ISLAND - NUCLEAR TESTS
At the moment of detonation
there was a flash. At that instant I was able to see straight through my
hands. I could see the veins. I could see the blood, I could see all the
skin tissue, I could see the bones and worst of all, I could see the flash
itself. It was like looking into a white-hot diamond, a second sun.
The above graphic description
of the nuclear explosion on Christmas Island on 28th April, 1958, is
provided by Ken McGinley in his book No Risk Involved published by
Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Ltd, 1991. The book was written
in conjunction with Eamonn P. O'Neill, an experienced Scottish journalist.
My review copy was kindly made available to me by
James Gwilt, himself a nuclear test veteran of Christmas Island.
This book is very wide in
scope and covers the period from Ken McGinley's growing up through to the
establishment of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, founded by
Ken McGinley in 1983, to the ongoing struggle against nuclear testing on a
worldwide basis. McGinley has campaigned tirelessly for recognition of the
problems suffered by the nuclear test veterans of Christmas Island and for
the compensation he feels that they are entitled to receive.
This Web site features an
extract from this book which covers the period before, during and after
the Christmas Island bomb tests. McGinley demonstrates how the veterans
had no protection during these tests and how the official government line
was completely at odds with the reality.
The TT Dunera wasn't the most
luxurious of vessels and, as you might expect, any home comforts on board were
conspicuous only by their absence. Our beds consisted of hammocks in the berths
downstairs and wee Frank and myself made sure we were beside each other. Two
other men called Harry and Chuck joined us.
A tall solidly-built soldier
appeared through the wee door dragging his kit-bag and scratching his head. He
promptly plonked himself down on another hammock nearby. We looked at one
another in silence. Our huge companion slowly rubbed his face then said:
"Why don't us Scots all stick
We weren't going to disagree with
such a big guy so we just nodded in agreement. Then wee Frank walked over, stood
on his tip-toes and squinted into the big fella's eyes:
"Okay, Tiny," he laughed, "join the
There was a moment's silence before
the big guy laughed out loud. The name stuck to him and from that moment on he
was known as Alan "Tiny" Robinson.
Chuck, meanwhile, was examining his
watch. He said he'd bought it the last time he was back home in Paisley but some
of us were convinced he'd nicked it as he certainly didn't have it when we'd
left Ripon. He held the watch up to his ear to make sure it was ticking, then
took a good look at the dial.
"It's Hogmanay," he drawled. "This
is bad. We're stuck on a big boat out in the middle of nowhere. Jesus, this is
really bad ...."
We shrugged our shoulders in
agreement. Even if we'd had any drink to celebrate with, we couldn't have got
near it wince all our small bedside lockers were locked up. We'd also been
ordered to have lights out at eleven o-clock sharp, so we reluctantly got into
our pyjamas then climbed into bed. I think we were all feeling a wee bit sorry
for ourselves at the time.
Forty-five minutes later, still
dressed in our pyjamas, we jumped out if bed and headed for the toilets. We knew
that we would never be discovered since all the officers were having a high old
time of it in their quarters. I got out my harmonica and played "Scotland the
Brave" at midnight while the rest of the boys belted out the words with glorious
passion. Alcohol appeared from somewhere and we passed round a few bottles of
whisky and some beer. The party was broken up by a couple of officers who had
wandered downstairs but they were half-drunk themselves so they never reported
us. As they walked out the door, wee Frank shouted after them:
"Happy New Year and I hope you both
catch VD." (The cartoon-film we'd seen at Ripon, with the Hawaiian woman wearing
a grass-skirt, had obviously not been wasted on Frank. Anyone who annoyed him
was now liable to be told he hoped they caught VD. It was clearly the worst
thing he could think of.)
A few days later the ship reached
the Azores and by that time everyone on board had been sick at least once.
Sometimes I couldn't make it to the railing in time and threw up all over the
deck. I started to realise why decks were always being swabbed every time I saw
a film at the pictures about the navy.
The galley was where the meals were
served. There were over a thousand troops on board our ship so you can imagine
the massive queues which soon built up at breakfast, lunch and dinner time. The
crew were all Indian and they took a perverse delight in saying things which
they knew would make young, queasy soldiers throw up. to be asked if you would
like a runny fried-egg with greasy gravy poured over in first thing in the
morning was not the most pleasant way to start the day. Later on we would always
be given a plate of oxtail soup. The next day, once they'd sliced a few week-old
onions into it, they would give us the same stuff back only this time it was
called French-onion soup. That's what I call typical military improvisation. The
five of us very rarely ate the soup but we always took it so we could spill some
on to the floor. Then we would sit at the end of the long tables and have a
laugh at all the other guys as they tried to keep their balance on the floor
which had begun to resemble a murky skating rink as the ship lurched from side
to side. Okay, it was cruel but at least it passed the time for us and I don't
think anyone really got hurt - well there was that one poor English devil ....
