it wasn’t a sunburn. they laid down to rest and got this gray dust all over them, and that’s what it was. He had a rash from that time on until the end of his life. The doctors never knew what it was, they called it “etiology unknown.” It would swell up like you had put a waffle iron on it, so high it would look like it was going to burst. So whatever it was, he really got it.

When did the multiple myeloma actually start?
They diagnosed it in 1980 and he lived seven years after. Characteristically, it’s supposed to run for fourteen years. They felt like they had gotten it fairly early until I reminded the doctor about that predisposition since 1969 and he said, “Oh Lord, Jackie, if it’s been in his bones all this time it has probably affected every bone in his body from the head on down.” Multiple myeloma is to the bone what leukemia is to the blood. You have no immunization whatsoever, so many die with pneumonia and since they don’t bother to do autopsies, they never know. You can have multiple myeloma and never know you have it until it’s too late. It’s insidious, almost like osteoporosis, a silent killer. It has a habit of settling wherever there’s been trauma, and he was so severely beaten across the small of his back and across his kidneys by the Japanese that when they’d X-ray his back they’d say, “My gosh, you look like you’ve been hit by a truck,” and he’d say, “Well, you might say that.” That’s all he’d ever say about it. But it was injured so badly that that’s where it hit. They put him through the CAT scans and that other machine that it takes five hours to do, and when it finally hit that portion of his back it lit up and the bells rang and his doctor stood out in the hall and bawled.

As has been the case with thousands of other atomic veterans, the attempts of Al and Jackie Mqxwell to seek compensation and medical care for his service-related radiation injuries were rejected by the Veterans Administration, which accused Maxwell of fabricating his stories of being on the Bataan Death March, in a prison camp near Hiroshima, or having seen the devastated city during the days he was on a clean-up detail. In order to prove her husband’s accounts, Jackie Maxwell transcribed his war diary over eight months in preparation for a claims hearing.

I’ve got the letters from them to prove they were calling him a liar. I wanted him vindicated. Out of those 24 guys that were exposed with him, 18 of them died of multiple myeloma, and that’s only one-eight of all the cancer. His diary was terrible about the Bataan Dewath March, very graphic. And the funny thing is, he never wrote anything that was maudlin or pathetic, they were just bold statements. He’d say, “So many of the guys were bayoneted.” On the march, they didn’t have too much water. They were trying to conserve all they had. His friend couldn’t go any further and he just sank to his knees. Al bent over to take his canteen off to give him a drink and as he was straightening up the guard was just pullin the gayonet out of his friend. He wrote that something in him died right then. He said, “Maybe it was meant to protect me but from then on it was just like a moving picture around me. It was happening but it wasn’t happening. It was unreal.” He’d say, “The fences look like a puppet show,” and I’d ask him what that meant. He told me they’d just bayonet them and then hang them up over the wire fences by their chins all up and down the line. His nose got broken three times during the beatings and instead of saying how bad it was he’d simply say, “I’ve got a schnoz on me like Jimmy Durante.” He had a sense of humor about it, even as bad as it was. It took me eight months to transcribe these diaries and I just bawled every day. I asked him, “How in the world could you have lived through this? I couldn’t stand to even write about it. How could you live from day to day?” He said, “You don’t live from day to day. Or from hour to hour. You don’t think about the minutes that pass or the minutes that are coming forward. You just think about the minute you’re in. That’s it. It passes.”

What Al Maxwell had learned about mental and physical pain and suffering during the Bataan Death March served him well while he was in treatment for his cancer, but myeloma was more of a torture than the daily beatings he had received forty years earlier.

When he was at the Veterans Hospital in Salt Lake, I guess it was an accepted procedure for them to insert these tubes into the lung to drain it out when he had pneumonia. The thing is, they should have anaesthetized him. It wasn’t just a tiny little catheter, it was the size of a man’s middle finger. Instead of making a little hole and anaesthetizing the area around it, they pushed it right through the skin and then through the ribs and cracked a rib doing it. As I came down the hall I could hear this screaming. In all the pain he had ever had nobody ever heard him scream, not once, or even make a sound in all his agony. The nurses were just in fits and came running down the hall towards me saying, “Oh, my God, you’re here, go get that screaming stopped!” They had been ordered out of the room by the intern who was doing it, and then he ordered me out. I just hit the ceiling. Finally I got the head doctor who was just fit to be tied. Finally they anaesthetized him and put an even bigger catheter in, and he was like that or months. They never did get all the fluid out.

Robin was so upset towards the last when he was dying. She just broke down and sobbed, “It’s not fair, I hate it, what the government is doing to you.” And he just said, “Honey, I wouldn’t trade my life for anybody’s in this whole world. I have had such happiness I’d go back and do it all over again.” She just howled, “Even what you went through in the prison camp and all this?” He said “I would go through it all again to have your mother, and our kids, and you. Believe me, this country is worth dying for. You may not agree with what’s going on, but this Constitution is divinely inspired. It’s not administrated very well at times, but all you have to do is be a guest, now I mean a guest not a prisoner, in some foreign country for three months or so and you’ll come home and kiss the ground you walk on. Don’t you ever forget it. I wouldn’t change that for anything, not anything.”

He loved his country first to last. After he died, everything went by in a blur for Robin, I guess, but they had the most beautiful military salute for him with the twenty-one-gun salute, and I was holding her little son Hunter on my lap. When it was all over he looked up at me and patted my face and said, “Nana, the guns went pop-pop and Poppy Al went up to heaven. Now we’re happy. Don’t nobody cry anymore.”
~March 1992
Menlo Park, California

from American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War by Carole Gallagher


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