HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Chuck Provow was a self-described “naïve” young man when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War while on the campus of the University of Illinois one day in 1951.
He didn’t want to join the Army, so the now 90-year-old, who lives in Highland Park, opted for the Marines.
After serving in combat during the Korean War, Provow still had some time to serve once it ended. During this time, nearly 10 years after dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the United States had been secretly increasing their atomic capabilities.
Enter Provow and around 100 young men in his unit who ended up serving on the U.S.S. Curtiss. The ship’s purpose was to protect “assets” near the Marshall Islands, located right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and all of the men were handpicked.
Those assets turned out to be hydrogen bombs capable of much more devastation than the Japanese faced in 1945.
“A lot of guard duty, 24 hours a day,” Provow said. “They really kept us in the dark.”
Soon, Provow noticed his ship started to pick up locals from the islands and transfer them to other islands. At the time, he didn’t know the shear force of power the United States was about to unleash on the area.
“They said nothing, just climbed up the cargo net and we took them to other islands,” he said. “Nothing was said about what we were doing to the people.”
Throughout his time serving on the Curtiss, six hydrogen bombs were tested — including the infamous “Castle Bravo” test, which took place on March 1, 1954.
Around 75 miles out from the blast zone, Provow remembers watching the “beautiful” detonation with googles on and a mask.
“The size of it was incredible — I can remember the blast, the fireball and then the beautiful purple and white cloud,” Provow said. “I heard the shockwaves — like a cherry bomb going off in the ears. It went from horizon to horizon.”
The bomb’s designer, Edward Teller, later described what happened on that morning as an “accident.”
Reports surfaced of local islanders coming into contact with a white fluffy substance that looked like snow, but it actually was radiation attaching to their skin. Children starting to be born in the area with deformities and other issues.
In 1983, a Marshallese public health worker gave a horrifying description to the World Council of Churches of some births.
“The baby is born on the labor table, and it breathes and moves up and down, but it is not shaped like a human being,” she said. “It looks like a bag of jelly.”
Little did Provow know at the time, but “Castle Bravo” and the five other tests he witnessed would have a direct effect on his health and the health of his friends he was serving on the Curtiss with.
“I have lymphoma and have had several other health issues,” he said.
Later in life, Provow was able to obtain a document from the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory — which showed radiation levels of servicemen, likely taken from their film badges.
“My dosage received rate was 430,” he said. “I was shocked — that is very high radiation.”
After his service was over, Provow finished school and became a psychology teacher at New Trier High School. He retired in 1994.
He didn’t really stay in contact with his fellow servicemen, but that changed in 2001 when Provow decided to go to a reunion in San Diego.
“We stood around and drank beer like nothing happened, only about half showed up,” Provow said.
Over beers, Provow learned several of his comrades died prematurely from cancer and other ailments — something he knows was a direct result of being so close to ground zero.
“I felt like a guinea pig,” he said. “We were used. They sent us right into harm’s way and they didn’t know what the hell happened.”
In an effort to make things right and over 60 years later, the U.S. Department of Defense started issuing atomic veterans certificates after Congress enacted legislation in 2019.
In 2022, the National Defense Authorization Act went one step further — it required the Department of Defense to create the “Atomic Veterans Commemorative Service Medal.”
Provow received his last month and is bittersweet about it due to the dangers the government hid from him.
“It’s nice to be recognized, but I know most Marines are gone or know nothing about what to do to get a medal,” he said.
Atomic veterans not only can receive a medal, but can also apply for $75,000 worth of compensation to go toward some types of cancer treatments.
Provow was not granted the $75,000, but said his lovely wife Ruth and three daughters, Laura, Amy and Jane, keep him going.
“I’ve had quite a life and that was part of it,” he said. “They sent us into a fiery abyss.”