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Navy Radiologist

The Unusual Death of a Navy Radiologist©

D-Day Plus 66 Years

by Kenneth C. Davey

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Excerpt from "The Unusual Death of a Navy Radiologist"

My father, a veteran of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion, survived the Normandy invasion, but not the civilian practice of medicine in the United States after World War II. At the age of 30, Lieutenant J. Russell Davey, Jr., MC, USNR, died suddenly at home of undetermined causes 5 June 1948. My mother was left to raise four children in Easton, Pennsylvania. Although wounded four years earlier on Normandy D-Day, Dr. Davey's World War II service record correctly emphasizes cause of death as "Not Enemy Action." Recently, new information has surfaced from highly classified Cold War files.

Company C Officer of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion 6th Naval Beach Battalion U.S. 6th Naval Beach Battalion
Company "C" officers of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion seated left to right: George "skipper" Clyburn and Don White. The 2nd row includes Beachmasters Joe Vaghi, Vince Perrin and Karl Hein. Medical officers standing are Russ Davey, John Kincaid and Mike Etzl. Mrs. Davey holds Joan, born two weeks after her husband went overseas. On the right, Dr. Davey before maneuvers at Camp Bradford, Little Creek, VA.
Dr. Davey's 6th Naval Beach Battalion was formed exclusively for OVERLORD, the Allied permanent re-entry into Continental Europe during World War II. The mission of a USN Beach Battalion was to facilitate the landing and movement of troops, equipment and supplies across the invasion beach and the evacuation of casualties and prisoners of war. The Navy Beachmaster, in coordination with his medical officer, provided seaward evacuation of the casualties.

Sixty-six years after Normandy D-Day, 90-year-old Beachmaster Joseph P. Vaghi, 95-year-old Seaman First Class Irving Goldstein, 93-year-old Lee Parker, M.D., and 84-year-old Richard Borden, M.D., help us remember the fallen. Borden was an 18-year-old Navy corpsman on D-Day. Drs. Parker and Borden both lost their brothers during the war. Over the years, Commander Vaghi persistently asked questions regarding my father's 1948 death for which I had no explanation, until now.

President Clinton's 1995 declassification of human experimentation files revealed that the U.S. Army Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II machine that built the atomic bomb, engaged in human radiation experiments that remained classified for over half a century. The Manhattan Project became the civilian-run Atomic Energy Commission in 1947. AEC research advanced nuclear medicine, but the military aim was to establish occupational standards for defense industry workers exposed to highly toxic chemicals and radiation, and to help the Army, Navy and Air Force fight more effectively on the nuclear battlefield.

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eileen Welsome uncovered decades of AEC "dark medicine," published in The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. Plutonium, a key ingredient in the atomic bomb, is the most toxic substance known to man. Some of the 4,000 secret studies that took place in this country included monitoring of poisoned workers in bomb factories, citizens injected with plutonium, with no chance of medical benefit, special needs children fed "radioactive" cereal, and over 800 pregnant women unknowingly fed "radioactive" iron.

With over-all responsibility for making the atomic bomb, General Leslie R. Groves explained in his book, Now It Can Be Told, that in 1943, "The most urgent problem was to determine the toxicity of the materials we were using: primarily, uranium and plutonium compounds; the related heavy elements, such as radium, polonium and thorium; and certain accessory process materials, such as fluorine and beryllium. This required the study of the manner in which the materials might be introduced into the body, whether by ingestion, inhalation, skin absorption or in other ways." Uranium hexafluoride (UF6) is a highly corrosive gas used in the uranium enrichment process that produces fuel for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.

Extremely toxic hydrogen fluoride (HF) developed by the Pennsylvania Salt Company in Easton, PA was an essential component of the separation process that produced uranium hexafluoride for the atomic bomb. The 1939 acquisition of the Sterling Products Co. in Easton enabled Pennsalt to produce hydrofluoric acid and synthetic aluminum fluoride, preparatory to synthesizing cryolite. The mineral cryolite (containing fluorine) imported by Pennsalt, had been used in manufacturing for years. Fluorides were used in the smelting of many metals, such as steel and aluminum, and in the production of glass, enamel, and brick. Damage compensation had been paid to German citizens living near the Freiburg smelting factories belching out fluoride since 1855. Fluoride poisoning resulting in "crippling skeletal fluorosis" had been recognized in Europe since the late 1800s. In 1932, Moller and Gudjonsson described a peculiar form of bone sclerosis in American workers exposed to cryolite dust. Since that time there have been many published reports of chronic fluorine intoxication and its effect on the osseous system. (Pillmore, Clinical Radiology, 1946, Vol. II, p. 555)

The medico-legal position of the Manhattan Project was that chronic fluorine intoxication rarely occurs in the United States. Their medical section was charged with the responsibility of obtaining toxicological data that would insure the AEC was in a favorable position in case litigation developed. Because HF is a catalyst utilized in refining "tetraethyl lead" or TEL gasoline, Robert A. Kehoe, M.D., Medical Director for the Ethyl Corporation, collaborated with the AEC on the problem of "fluoride poisoning" and worker injury lawsuits. Under oath in 1966, Kehoe told Congress that poisonous Ethyl lead in gasoline posed no risk at all to public health.

