Minnesota native James Hamaan was horrified in the early hours of May 10, 1955, when he heard a phrase he never thought would be uttered: broken arrow. As a Marine assigned to the secretive Lake Mead Base in Nevada, he jumped into action and drove into harm’s way.
The military term “broken arrow” may be familiar from the 1996 action movie of the same name featuring John Travolta and Christian Slater, but for Hamaan, those two words meant an accident involving nuclear material was unfolding. He and another Marine climbed into a patrol truck and hightailed it to Building C.
They never made it.
“When we first got up, everybody was trying to race around,” said Hamaan. “And we hit something in the northeast corner of the base and flipped the truck.”
The accident crushed both of his shoulders—injuries that went untreated for more than 60 years.
Known as “Atomic Veterans,” thousands of service members were exposed to radiation between 1945 and 1992—the last time the United States tested nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. More than 1,000 nuclear tests occurred in the decades following the Trinity test in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Hamaan witnessed five nuclear blasts up close. The explosions were meant to assess the effects of atomic weapons on a fighting force.
“We were security for the Navy who provided weapons,” said Hamaan. “Ten drums, 15 inches around by 22 inches high with a special reinforcing—we never knew how much uranium or plutonium was in one of those 10 cans.”
Years after leaving the Marine Corps, his shoulders spiked with pain. Relief didn't come until 2001, when a doctor asked if he could examine him.
“[The physician] looked at me and said, ‘How in the hell did you get this?’” recalled Hamaan. “It took me 65 years to get my proper rating.”
For the first time, he received an MRI at his local VA medical center, which showed a broken left rotator cuff that’s since been replaced.
Hamaan was an assistant golf pro over a decade ago, and he looks forward to hitting the green and seeing what his shoulders can do.