OPINION – In the wake of the recent 50th anniversary celebrations of bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, and, of course, The Beatles, Hollywood is preparing for another golden fete marking the release of the John Wayne film, “The Conqueror.”
The film has a special connection to Southern Utah, whose Snow Canyon State Park served as the movie’s location.
The film won’t be remembered as one of Hollywood’s classics.
But it will be remembered for the surprising number of cancer deaths suffered by those who worked on the film. Of the 220 cast and crew members, 91 contracted some form of cancer and 46 died.
The fact was not lost on a reporter for The Guardian, who visited Southern Utah recently to do a piece on the speculation that the deaths were a result of exposure to radioactive fallout that drifted to Snow Canyon from the Nevada Test Site and fell on the beautiful rocks and dunes where they shot the movie.
There are photos of Wayne passing a Geiger counter over the rocks in Snow Canyon. They were hot with radioactivity. It didn’t really matter because Howard Hughes, and his RKO Pictures film company had sunk heavy bucks into the production and, well, in the best show business tradition, the show must go on.
We will never know if the cast and crew’s short-term exposure to the radiation had anything to do with their deaths. We do know, however, that thousands of innocent people who lived in Southern Utah, whose gardens, laundry, schools, parks, playgrounds, churches, shops, homes – you name it – did die as a result of the poison that fell from the sky.
As my longtime friend Michelle Thomas says, if it takes speculation about how John Wayne died to bring more attention to what happened to the Downwinders – those touched by disease or death because of their exposure to radiation – so be it, but what about the thousands whose names were never attached to a movie or who never received public acclaim who lost their lives?
Michelle was one of the principles interviewed for the story.
The reporter described her as “acerbic,” which, after burying so many friends and family members she has every right to be. She was also described as being an “outspoken advocate” for Downwinders. Yep, right again.
She doesn’t pull her punches and has spoken eloquently in forums – public and private – about the plight of Downwinders. She has reduced audiences to tears with her powerful and passionate advocacy.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 has awarded more than $2 billion so far to more than 26,000 victims of the testing. For a little perspective, that’s nearly half of the number of casualties the United States suffered during the Vietnam War. The difference, of course, is that these were not soldiers, they were innocent civilians victimized by their own government.
The RECA money was only designated for people in a limited geographic area and who were first-generation victims.
But, what about the others? That fallout came down on all 48 contiguous states, stretched into Canada and Mexico, and even reached across the Atlantic Ocean.
We lionize celebrities of every stripe, make them household names, mourn their passing, even if the closest we ever got to them was sitting in a movie theater or listening to their music
But, what about the others?
They too, let’s not forget, were household names to their families and friends, and their stars shine just as brightly in the nighttime sky.
What can we do to honor them in a more deserving manner than as simply peripheral statistics in a speculative story about a movie hero?
We can start by urging Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who wrote the RECA bill, to work on another piece of legislation, one that will expand the coverage area and extend benefits to the children of those original victims.
We must also stand vigilant and ensure that we no longer develop weapons of mass destruction, whether they rain nuclear death from the skies or rise up as biological killers from the ground.
By doing so, we can divert those dollars from developing ways to kill people to developing ways to save people.
John Wayne had an image as a big, tough guy. He made a career out of portraying heroes on the silver screen.
But, we have had many heroes here among us who go unheralded, whose battles were just as challenging, whose courage was real and not something crafted by a Hollywood film writer.
Their memory must also be respected and preserved.
Perhaps we could find some people inspired enough to build a memorial in front of the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program (RESEP) clinic in St. George bearing the names of all of those who received RECA compensation as a reminder that there is still a battle to fight, that they were noble warriors, and that we should honor life and our fragile existence here on the planet.
It could serve as a source of support for the frightened new patients who discover that they were harmed by this noxious fallout and let them know they are not alone.
It’s the least we could do.
- Radiation exposure clinic accepting patients; funding for Downwinders
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- Giving downwinders a global voice; St. George woman represents USA at Vienna Nuclear Conference
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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