Former sailer leads efforts to help fellow ‘atomic veterans’

Scott Swanson

Fred Schafer was a young Navy seaman in 1962 when his commanders summoned the ship’s crew one day for a briefing while they were in port in Hawaii.

“They told us we’d been selected for a top-secret group,” recalled Schafer, 80, of Lebanon. “We couldn’t tell our folks, we couldn’t tell our families, we couldn’t tell our friends. That was what we were confronted with.”

The fact that they were told the FBI was doing security clearance investigations for the mission gave him more confidence, Schafer said.

“I felt pretty good that the FBI was doing those checks.”

Schafer had grown up in Salem and graduated from North Salem High School in 1960. He joined the Navy a month later.

He was on the USS Chipola, “a floating service station – we refueled ships that were under way at sea,” which, prior to the Hawaii stop, had passed through the Panama Canal and participated in Gemini spacecraft recovery operations.

This was going to be different.

“As we steamed out of Hawaii, the TV was showing the first atomic blast off Christmas Island,” Schafer said, referring to the British nuclear bomb tests that had taken place several years earlier.

They were headed to Johnston Atoll, where the U.S. Air Force was about to launch a series of eight PGM-17 Thor missiles as part of “Operation Fishbowl,” a part of “Operation Dominic” nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific. The series of launches included one atmospheric nuclear explosion.

One of those produced a bright artificial aurora that could be seen in Hawaii, almost 900 miles away, and knocked out electric power and communications systems in the Hawaiian Islands. The blast pumped enough radiation into the earth’s atmosphere to destroy or damage seven satellites in orbit.

Schafer and his mates had front-row seats for that one.

“We saw it move through space as it was blowing up,” he said. “We were told at the time that some of the rays were harmful, some were not.”

The watching sailers were wearing T-shirts and dungarees, he said.

“We were given dark glasses and told to come up on desk if we wanted to watch,” Schafer said. “They told us that they would tell you when to put on your glasses. The glasses were so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”

Until the explosion came, he added.

“When the blast went off you could see the bones in your hand and a chest X-ray for the guy in front of you.”

They weren’t too worried, though.

“For 18-year-olds, most of us on the ship, the silver bullet hadn’t been made that would affect us yet.”

When Schafer was discharged and returned to Oregon in 1963, “I didn’t keep quiet,” he said. “I started talking about it to my parents and they said, ‘It’s just another big story you’re telling.'”

They’d figured he’d gotten in trouble when the FBI showed up to do his clearance check, he said.

Schafer went to work at the brand new Safeway store in Sweet Home in 1964 and eventually settled in Lebanon.

He got married to his wife, Barbara and they had two sons. Schafer worked as a distributor for Fisher foods, including introducing Mug Root Beer from Portland south. Later, he worked for Frantz bakery products, distributing in Lebanon and Sweet Home.

One day, in the early 1980s, he stopped by the American Legion post in Lebanon, where he met a member of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, an organization that had been founded in 1979 by Orville and Wanda Kelly of Burlington, Iowa. Orville Kelly, himself a radiation cancer victim, and his wife established the group to advocate for veterans suffering from health issues linked to radiation exposure during the military’s atmospheric and underwater nuclear testing between 1945 and 1962.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Schafer said. “I thought, ‘This is my niche. This is what I want to do.”

He personally hadn’t experienced any obvious health issues related to his time in the south Pacific, other than, possibly, COPD, he said. But he was very concerned about the issue.

Before long, he was the Oregon state commander and he started looking for atomic veterans throughout the state.

A local Veterans Administration representative provided him names and phone numbers of atomic veterans but otherwise, Schafer’s efforts were relegated pretty much to word of mouth and putting up posters in VA and Legion halls throughout the state.

Over the years, state membership grew to 70, but Schafer estimates that that was only about 10% of the actual number of atomic veterans in Oregon.

By 2013 Schafer was national commander. He’d gotten a regular schedule established – quarterly state meetings held in Portland, Albany or Lebanon, and sometimes Bend.

NAAV has been very active in keeping the interests of atomic veterans in front of government officials, he said, which is one reason that he’s now vice commander nationally. Current Commander Keith Kiefer of Minnesota, is based closer to Washington, D.C. and better situated for lobbying and other needs, Schafer said

“He’s very active in the bills.”

