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Spared combat, WWII veteran deals with cancer from Bikini Atoll radiation

Richard J. Stachowiak desperately wanted to follow in his four older brothers' footsteps.

They were all serving in World War II.

Benny fought as an Army infantry sergeant in the European Theater. Frank rolled through Europe in an Army tank division. Joseph, a Marine, served in the pivotal battle at Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater and suffered serious wounds.

And like his brother Walter, Richard wanted to fight the enemy from the Navy's ships. Richard said he felt more than qualified. Since boyhood, he had loved swimming in Lake Erie.

"I was 17 and enlisted in the Navy in April 1945. My mother signed the early enlistment papers, but she told the recruiter that she had four other sons who were already serving in the war," Stackowiak said.

The recruiter understood her concerns and delayed Stachowiak's enlistment until November 1945, long after the last shots were fired in Europe and Japan.

Yet Stachowiak ended up wounded, though the injuries would not surface for decades.

The wounds were the result of exposure to radiation from two atomic bomb explosions at Bikini, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of the explosions was to measure the impact on unmanned war ships and other vessels anchored in the atoll's lagoon.

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Richard J. Stachowiak, 89

Hometown: Lackawanna

Residence: Orchard Park

Branch: Navy

Rank: fireman 1st

War zone: World War II, Pacific Theater

Years of service: November 1945 – September 1947

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal

Specialty: diesel repairman

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Stachowiak, a diesel mechanic aboard the USS Ajax, an auxiliary repair ship, was five miles out at sea when the bombs were detonated. When the first bomb was dropped July 1, 1946, he and his crewmates were ordered to stand with their backs to the blast.

"I could feel the heat on my back and neck. When we were told to turn around, I felt the heat on my forehead. I could see the mushroom cloud," Stachowiak said.

The second blast, he said, was detonated underwater in late July and he watched as a mushroom cloud took shape and ascended into the atmosphere

"I have pictures of both detonations," he said of witnessing the same fury that a year earlier had ended the war in Japan when the United States dropped the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Stachowiak's initial exposure to the radiation was from a distance, but the military wanted additional details on the devastation inflicted upon the ships.

"After the explosions, they brought a whaler boat that had been in the lagoon and put it on the deck of our ship to check its motor.

"There was water in the motor compartment and I had my hands in the water under the motor holding wrenches to get the bolts out. Two sailors came by and one of them had a Geiger counter. He said, 'What the hell are you doing? Get out of this area. The water is contaminated by radiation,' " Stachowiak recalled.

When he left the Navy in September 1947, he says he was given a physical and issued a clean bill of health. But about eight years ago, he was diagnosed with skin cancer when he received a checkup at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Hospital.

Richard J. Stachowiak still has the plaque designating him an “Atomic Bomb Veteran” and showing the explosions that exposed him to radiation that left him battling skin cancer. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"A dermatologist noticed I had two white spots on my back. They did a biopsy, and it was skin cancer," he said. "I've been treated several times for skin cancer."

Stachowiak said he was awarded federal disability compensation but is seeking to have it increased because the cancer has spread to his arms.

"I have white and red spots on my arms," he said.

A rigger for 28 years at Bethlehem Steel who continued to work as a construction contractor after the plant closed, he says those who served in the military and were exposed to radiation are known as "atomic veterans."

Stachowiak says he hopes that someday – the sooner the better – the military will issue a special medal for the service of veterans who unknowingly served as guinea pigs to determine the hazards of exposure to the atomic blasts.

"At the time, it was a classified secret, and we knew nothing about what was going to happen, and we had no protection," he said.

Over the years, he has stayed in touch with several other "atomic veterans" from the USS Ajax: James Laskey from Elba; Kenneth Avery of Ithaca, and Jesus "Jesse" Trevino of Chula Vista, Calif.

In the early 1990s, Stachowiak retired from construction to become a full-time care provider for his ailing wife, the former Dorothy Hylaszak, who died in 2004. He remains patriotic and proud of the service he and his brothers provided to the country.

A sixth brother, the youngest, Edwin, served in the Korean War.

"All of my brothers have passed away except for me," Stachowiak said. "I think of them and I have to keep their memory alive."

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