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Mary Ellen James lives in a rundown trailer on a remote highway just outside this Tooele County town. She can't afford an attorney. She wields little political clout. She's not highly educated.

But she knows one thing for certain: Her husband, who died three years ago, was never the same after he watched the Atomic Energy Commission detonate the world's first hydrogen bomb 42 years ago."He was very proud he was able to participate," Mary Ellen James said. "But when he started getting sick, he knew it was because he had been irradiated."

The government, however, says George James did not suffer as a result of the nuclear testing. Consequently, Mary Ellen James has not been able to collect any government compensation for his illnesses or death.

"This is a real hard case. I feel bad for her," said Donna Workman, an aide to Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. Workman has been trying to help Mary Ellen James but has had little success.

In 1951, at the age of 17, George Ronald James, a short, wiry kid from Indiana, joined the Navy, not out of any particular patriotic fancy but because "he wanted to get away from his dad," said Mary Ellen James.

George James was immediately shipped to the South Pacific on a top-secret mission called "Operation Ivy," part of a U.S. effort to regain nuclear supremacy following the Soviet Union's detonation of its first nuclear bomb in 1949.

The young sailor's job aboard the USS Oak Hill was to do whatever the AEC scientists asked, according to a letter George James wrote to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 1990.

"The scientist in charge was code-named `Pappy Sunshine.' I was assigned to him . . . to do different things such as diving for sea life and putting them in containers. I also caught land creatures such as lizards and snakes."

On Nov. 1, 1952, George James witnessed the first thermonuclear test, nicknamed "Mike," which had a yield the equivalent of 25 million tons of TNT - the largest nuclear explosion to that date. (The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, by comparison, had a yield of 13,000 tons of TNT.)

The bomb, detonated on the Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands, obliterated the Eluklab Island, leaving a crater a mile wide and 175 feet deep. The force of the blast "sucked the fire right out of the fireboxes" of the ship's boilers, wrote George James, who donned

his welder's mask to watch the spectacle.

"He described it as a beautiful ball of different colors that went up in a mushroom cloud," Mary Ellen James said. "He got hit in the face from dirt in the island. It then started raining fallout. They had to prepare for radiation scrub down on the ship."

On Nov. 16, 1952, the AEC exploded a 500-kiloton bomb called "King," and Operation Ivy was complete. The fleet of support ships returned to Honolulu.

"A few weeks later, I became violently ill and was in sick bay in an oxygen tent for over a month," George James wrote in his letter to Hatch. He was treated aboard the ship from Dec. 1, 1952, to Feb. 28, 1953.

A month after he recovered, a naval hospital took chest X-rays, according to a statement he gave in 1982 to get special compensation benefits from the Veterans Administration.

"When I asked (the doctor) if anything was wrong, the only answer he gave me was that I had spots on my lungs," James wrote in his statement. "When I asked him what that meant, he would not define it to me. To this day, I am still waiting on an answer."

No record of records

To this day, Mary Ellen James also is still waiting on an answer.

"I've tried and tried to find out what they did for him during that time (aboard ship) he was sick," she said, "but they say those records don't exist."

Most recently, Mary Ellen James solicited help from Bennett, whose office contacted the Defense Nuclear Agency in March. In a May 10 letter to the senator, the agency said it has been unable to locate any ship sick-call records from the National Personnel Records Center, which is supposed to keep those kinds of records.

Mary Ellen James believes those records may be the key to proving that her husband suffered as a result of the hydrogen-bomb testing.

She also believes the Veterans Administration Hospital in Salt Lake City has records that would show her husband had leukemia.

In April 1982, shortly after her husband contacted the Veterans Administration for compensation, the Navy ordered him to undergo a battery of tests in the nuclear medicine department at the VA Hospital.

The results of those tests remain unknown to Mary Ellen James.

"I tried but they wouldn't give me anything," she said.

In October 1983, however, the Navy sent George James a letter that said the medical research of personnel involved in Operation Ivy was still under way.

Though the letter does not address James' case specifically, it reassured him "that in the vast majority of cases, there is virtually no probability that test participation might cause any adverse health effects."

Die or move to Utah

The Navy's letter did little to comfort George James, who had been suffering respiratory problems since his Navy assignment.

"Every spring and fall he contracted bronchial pneumonia," said Mary Ellen James. A doctor told him in 1978 that if he wanted to live a few more years, he better find a drier climate and suggested Utah.

So in 1979, they moved to Midvale, where George James got a job as a machinist but had to quit because of his constant illnesses. By 1986, the Social Security Administration gave him full disability benefits, retroactive to 1982.

George James died on Aug. 7, 1991. The death certificate listed the cause of death as acute cardiac arrest due to coronary heart disease due to diabetes. No autopsy was performed, however, and the body was cremated.

Under the Radiation-Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, Mary Ellen James filed for the $75,000 for which victims of on-site nuclear testing were eligible. But the VA, which administers the program, denied the request, saying the factors that contributed to her husband's death were not related to his military service.

Also, the Navy said, personnel participating on ships in Operation Ivy received a maximum dose of 0.53 roentgens of radioactivity, well below the "maximum permissible exposure" of 3.9 roentgens.

Mary Ellen James is appealing the denial of compensation, hoping that she can show that her husband suffered leukemia and lung cancer as well as heart problems.

"I'm just sick and tired of the government denying it when I know it's true. I seen how he deteriorated day by day for 30 years."