'Heroes Without Medals': Why UK Nuclear Test Veterans Campaign for Recognition

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Between 1945 and 1980 more than 500 nuclear tests were carried out above ground by the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.    

Last month France was sued at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over nuclear tests conducted on atolls in the Pacific Ocean.

Britain conducted similar tests in Australia and in the Pacific in the 1950s, when it was perfecting its own independent nuclear weapon. 

Douglas Hern, a trustee of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA), is convinced the death of his daughter, Jill, at the age of 13, from a rare form of cancer was directly linked to the radiation he was exposed to as a young man.

“We estimate around 22,000 people, both military and civilian, were affected although only 1,500 are still alive, and 150,000 children have been affected, including my daughter,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

© Photo : Douglas Hern
Douglas Hern, pictured aged 21, was in the Royal Navy when he witnessed atomic bomb tests in the 1950s

He was a 21-year-old rating in the Royal Navy in September 1957 when he was sent to Christmas Island in the Pacific — in what is now Kiribati — to witness several of the tests.

‘They Were Man-Made Suns’

“I witnessed five tests. They weren’t bombs. They were man-made suns but a thousand times brighter,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

He said they were not offered any protective clothing or safety advice apart from to turn their backs for 10 seconds to avoid the flash from the detonation.

“You could see your blood and veins in your hands, the gamma rays were so strong. It takes 1,200 X-rays to produce that same effect,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

Although Christmas Island was 19 miles from the blast, the entire area suffered radioactive fallout.

“The fish in the sea were all killed and the birds were either killed outright or blinded. Areas close to the detonation caught fire and instruments were severely damaged. But they didn’t warn us about the radiation. During the first detonation I was wearing blue overalls and a balaclava but in the last one I was just wearing flip flops, shorts and a bush hat,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

Mr. Hern, who was also a member of the clear-up operation after the tests, went on to have three children but one of his daughters, Jill, died aged 13, in 1977 after developing an extremely rare form of cancer.

“Why should people who were prepared to give their lives for their country be endowed with a lifetime of what we have had to put up with?” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

Birth Defects Among Veterans’ Children

There have also been many cases of birth defects among veterans’ children.

The daughter of one veteran, Archie Ross — who died in 2015 of non-Hodgkin’s myeloma — was born with a claw-like right arm which has required 21 operations on it over the years.  

Mr Hern insisted those in charge of the tests were fully aware of the danger from radioactivity.

“Nobody would stand in front of one of those bomb tests today. What we know now about radiation they knew then. We were there to test the human reaction. We were just guinea pigs…and we are still part of the experiment,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

“To me we’re heroes,” said Mr. Hern, who is campaigning for the surviving nuclear test veterans to be given medals, following a similar campaign for those who served on the Arctic convoys to Russia.

“We did our service for the country and just because we didn’t get hit by a bullet doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a medal. Many of our veterans have died horrendous deaths and we feel we are being discriminated against by our own government,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

An online petition has received more than 10,000 signatures.

Douglas Hern (pictured), is convinced the death of his daughter from a rare cancer at the age of 13 is linked to the atomic bomb tests he witnessed
© Photo : Douglas Hern
Douglas Hern (pictured), is convinced the death of his daughter from a rare cancer at the age of 13 is linked to the atomic bomb tests he witnessed

The first British atomic bomb test was in 1952, when HMS Plym was blown up off the coast of Australia, but they later moved onto the Australian mainland and by 1957 had moved to a site 19 miles from Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean.

The BNTVA will be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Sunday, November 11, but is still waiting to hear if its’ members will be given a medal.

In July this year Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson agreed to a medal review.

Defense Secretary Promises Medal Review

“We must never forget the important work of our nuclear test veterans in contributing to keeping our country safe during the Cold War and the effect that still has today,” Mr. Williamson said at the time, but said it would “take time” to decide if they deserved a special medal.

He also said he had commissioned a new study into their health.

The British government has always denied any connection between the tests and the deaths of veterans or health problems suffered by their children.

Several lawsuits have been brought against the Ministry of Defence but all have failed.

In 2012 the UK Supreme Court ruled the most recent lawsuit was beaten by the statute of limitations.

“The government has always headed up the research and to me that is biased,” Mr. Hern told Sputnik.

Sputnik contacted the Ministry of Defence on Wednesday, November 7, but has not yet received a comment regarding Mr. Hern’s claims or the medal review.

Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

 

 

© East News / USA/Science Photo Library

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