Veterans History Project: George Mitchell Jr. - - Jackson, MS


Veterans History Project: George Mitchell Jr.

By Jennifer Martin

"In quiet times, I still think about it. I still get frightened by it."

George Mitchell Jr. isn't talking about a war. He is remembering his time in the Navy while the military conducted nuclear testing.

"They started with monkeys, then cows, then humans became the guniea pigs."

Mitchell enlisted in the Navy in 1954, to help support his family after his father died. He traveled around the world before he was assigned to the King Islands, part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. They were testing the effects of the atomic bomb on humans.

"You don't question in the military. You do what you're told."

He was required to come topside, each time a nuclear bomb was detonated.

"The first bomb detonation was the scariest thing in my whole life. We were about 23 miles from the explosion. You'd have your hands over your eyes and your eyes closed and dark goggles on and when the flash went off, it was scary. We're talking about a bomb that produces 1500 mile wind. In excess of 5000 degrees of heat and blinding white light."

The sailors had to stay on the flight deck from 30 minutes before each blast until 30 minutes after. They spent time on the radiation contaminated beach, swam in the contaminated water. Mitchell says he was even caught in a storm where the rain contained nuclear fallout. The Navy's solution: to throw away his clothes and shoes and put him in the shower.

"Radiation doesn't just settle on your skin, it's in your whole body."

He left the Navy in 1958. He developed colon cancer in 1976. He was only 38 years old. 

"The doctor couldn't understand how I had colon cancer at such an early age."

He had much of his colon removed and underwent a year of chemotherapy. He looked to the military for compensation and couldn't believe the response he got.

"(They said) You only got as much radiation as you would get from a chest x-ray. So your cancer couldn't have been caused by your service in the military."

They turned him down. He joined the Organization of Atomic Veterans, which gave him guidance in his fight for help.

"It took me up until 2002 to get a service connection. 28 years. I don't think that should have been necessary."

Mitchell went on to a fulfilling career as a surgical tech. He says he's adapted to civilian life, but those terrifying memories from the King Islands will always be with him.

"Some things you experience, you can't get rid of. They're there forever."

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