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Harrowing stories reveal decades of fallout for nuclear test veterans,

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Harrowing stories reveal decades of fallout for nuclear test veterans, STUFF, Jimmy Ellingham , June 12 2021 

 More than 500 young Kiwi sailors were unwitting witnesses to British nuclear testing in the Pacific in the late 1950s. Jimmy Ellingham talks to three men who were there.

One by one they spoke of cancers and birth defects in their children.

Four decades after Operation Grapple, hydrogen-bomb tests off Christmas Island witnessed by New Zealanders on two frigates, HMNZS Rotoiti and Pukaki, the stories were harrowing and the suffering unbearable.


It was the early days of the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association, created through the efforts of navy veteran Roy Sefton, from Palmerston North.

At the city’s Returned and Services’ Association home, Grapple sailors shared their stories of the tests’ after-effects.

“I knew people were sick. I didn’t know how sick. I didn’t know about the generations,” says Pukaki veteran Clive Strickett.

“That really broke me up.”

Sefton told veterans to bring their wives and children. They told stories of miscarriages and, in extreme cases, babies born with missing limbs.

“There wasn’t a dry face in the place,” Strickett says, remembering the moment when the terrible effects of what they were exposed to hit them.

“Everyone cried. It was so terrible. We decided that we’ve got to do something about this.”

That gathering in the late-1990s was also when fellow Pukaki sailor John Purcell learned what his old mates and their families were going through.

“A person speaking had throat cancer. He was in terrible trouble.

“As I sat there and listened to all the other disabilities that our members and their families have had, I suddenly realised that I had a story to tell as well.”…………….

In the fallout zone

In August and September 1958, there were five nuclear tests off Christmas Island, south of Indonesia, as Britain looked to match the arsenals held by the United States and Soviet Union.

Strickett saw three, the second of which was huge, 20 times bigger than Hiroshima, he says.

“That’s a huge explosion. That created a huge vapour cloud across the Pacific we had to monitor. We had to monitor it until it evaporated.

“It took days and days to evaporate, so we were under that cloud for a long time.”

It rained. Hard. Pukaki had a problem with its salt water condenser, so an awning was put up to collect rain water for washing and drinking. This potentially exposed the crew to more radiation.


Strickett remembers the explosions as horrific, although they were an amazing sight. Beautiful, some said.

“It was picturesque, but it wasn’t for me. I can’t say I enjoyed it. I don’t think we were prepared for it.”

Sailors were told to tuck trousers into socks and cover their eyes. Those on deck sat with their backs to the detonation zone and waited.

“We did that and the bomb went off, and that was it for me. I could see the bones in my hand. It was scary.”

For that second, big bomb, after two minutes the men were told to open their eyes and look towards the blast.

“It was right in front of us… It was huge.”

Purcell saw four tests. Two smaller ones and two big ones, equivalent to 800,000 tonnes and 1 million tonnes of TNT, respectively.

Protective clothing wasn’t up to much, he says – a pair of trousers, hat and gloves.

“It’s so archaic they thought this was the uniform that would assist us with the blast..

“The biggest blast was a huge mushroom that climbed. It took up the whole horizon.”

Purcell also remembers sitting with his back to the blasts, waiting for them to explode as naval officers counted from one to 40.

“The explosions were rumblings in the distance. Then you felt the heat on your back.”

He also saw the bones of his hands, a common memory of Grapple veterans. “That’s the biggest memory I had, really.”

Toomath was below deck for two or three explosions. In recent years he’s learned that may have been the worst place to be, as the boiler room sucked in air from outside.

“We had all the radiation coming down.”

But at the time he felt safe.

“I was in the boiler room for one of them. I think that was the biggest one. I know it got pretty hot down there. It was that hot I couldn’t even touch the handrails on the ladders.”

Above deck he saw the Pukaki steaming towards a huge mushroom cloud full of lightning and thunder, but was told not to worry.

“We were just young, innocent. We were up there for adventure.”

The aftermath

Purcell spent 8½ years in the navy before joining the prison service, including being in charge of Napier Prison.

His list of medical ailments is substantial. He doesn’t want to delve into the detail, but it includes cancer.

Purcell gets a war veterans’ pension because of his health, but such support, which was hard-won, does not extend to children or grandchildren of veterans.

In 1966, Purcell’s daughter Lynette was born with a hole in her heart and cerebral palsy. She was never able to sit up unsupported and died in her mid-40s……………………..

Waiting for an apology

Sefton, the Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association’s chairman, died in January, aged 82. Bulls Grapple veteran Tere Tahi, who was aboard the Rotoiti in 1957, has taken over his mate’s mantle and is determined to meet with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

He estimates about 60 veterans survive and the association wants an apology for the young men who were put in harm’s way and the effect the blasts had on their health.

It also wants research undertaken and medical help for children or grandchildren of veterans.

Association patron Al Rowland is a retired Massey academic involved in research that found there was long-term genetic damage to the veterans and their families, but this hasn’t been enough to convince the New Zealand or British Government.

Toomath says support for veterans’ children and grandchildren is crucial, as is understanding the effects of radiation exposure down the generations. He would like to see research into this.

Strickett says he doesn’t need money from a payout, but would like an apology.

Like Toomath he wants the Government to fund research into Grapple veterans’ descendants and for it to push the British Government into acknowledging it was wrong to risk the young sailors’ lives.

Purcell says he’ll write a letter to the latest Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Meka Whaitiri, as he has done to her predecessors.

“What I find hard to accept is the lack of recognition from the Crown that these young boys were handed over to the Government to be treated like guinea pigs.

“If the testing was so safe why didn’t the British carry it out on their own shores?

“All we want is simply a public apology for the treatment of all navel test veterans and their whānau. That’s not hard.”

Purcell and Toomath are featured in a photography exhibition at Te Manawa Art Gallery, Palmerston North, until August.   https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/300330166/harrowing-stories-reveal-decades-of-fallout-for-nuclear-test-veterans

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June 12, 2021 - Posted by | health, New Zealand, PERSONAL STORIES, weapons and war

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