Typically, when workplace hazards were investigated by Kehoe, health data was passed on to those who ran the factories, but not to those who worked inside them, wrote epidemiologist Devra Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. After World War II, the AEC and its corporate contractors systematically denied that working with the most hazardous materials ever known had made any workers sick enough to become a compensable occupational disease. Manhattan Project toxicologist Harold C. Hodge, coordinator of the AEC human radiation experiments at the University of Rochester, wrote that "crippling fluorosis has never been seen in the United States." (Hodge, Fluorine Chemistry, 1965, Vol. I , p.385)

X-ray film provides visual evidence of poisoning, placing Navy radiologists directly at odds with the Manhattan Project Medical Department. In 1946, Captain George U. Pillmore, MC (S), USNR, chief of radiology at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, published Clinical Radiology: A Correlation of Clinical and Roentgenological Findings, Volume I & II, with 1,558 pages, including a chapter on lead, radium, and fluorine poisoning. Lieutenant Davey, a protégé of Pillmore, was a contributing author. Surgeon General of the Navy Vice Adm. Ross T. McIntire, who led the Medical Department through World War II and was FDR's chief physician, wrote in the Forward, "Radiology is often the magic key in diagnosis."

U.S. 6th Naval Beach Battalion U.S. 6th Naval Beach Battalion U.S. 6th Naval Beach Battalion
In 1947, J. Russell Davey, M.D., above, discovered fluorine poisoning showing generalized osteosclerosis in the X-ray of a Pennsalt worker in Easton, PA. The medico-legal position of the Atomic Energy Commission was that chronic fluorine intoxication rarely occurs in the United States.
In a 31 January 1947 x-ray report, Lieutenant Davey, USNR inadvertently exposed Robert Kehoe's secret study monitoring workers exposed to HF at the Pennsylvania Salt Company on Hellertown Road in Easton, PA. X-ray film provides visual evidence of poisoning and its effect on the osseous system. "All of the films show osteosclerosis previously described and considered to be as a result of fluoride poisoning…Very truly yours, J. Russell Davey, M.D." My father was not aware of Kehoe's mission, to clandestinely collect medical data regarding poisoned workers in order to protect the U.S. government's bomb-related defense industry from potential lawsuits. Outraged AEC contractors identified Dr. Davey as "the offending radiologist." Not given the proper protocol, x-ray results were sent directly to the Pennsalt plant in Easton rather than Kehoe's Kettering Laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio. Interpretations were routinely adjusted at Kettering to meet the needs of the AEC and Kehoe's corporate sponsors. Five days after the incident, at the age of 29, Dr. Davey wisely took out a large life insurance policy.

General Groves considered the potential of personal injury lawsuits as the most serious threat to the U.S. nuclear program. A secret AEC document, dated 17 April 1947, warned young doctors, "It is desired that no document be released which refers to experiments with humans that might have an adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits. Documents covering such field work should be classified 'Secret.'" The following year, thirty-three Alcoa workers under medical surveillance by Kehoe and the AEC at the Massena aluminum plant in upstate New York developed "severe" fluorosis.

Inexplicably, when Dr. Davey died suddenly at home in June 1948, there was an attempt "not" to conduct an autopsy. "Probable coronary occlusion due to coronary spasm" was initially written on the death certificate. People rarely die from natural causes at age 30. After my mother pleaded with authorities for a necropsy examination before burial, they relented. The Northampton County coroner later wrote "major findings of autopsy, Findings Negative" and checked off that death was not due to accident, suicide, or homicide. Nevertheless, cause of death remains undetermined; the coroner's file archived in Easton, PA indicates "there was no autopsy!"

I never knew my father, but was introduced to him through his World War II shipmates and overseas letters written to my mother. Shortly before D-Day, the invasion of France, 26-year-old Lt. (jg) Davey, 6th Naval Beach Battalion, wrote in a V-MAIL to his wife, "The surprising & gratifying thing is that the morale of all of us is so good. We are, & we all know it, the best of our kind - I mean our C-Company. And we know that we are working with the best. We are proud of the fact that we will have our small but important part in shaping the world's destiny. And we know that we can do it! We know that we are indispensable, and we are all anxious to prove it. But probably what makes us happiest is that we know that we can now look forward to the day when we'll come sailing home to our loved ones…I love you, Russ...P.S. Please excuse the stationary and the writing, but such is war."

From the day he graduated from medical school in 1942 to the day he died in 1948, Dr. Davey was a proud U.S. Navy medical officer, providing humanitarian assistance for soldiers, sailors and civilians.


Internet sources:
U.S. Department of Energy
Remembering My Father

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