TURIN — For the past three years, village streets have been lined with the now-popular banners showing photographs of veterans from bygone eras in time for Memorial Day.
In most cases, the banners commemorate former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who have already left this world but this year, one of the honorees is not only still a revered member of the Turin community, but a former Army man who participated in a little-known piece of history.
Edward J. Swiernik, 86, was drafted into the Army in 1955 and served two years of active duty and five years in the reserves.
He and a few other Turin boys, including his brother-in-law for the past 60 years, did their basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
After being taught to drive a tank and becoming a tank commander, he was selected to teach other soldiers when he arrived at Camp Irwin, now Fort Irwin, in California. Ultimately, that vote of confidence kept him from being sent to the still tense Korean peninsula, despite the conflict having ended the year before.
“I (was) headed for Korea but when I got to California they made me an instructor, so I had to train troops coming in ... I went to school and that instructor, his family got sick and he had to go home for two weeks. When he came back I didn’t have enough time to get on the ship, so I stayed in California,” Mr. Swiernik said.
As a tank commander and trainer, his rank was bumped to temporary sergeant, he said, from private.
In 1957, for the last four months of his two-year stint on active duty, Mr. Swiernik was sent to Nevada to participate in “nuclear battlefield” testing, code name Desert Rock.
From 1951 to 1957, each year with its own code name and areas of focus, a number of atomic bombs of various sizes were detonated in “atmospheric nuclear tests” around which “nuclear battlegrounds” were simulated.
According to a Defense Threat Reduction Agency Fact Sheet on Operation PLUMBBOB, the name of the 1957 project that ran from May 28 to Oct. 22, about 14,000 people including some civilians, participated in “observer programs, tactical maneuvers and scientific and diagnostic studies ... (testing) nuclear weapons for possible inclusion in the defense arsenal ... (and) to improve military tactics, equipment and training.”
In that time, 24 nuclear bombs were detonated.
“The place where they tested the atomic bombs was surrounded by mountains and only got one place where you could go in,” Mr. Swiernik said. “It’s 40 miles from one end of the mountain to the other end with a big open area in the middle. In the mountains, the civilians (would) put a big stake ... We had to drive (vehicles) up there and face them toward this tower. Then they’d take the atomic bomb and jack it up the tower and they set it off.”
Mr. Swiernik said he and four other men drove tanks up and down the mountainside, setting up and removing these objects that would, after the detonations, be observed by scientists to note the impact of that particular blast on specific objects at certain distances from the bomb.
“They had a big yard where they had everything stored and we’d go pick a car out and drive it up to the stake that had a car writ on it and then we’d go back and get a truck and drive it back to the stake with that on it, then we’d get a jeep ... Then while that mountain was cooling, we’d go to another mountain and do the same thing,” Mr. Swiernik said. “When the mountain got cold, we’d go back and bring all the cars and trucks and skid them all down to the road. Then they have a scrap yard where they’d load them on a tractor trailer and take them away.”
Both the truck Mr. Swiernik and his team used to get the 5 miles to the test site’s entrance from Camp Desert Rock and the 40 miles from the entrance to the work site on the two-lane highway that was cut through the center of the mountain, and the tanks to place and retrieve the vehicles were already proven “bomb proof” models from World War II: the REO truck and M48 tanks which were larger M47s like those used in the world war.
While the closest Mr. Swiernik was to a detonation was 15 miles, when a “small bomb” was dropped closer to the camp, that was close enough to see how “awful bright” the light was even with turning his back to the bomb and closing his eyes as they were all trained to do.
It was the sound that surprised him and still enters his mind from time to time.
“The bomb goes off, you’d think it’d be like an explosion, but it was a very sharp crack,” he said. “You’d think it’d sound like a gun going off or a bomb going off, but it ain’t. It’s like a very sharp crack. You even put your hands over your ears. It’s quick. It would last maybe 10 seconds.”
Mr. Swiernik said, “down the mountain farther, the bombs got bigger.”
Everyone working at the site had some sort of security clearance, which was low at Mr. Swiernik’s level and “top secret” when it came to the bombs themselves. But some details of the test activities and outcomes circulated, for instance about animals that were used for testing by being sedated and strapped into some of the vehicles and marines who crouched in fox holes just a few miles from detonation sites.
The only thing he could verify from his own experience was that the vehicles he and his group towed to the required locations usually ended up mangled messes of melted metal.
Everyone working on all six series of Project Desert Rock were each required to wear a card attached to his shirt that was read for radiation every day when leaving and entering the mountain area as a safety measure.
Mr. Swiernik considered the atomic job a good duty to pull, saying it was always interesting and involved decent food. He has never been ill or had cancer like many of the people involved with the nuclear testing who are among a group known as “atomic veterans.”
A settlement was reached in 1990 awarding up to $75,000 to vets who had any of the 21 types of cancer related to radiation exposure and $50,000 for “downwinders” as people who lived near the site were known. Entire families found to have radiation-related cancers about 150 miles away in places like Kingman, Nev., as reported by NBC in September 2020, were still trying to prove the relationship between the testing and the overabundance of cancer cases.
About 30 years ago, right around the time of the settlement, Mr. Swiernik received a call from the U.S. Department of Defense asking if he had cancer, so he figures he might be one of the only people there who didn’t get it.
“Oh, yeah, it could have been bad. I could have gotten overdosed with radiation,” he said. But since he didn’t, it was just his duty, all in a day’s work.
“The bomb went off and you had your breakfast. They shot it off before breakfast. You had your breakfast and went to your job to work. Just like normal.”
When it was over, Mr. Swiernik and his colleagues each went their separate ways, although many of them were then deployed to fight forest fires burning even then in California.
With his tour finished, it was time to return to Eva Mae, his girlfriend since high school, and make her his wife.
They were married in 1958 and, after living in Port Leyden, they found their forever farm on Route 26 in the village of Turin in 1964 where, according to Mrs. Swiernik, they spent time milking cows and polka dancing nearby and the only “exposure” they had to worry about was too much chlorine in the water.