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GALLERY

Between 1951 and 1963, while Americans dug fallout shelters in their back yards in terror of atomic attacks that never came, U.S. nuclear tests were loading our own atmosphere with enough stray radiation to haunt 'downwinders' for generations, according to a dramatic new book. It uses the voices of victims like Ken Case, at left, to tell their tales of . . . : A Hidden Holocaust

July 18, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For generations, it was the Big Fear: The eye-searing fireball that might shatter any dream; anxiety shuddering unexpectedly through the most tranquil moments; the billowing threat of disease and death hanging gloomily over the happiest occasions.

Photographer and author Carole Gallagher is among the millions of Americans who grew up haunted by atom-bomb Angst .

But now, as the world heaves a collective sigh of post-Cold War relief, Gallagher, 43, finds herself burdened by a dreadful "secret."

As a nation cowered in fear of Armageddon, she says, a nuclear holocaust of sorts did indeed rumble across the American landscape.

She bears witness to that horror in a book which, by focusing more intimately than previous accounts on the people affected, is triggering gentle shock waves nationwide: "American Ground Zero--The Secret Nuclear War."

Had the attack Gallagher documents occurred in a single burst, had a foreign enemy launched it, the headlines would have thundered:

100 A-BOMBS BLAST AMERICA! DAMAGE INCALCULABLE!

But the flames and fallout of the 100 or more atmospheric explosions on the Nevada desert--each of which released as much radiation as the Chernobyl disaster--dragged on for more than a decade, from 1951 to 1963. And the government that triggered the tests--and has sinceconducted another 800 such blasts underground--was our own.

So, while terror of a Soviet first strike overshadowed most Americans' fear of testing, Gallagher became obsessed with the blasts and their effects.

In 1983, after reading everything she could find on nuclear testing and radiation's health risks--which the government continues to downplay--she left her New York City home to live with two polygamist widows, in the basement of their St. George, Utah, home.

For the next decade, she became an unusual war correspondent on a battlefield that she contends is littered with carnage no one wants to acknowledge: cancer of every variety, neurological disorders, reproductive abnormalities, sterility, birth defects, diseases from genetic mutations and other afflictions she and others believe radiation-related .

"I got sucked into it," she says. "I feel I was meant to do (the book) and I don't know what that means. . . . This thing was getting done because there was a body here to do it and a mind here to do it. They happened to be mine."

During the next decade, she interviewed more than 1,000 of the tens of thousands of citizens most directly affected by the tests: test site workers, military veterans who participated in the tests, and those who lived immediately downwind of ground zero in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Idaho and South Dakota--from a brothel owner to an Episcopal priest.

Slowly, she gathered accounts of residents from towns just miles from the site, who had watched in awe as the bombs mushroomed, their pressure breaking store windows. She spoke to folks from relatively distant towns that had been dusted with pink fallout, into which children who had never seen snow gleefully scrawled their names.

Their testimony and an understated narrative--based in part on reams of recently released government documents--combined with Gallagher's compelling black-and-white portraits and landscapes, have been fashioned by MIT Press into a wrenching look at what Gallagher swears are the effects of atomic test radiation, despite what she characterizes as the U. S. government's lies about the matter.

Living with so much disease was grim, Gallagher says, and her own "abject poverty" didn't make things any cheerier. Depression gnawed at her like a cancer: "Sometimes I didn't want to go to sleep at night--I thought I'd die of loneliness." Then there was "the fact that my work was being denied--that I was covering a war and no one believed it was happening."

Now, as she sprawls casually on the couch in an acquaintance's house in the San Gabriel foothills, her face has the serene, almost cheerful glow of a recovering bodhisattva.

But her exuberance is fragile.

The moment talk touches on the people in "Ground Zero," tears flow like a southwestern flash flood.

A 1950s military film, "produced for the armed forces and the American people," features an Army chaplain reassuring soldiers who are about to witness an early nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, north of Las Vegas.

Gallagher quotes: "Actually, there is no need to be worried. . . . You look up and you see the fireball as it ascends up into the heavens. It contains all of the rich colors of the rainbow, and then as it rises up into the atmosphere it assembles into the mushroom. It is a wonderful sight to behold."

Claudia Boshell Peterson, then age 3 or 4, was swinging in the yard with her brother when a sight not unlike that described by the chaplain--"this great big red ball"--appeared on the horizon.

One of 80 people who appear in Gallagher's book, Peterson lived then on a little farm outside Cedar City, Utah, just downwind of the test site at Frenchman Flat.

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