The weather had begun to improve,
the skies were cloudless day after day and the wind on deck lost that chilly
edge which even the warmest of summer breezes always seem to have back home in
Scotland. The five of us wanted to play football on the main deck and the
sergeant said that he didn't mind as long as we "didn't use a ball:. Ha, ha,
very funny .... When he heard this remark Tiny Robinson sloped off to our berths
and returned with a home-made football manufactured out of rolled-up, smelly
socks that he kept under lock and key in his bedside locker. This practice
caught on and we spent the next few days playing our hearts out on deck.
Obviously a few problems arose if the "ball" went out the "park" and we soon
started to go through more socks than we had intended to. The game was
eventually abandoned when the rest of the troops noticed their hosiery supplies
were diminishing as those "bloody jocks" played football day after day.
The weather became warm enough for
us to sunbath on the decks and we used to throw water over each other to cool
down if the temperature was really unbearable. I was lying with the rest of the
boys one day when suddenly a message came over the public-address system request
Mr Ken McGinley to report to the duty-room. The voice which made this
announcement was unfamiliar and it didn't belong to the small-arsed disk-jocky
who usually played the records. "Maybe somebody6's kicked the bucket back home,"
said wee Frank as he screwed up his face and squinted his eyes against the sun.
Somebody else grunted something about them finding out it was me who ran over
the NAAFI cat at Ripon. "Tanks for the moral support boys," I thought as I
headed for the duty-room.
Suddenly the orderly-sergeant
appeared behind me with two other escorts and I was frog-marched into the
"Are you, eh ..." asked the captain,
glancing down at a sheet of paper in front of him," ... Mr Ken McGinley?"
"Yes, sir," I replied quickly.
"Ah, so you're the gentlemen who
carved his monica on my ship's hand-rail ....? he snapped.
The captain droned on and on about
defacing the ship but I wasn't really paying any attention, I was just relieved
that it wasn't any serious news from home. I was given extra guard duty and
confined to ship as punishment. To be honest I couldn't have cared less. I was
becoming used to landing in trouble and surviving.
Within the next few days we reached
the Panama Canal. I can remember passing through the world-famous Milaflores
Locks which lifted the ship up towards Panama City itself. As we neared them we
were issued with our tropical kit which was to be worn when we left the ship at
Panama City. As the TT Dunera went through the locks I looked up at the
banks and watched a group of little black children. All these cute kids had a
transistor radio which played a rock-and-roll tune at full volume and as they
listened to it they danced and giggled all over the place. We all laughed and
waved at them and they returned our greetingw with huge smiles and more
energetic dancing. Apart from the films, they were the first black people that
I'd ever seen in my life.
The TT Dunera arrived in
Panama the following day and everyone received a pass for shore-leave and some
extra money. Everyone except me that is. I was still in the dog-house for
carving my name on the captain's much-loved hand-rail. But I managed to find one
man who didn't want to go ashore so I asked him if he would loan me his pass for
the duration of our stay in port. He immediately and he'd be delighted to help,
the only problem for me was that this man was a half-cast. I decided to take the
risk so I walked off the ship with as much confidence as I could muster and I
flashed the pass at the officer at the end of the gang-plank. He never even
noticed the photograph on the pass and simply waved me off on my way. If he had
queried the snap, I had prepaed a story aboutr having a particularly dark tan on
the day the photograph was taken.
When we stepped on the shore at
Panama we were greeted by all the colourful locals, who came in every size,
shape and bust-measurement that you can possibly imagine. Each native had their
pitch meticulously rehearsed for our arrival and they seemed to presume we were
all very rich.
"You like to see my mamma or sister,
man ... only two dollars! Yeah, that's right, two dollars for you ..." or "You
wanna see a real special show ... all nudes ... no clothes, only one dollar!
Just for you soldier, very special lady one dollar!" they purred.
We were more interested in finding
the first pub to get a drink of decent beer or buying some postcards to send
home, so we headed stra8ight for the town centre on a little bus which had been
sitting at the end of the pier. It took twenty minutes to reach the centre of
Panama City ... and what a city it was! It was like something out of a spaghetti
Western. The culture shock was profound and we strolled around for hours with
our youthful jaws hanging open. We found a pub with swinging doors like the type
we'd all seen in cowboy saloons so we walked through them a few times for a
laugh. It was far too hot to stay inside for very long so we bought a few
bottles of beer then went on our way again. One of the guys decided to throw
caution to the wind and sow a few wild oats so we had a whip round and gave him
some US dollars and sent him on his way. Wee Frank was disgusted and reminded
him about the film we'd seen at Ripon but the guy had had enough of living on a
ship so he shrugged his shoulders and slunk off to see some wee Panamanian's
sister or mother. Within a few hours we had no money left so we headed back to
the ship. All four of us were beginning to regret not having bought any good
souvenirs from the little man who had tailed us throughout our journey, waving
his suitcase full of wares under our noses. By the time we reached the
gang-plank we'd decided that enough was enough, so while two of us kept watch,
the other two mugged the vendor and hoped off with a few handfuls of trinkets.
