Reggie York and John Lesjack hadn’t seen each other in more than 50 years.
The old Navy buddies, separated on different sides of the country nearly half their lives, now sat with only a table between them at the Artist’s Café in Newton.
It was a long-awaited reunion, but the two friends joked like they had saw each other yesterday.
“I’ve tried to write you, but only get responses from your wife and son,” Lesjack said.
“What do you mean?” York replied.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lesjack joked. “I just know if I want to contact you, I send letters to them because I know they’ll respond.”
York, now 75, is a lifelong resident of Newton. Lesjack, a retired school teacher, currently lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., and traveled across the country to see his Navy buddy and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
After ordering a pizza burger from Artist’s Cafe, the joking stopped and the conversation quickly turned to their sailing stories.
York and Lesjack sailed on the U.S.S. Lipan ATF-85 in the mid-to-late 1950s. The Fleet Ocean Tug ship was heavily involved in Operation Redwing, a United States test series of nuclear bomb detonations in Enewetak and Bikini Atolls near the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific Ocean.
Operation Redwing detonated about 17 nuclear weapons from May to July 1956, and York and Lesjack witnessed six of them.
“Being over there in Bikini, I would never want to go through that again,” York said. “And I wouldn’t ever want my children to go through with that either.”
The two ex-sailors agreed that even though the bomb blasts were 25 to 30 miles away, they still felt a shockwave that would “lift you off the ground.”
“When a blast was about to go off, I would put my hat over my eyes and also put my hands over that,” Lesjack said. “The detonation was so bright, that even with my hat covering my eyes, I could still see the bones in my hand.”
The two said that although they were exposed to six bombs and thus, heavy nuclear radiation, the government consistently “played it down.”
“We didn’t know that it was dangerous,” York said. “The government would tell us exposure is insignificant even though they had scientists all over the ships studying the radiation levels.”
After finishing off his coleslaw and embarking on Artist’s Cafe famous rice pudding, Lesjack shared a story from his sailing days that, he said, perfectly symbolizes the U.S. government’s suspiciousness about radiation.
“This fellow named Roy McKenzie sent a letter home to his parents that said how he was worried about the radiation affects from the detonations,” Lesjack said. “Not long after he wrote the letter, five guys in black suits and ties jump on the boat and take McKenzie away. About a week later, McKenzie comes back on the boat, but wouldn’t talk about what happened.”
Due to their radiation exposure, York and Lesjack are considered “atomic veterans,” or members of the United States Armed Forces, who participated in atmospheric and underwater nuclear weapons tests from July 16, 1945, to Oct. 30 1962, according to the National Association of Atomic Veterans Inc.
Since leaving the ship, Lesjack said multiple Lipan sailors have had health issues that could be tied back to radiation exposure.
L.L. Jones sailed with York and Lesjack during Operation Redwing, and died of lung cancer he did not know he had. At the time of his death, Jones had about 3,000 moles, cysts and boils because of possible radiation affects, Lesjack said.
Robert T. Harper was another sailor or the Lipan that died of Leukemia. Like Jones, Harper did not know he was ill, and when Lesjack requested his death certificate, “someone had stamped, ‘Do not reveal cause of death,’ on it.”
York has suffered from health problems that he said may be attributed to radiation.
“I have tried to go to the doctor about these problems, but they always say they can’t prove it was radiation that caused it,” York said.
York added that he has also tried to receive compensation from the government about his health issues, but was never granted a request.
Lesjack made sure to note that some of the health issues suffered by his fellow sailors can be attributed to smoking.
After Lesjack finished his dessert, the two posed for a picture and laughed. Lesjack tugged on his friend’s ear, and York slapped away at his hand. It was like they were kids again.
Even though they had not seen each other in half a century, they vowed they will not wait that long to meet again.