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The unsung heroes of the Cold War were honored on Wednesday, as the country observed the fifth annual national day of remembrance for nuclear weapons program workers.
The Senate passed Resolution 164 last month, dedicating Oct. 30 to the uranium miners, millers, and haulers who built up the nation’s defenses following World War II.
One worker was Al Tseu, a paratrooper who survived jumping through the remnants of an atomic bomb cloud during a test near Las Vegas, Nev. in 1952.
Tseu, who was part of the 82nd Airborne Division, avoided inhaling radiation from the bomb in a jump over the Nevada Proving Grounds only to have his parachute malfunction.
“I was the third man out of the airplane,” Tseu told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “I was counting, ‘one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand’ to open chute and nothing happened. Usually the parachute explodes with a ‘boom.’ I didn’t hear it that time.”
Tseu, now 82, told his story at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Nevada during an event for the national day of remembrance earlier this week.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t have the luxury of being panicked, or afraid,’ because I had no time left,” he said. “I’ve got to work to get myself out of the situation.”
“I remember looking down on my rip cord. I pulled it. I consciously held the silk from coming out until less than about a second and a half,” Tseu said. “Then I threw it (the reserve chute) as far as I can up in the air and it caught the air and bloomed.”
“There was no fear,” he said. “There was no time for it. Panic was out of the question.”
America has celebrated the national day of remembrance since 2009. Workers are honored at events throughout the nation, and the organization Cold War Patriots started a time capsule and a traveling quilt to honor the heroes.
“These hundreds of thousands of workers include not only those in uniform and those at the national laboratories, but also the countless others who have mined, milled and hauled uranium and done the other work necessary for the production and testing of nuclear weapons,” wrote Maj. Gen. Sandra Finan, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, in New Mexico.
“America's nuclear weapons program would not be possible without these many unsung heroes,” she said. “Many of these have paid a high price for their service as they have contracted disabling or fatal illnesses.”
“They pushed the limits of scientific discovery and helped keep our nation safe – sometimes at the expense of their own health and safety,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) in a statement.
For James Bresina, a machinist who worked for 30 years at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, he was just doing his job.
"It was very secretive. Very tense," Bresina told NPR in 2011. "Our main project was to keep the reactors running.”
“It was a great time,” he said. “We had a mission."