Late Night Atomic TalesPosted: January 17, 2013 Filed under: Environment, Environmental Protection, History, toxic waste | Tags: Atomic Bomb, Cancer Rates, Hollywood, John Wayne, Operation Upshot-Knothole, Peru IL, radioactive, Radium Girls, The Conqueror, Utah, Westclox 19 Comments
Banjoville is expecting 4 inches of snow tonight, and since I am avoiding the news at all cost… this post is going to be ATOMIC in nature.
Many of the articles I will be linking to are from years ago, some as far back as the 1980’s.
Let’s get on with the show….
First, some mood music.
Alright, back in the good old days, when the government tested the atomic bomb in the deserts of Western United States, radioactive fallout from these bombs drifted over areas downwind from the test sites. The people who lived in these communities were screwed, meaning they suffered high cancer rates and many of them died.
It wasn’t just the regular folks who were affected. Hollywood stars, in fact one of the most famous icons of American History, also found themselves cancer stricken.
Think about this…John Wayne, American as apple pie…our iconic symbol of toughness and grit…was the America he loved responsible for his death? Talk about irony!
The Conqueror (1956): The Film that Killed John Wayne…Literally
Of the 173 film appearances of John Wayne, The Conqueror is one of his lesser known roles, and for good reason. In this movie, which Wayne actually asked director Dick Powell to star in, he plays the Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan.
Right off the bat it sounds ridiculous; John Wayne playing an Asian. The gave him makeup to make his eyes seem slanted and of course, gave him a Fu Man Chu facial hair style. Wayne, who needed to make only one movie to finish out his contract with RKO was heavily dissuaded by Powell to not take up this role and with the script thrown in the trash, Wayne pulled it out and said he wanted to play Genghis Khan as a cowboy would, and Powell then famously quipped, “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”
A quick summary of the story can be found here from the film’s Wikipedia page:
The exterior scenes were shot on location near St. George, Utah, 137 miles (220 km) downwind of the United States government’s Nevada National Security Site. In 1953, extensive above-ground nuclear weapons testing occurred at the test site, as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole. The cast and crew spent many difficult weeks on location, and in addition Hughes later shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood in order to match the Utah terrain and lend verisimilitude to studio re-shoots. The filmmakers knew about the nuclear tests but the federal government reassured residents that the tests caused no hazard to public health.
Director Dick Powell died of cancer in January 1963, seven years after the film’s release. Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1960, and committed suicide in 1963 after he learned his condition had become terminal. Hayward, Wayne, and Moorehead all died of cancer in the 1970s. Cast member actor John Hoyt died of lung cancer in 1991. Skeptics point to other factors such as the wide use of tobacco — Wayne and Moorehead in particular were heavy smokers. The cast and crew totaled 220 people. By 1981, 91 of them had developed some form of cancer and 46 had died of the disease. Several of Wayne and Hayward’s relatives also had cancer scares as well after visiting the set. Michael Wayne developed skin cancer, his brother Patrick had a benign tumor removed from his breast and Hayward’s son Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. 
Dr. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, stated, “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law.” Indeed, several cast and crew members, as well as relatives of those who died, considered suing the government for negligence, claiming it knew more about the hazards in the area than it let on.
Okay, what is with that code name…Operation Upshot-Knothole? Doesn’t that translate into, stick it up your ass…or maybe it was just the government’s way of saying, fuck you?
From the archives of People Magazine, in an article that was published in November of 1980: The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents : People.com
Few moviegoers remember The Conqueror, a sappy 1956 film about a love affair between Genghis Khan and a beautiful captive princess. But to the families of its stars, John Wayne and Susan Hayward, and of its director-producer, Dick Powell, memories of The Conqueror have begun to acquire nightmarish clarity. The movie was shot from June through August 1954 among the scenic red bluffs and white dunes near Saint George, Utah, an area chosen by Powell for its similarity to the central Asian steppes. At the time it did not seem significant that Saint George was only 137 miles from the atomic testing range at Yucca Flat, Nev.; the federal government, after all, was constantly reassuring local residents back then that the bomb tests posed no health hazard. Now, 17 years after aboveground nuclear tests were outlawed, Saint George is plagued by an extraordinarily high rate of cancer (PEOPLE, Oct. 1, 1979)—and the illustrious alumni of The Conqueror and their offspring are wondering whether their own grim medical histories are more than an uncommon run of bad luck.
