Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cold War in paradise

Cold War in paradise

Footage of early nuclear test

By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Some 50 years ago thousands of excitable young servicemen landed on the white sands of a Pacific paradise to oversee Britain's testing of early nuclear bombs. But what happened next damaged them mentally and physically for life, some claim, and now they want to be compensated.

Dressed in overalls, white protective gloves and a balaclava, 21-year-old naval cook Dougie Hern was ordered to sit on the beach, back to the bomb, his knees pulled up, eyes closed and hands over his face. A countdown began...three, two, one.

"We saw a bright, brilliant light," he recalls. "It was as if someone had switched a firebar on in your head. It grew brighter and you could see the bones in your hands, like pink X-rays, in front of your closed eyes."

Seconds later, they were ordered to stand and turn towards the blast.

People were knocked off their feet, palm trees shook, birds were blinded and glass shattered as a mushroom cloud rose from the horizon, parting the clouds.

Moments later, the servicemen were told to stand down and resume their duties.
We knew what had happened in Japan - I thought it could not happen here, they would not do it to us

Douglas Hern, former navy cook drafted to Christmas Island

It was all over in about 14 seconds, but Mr Hern, now 72, believes radiation exposure on that day and four others is behind his diabetes, the spurs growing on his sternum, and much worse, the death of his 13-year-old daughter from cancer.

For decades, British ex-servicemen who were stationed on Christmas Island in the South Pacific in the 1950s have been embroiled in legal battles, trying to win recognition for their work and compensation for poor health they say is the result of the nuclear tests.

Their latest attempt to sue the British government goes before the High Court on Wednesday, when the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is expected to argue the claims have been brought too long after the events.

If the MoD loses, the government could face its largest class action yet, involving claims for millions of pounds from 1,000 individuals, say the veterans' lawyers.

Compensation claims by members of the armed forces are not uncommon these days, but the events from the 1950s are unlikely to ever be seen again.

Against a backdrop of de-colonisation and the growing threat of the Cold War, Britain was desperate to establish itself as a nuclear power. The tests, which encompassed six nuclear blasts in all, sent a message of might to the world. But the apparent lack of concern for the wellbeing of servicemen has left shockwaves of anger in some.

"If they gave the order today, there would be wholesale mutiny on the ship," says Mr Hern.

"We had complete faith in our masters. We were trained not to ask questions. We knew what had happened in Japan. I thought it could not happen here. They would not do it to us." BRITAIN'S NUCLEAR AMBITIONS
The US dropped the first atomic bomb used in war on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945
About 20,000 servicemen from Britain and overseas were involved in nuclear tests in the Pacific and Maralinga, Australia in the 1950s
Six nuclear detonations took place on Christmas Island 1957-8
Christmas Island, part of the Republic of Kiribati, is also known as Kiritimati
Bombs were exploded in the air, rather than on ground, to try to reduce fallout
The trials led to Britain becoming a thermonuclear power

A job in the armed forces was about being "one of a number", according to Derek Chappell, who had to record data from the H-bomb from about 20 miles away.

Tony Stannage, a sapper in the Royal Engineers brought to the island to build living quarters, roads and the airstrip, says they had no choice.

"It was our duty. If they were going to do another test today, where would they do it?"

The take-it-in-your-stride attitude was so ingrained in Mr Stannage, it was not until a 2002 Christmas Island reunion with fellow servicemen that he spoke of the bombs. "My family and friends might have read about them but they would never have understood," he explains.

For others, the day Britain detonated its first H-bomb over Christmas Island is a story that has been told time and time again, some memories merging, others melting away.

"Everyone in my mind tells a different story but no one is telling lies," says Mr Stannage.

Shorts and sunglasses

The recollections of these three ex-servicemen suggest an island that may have looked like a tropical idyll but in reality was a place to make do and dream of home.

There was little food, land crabs roamed the island, coconut palms were used for fans and clothes were stored in orange boxes.

Orders were to dress only in long-sleeved shirts and full trousers to avoid the blistering heat.

On bomb test days, some servicemen were given the same protective gear as that worn by Dougie Hern, others wore just shorts and sunglasses.

Many complained of being at a loss for things to do, with sport and fishing the only leisure activities.

Mr Chappell, in the RAF, claims in his 50 days on the island, he did just one day's work, the day of the H-bomb.

He is convinced they were there as part of an experiment, a view shared by some fellow servicemen.

"We were lemmings," he says. "There was never any need for that many people to be there."

The Ministry of Defence will not comment on the allegations but did say in a statement that it recognised the "vital contribution" these men played.

It said compensation claims were considered on the basis of whether or not the MoD had a legal liability to pay compensation and were paid if a legal liability was proven.

Leukaemia 'link'

Three years ago, Mr Chappell, now 73, was diagnosed with polycythemia vera, a blood-thinning leukaemia, that he believes can be traced back to the 1958 bomb blast.

Links between nuclear testing and premature deaths and cancer among veterans have been contested for years.

The National Radiological Protection Board, now amalgamated into the Health Protection Agency (HPA), has been conducting a study of nuclear test veterans since the 1980s.

It compares cancer and mortality rates among servicemen involved in nuclear testing with rates among a control group of servicemen without any nuclear test links.

Dr Colin Muirhead, the HPA's head of epidemiology in the radiation protection section, says his findings showed similar levels of mortality and cancer in both groups.

However, there is "some indication of a raised risk of leukaemia" among those who had worked with nuclear tests, he says.

The veterans may be used to battles. But this one, hindered by funding shortages and legal technicalities, has gone on longer than the Cold War during which it all began. Maybe now there is an end in sight.

Cold War in paradise it is worth going to the link and seeing the pictures and the video and the iformation in boxes they have

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