John Booker of Ivy has been awarded Kazakhstan’s Medal of Freedom for his role in cleaning up and decommissioning the country’s nuclear weapons sites.
“If I had known about it, I’d have gone to Kazakhstan to get it,” he said. A former colleague of his—who also got the medal—was in the country and discovered that the medals had been bestowed. Booker got possession of the medal in February but was too modest to mention it. “I kept procrastinating,” he said.
But he’s used to keeping things secret. Booker was the first black man to achieve the rank of master chief cryptologist in the U.S. Navy.
He grew up in Cumberland County, just west of Richmond, and joined the Navy at age 18 in 1960. He called the choice “common sense. I looked around at where black people were going and where they were not going was bigger than where they were going, jobs with little pay and no benefits. I wanted something better.”
He checked out the Marines. “Then a Navy chief sat me down and told me straight.”
In his 30-year career he never went to sea and was never stationed in Norfolk or San Diego, virtually unheard of in a Navy career, and he never learned to swim. “That’s the best way to be in the Navy,” he said.
He spent plenty of time stationed overseas and in Washington, D.C.
“I had a strategic, stovepipe-type job,” he explained. “I never had a large staff under me.”
A Navy cryptologist is in a security-clearance-required job and is typically involved in translating foreign signal intelligence. Booker had nothing whatever to say about what he did for the Navy.
But 30 years was enough, so he retired in 1990 and went to work for a couple of years for the Veterans Affairs Department. Then he joined what was called the Defense Nuclear Agency, now known as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
“My career was an awesome, awesome surprise to me,” said Booker. “My area was to get rid of strategic nuclear weapons and their infrastructure in the former Soviet Union,” he explained. “We wanted them nuclear-free and they wanted to be nuke-free. But they didn’t have the ability to do it. They had a peaceful outlook on the world.
“They had a lot of stuff. A. Lot. Of. Stuff. The Soviets had put pretty much everything in their weaponry basket. The U.S. said, ‘We’ll help you,’ and so here we are.
“I spent a lot of time in Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine,” Booker said. He had projects going simultaneously in these countries. “Weapons would be cut up, subs and aircraft. Actual bombs were defused and cut up. We destroyed launch pads for strategic weapons. Buildings would not be destroyed if they were good, but we made them unuseable for making nuclear weapons again. They had hardly any controls over their weapons.”
“In Kazakhstan we disabled their test tunnels. The Russians did not want that sort of thing near Russia, near them. We filled the tunnels. That was a high priority of both governments.”
The test tunnels in the Semipalatinsk region were the largest in the world at that time.
“When you’re dirt poor and you don’t have your next meal, communism does not look bad. The Soviet government came along and said, ‘I’ll give you a home, food, an education and a job for life.’ The cost is you work for the Russian government and do what they tell you to do.
“I managed multi-million dollar projects. They would give me the money and order me to ‘make it happen’ by a target date.”
He was first in Kazakhstan in 1994. “I was a king in Kazakhstan. They rolled out the red carpet.
“The Belarus Academy of Ecology and Sciences awarded me a doctorate and it was not honorary. I had to defend my thesis before an international conference. I got a standing ovation.”
Booker’s first project was the clean-up of a 90-metric-ton nuclear fuel spill. “The Russians had dumped heavy heating oil, and my job was to clean it up. It was tearing up the ecology. It was a fast, hard job, and we had to develop the means to do it. We burned it, we absorbed it. We developed a machine to pass contaminated soil through to clean it so that you could grow your garden in it.
“Ukraine was mostly destruction of buildings and sites contaminated with radiation. That’s not a simple job. You don’t go in with sledgehammers. You start with chemists. The people there were very cooperative. My race was never an issue there. Only here.”
He knows and can speak some Russian but mainly conducted his job through interpreters. “I came to them with truth and honesty.”
He knew political leaders and ambassadors there. He has a picture of himself with former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. “He loves people. He talks a lot to people and he’s not hard to talk to.
“There will never be peace,” Booker said. “There’s always going to be axes to grind. But we got together and we got things done. I would like to think I accomplished something, but there’s plenty left for other people to do.”
Booker’s wife Agnes (nee Ivory) is from the Ivy area, and six years ago they built a home in the vicinity of Turner Mountain. It has what Booker called an “I love me wall” full of citations and mementos of his career. Booker works part time for the J.F. Bell Funeral Home now. “As a boy in Cumberland I helped some friends who had a funeral home and it got into me. People who are grieving need people who understand. I’m sensitive and I put my best foot forward.”