Downwinders Interviews: Ken Case, the “Atomic Cowboy”

The Atomic CowboyKen Case had the dubious distinction, he thought, of being called the “Atomic Cowboy,” both by his fellow workers at the Test Site and by the press. Hired on a horse as a deputy sheriff by 1954, he literally became a cowboy for the Atomic energy commission, riding a herd of cattle and horses over ground zero after a nuclear detonation so that the effects of radiation on wildlife could be measured by scientists at Los Alamos. This series of animal experiments continued for seven years. He showed me yellowed photographs from the fifties of himself in that capacity, the complete Marlboro Man, in the saddle and holding up a cattle branding iron with AEC initials measuring almost a foot high. There would be no mistaking a radioactive cow on the range with a 12-inch brand burned into her hide. In another testing era photo he pointed to himself on horseback, and particularly to the dust raised by both horses and cattle. “They got cancer and we got cancer,” he said, “only the animals were so much closer to the ground that they died faster.”

Case himself had many feet of his intestines removed, and his spleen, and at the time of his interview the cancer had spread through most of the organs of his body. His wife was also dying of cancer, and she had also endured for years the fusion of disks of her spine, another health effect of high radiation exposure. They both lived in a trailer in North Las Vegas, and among the bric-a-brac hanging on the wall were photographs of two atomic bombs that Case had witnessed at close range, among many others, while he worked at the Test Site. One hung above a plate with a poem “To Mother” on it, glazed with pink roses. He was a kindly bear of a man, and he and his equally endearing wife were, as religious Mormons, preparing themselves for Eternity–they knew they hadn’t long to wait.

Your job was to herd cattle on the range Were you close to the ground zero area?
Went right through it a lot of times. I had ridden the range all the time on horseback, all the area, checking for feed and water.  To start with, in ’55 and ’57 they brought in 27 or 37 big helicopters, the kind they call the banana type, the big sway-nose with the double props. I think every mission, in the chopper, the pilot and I would be the first ones in ground zero. We were monitoring.

Did the geiger counters go off-scale? How close to the ground were you, and what did it look like?
We would get over [ground zero] and bang, off-scale. When we went back over about 30 feet off the ground, the sand, it would be melted just like glass. Those ground zeros in the spring, you look out, they bleed a big circle in the snow around ground zero. After a shot and it’s cooled down, then they monitor all that area and what’s left of the tower [on which the bomb was detonated]. They just melted that tower down. They had a few aerial bombs that planes came in and dropped. They would have just so much time to get away from them. If you happened to watch the plane, it would rock the plane. As quick as it went, the area around the outside of that circle would be on fire. All the weeds and grass, and if there were trees, they were on fire too. Rabbits would run across there and they would be on fire. It was something.

How long were you monitoring from the helicopter, how many shots?
Aout 15 or 18 aboveground shots, and I was in every one of them. We took samples of the cattle all the time, twice a year, so many out of each herd. I think that as far as having to do that first for results of radiation, they have been wishing away their money for the last ten years. They had all the data they ever needed, had it for a long, long, time. They’ve tried every shot they can think of over and over and over and over. It’s just a way people spend a lot of money.

Many years after this inteview, in 1989, I took a “public information tour” of the Test Site that is available to anyone who requests it in advance. the Department of Energy even solicits visitors at conventions in Las Vegas and at old age homes, and so the bus was filled with senior citizens looking foward to a day “out of the city” as well as people from other countries who were just plain curious. No photographs were allowed, and no tape recorders. The tour guide knew who I was and became flustered when I asked about the animal cages still left standing on Frenchman Flat, the site of 27 atomic bomb tests. She denied they were cages. Thinking also of Ken Case, I continued to inquire if there had ever been a program of animal experimenttion at the Test Site, say in the fifties, before they knew better. “Oh, no, we wouldn’t do that.”

What were the viewing conditions when an aboveground detonation would take place?
They had a big crowd out at the obsevation point, lots of people there and cars. they had gone through and told everybody that before the shot time, they would furnish the glasses like goggles, to wear them or turn their backs to the shot, not to face it. There were afew of them that tried to be smart and try to look without them. They were blinded for quite a while. The bombs were powerful enough that you could turn your back and it would burn the back of your neck from the heat. That was about five or six miles from ground zero from where we was at.

Did you witness what the atomic vets experienced? How many of them did you know?
About two hundred. A bigger share that I knew personally while I was out there, I don’t think there’s four or six alive today. They were all over. Camp Desert Rock had a lot of them, of course. They went out with machines and dug trenches for them to get into. So many feet or yards away from ground zero. I forget how close. The first ones were pretty close, closer than a mile away. It was where it was hot. There wasn’t hardly any of them at the time that didn’t get sick. They tried to keep them to say it wasn’t but it was, the effects of it. A lot of it depended on the type of shot it was, what chemicals they used in the device itself. [I’ve lost] eight or ten friends that I knew quite well.

When I first started getting ready for the shots out there when they started their series in ’55, the only shot I wasn’t near was from Control Point, and they had me go out on the highway, patrol the highway from Lathrop Wells to Indian Springs. The winds had changed and brought [the fallout cloud] right back over Control Point. The patrol car we were using was an old Plymouth sedan. They took it into camp later and washed it down. I had a little breakfast, then asked them if it was ready and they said yes. I got partly back to Control Point and my arm started burning. I rolled my sleeve up and I was burned from my hand to my elbow a strip about that wide [about two inches]. There was radiation in the felt pad on the window, because it was wet where they washed it down. We got hold of who was supposed to be the head guy and told him what happened. He said, “Go back to work, nothing to worry about.” He wouldn’t even look at my arm. That’s the way they operated out there. It’s a fright, it’s terrible.

I’ve had eleven surgeries. Tumors. The Test Site, as far as I’m concerned is just nothing but a place for them to spend a hell of a lot of money foolishly.
~January 1984
North Las Vegas, Nevada 

Ken Case died on July 5, 1985, and his wife, Woody, followed him shortly thereafter.

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






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