James Gates was born in Chicago’s South Side in 1935. Upon returning from Korea in 1954, Gates was reassigned to Camp Desert Rock, Nev. In an interview with Nancy Hogan for her article “Shielded From Liability,” Gates explained that when he arrived in Las Vegas, “they took his identification, told him he would be constructing roads and air fields, and to keep quiet about what he would see.” Then the nuclear bomb tests began. Gates, only a half-mile away, was also told he was in no danger. In reality, he was being used as a human guinea pig. Gates saw his fellow soldiers die, carcasses of dead jackrabbits scattered on the ground, and one morning he awoke from unconsciousness only to find the flesh torn form his left arm and leg. “There is no reckoning it. No reckoning why the government would hurt its own people. I mean, I’ve got no teeth, no energy, no breath…I’ve got very little left, not even hope…Some of the men were put in what they called the ‘monkey cage.’ The monkey cage was close to the bomb site and the bomb killed all those men. I mean we were a half-mile from each shot…Each time we’d see a bomb go off they’d have a priest there… Racism has a lot to do with all this, racism and the feeling that the government doesn’t care,” Gates recalled.
As the nuclear tests continued, chemist and Nobel laureate Linus Pauling became convinced that the government was carrying out human experimentation. Pauling contacted the independent journalist Paul Jacobs and urged him to investigate the Nevada Test Site (NTS). In the winter of 1955, Jacobs picked up a hitchhiker on the way to Las Vegas. It was James Gates. The two quickly became friends, and Gates provided Jacobs with documents, contracts, and private meetings with others at the test site. After several years of research, Jacobs exposed the atrocity in a series of stories and the documentary Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, which helped bring worldwide attention to the NTS. And while Gates took solace in the fact that the U.S. passed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, he was denied military retirement and service-connected disability as a result of his whistleblowing.
Like many atomic veterans, Gates began to suffer numerous illnesses, struggled to sustain a career, and became homeless. Beginning in the 1970s, Gates’ teeth began to fall out. He suffered from heart failure, a collapsed lung, and a burst appendix. Even with his health declining, Gates joined thousands of other atomic veterans and demanded the government provide adequate medical insurance. He participated in civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site and joined radiation victims in rallies and conferences throughout the country. After years of activism, Gates was finally granted a date for a hearing on his case before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. He died on March 20, 2004 — two and a half months before his scheduled appearance.
Read more at Justice for the Atomic Veterans