Of The Conqueror’s 220 cast and crew members from Hollywood, an astonishing 91 have contracted cancer, PEOPLE has ascertained. Forty-six of them, including Wayne, Hayward and Powell, have died of the disease. Another star of the film, Pedro Armendariz, survived cancer of the kidney four years after finishing the movie—but killed himself in 1963 at the age of 51 when he learned that he had terminal cancer of the lymphatic system. Says Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah: “With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.”
From what I understand, there was even a photo of the Duke holding a Geiger counter while on location. Back to the People article:
Though previously inclined to keep the past buried and their suspicions to themselves, several Conqueror cast members and relatives of cancer victims are now considering a suit against the government for negligence. For a few of them, more than a death in the family is involved. The children of Wayne and Hayward accompanied their parents to the Conqueror location and have already had alarming brushes with cancer. Michael Wayne, 45, developed skin cancer in 1975. His brother Patrick, 41, was operated on for a breast tumor 11 years ago (fortunately it was benign). Tim Barker, 35, a son of Susan Hayward, had a benign tumor removed from his mouth in 1968. “I still smoke a pack a day,” admits Barker. “So who knows just what might have caused it? Smoking doesn’t help. But I’ll tell you, radiation doesn’t help either.” Dr. Ronald S. Oseas of Harbor UCLA Medical Center agrees. “It is known that radiation contributes to the risk of cancer,” he says. “With these numbers, it is highly probable that the Conqueror group was affected by that additive effect.”
The concerned survivors are not antinuke activists; most say their faith in safe nuclear energy is unshaken. What angers them is mounting evidence that the government knew a great deal more about the danger of fallout from the tests than it told. Aboveground nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site went on from January 1951 until August 1963. During that time the Atomic Energy Commission devoted most of its public-information efforts to reassuring apprehensive citizens. One 1955 AEC booklet distributed near the test site, for example, advised: “Your best action is not to be worried about fallout.” Yet Dr. Harold Knapp, the DNA’s adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former member of the Fallout Studies Branch of the AEC, says the experts knew better even then. “The government definitely had a complete awareness of what was going on,” he now says. “To a trained professional, the information contained in some of their once-confidential reports is most shocking.” A recently published report prepared for congressional investigators on the impact of the bomb tests concludes: “All evidence suggesting that radiation was having harmful effects, be it on sheep or on the people, was not only disregarded but actually suppressed…The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.”
No bombs were tested during the actual filming of The Conqueror, but 11 explosions occurred the year before. Two of them were particularly “dirty,” depositing long-lasting radiation over the area. The 51.5-kiloton shot code-named “Simon” was fired on April 25, 1953, and the 32.4-kiloton blast “Harry” went off May 19. (In contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 13 kilotons.) “Fallout was very abundant more than a year after Harry,” says Dr. Pendleton, a former AEC researcher. “Some of the isotopes, such as strontium 90 and cesium 137, would not have diminished much.” Pendleton points out that radioactivity can concentrate in “hot spots” such as the rolling dunes of Snow Canyon, a natural reservoir for windblown material. It was the place where much of The Conqueror was filmed. Pendleton also notes that radioactive substances enter the food chain. By eating local meat and produce, the Conqueror cast and crew were increasing their risk.