President Joe Biden recently signed a three-year extension to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, an agreement that allows veterans to file claims with the Department of Justice and NAAV is working to get Congress to extend it another 15 years, Schafer said, adding it provides relief for anyone with a presumptive cancer linked with nuclear exposure – “cleanup guys, people on nuclear ships, anybody involved in nuclear energy.”

In 2016 the NAAV arranged for members to tour the Nevada Test Site Nuclear Memorial outside Las Vegas and he wants to do that again, Schafer said.

“We went there for one of our conventions and we took a group out to the test site. They put us in places out there in the test field that normal tourists don’t get to see. There were 81 of us on the bus – wives and servicemen. They said it was the biggest group they’d ever had.”

A lot of the group’s efforts focus on awareness.

On Jan. 1, 2018, the portion of Interstate 5 beginning in Albany and ending in Salem was designated the Atomic Veterans Memorial Highway, a result of NAAV’s efforts.

And, like many states, Oregon has permanently designated July 16 as a day to honor and remember the sacrifices made by atomic veterans.

Not only are many veterans unaware of the NAAV, but Schafer said many don’t know about medical options available to them, or even the fact that they are no longer bound by secrecy – “In 1996 President Clinton released us” with the Repeal of Nuclear Radiation and Secrecy Agreements Laws, enabling atomic veterans to talk about their experiences, particularly to establish the validity of a service-connected disabilty.

In recent years, Oregon’s NAAV group has also gotten very involved with helping Marshall Islanders who are living in the state, and in whose homeland the U.S. had conducted 67 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 – 23 at Bikini Atoll, and 44 near Eniwetok Atoll, whose fallout spread throughout all the islands.

One test in particular, “Castle Bravo” on March 1, 1954, produced a blast 1,000 times more powerful than either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs, spreading traces of radioactive material as far as Australia, India and Japan, and even the United States and parts of Europe, and triggered international calls for a ban on atmospheric testing of thermonuclear devices.

It also quickly produced cancers and other illnesses among members of a Japanese fishing boat that was nearby when the detonation occurred, coming in direct contact with the fallout.

Radioactive fallout from the blast spread to inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands, which were evacuated 48 hours after the detonation.

When islanders returned, three years later, they discovered that their previous staple foods, including arrowroot, makmok, and fish, had either disappeared or gave residents various illnesses and they were again removed.

Ultimately, 15 islands and atolls were contaminated, and by 1963 Marshall Islands natives began to suffer from thyroid tumors and many birth defects were reported.

Later, the U.S. also dumped 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site onto the Enewetak Atoll in the island chain.

Since they have been forced to live elsewhere, Schafer said, many of the Marshallese have resided in Oregon and other states.

Schafer said the “over 7,000” Marshallese in Oregon have “become my new family.” He also frequently visits Arkansas, where 16,000 former island residents live.

“I’ve met the president, the king, so many of the officials. I’ve met several of their dignitaries.

Schafer said Oregon was the first state in the union to restore medical benefits to the islanders, in 2016, crediting then-state Rep. Sherrie Sprenger for assisting in that effort. In 2020 the federal government followed suit, restoring Medicaid for Marshalese and other Pacific islanders living in the U.S.

“They were very mistreated,” he said of the islanders’ plight as a result of treaties with the U.S. government that prevented them from getting government health care for decades.

Schafer said those treaties, “the settlement (the U.S. government) gave them for destroying the land,” also prohibited islanders, some of whom have lived on the mainland for generations, from employment beyond “common laborers,” and they were unable to have driver’s licenses.

Since 2014, Schafer and others have arranged for the Marshallese to appear, with a traditional 30-foot-long canoe, in the Albany Veterans Parade.

“All I have to do is tell them, ‘Veterans Day is coming up.'”

Though COVID shut down NAAV activities for the most part, Schafer said he’s looking to get things rolling again in 2023, although, he noted, the numbers are declining.

“One of our board members is 98. We’re dying off pretty fast. I figure there are still 20 to 30 members (in Oregon), but there are probably 2,000 to 3,000 atomic veterans in the state,” he said. “There were 250,000 military personnel and 250,000 civilians involved in these tests.”

Among the national board members is another Lebanon resident, Treasurer Frank Farmer.

Many veterans are simply unaware of the group’s existence, Schafer said. He plans to keep working on awareness.

“I’ve just enjoyed taking this and running with it,” he said. “I’m very active. My VA doc tells me, ‘You’re in the top 10%, Fred.’

“I’m busy.”

Anyone interested in learning more about NAAV can contact Schafer at (541) 258-7453 or by email at [email protected].