Blast's ties to cancer unclear

Hap Harris says he would like to know, but the government won't tell him.


Did an atomic test 56 years ago this Tuesday bring on the cancer that later took the life of his father, Augusta Chronicle Editor Louis Harris, who witnessed the event?

"I personally always thought that could be a connection," he said of the Nevada nuclear blast near Yucca Flats that Mr. Harris witnessed on St. Patrick's Day 1953 and wrote about in The Chronicle .

He's not the first to ask.

The health hazards of those nuclear tests have been questioned for decades -- particularly when it comes to the high cancer rate for the cast of a 1956 John Wayne movie suspected of being touched by leftover fallout.

The Conqueror was a historical epic, with Wayne playing Genghis Khan, and for years the cancer deaths of its stars -- who included Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead -- has brought the film notoriety.

Though the movie was shot in Utah, some maintain the location was covered by immense clouds of fallout that had settled after 11 atomic tests in Nevada three years before.

If that wasn't bad enough, the film's producer, Howard Hughes, shipped 60 tons of dirt back to Hollywood to use for retakes.

Thirty years after Wayne's death from stomach cancer, the question still comes up at his birthplace site in Winterset, Iowa.

"We get that, and we'll kind of say it is inconclusive," site Director Brian Downes said in a telephone interview. "There were a lot of people who worked on the picture that died from cancer. Was it heavy? Yes. ... It's a story that should be told."

One study at the University of Utah suggested the cancer death rate was three times what it should have been.

Louis Harris died of colon cancer in 1978, Hap Harris said. Hayward died of brain cancer in 1975, according to biographers.

Almost three decades after The Conqueror's filming, 220 cast and crew had contracted cancer, and 46 had died of the disease by 1983, according to the Bloomington Peace Action Coalition, which opposes the use of nuclear weapons.

When the tests occurred, Hap Harris says, people didn't know as much about atomic bombs or radioactive fallout or the precautions that should be taken.

"The fact nobody knew what they were doing, I'm surprised more people didn't die," he said.

He said he didn't think about it until the early 1980s, when he saw a 60 Minutes special about those who had witnessed atomic testing and later died of cancer.

He wrote to the U.S. military asking whether there could be any connection to his father's cancer.

"I got this letter from 'Gen. Joe Blow' saying, 'Sorry to hear your daddy died, and he was a great American. However, your daddy was wrong. There were no blasts on those dates.' "

But Hap Harris had dated movies his father filmed of the blast. Some of those films are now at the University of Georgia Library. He said he wrote back saying he had documented proof.

This time the military admitted it had been wrong about the date, but that was it.

"Even if I could prove it, there's nothing I could do about it," Hap Harris said.

Mr. Downes says he understands because it's hard to say why so many people on the film site died of cancer.

For example, many of the lead actors were heavy smokers, including Wayne, who developed lung cancer first and lost a lung in 1963.

"He lived a good long time with his lung cancer," Mr. Downes said. "He smoked, he drank, he ate anything he pleased."

Hap Harris said his father smoked those "nasty Camels" for years but stopped after a doctor's warning. Ultimately, Louis Harris got colon cancer, not lung cancer.

The American Cancer Society has addressed the issue of the nuclear blasts conducted from 1945 to 1962 and their potential harm to people's health.

About 200,000 people were involved in the tests, the group says, and federal laws have since been passed to compensate veterans exposed to blast tests.

The group says there isn't much doubt high levels of radiation can cause cancer, but it's not sure what level of exposure can cause cancer and what forms of cancer can result.

Ultimately, Hap Harris says, the question of what caused his father's cancer lingers. But he is certain of one thing: His father wouldn't have missed the chance to be there at the nuclear blast in Yucca Flats.

"If they told him he could ride up on the moon," Hap Harris said, "and there was a 70 percent chance he wouldn't make it back, he'd say 'Let's go.' "

Reach Preston Sparks at (803) 648-1395 or


Louis Harris, a former editor of The Augusta Chronicle, died in 1978 of colon cancer. He documented a nuclear test blast in Yucca Flats, Nev., on March 17, 1953. Some blame fallout from nuclear tests in Nevada for the high number of cancer deaths among the cast and crew of the 1956 film The Conqueror, which was filmed in Utah. Those deaths include:

- Director Dick Powell, died 1963 of cancer of the lymph glands

- John Wayne, 1979, stomach cancer

- Susan Hayward, 1975, brain cancer

- Pedro Armendez, committed suicide in 1963 after learning he had cancer

- Agnes Moorehead, 1974, cancer of the uterus

Sources: The Birthplace of John Wayne, The Internet Movie Database, Bloomington Peace Action Coalition, Hap Harris

'Conquerer' suffers from more than radiation

A pseudo-serious film that has become an unintentional camp classic, The Conqueror stumbles, or succeeds, depending on perspective, because of the myriad missteps taken by the filmmakers.

The choice to shoot on irradiated ground, not far and unfortunately downwind from a nuclear test site, is the most famous example of the movie's mismanagement, but there are more.

Many, many more.

Based extremely loosely on the life of the Mongol warlord Temujin, who would later (just before the credits roll actually) become known as Genghis Khan, the film focuses not on the conquests of the legendary leader, but his pursuit of a purloined princess. History, evidently, is for chumps. People want romance -- brutal, arrogant, armor-clanging romance.

To make matters worse, producer Howard Hughes (yes, that Howard Hughes) cast for names rather than actors appropriate for the roles. John Wayne played Genghis. Susan Hayward played Bortai, the unwilling object of his affection, and Thomas Gomaz, a bulldog of a man perfectly suited to Big Apple toughs and Western heavies, played the Chinese adviser Wang Khan.

The thundering Mongol hordes? Well, they were the Native American actors the Duke rode with in his many Westerns. The good news is that the Southwest locations, which look nothing like the steppes of Mongolia, weren't far from their homes. The bad news is they looked a lot like Native American actors wondering why they were dressed in Mongol garb.

The real issue however is the script. Written in a stilted, pseudo-Shakespearian style, it would be tough going for any actor. It proved particularly hard for Wayne and company, most of whom were far more comfortable on the sets of Westerns rather than a historical epic.

Time has not proved kind to The Conqueror . Howard Hughes paid $8 million to make the movie in 1956 and then another $12 million to buy up existing prints and make it disappear. It wasn't screened or televised for nearly 20 years after its initial release because Mr. Hughes was reportedly embarrassed by the product and because that was the sort of stunt the reclusive billionaire loved to pull.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or