BLAIRSVILLE — When an atomic bomb goes off, it’s like an X-ray machine has been turned on in the world around you.
As John Fatino, 79, of Blairsville, describes it, “when the bomb went off … you could see the bones in the guy in front of you.”
Fatino, as a member of the United States Marine Corps Test Unit No. 1, endured Operation Teapot (shot Bee), part of a series of experimental tests in Nevada, north of Las Vegas, between 1954 and 1957 for the development of specialized tactics in the nuclear age.
Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, and the United States began to prepare for nuclear warfare as a threat. In the early ’50s, the Marine Corps began to develop tactics for this kind of warfare.
Fatino, who is originally from Kansas City, Mo., participated in the shot Bee portion of Operation Teapot on March 22, 1955, a day he’ll never forget.“They had a bomb up in a 500-foot tower,” Fatino told. “We went in the day before and they had all kinds of equipment out there — tanks, jeeps, chairs, mannequins.
There was even a toilet seat … a toilet seat flying 100 miles per hour can kill you just as dead as a bullet would.”
The military called the specially constructed areas “Doom Towns,” complete with houses and paved streets that would allow scientists to assess the effects of nuclear detonations on civilian populations and Civil Defense emergency preparedness plans.
“Around 5 a.m. we knelt down with our rifles and sling arms in full combat gear and faced away from the bomb. We put our hands over our eyes.”
A tank that had been at the 300-yard mark, he said, had disappeared after the bomb went off. Fatino was 2,600 yards (about 1? miles) from ground zero.
Everything around them had been almost vaporized. “The thing that really messed us up,” he said, “the tank that had been sitting there, it was ash. You could stick your finger in it.”
The troops were exposed to high amounts of radiation during the testing.
They went back to the base and Fatino said “they took me to the hospital. We were under an oath of secrecy.”
Even though Fatino was well aware that the symptoms he was experiencing were synonymous with radiation sickness, he was unable to tell doctors what he had truly been exposed to.
“They diagnosed it as poison ivy and that’s what I was treated for.”
The rash he had back then breaks out in different parts of his body even now, and does look similar to poison ivy.
The sickness, he said, and the oath of secrecy, led to more problems down the road.
“The first time I walked into a VA (hospital) in ’68,” he said, “I told them what had happened and they thought I was hallucinating.”
As an effect of post-traumatic stress disorder, Fatino said he has flashbacks that send him right back to 1955.
“In 1988 I was at my mother’s house and there was an explosion down the street that killed six firemen,” Fatino recalled. “I hit the deck. I could taste the desert in my mouth.
“I went to the hospital. … I remember wondering where my men were. I asked for a glass of water — I had never (in his mind) seen a Styrofoam cup before.
“They asked me what date it was and I said March 22, 1955.”
Ever since that incident, Fatino said, he’s had
“I don’t remember from ’55 to ’58. I don’t remember getting married. I don’t remember being on the sheriff’s department.”
Fatino served as a deputy sheriff following his time in the military. His wife, he said, was never told that he didn’t remember their wedding. She passed away years ago.
The radiation sickness has left him with swollen legs and feet. He needs to wear special socks that go up to his knees, relieving some of the swelling, and specially designed shoes that cost almost $500 a pair to fit his swollen feet.
The effects of the radiation have been passed on through the next generations of his family. Fatino has six children, and females throughout the next generations have been afflicted with issues associated with the sickness.
Following Operation Teapot, Fatino took up his true passion: cooking.
“I had been around country clubs all my life and cooking was something that was second nature,” he said. “I took a five-year apprenticeship in California and worked at different places — the Beverly Hilton, a country club.”
He settled down in Missouri and eventually worked as the chief chef at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs. He enjoyed the job so much he “couldn’t wait to go to work for every day.” Fatino was inducted into the American Academy of Chefs in 1996.
He relocated to Blairsville to be closer to his son, Rocky Fatino, an athletic trainer at Indiana Area High School.
Since then, he’s spent his time writing a book, meant to be a story to tell his granddaughter.
“Everyone kept telling me I needed to write a book,” he said. “I met this Ph.D. from Glen Campbell and she told me I had a natural ability to write.”
Fatino started taking classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania three years ago, and for a while was even a full-time student living on campus. After breaking his shoulder, he is a part-time student and has so far earned16 credit hours.
He’s taking another class now and is working on his book. He lives with his dog, Miko.