Wow! You can read the rest of that archived article at the link…but it wasn’t just the cast and crew of The Conqueror, a film that was dubbed an “RKO Radioactive Production.” Check this out…from People again, this time in an article published in 1979: A Flinty Grandmother Battles for the Victims of Utah’s Nuclear Tragedy : People.com
On the morning of May 19, 1953, a dry lake bed at Yucca Flat, Nev. cracked under a devastating explosion. A bright orange fireball climbed into the sky, dissolved into a purplish mushroom cloud, then floated eastward on the wind. Moments after the blast, the residents of St. George, Utah—145 miles away—felt the ground beneath them tremble. A few hours later, a gray ash fell from the sky, coating their pastures, clinging to laundry and burning the skin of people it touched.
Known locally as “Dirty Harry,” the atom bomb that caused the fallout was not the first to leave its mark on St. George, though at 32 kilotons, it was one of the largest. From 1951 until the 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty, the Atomic Energy Commission set off at least 100 aboveground devices at the Nevada testing site. Yet, though herds of sheep and pigs in St. George fell dead within days of Dirty Harry, the AEC ignored those who claimed any connection between fallout and injury to man or beast. For decades, the government has clung to this position, and, for almost as long, one St. George woman, Irma Thomas, 72, has waged a quiet but tenacious battle to prove the bureaucrats wrong. Says Thomas: “All I ever wanted to do was let the government know what they did to the people of St. George.”
Her struggle may be nearing an end at last. Reputable scientists now suspect that the tests caused a phenomenally high rate of cancer and thyroid diseases among residents of St. George. They have also linked them to a variety of other problems; one researcher has even theorized that the fallout may have caused a decline in SAT scores among Utah high school students. The federal government no longer flatly denies such dire possibilities. Spurred in part by Irma Thomas’ efforts, 442 victims and their families have sued the government, charging negligence and failure to warn the residents of the danger they faced and demanding a reported $230 million. “We were used as fodder, the same as our young men were used in Vietnam,” a bitter Irma declares. “The blasts were detonated only when the wind blew in our direction. They avoided the populated areas of Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They saw us as expendable.”
Hey..they were expendable? That was a John Wayne film too.
Take a look at those old articles, interesting indeed. If you want to read more about it, see these links below:
The Straight Dope: Did John Wayne die of cancer caused by a radioactive movie set?
Alamo Central Forum – The Conqueror (1956) Film that Killed John Wayne
And for information on the high cancer rates in Utah…check these out:
Utah has highest skin cancer rates in the country – U N I V E R S E
Report shows Sandy has Utah’s highest cancer rates | Health | Draper / Riverton / Bluffdale / Sandy News
The danger down below: Cancer cluster raises questions about legacy of toxic waste in Utah soil | Deseret News
EPA in Utah | About EPA | US EPA
EPA fact sheet presents statistics about skin cancer for Utah and the United States as a whole.
Utah – Office Of Epidemiology Cancer Cluster Investigations
Overview of Utah Cancer Incidence and Mortality
High Utah cancer rates prompt call for prevention | ksl.com
RADIATION-ASSOCIATED CANCER IN UTAH FROM 1973 TO 2001
PREPARED FOR REP. JIM MATHESON House Oversight Committee
Another radioactive story I have for you tonight could be a subject of a Hollywood B horror picture itself. Glow in the dark atomic paint and a workforce of unsuspecting women is just the kind of combination to bring all sorts of scary things….fifty foot giant women, glowing girls, and radioactive graves. (That last bit is actually true.) United States Radium Corporation – Wikipedia
The United States Radium Corporation was a company, most notorious for its operations between the years 1917 to 1926 in Orange, New Jersey, in the United States that led to stronger worker protection laws. After initial success in developing a glow-in-the-dark radioactive paint, the company was subject to several lawsuits in the late 1920s in the wake of severe illnesses and deaths of workers (the Radium Girls) who had ingested radioactive material when they licked their brushes to paint the thin lines and other details on the faces of clocks, watches and other instruments. The workers had been told that the paint was harmless. During World War I and World War II, the company produced luminous watches and gauges for the United States Army for use by soldiers.
