Brackenridge widow compensated for late husband's exposure to H-bomb

| Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, 8:41 a.m.

More than 50 years since the United States bombarded remote areas with nuclear weapons tests, the blasts' effects still reverberate across the country.

Elizabeth McCartney, 93, of Brackenridge felt the effects last October when she received a $75,000 settlement through a Department of Justice compensation program.

The widow of a naval officer involved in the first hydrogen bomb test, McCartney is one of thousands of Americans eligible to benefit from the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA).

The federal program compensates qualified individuals with illnesses resulting from nuclear weapons tests and development from 1945 to 1962.

Congress passed the act in October 1990 after tens of thousands of servicemen and uranium miners filed federal lawsuits alleging radiation exposure.

As a 20-year Navy boatswain mate, McCartney's late husband, Jimmy, experienced firsthand the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, fought in the Korean War and served off the coast of Vietnam.

Along the way, the seaman participated in Operation Ivy, a 1952 weapons test on an Eniwetok atoll in the Pacific that yielded the world's first hydrogen bomb detonation.

McCartney said her husband collected seashells from across the Pacific during his naval career. Here, he was prohibited to bring anything from the island chain aboard the ship.

The sailors' clothes were discarded following the blast.

Yet the men were oblivious to the levels of radiation that their bodies had absorbed, she said.

Twenty years later, almost to the day, the combat veteran was admitted to a Pittsburgh hospital after weeks of recurring headaches. Later that evening, doctors detected a malignant brain tumor and performed an emergency operation.

The operation was unsuccessful. Within a week, the tumor grew to the size of a baseball, McCartney said.

Her husband was given six months to live; he saw five of them.

“There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the tumor that killed him was from the radiation on Eniwetok,” she said. “God, he was a great man.”

McCartney would receive nothing for her husband's death over the next 30 years.

That changed last year when she spotted an article in the AARP magazine featuring the Justice Department's Civil Division compensation program. With the help of her three children, McCartney gathered and submitted the paperwork to apply for the settlement.

Her 62-year-old daughter, Betsy Bianco, said the Justice Department required autopsy reports, hospital bills, service records and birth and death certificates.

The birth certificate presented a problem.

Jimmy McCartney was born on a boat somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean when his family emigrated from Belfast, Ireland, to New Jersey, Bianco said.

The decorated Navy man swore he was born in June 1920, while official immigration reports indicate that he was 9 months old when he arrived in New Jersey on June 6, 1921.

Bianco plans on traveling to Ireland with her siblings in the near future to uncover the truth behind his birth.

Despite the birth controversy, the Justice Department approved McCartney's submission and awarded the widow $75,000 last October.

The Brackenridge woman gifted $10,000 to each of her children and plans on spending the rest on home improvement projects.

The late McCartney was classified by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act as an onsite participant at atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.

The Justice Department establishes compensation for two other groups of people. Uranium miners, millers and ore transporters stand to gain $100,000, while civilians who lived downwind of what was known as the Nevada Test Site are eligible for $50,000.

Those who served in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including prisoners of war detained in the Japanese cities, are not covered by the act.

Bianco said her father never spoke about his experiences at Pearl Harbor or the island chain that probably caused his untimely death at age 52.

“When he died, the family received waves of sympathy letters from his fellow servicemen,” she said. “That's the kind of guy he was.

“The money's a good thing, but he was taken from us way too soon.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or

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