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Chesterfield man who was on Christmas Island backs medal campaign for heroes

John Ward on Christmas Island in his 'protective clothing'.
John Ward on Christmas Island in his 'protective clothing'.

“We were used as guinea pigs to tell the MOD what would happen to people when an A or H Bomb was dropped on them. Our only protection from the explosions was a pair of shorts, shirt and shoes.”

The Derbyshire Times is backing a campaign to award a medal to veterans affected by Britain’s nuclear tests.

Chesterfield man John Ward.

Chesterfield man John Ward.

In 1958, the British military carried out nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean and 22,000 servicemen were sent to Christmas Island.

They were exposed to around 40 explosions, and many would later go on to suffer devastating illnesses and die young.

But 60 years on, the heroes have never been honoured for the bravery and sacrifices they made.

One man who witnessed the events of Christmas Island is Chesterfield man, John Ward, 80, who was based there for two years.

Christmas Island.

Christmas Island.

Here is his account of what happened . . .

I had been in the Royal Air Force a short time as a National Serviceman, when I decided to sign on for an extra year so that I could get my trade as shorthand typist working for senior officers.

Since the age of 10 I decided I wanted to be a journalist so learnt shorthand at secondary school and college, before I went into the service. They taught me to touch type.

One day after finishing all my basic and trade training I was called into the officer commanding’s office and told that I was being posted to Christmas Island to take part in Operation Grapple X.

Christmas Island.

Christmas Island.

We were given a load of injections to ‘protect’ us from various tropical diseases because we were told Christmas Island was near the equator and was very hot.
In the space of a couple of weeks we were on board a BOAC/constellation aircraft dropping into Miami before finally flying onto the airfield on Christmas Island.

All we could see from the air was lines of tents and a couple of wooden buildings.

We were given a mosquito net but nothing to guard against the rats and massive land crabs that invaded our tents continuously.

We were given a blue shoulder bag to carry your metal food tray, metal mug and knife, fork and spoon. (If yours went missing you just stole somebody else’s on the basis that all of us had one to start with).

Christmas Island.

Christmas Island.

During the time I was there I witnessed the detonation of three Atom Bombs and three Hydrogen Bombs. The H Bombs were 100 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We knew when the bomb had left the aircraft and were told to turn our back to the drop area, cover our eyes and wait. The flash was so bright I could see the bones in my hands; the sound wave was terrific and the rush of air nearly knocked us over. The heatwave was very hot.

Our only protection from the explosions was a pair of shorts, shirt and shoes. Once we were given a cotton boiler suit, a balaclava, dark glasses and gloves.

The scientists who were involved with setting up the bombs had total protective clothing and shields.

Some of the aircrews were made to fly through the mushroom cloud and so was a naval ship made to sail under and through the cloud rushing up from the sea. The aircrew were showered time after time when they landed so as to get rid of the radiation.

That was just over 60 years ago. I have had cancer, my son has recently had half a kidney removed because of cancer and our daughter is a medical mess.

We were used as guinea pigs to tell the MOD what would happen to people when an A or H Bomb was dropped on them.

So far the UK is the only nation taking part in nuclear tests that have not recognised that the servicemen on Christmas Island were subjected to radiation. Other countries have recognised their veterans and paid them compensation.

Recently, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, has launched a campaign to award us veterans with a medal. At present a petition is being signed to get enough support to encourage the Government to take action and recognise us veterans.

Out of 22,000 veterans involved in these tests less than 3,000 are still alive. I have just had my 80th birthday. I hope we can get the petition supported and all the vets get proper recognition for their service.

The petition...

An online petition has been launched and has received more than 5,000 signatures and is backed by several politicians, including Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins.

The petition states: “It is 60 years since Operation Grapple Y, when Britain exploded a 2.8 megaton bomb at Christmas Island in the South Pacific with the help of 22,000 servicemen.

“The British nuclear testing programme ran between 1952 and 1967, it was the largest tri-service operation since the D-Day landing.

“These men bore witness to the most devastating weapon this country ever produced, yet have laboured ever since under an oppressive cloud of official denial.

“It is time this nation repaid the debt of honour it owes to all British nuclear veterans who participated and their families. Every other nuclear power has recognised its nuke vets and Britain must, in all good conscience, do the same.”

Mr Perkins said: “There is a debt of honour that Britain owes to all British nuclear veterans who were the witnesses to the testing of bombs at Christmas Island in the 1950s, many of whom have suffered medical complications, early death and had children with birth defects.

“Other countries have recognised their nuclear veterans and it is time for Britain to do the same. A medal may seem insignificant to some, but it will provide the recognition that these veterans deserve and acknowledge the significant damage that was done to these men and their families.”

On Twitter, deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, wrote: “It’s time the nation recognised the service of all our nuclear test veterans - who were ordered into danger - with a medal.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “We are grateful to all those who participated in the British nuclear testing programme which contributed towards keeping our country secure and we carefully consider every request to recognise their extraordinary accomplishments.”

If you would like to sign the petition, click here