The search for a home health aide led 88-year-old Burnita Lamberth to make several phone calls a month ago. One of those calls inquiring about such a service led to discussion of her late husband, Junious Lamberth's military service.
"I was talking to this man and he was in an office in Chicago," Burnita said. "He asked me my husband's service number and I gave it to him."
The agency, operating for the benefit of military members and spouses, had the ability to look up Lamberth's record.
"He (the man on the other end of the phone) took a deep breath and I knew he almost fell out of his chair," Burnita said. "He said I never seen such a record!"
A month later, all of her husband's medals arrived in the mail. She showed them to me at a nearby framing store. The six medals sealed in individual packages represented service in the European theater of WWII, Pacific engagement, and National Defense. They arrived with bars and stars to attach. Burnita was selecting a shadow box to put them in when she began retelling the stories behind the medals.
Junious Lamberth, a Craighead County native, joined the military as many young men did during World War II. He served in the U.S. Navy—both in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Burnita remembers one specific battle left Junious (not yet her husband) stranded after his ship took on enemy fire from a German submarine.
"Before they got to their battle stations, my husband shot," Burnita said. "He was at the heaviest gun on there. He said he had to find where it was riveted together and he opened it up enough that it started taking on water. The submariners knew they were dead. There was no way they were going to survive. They both went down together."
But, a few of the Navy service members were able to get top-side.
"Him and the other fellas floated on the ocean for 8 days and nights before they were spotted from the air and picked up. 'Course they have those boats with enough food and water for a certain number of days. By the time they picked them up, they were down to just a little cheese and a little water."
Junious Lamberth would be sent to participate in testing in the Pacific Ocean. Lamberth was assigned, along with hundreds of other men, to Operation Crossroads. The tests were the first nuclear tests following World War II. History's fourth and fifth atomic explosions were designed to examine the effects of nuclear blasts on naval ships, planes and animals. But Burnita says it ultimately would involve humans.
"They'd go aboard those ships after they dropped bombs on them. They'd have to jump off in that lagoon," Burnita said.
Old news reels once shown in movie theaters proclaim the treachery of the blast.
"This highly lethal spray was intensely radioactive," an announcer stated. That same water was where Junious and several other men would be required to swim to check on the nuclear blasts effects upon animals tied up on crippled ships that had the bombs dropped on them.
"The glare from the atomic bomb put his eyes out," Burnita said. "He was blind for some time."
Fortunately, Junious' eyesight returned. But, he would eventually become blind in one eye.
However, the worst was yet to come for the Lamberths. When their first child was ten years old, Burnita became pregnant.
"I had a miscarriage and then it was a deformed child," Burnita said. It would be forty years before she and her husband would know conclusively that he had been exposed to radiation through the bomb blasts.
"It will go on to the following generation," Burnita said. "He (youngest son) could have had a mentally retarded or crippled child."
"Has the government offered you any compensation or an apology?" I asked Burnita. "No, other than a letter thanking him for the use of his body. It made me so mad that I tore it all to pieces and threw it away. They had the nerve to do things like that to people and not even tell them." Burnita said the radiation exposure, for a while, was constant.
"The ship that he was on was so hot (with radiation) and he lived on that thing for a year," she said. "They brought a ship out and took all the men off of it—pulled it back out to sea and sunk it. It was too hot to even dock."
Forty years after Operation Crossroads, Burnita would be sent a questionnaire asking for information. "They wanted to know if our children had Down's syndrome, leukemia, fits, nervous breakdowns, mentally retarded or crippled," Burnita said. Burnita said her second child suffered with a nervous condition in childhood, but outgrew it over time. Others that she knew, weren't so fortunate.
"That's a big dark secret," she said looking over the medals recently sent to her documenting her husband's service to country.
Her husband's military service inspired her sons and grandsons. For 65 consecutive years, Burnita has had family serving in the military. Her husband died at the age of 68. He served his country 20 years and 22 days.
"There's happy parts and sad parts," Burnita said as she reminisces. "They're all mixed together."
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