Photo: Nick Brancaccio, the Windsor Star
The Hamilton Spectator
(Sep 6, 2008)
James Chilman makes jokes about glowing in the dark.
His buddy — Jim Huntley from the same platoon of the Queen’s Own Rifles, Second Battalion — marvels at how absurd it was to practise field-stripping a rifle while marching toward a towering mushroom cloud minutes after the detonation of an atomic bomb.
Both veterans are among Canada’s atomic soldiers, who marched into harm’s way for six blasts in the Nevada desert in 1957 to find out if men could fight in a nuclear war.
Both are in line for $24,000 in compensation from the federal government that was announced for about 900 eligible Canadian military veterans and technology workers who participated in nuclear weapons tests for the United States and United Kingdom between 1946 and 1963.
It will also compensate about 200 military personnel who helped in the decontamination of the Chalk River nuclear reactor following two accidents in the 1950s.
The money will also be available to the estates and families of dead veterans of this little-known Cold War campaign.
Chilman, born and raised in Hamilton, ran The Cavalier Steakhouse on the Mountain for 17 years before moving to the Windsor area a few years ago.
He and Huntley, from Calgary, are members of the Canadian Atomic Veterans Association, a small group of survivors of those blasts.
While the government has identified 700 people who were involved with the tests, Chilman and Huntley, the association’s spokesman, say most of them were farther away and there were really only 42 men on the ground, in the radioactive dust, crouching in trenches that caved in on them during the tests.
Of those 42, only a dozen or so are left. Eighteen have died of cancer and five more are fighting it.
Huntley says there should be more than $24,000 paid per man, something like the $150,000 a head the association has spent years fighting for.
In the 1980s, the United States government compensated their troops from the 1957 test series at $75,000 each, he says. He calls Ottawa’s offer, which he heard about from the media, “a joke.”
But Chilman says the association’s battle for recognition of their efforts was never about money.
There’s never been any real recognition, the men say. They couldn’t even get a politician to come out a few years ago to help unveil a little monument in the hamlet of Balzac, Alta., that honours their comrades’ achievement — facing six nuclear blasts in the space of six months.
Chilman was 19 when he went to Nevada.
“When the first bomb (went off), as a young fella I was excited to be able to see this thing,” he says.
“But I was scared to death of the actual power and impact that those things really had.”
His problems started in the late 1980s. Surgeons removed a large tumour that doctors at Hamilton General Hospital found in his right lung; and he’s been diagnosed with Paget’s bone disease and arthritis, all “concurrent with radiation exposure,” he says.
Now he’s being tested for liver disease.
But his biggest concern is that Canadians know about what these soldiers went through. Because the troops were sworn to secrecy, little is known about this part of Canada’s Cold War.
“That’s why the recognition is so important,” he says. “You need that to educate people.”
Chilman, 69, is not angry. He says he was serving his country, and would put on a uniform and join his son on his third tour of duty with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan — if they’d let him.
The atomic veterans’ website is canadianatomicveterans.com.