William Tandy was involved in recovering a fully loaded nuke B-52 that sank into concrete pads at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in 1972. He later came down with leukemia and is trying to locate anyone else who may remember the incident or similarly was diagnosed with leukemia. He cannot find any information about it. (Courtesy William Tandy)
Retired Col. William Tandy is looking for a few buddies he worked with four decades ago, not so much for a reunion, but to find out if any of them came down with leukemia or other forms of cancer after an incident involving warheads more than 40 years ago.
It is part of his quest to find out why he was diagnosed with the blood disorder two years ago, when suddenly he began feeling tired.
“I was in pretty good shape. I was exercising all the time,” said Tandy, who retired after 22 years in 2004. “I went to the doctor. He said, ‘I think you have anemia.’”
He didn’t. After more tests and more doctor visits, he received the diagnosis and spent 5½ months in the hospital. Tandy is now in remission, although he has some complications that affect his vision. The doctors said the potential exposure 40 years ago could have led to leukemia, or not. Leukemia is a disorder that occurs when blood is exposed to carcinogens. For some people, that exposure will lead to leukemia, but not for others. Tandy could think of only one incident where he might have been exposed to radiation.
“There’s no way to prove 100 percent. But there’s no history [of the disease] in my family. ... It could be an anomaly. It could be something else,” Tandy said.
That incident was about two years after Tandy enlisted in 1970, during a cold winter between 1971 and 1972 at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. Instead of parking B-52s on concrete pads, he recalled, crews sometimes left the aircraft on the asphalt at the end of exercises to escape the cold sooner. That worked out OK until it warmed up for several days. The bombers sank into the asphalt, said Tandy, an E-4 at the time with the 5th Munitions Maintenance Squadron.
“The last one, it took a couple of days to get it out,” he said. “It sank all the way up to the warheads on the outboard wing. They tried all sorts of stuff. They tried to gun the engine. That didn’t work. They hooked the plane to tractors and tried yanking on [it].”
He’s not sure if the warheads were damaged during the removal or if he was exposed to radioactive material at that time. He never gave the incident another thought until he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Tandy placed classified ads looking for others he worked with at the time: Lt. Crouch, Tech. Sgt. Howell, Staff Sgt. Rohde, Staff Sgt. Dobbins, Sgt. Ronald Spurling and Sgt. Terry Haire. His attempts to find them have been unsuccessful.
But “the exposure would have been far beyond just us,” he said. “It would have been any member of our parent unit, the 5th Bombardment Wing, that was on the dedicated and controlled nuclear readiness area of the flight line in those days.”
Tandy tried to find information about the incident on a list of nuclear accidents compiled by the Defense Department in 1981. Most of the more than 30 accidents, which date to early 1950, involve crashes, fires and incidents where crews had to drop weapons aboard the aircraft. One involved a leak. Details of one remained classified.
No accidents are listed in 1972. Minot does not appear. Tandy doesn’t remember many details about the incident, including exactly when it occurred.
“We weren’t allowed to write anything down,” Tandy said. “Nobody ever told us anything. … That’s the way it was.”
But if any of those people also later developed leukemia, Tandy said, that might explain his own diagnosis.
“If anybody has more accurate information than what I remember, I’m willing to accept that,” Tandy wrote in an email. “I’m not accusing anybody of anything, but I remain confused as to why this was not a ‘reportable’ accident.”
Tandy asks that anyone with information get in touch with him by phone at 801-930-9062, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.