The year is 1940, and Hitler and Nazi Germany stand on the threshold of militarizing nuclear fission and building a nuclear bomb. American workers and researchers work feverishly to stay ahead of the deadliest technology in human history. When the U.S. bombs dropped in Japan, World War II ended, but Russia made the move to develop its own nuclear arsenal – the Cold War had begun.

The Cold War Patriots held its annual Day of Remembrance at Newberry Hall in Aiken Friday, commemorating the lives of the men and women who built the American nuclear deterrent during the decades-long Cold War.

Those who served were often victims of misinformation or lack of understanding in the fledgling realm of nuclear science and were exposed to dangerous radiation. Just like service members in any other war, the Cold War veterans put their lives on the line in the name of national defense.

“You answered the nation’s call,” said Tim Lerew, Cold War Patriots spokesperson.

Congressman Joe Wilson, R-S.C., spoke to the large crowd of Savannah River Site workers and family members. “It’s an inspiration to know the sacrifices you’ve made. The way to have is peace, as you know, is to be strong. You provided that strength.”

During the ceremony, attendees were invited to a memorial table to recognize the loved ones they’ve lost. Many died from illnesses and diseases caused by exposure to radiation during their Cold War efforts. While the nuclear and Cold War legacy survives today, the faces and names that built the nuclear complex are fading. “The human legacy is not forgotten,” Lerew said.

The Cold War Patriots organization advocates on behalf of nuclear complex workers, especially those attempting to get compensation from the U.S. government through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act. The EEOICA is designed to support and compensate nuclear industry workers and their families who have dealt with deadly diseases and life-altering consequences from exposure during U.S. nuclear missions.

Although the Cold War days are confined to history books and memories, pride and patriotism in the workers who served in those missions still runs deep. In honor of those lost, the program ended with the playing of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the U.S.A.” Hats came off, seats were emptied and few eyes remained dry. Indeed, the human legacy was not forgotten.

Thomas Gardiner covers science, energy and technology topics for the Aiken Standard. Thomas is a nine-year Marine Corps veteran.