When the USS Ronald Reagan responded to the tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011, Navy sailors including Quartermaster Maurice Enis gladly pitched in with rescue efforts.
But months later, while still serving aboard the aircraft carrier, he began to notice strange lumps all over his body. Testing revealed he'd been poisoned with radiation, and his illness would get worse. And his fiance and fellow Reagan quartermaster, Jamie Plym, who also spent several months helping near the Fukushima nuclear power plant, also began to develop frightening symptoms, including chronic bronchitis and hemorrhaging.
They and 49 other U.S. Navy members who served aboard the Reagan and sister ship the USS Essex now trace illnesses including thyroid and testicular cancers, leukemia and brain tumors to the time spent aboard the massive ship, whose desalination system pulled in seawater that was used for drinking, cooking and bathing. In a lawsuit filed against Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plaintiffs claim the power company delayed telling the U.S. Navy the tsunami had caused a nuclear meltdown, sending huge amounts of contaminated water into the sea and, ultimately, into the ship's water system.
“At our level, we weren’t told anything,” Plym told FoxNews.com. “We were told everything was OK.”
Now, Plym, Enis and dozens of others wonder if their service to their country and to Japan has left them doomed.
“I get so angry," Plym said. "They said as long as the plume was avoided we would be fine. But we knew then that something was going to happen. Common sense tells you that the wind would blow it everywhere. You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to figure that out.”
San Francisco Attorney Charles Bonner,who is representing allegedly cancer-stricken sailors, initially filed a federal suit in the Southern District of California more than a year ago on behalf of a dozen sailors. The lawsuit was initially dismissed, when the court ruled that any ruling would hinge on interpreting communication between the Japanese and U.S. governments, which could violate the separation of powers. But Bonner is amending the suit to add new allegations that would fall under the court's jurisdiction. And the number of plaintives has more than quadrupled as more service members come forward with radiation-related illnesses, he said.
“They went in to help with rescue efforts," said Bonner, who plans to refile the suit on Jan. 6. "They did not go in prepared to deal with radiation containment.”
The plaintiffs don't blame the U.S. Navy, which they believe acted in good faith, Bonner said. It was the plant's operators who sat on the meltdown information during the crucial hours following the March 11, 2011 disaster, he said.
“TEPCO pursued a policy which caused rescuers, including the plaintiffs, to rush into an unsafe area which was too close to the [Fukushima nuclear power plant] that had been damaged,” Bonner charged in an April filing now being updated to add more plaintiffs. “Relying upon the misrepresentation regarding health and safety made by TEPCO, upon information and belief, the U.S. Navy was lulled into a false sense of security.
“The officers and crew of the U.S.S. Reagan (CVN-76) and other vessels believed that it was safe to operate within the waters adjacent to the FNPP, without doing the kinds of research and testing that would have verified the problems known to the defendant TEPCO at the time.”
Nathan Piekutoski, 22, who served aboard the USS Essex, which was in the same deployment as the Reagan, said sailors had no choice but to trust what they were told.
“They did say it was safe at the time,” Piekutoski said. “We had to take their word for it.”
Piekutowski says he suffered from leukemia and, while he is currently in remission, Doctors have told him that he may need a bone marrow transplant.
“Within a few months I started getting all these weird symptoms," he recalled of the months following the disaster response. "Night sweats. Not sleeping. I started losing a lot of weight.
“It’s one of those things," he added. "You’re angry that it happens but we had to go. It was our duty. I joined the military to help people in need.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but told FoxNews.com the Pentagon has been monitoring and collecting data on radiation exposure in the region.
TEPCO officials did not respond to requests for comment. But a recent admission before members of the Japanese press on Dec. 12 during a meeting at the Tokyo Press Club, former Prime Minister Naoto Jan said the first meltdown occurred five hours after the tsunami, not the next day as reported at the time.
Bonner alleges that the statement means that the Japanese government knew radiation was being leaked and did not inform the U.S. Navy.
“They knew there was an active meltdown and they deliberately hid it from the public as well as the Navy,” Bonner said. “Those sailors went in there totally unaware and they were contaminated as a result.”
Plym says she is prepared to have her symptoms question in court, should the case go to trial. But with so many U.S. sailors coming forward, she believes justice will prevail.
“People will say that out lawsuit is fake and that we are doing this for money, but it’s really about getting the correct information out there,” Plym said.
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych