Downwinders Interviews: Gilbert Fraga, AEC Radiation Monitor

As a radiation monitor for the Atomic Energy Commission, Gilbert Fraga came into contact with all manner of people in Utah and Nevada while chasing fallout clouds in his Plymouth Fury. Frequently he would stop at one of Nevada’s ubiquitous whorehouses for a cold beer and a chat, dropping off a few radiation badges in the process.

Radiation MonitroThe farther up you’d go in the hills, the more friendly people were. You might wonder how I know the madam at the Big Four [brothel]. My supervisor says, “Fraga, we’re supposed to get a cross section of the indigenous population. That means nurses, school teachers, that kind of thing. Have you ever issued a film badge in this business? You better get down there and do it. You ought to have at least one girl with a film badge.” I knew he was kidding me, so I called his bluff, and I went down there and introduced myself to the madam. Girls with little frilly things were up and down the bar and I told her I was going to issue a film badge to one of the employees. “Oh, why sure, good idea! I’ll get those that aren’t gainfully employed in the back room and have them assemble out here” So she sent them all out. “You go ahead and make your choice.” There was a little number that was not only peroxide, but she had a green tint in her hair. Her name was Lucky. Lucky’s business shot skyhigh: sheepherders, ranchers, and miners come from miles around to do business with the girl that had the film badge. She never took it off, that was the gag.

People knew who we were when we come driving up, Atomic Energy Commission on the car and everything. Nobody brought up talking about the bomb. It was just a fact of life, I guess. It was the psychology of the day. Nobody expressed any worry. I ran into a lot of school teacher ladies out in Nevada and Utah that showed no concern. The bombs went off every day. We’d come in and collect the film badges from time to time. I’d say, “You’re not saying you’re concerned about radiation and the mushroom clouds floating over here, but how do you feel about that?” She said, “I don’t care at all. It’s my parents back in New York that are calling me up every time they hear a bomb goes off.” At the time they were probably more concerned on the East Coast.

It was either shot Smoky or Hood that was a terrible mess, one of the worst I’d ever seen. I was called down to drive two reporters from Life magazine up to Newsmen’s Knob. Here’s all the troops lined up, not all of them in trenches, and some of the officers standing and facing the tower without goggles. You had to have goggles. It would burn your retina when you’re close, and we were close, three miles. There’s a blinding flash. There’s a big shock wave that booms against your chest, almost knocks you down, but not quite. After five seconds a boom reverberates all over the canyon. This mushroom cloud is always supposed to go up and disperse and then blow to the east, out towards Utah. The weather report went wrong . . . the cloud starts coming right over us. There were hundreds and hundreds of people up there. Here’s a funny thing. Here’s the cloud right straight above me, and it’s just like a rain cloud where it comes down. This is a moving cloud. Then it falls out, so the fallout pattern, it’s like rain. I started getting 1,500 millirems, 2,000. I thought my instruments were wrong so I was changing from one to another. No, they’re working okay. So I called headquarters. I said, “It’s hotter then hell up here.” “Hey, Fraga is up there saying it’s hotter than hell.” “Tell him his instruments are wrong.” Boy, I took off running. We had to pick up to 80 miles an hour on both lanes. That cloud kept on coming, just kept on following us. That cloud went down through Death Valley, then north over Beatty, Warm Springs, Carson City, rained out over Reno, went out to sea at Fort Bragg, California. That was a dirty one.

Visualize the bomb tower and the thing is detonated and the whole tower is vaporized right down to the concrete block supports. The floor is pushed down in a basin and burned to a crisp. Sand is melted together in a black glob. We took off one time to monitor one of these sites. We had our geiger counters out and it was hot. It had been two weeks since the bomb was shot, and it was still darn hot so we couldn’t stay there very long. The truth of the matter is, we shouldn’t have been there anyway. It was too hot for anybody. We worked there a while and went back a week later to a whole row of houses that had been built for testing purposes right on the flat. Wood frame, cinder block, different things, all furnished with mannequins all dressed up, sitting around a dining room table. Then, the bomb. We went into those places. The mannequins were just cut to shreds by the glass from the windows blowing in. Shards of glass were stuck along the opposite end of the dining room.

We had a sweep of territory. We had parts of California, all of Nevada, parts of Arizona, and parts of Utah, all divided into zones. It was about 3,000 miles a month at 90 miles an hour in a Plymouth Fury to get to all of these places, four of us. We were so stretched out that we had one tin builoding, a hut in Las Vegas, and all the radiation film badges, they had to come in there, change them every two weeks. We gave them to people and fence posts and at the front of schools and churches. You went down miles and miles of lonesome valleys to collect a film badge. We had tons. The truth of the story is, hundreds and hundreds got thrown in the pail because we diden’t have time to read them all, no better than 40, 50 percent. I had my own badge. It didn’t work well enough. They were worthless.

We also had to respond to damage claims, beta burns on the cattle, sheep, people. I remember running into an American Indian that had World War II gunnery medals. He was 71. This poor old Indian had sheep, and he got to crying one time talking about how badly his sheep were doing on account of beta burns. Tears came down his cheek. He opens up his pocket, and this really got to me. I almost cried. He brings out his air medal, he had about four medals wrapped up in toilet paper in his shirt pocket. He said, “I was a good Indian and I was a hero then, but now they treat me pretty badly.” It was confirmed, beta burns.

This was ’57. I was 23. Two years later I went back to Berkeley for my graduate studies. I started to get awful migraine headaches. After two years they went away, all of a sudden. Then I started developing dizziness. This gradually kept on getting worse. Got to the point where I couldn’t pilot an aircraft anymore because I was blacking out. I had what you call vertigo and I still have it. Weave a little bit when you walk, short-term memory problems, nausea quite often, tired. It would get so bad that it was difficult to sleep. Some days are so bad I just can’t get out of bed. Bladder cancer surgery. Something wrong with my circulation. Two heart attacks. You know what emasculating means” When a man can’t drive his car, it’s emasculating. It makes you mad. Living below the poverty level, not a whole lot of fun. We applied for social security diability. For three years we fought the dirty beggars and they turned me down. They said, “Mr. Fraga, you can’t prove that radiation caused you to be sick.” I said, “You can’t prove it didn’t.”

You see movies about atomic bombs going off, or hydrogen bombs. People try to describe it. By golly, it’s nothing like seeing one yourself, being right there. It’s such an enormous doggone power, it will never leave you.

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


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