Please God, Don’t Let Us Have Killed John Wayne

John Wayne in ‘The Searchers’, Warner Brothers Studios.

Between May and August 1954, John Wayne was filming close to the Nevada desert where the U.S. military was conducing atomic tests.  Out of the 220 members of the film crew, 91 would contract cancer and 46 would die in the years to come.  Welcome to the story of The Conqueror, a movie where reality surpasses fiction.

The atomic age

After dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan on August 6th and 9th, 1945, the 1950s would see the dawn of an era dominated by the U.S. desire to know everything that was to know about the atomic energy.  This is how right in the middle of the Nevada desert, the U.S. military began the construction of gigantic fake cities, filled them up with mannequins and cars from the country’s most important automotive companies and detonated over one hundred nuclear weapons between 1951 and 1957.

These experiments were carried out on U.S. soil in order to find out what exactly was that thing called atomic energy and which its devastating effects on structures, vehicles, and mannequins.  But little did the Pentagon know that The Duke, a.k.a. John Wayne, would be filming a movie called The Conqueror near St. George, UT some 137 miles from Yucca Flats, NV, at the epicenter of the nuclear tests and where a 32-kiloton atomic bomb named “Harry” would be detonated on May 19th, 1953 to later be responsible for one of the largest radioactive fallouts ever recorded.

The Conqueror

Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Dick Powell between May and August 1954, The Conqueror is considered one of the worst films in movie history.  In the movie, John Wayne plays the role of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and Susan Hayward plays Wayne´s love interest.

The movie, however, has gone down in history for reasons other than cinematic, because, according to an article published by People magazine back in 1980, ninety-one of the 220 members of the film crew contracted cancer and 46 of them ended up dying as a consequence of the disease, including Wayne, Hayward, and Powell.  The aforementioned city of St. George was exposed to the fallout before, during, and after the filming.

The radioactive fallout

This year we celebrate the 110th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth.  I could use this whole article to explain what almost everybody knows, that Wayne has been the greatest star in movie history.  Period.  But what, maybe, not everybody knows is that during the filming of The Conqueror, he was exposed to damaging levels of radiation that might have taken his life.

Wayne was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, and with stomach cancer twelve years later and, although he used to smoke six packs of cigarettes a day, the experts say that maybe his exposure to radioactivity ended up triggering this long battle against cancer.  Also, according to information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), during the filming of The Conqueror, Wayne and the rest of the film crew were exposed to 19 different radioactive isotopes, including strontium-90, carbon-14, cesium-137, and iodine-131.

Although the movie was a total fiasco for critics and audiences worldwide, it drew public attention to the radiation that people from cities next to the nuclear impact sites had been exposed to for decades.  An article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1984 confirmed that the prevalence of lymphomas, cancers, and leukemias in populations from Southwestern Utah were five times higher than in other U.S. populations.

The world’s greatest show

It is shocking to see how little the medical scientific community knew about the effects of radiation on human beings during the 1950s.  As a matter of fact, and as the picture attached shows, the Pentagon used to invite military and political VIPs to these atomic tests so they could see the nuclear detonations while being protected with just a pair of sun glasses as if they were inside some 3D movie theatre.

Fuente: Archivos Nacionales de EE.UU.
Also, the U.S. authorities would tell the population that there was nothing to worry about, that atomic explosions were safe, and that there was no cause for alarm.  Actually, the population would look at the brilliant colors coming from the atomic shining in absolute awe.  In the following 1st image from the U.S. National Archives we can see people enjoying a day at the pool while watching the nuclear explosions unfold no far from their homes, and in the 2nd image how “Miss Atomic Bomb”, actress Lee Merlin, used to promote these nuclear explosions by wearing a white bikini that looked exactly like the atomic mushroom.
Fuente: Archivos Nacionales de EE.UU.

Fuente: Archivos Nacionales de EE.UU.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act

But the 1950s are very distant in time, and the knowledge we have been acquiring ever since in the fields of oncology and radiation, plus the pressure coming from the public opinion forced the U.S. Congress to pass The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) on October 5th, 1990.  This law anticipates compensating those exposed to the nuclear fallout in the states of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah – including of course the city of St. George with US$50,000 and US$70,000 per victim.  The deadline to be eligible for these compensations ends on July 9th, 2022.

The testimonies from people of the city of St. George I have had access to during the due diligence of this article are just terrifying.  People have lost friends, and family members.  All to cancer, leukemia, or lymphomas.  And they say that this is all due to the radioactive fallout of those years.

The experts on radiation tell me that we still got much to learn about radiation, that it is still a lethal enemy we don’t fully understand and that it is still to be seen whether human beings will overcome the technological adolescence Carl Sagan used to talk about if we wish to avoid annihilation.  As for Wayne, I’d like to wrap up this article by quoting a scientific source from the Pentagon who, as the devastating effects of radiation on the human body were becoming more evident, said, “Please, God, don’t let us have killed John Wayne.”  And I add, “and let the only use of atomic energy be therapeutic”.

AUTHOR Prof. Jorge C. Berriatúa is the Managing Editor of the ICBMed Bulletin and Co-Founder of ICBMed. He did his B.A. in Linguistics and Masters of Education at the University of La Rioja, Spain, and his Masters of Medical Translation at UNED, Madrid, specializing in medical reporting, translating and teaching.

Jorge C. Berriatúa, M.Ed., MSc in Medical Translation

President & Co-founder, ICBMed

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