The Battleship in Building One

Nicholas Friedman and Paul Kanabrocki hold a picture of the USS Indiana in front of Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital's now-retired whole-body radiation counter. The one-of-a-kind device was completed in 1966 using 65 tons of the USS Indiana because of the World War II battleship's unique metal properties. Both men used the device before its 1995 retirement. Friedman is Hines VA Nuclear Medicine Section Chief. Kanabrocki is a health physicist at Hines VA. Photo credit Photo by Louis Washkowiak/Hines VA Media Service

More than 100 years of expansion and remodeling have left the sprawling 147-acre Edward Hines, Jr. VA hospital campus looking very different from when it first opened in 1921. Tucked away in overlooked boxes, closets and rooms is the lost history of the Chicago-area facility.

Few of those forgotten memories compare to how 65 tons of the USS Indiana ended up in the hospital’s Building One.

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According to a VA blog post, the USS Indiana set sail in 1942 and was the second of four South Dakota-class battleships commissioned by the U.S. Navy. Designed for fast speeds and higher mobility, the ship served throughout the Pacific theater, cutting its teeth at Guadalcanal and continuing to island-hop until Japan’s surrender in 1945.

The USS Indiana was decommissioned like many Navy ships following World War II. For nearly two decades, it floated mothballed in a California shipyard until its unique characteristics proved instrumental to the emerging science of nuclear medicine.

Iron room needed metal free of man-made radiation

Ervin Kaplan was a Marine Corps Raider who served throughout the Pacific theater during World War II. Kaplan used his G.I. Bill benefits to become a medical doctor, eventually becoming chief of Hines VA’s new Radioisotope Service.

According to the blog post, Kaplan was a pioneer in nuclear medicine for the VA. Early in his career, he and his team designed an enormous device capable of detecting extremely low levels of radiation throughout the entire body, which was difficult at the time.

Referred to as “a radiation-free island,” Kaplan’s idea was an iron room, 10 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high. Inside a person would sit reclined, watching their favorite television programming. Detectors would absorb gamma radiation throughout the body and turn it into flashes of light. Technicians could count and measure the flashes to identify any radiation spikes, according to VA records.

There was a problem, however. Kaplan’s “island” required metal free of man-made radiation to make such precise measurements. Thankfully, the Navy had millions of tons ready for scrap floating with their mothballed fleet.

“One of the chief reasons for using pre-1945 battleship armor is that such steel, during mining and fabrication, had not been subjected to man-made radioactive fallout (nuclear weapons),” the blog explained.

Its metal dating to the 1930s, USS Indiana was perfect 

The Navy chopped off six 8-inch-thick armor plates from its gun turret. The Department of Atomic Energy shipped the massive cargo from California to a south-side Chicago foundry for milling. Kaplan’s iron box was built piece by piece atop a specially made 12-foot-thick concrete pad inside of Hines VA’s Building One.

“It creates an environment that predates atomic fallout,” said Paul Kanabrocki, a health physicist at Hines VA. “There are other whole-body counters that exist, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one with this type of environment or shielding. It’s never existed as far as I know.”

Kaplan’s iron box was used for more than 40 years at Hines. Early on, the device was primarily employed for research. It served other needs, including analyzing survivors of the 1986 Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in modern Ukraine, according to Peter Kelly, a retired Hines health physicist who worked with the device throughout his Hines VA career.

“Unfortunately, we found levels of radiation above normal standards in both individuals,” Kelly noted.

Veteran spent time in iron box watching Cubs game

By the 1990s, newer, smaller equipment was employed throughout the department. Kaplan’s 1966 behemoth was largely used to monitor possible staff exposure to radioactive materials.

“We used it on some occasions if there was ever a fear of internal radiation exposure when I first started working here,” said Dr. Nicholas Friedman, Hines VA Nuclear Medicine section chief.

“They tried sticking me in there once. As soon as they shut the door, I started yelling, ‘Get me out of here. I’m claustrophobic,'” he joked.

Kanabrocki was an intern in Hines’ Nuclear Medicine Service in the 1980s and recalled a more pleasant experience behind the box’s 8-inch-thick steel door.

“I think I watched the Cubs game,” he said.

Device officially retired in July 1995

Too cumbersome to move, the largely forgotten 65-ton piece of history remains in its original room, locked behind a door.

Although Kaplan’s iron box is now retired, the device holds a long history of service to this nation, just like the USS Indiana that birthed it.

“In a way, it seems very appropriate having part of the USS Indiana at Hines VA,” said James Doelling, hospital director. “The USS Indiana and its crew served our country proudly throughout World War II. Like many veterans of its era, including Dr. Kaplan, it returned home and served its country in a different way. What better place for part of this veteran battleship to make its final home than a veterans hospital?”

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