U.S. Radium was the subject of major radioactive contamination of its workers, primarily women who painted the dials of watches and other instruments with luminous paint.
Westclox…and those glow in the dark clock faces. Here is a photo of these Radium Girls working in one of the factories:
More great pictures here: Westclox Factory Photos and Postcards, Peru, Illinois
Anyway, the old Westclox factory in Peru IL caught fire last year and it was burning for weeks…it took 6 days to get it under control and they still are going back and forth over the clean-up. Here are a few articles from the local newspaper about the fire are below, including some updates from December 2012 and January 2013.
Westclox Factory Fire: Illinois Landmark Destroyed
Peru agrees to push for Westclox cleanup – LaSalle News Tribune – LaSalle, IL
Westclox fire unanimous choice for No. 1 story of 2012 – LaSalle News Tribune – LaSalle, IL
Former firefighter reflects on New Year’s injury at Westclox fire – MyWebTimes.com
Yes, it is an atomic link dump!
I know this post is long and there are lots of things for you to look at…feel free to think of this as an open thread. Enjoy your evening and see y’all in the comments!
The wind is howling outside! And the kids are praying for snow…me? I am thinking about making some hot chocolate and watching something funny on TV. I’ve recorded Bridesmaids, so that should be easy to watch.
I hope the snow won’t be too bad. We still have snow on the ground here, but the streets are fine.
We had that last night. Folks that lived around the lake got snow showers. I understand it was pretty bad a bit north of here. It was beautiful today so it shouldn’t last long at least.
Great post, JJ. I’m so glad you wrote something tonight! Did you ever see the movie Desert Bloom. It’s about a family that lives near the nuclear testing site in Nevada. It’s really good. It’s really a coming of age story about a young girl, but it brings in all that nuclear stuff from the ’50s. I loved it.
Did she have web feet and three heads? Just kidding…lol
Yeah, I feel bad about not writing the last few evenings, but things have been difficult lately.
Don’t feel bad. We understand. I hope you check out that movie. I think you’d like it.
This is so funny, only yesterday, my sister and I were talking about this movie causing Susan Hayward ( we’re big fans) to die of cancer, decades later.
And Agnes Moorehead, don’t forget her.
Yup, I discovered it when I looked up Susan Hayward on the Imdb site. I had no idea about the radioactive connection…I wonder if that dirt they trucked over to Hollywood to film some of the set scenes still makes those Geiger counters tick.
Damn, this is just so ridiculous: Manti Te’o Girlfriend Hoax | MTV Catfish Reality Show | Nev Schulman Ariel Schulman | Mediaite
Great post JJ. I was unaware of all those deaths from the Utah testing.
From the “If you can’t beat him” files, Leon Hadar writing in The American Conservative. He voted for Obama in the election and some of the comments are a hoot.
Is Barack Obama a Republican Realist?
Sad, but must-read story about guns:
Damn, I’m at a loss as well.
There’s a fascinating documentary on the old Radium Dial factory and all the young women that worked–and as a result–died shortly after working there.
The entire thing is up on YOUTUBE. It’s worth the time to watch it. It made a big impression on me when I first saw it and I use it for my microeconomics courses when we talk about externalities and companies that create social costs.
It’s called Radium city 1987
Thanks Dak, I saw this when it first came out and could not remember what the name of the documentary was.
I’m really sad that Bobby Jindal has ended hospice care for LA patients on Medicare as part of his not opting in to “obamacare” and sending the state in to third world status.
For Jindal ’cause “poor folks w/ cancer were livin’ too high on the hog with their peaceful, palliated deaths.” http://buff.ly/XiJTJs
I can’t believe what a horrible person that Jindal is …
Killing his way to the presidency …. jindal 2016
He really is a rotten SOB! Hope he gets his in the end,