As a young man, Robert Oliver, of Nixa, Missouri, experienced nuclear weapons testing on U.S. troops. Through his Buddhist practice, he learned to believe in the beauty of life again.
Who are the atomic veterans?
Robert Oliver was among the first troops, young men in their late teens and 20s, to take part in field exercises, where nuclear bombs were detonated carrying 50, 75 and even 100 times the force of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The troops watched on less than 10 miles from the epicenter, either crouching with their backs facing the blast or hunkered down in shallow foxholes. Following the tests, they were driven toward stationary military equipment set up at or near ground zero.
Troops participate in Operation Ivy, the eighth in a series of American nuclear tests. The two explosions were staged in late 1952 at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Proving Ground in the Marshall Islands. Photo: NNSA Nevada Field Office.
One soldier later recalled being instructed to shield his eyes with his arm 20 miles from the blast. The light from the bomb was so intense that, even with his eyes covered, he could still see the bones in his hands.
Nearly all the troops suffered serious medical conditions from repeated exposure to radiation, including infertility, heart, lung and throat disease, prostate cancer, bladder cancer, skin cancer, brain cancer and so on. As a result, many died prematurely.
Among those who were able to have children, their offspring experienced diseases related to radiation exposure. One atomic veteran explained how all four of his children were born with health conditions that required a lifetime of medical attention. Among them, his daughter died at 46 years old from a brain tumor.
Let us remember these brave, unknown young men for making the ultimate sacrifice, including Robert Oliver, whose story follows. We can do so by continuing to educate ourselves of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, and holding dialogues with others so that the existence of nuclear weapons can be eradicated once and for all.
Living Buddhism: Hello, Mr. Oliver. Before we begin, we want to express our deep appreciation to you for a lifetime of dedicated service to the people of the United States and for sharing your story
Robert Oliver: I’m happy to be alive to tell the story.
In your words, what was your experience as an atomic veteran?
Well, in 1951, I was part of an Army unit that participated in the first nuclear weapons testing to use United States troops, called Desert Rock. There were 143 men in my unit, and I am the only one still alive.
What do you remember about the exercises?
Robert: I had joined the Army in 1950 and was stationed in California, when my unit was asked to go to Camp Desert Rock, Nevada, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
When we arrived there, we received an orientation over loud speaker. An officer explained that we were brought to this location to help with nuclear testing so that we could stay ahead of the Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race and win the Cold War.
Many of us were concerned about the effects that the radiation would have on our ability to father children. But the man on the loud speaker clearly told us that we would have no side effects from being exposed to the bomb, and that we would be able to father children. He also said that after a nuclear blast, only small amounts of radiation remained in the ground, which we found out later to be false. Because we were all very young and trusted our government, we assumed the information he gave us was true.
Were you worried at all during these tests?
Robert: Well, the orientation we received was meant to dispel our fears, so we were pretty confident that we would be OK. However, during one test, there was a miscalculation and the bomb was dropped closer to the camp than usual. Our tents were blown away and the sky immediately became pitch black. It looked like midnight when it was actually noon. We were told not to worry, as “the radiation levels were negligible.”
What happened after your time in Camp Desert Rock?
Robert: Well, after Desert Rock, we went our separate ways. I went to Korea and was then stationed in Japan, where I met the love of my life, Saeko. We married in January 1955. After many unsuccessful attempts to have children, I consulted an Army doctor, who told me that I would never be able to have children. But in 1963, we adopted our wonderful daughter, Emily, when she was 15 days old.
In 1965, during my time in Vietnam, my wife was introduced to the Soka Gakkai and received the Gohonzon. Initially I opposed her practice, thinking it was a strange religion. But she was determined and continued chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Very quickly, she started gaining a lot of benefit, so in 1968 I began to chant as well. Soon after I started practicing Buddhism, there was a news report about how atomic veterans were getting cancer and dying at an alarming rate. I joined the National Association of Atomic Veterans to get involved and immediately learned that many of my comrades had already passed away. Those still alive were suffering from serious medical conditions such as leukemia, bladder cancer, skin cancer and other fatal illnesses. By 2001, I discovered that I was most likely the only soldier still alive from my unit. I still have letters from the widows of atomic veterans, which helped me figure out what happened to the other men in my unit. None of them were able to father children. Most of them never saw the age of 50.
In 2016, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I was shocked to learn that 65 years later, I was still receiving harmful effects from the radiation. Fortunately it was detected early, and I quickly had surgery to remove the tumor. I am now cancer free. I feel there is no coincidence that I started practicing Buddhism at the same time that I began to experience health issues and learned of my comrades getting sick and dying.
How has your Buddhist practice helped you through everything?
Robert: This practice has given me the courage to keep going no matter what. I’ve seen a lot of suffering and can see how easy it is to lose hope. But chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every day and seeking SGI President Ikeda’s guidance, I still have hope in humanity, especially the youth. Every time I chant, I feel as if a cloud lifts from my heart. My life experiences have helped me understand when Nichiren Daishonin says: “Life is the most precious of all treasures. Even one extra day of life is worth more than ten million ryo of gold.” (“On Prolonging One’s Life Span,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 955)
Do you have any other thoughts you would like to convey?
Robert: President Ikeda should get the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts over the last 60 years to fight to abolish these horrible weapons. I don’t know anyone else who has made the kind of efforts he has. He understands the horror of war because he experienced the carpet bombs on Tokyo during World War II. He also lost his brother in the war. I feel this way not because I’m an SGI member, but as a single human being who experienced the horrors of war and nuclear weapons.
What would you say to people who believe that nuclear weapons are necessary?
Robert: When nuclear weapons are used, there are no winners. Everyone loses. Abolishing nuclear weapons is the only option.