The ship hit the sea again on 15
January for another couple of nights and our next port of call was Curacao in
the Dutch West Indies. The Dunera stopped here because our captain had
accepted a challenge from locals to put up a cricket team from the ship against
their First XI. We, as Scotsmen, couldn't have given a damn about cricket but we
were grateful for the chance to stretch our legs again so we kept our mouths
shut and acted like true criekt6 fans when the ship docked. As it turned out,
the match was called off so we didn't have to endure the sight of our third-rate
team being walloped by a bunch of wicket-hungry English exiles. Instead, we
headed to a nearby beach where we found a lovely local lady had set up a
wooden-shack which opened out into an idyllic-looking beach-bar. Wee Frank
rubbed his hands together at the sight of the beer which was laid out on a bed
The lady passed him two bottles of
beer and smiled. Frank frowned at her and leaned over the wooden counter:
"I meant two cases!" he
After finishing off the beer we
hired a wee fishing boat from another native. The sun and the beer got the
better of us while we f3ell asleep and drifted out to sea, basking in the midday
heat. Frank soon took control of the situation and we began heading back into
the land. I woke up when the beach eventually came back into view.
"There's the shore!" roared a
But I thought he said that we were
on the shore, so I stood up like lightning and hopped off the side of the boat -
straight into the sea in a drunken stupor. I couldn't even swim. Within minutes
I was unceremoniously fished out and hauled back aboard the boat. That's what
friends are for I suppose.
At the end of a long and eventful day
we were gathered up by a couple of trucks which the captain had sent down for
us. The journey back wasn't very pleasant. Everyone got sick at least once and
some poor bugger shat himself. A brawl fired up as we boarded the ship and wee
Frank ended up being slung into the Dunera's jail. I was too drunk to
visit him that night so I looked in on him the following morning when I'd
sobered up a bit. He was lying in the cell trying not to throw up on the floor
which was already awash with a sea of vomit. He was barely able to reply to my
concerned questions so I left him alone in the darkness while I headed upstairs
to the heat and the blinding brightness of the open deck. I wrote a letter home
describing my life on the ship as it sailed toward Christmas Island:
It is now four days since we
left Panama Coty ... I'm sitting on "C" Deck listening to the news. Last
night we slept on the open decks as it was far too warm to sleep
downstairs. We don't pass any land until we reach Christmas Island now. We
have taken a good number of photos since we came aboard. I heard that we
were on television the night we sailed from Southampton, one of my mates'
girlfriends wrote and told him. We will write as soon as we have settled
in on the Island. The weather at the moment is terrific, it's so warm that
our dress is PT shorts with plimsolls. We went to see "Reluctant Heroes"
last night, it was a good laugh.
Frank soon recovered from his
stomach problems and the pair of us were assigned to night guard duty around the
ship's decks. sometimes we were able to get a few hours' sleep when no one was
looking but more often than not we were kept awake by the Indian crew who used
the deck for saying their prayers. We would be trying to doze off when suddenly
half-a-dozen Indian cooks would appear. then they'd kneel down on little carpets
and start chanting. Two other soldiers who were on guard duty were also kept
awake by this but they didn't have our patience, they stole the carpets and
flung them overboard in an attempt to stop the chanting. Needless to say it
proved to be unsuccessful and the Indian cooks returned the follow8ing night -
"flying carpets" or no flying carpets.
After three weeks at sea we were
collected together on the main deck and given a talk by a Sergeant Ward. He was
a tall man with a large old-fashioned moustache and a passion for reciting bawdy
stories, much to the delight of the soldiers under his command. I noticed on
this day, however, that he was much more serious and subdued. "One main reason
for going to Christmas Island," he stuttered, "in to (pause) witness bomb tests.
Don't ask me what kind," he continued, "but I do know that they will be rather
big." After Ward's speech we dispersed and headed for our berths. We had only a
vague idea about these "bomb tests" which the sergeant had mentioned. Our reason
for going to Christmas Island was to participate in "Operation Grapple" which
was so-called because:
These words belonged to the Task
Force Commander, W. E. Oulton, and they were contained in a small booklet
entitled Operation Grapple. I knew I would be involved in handling
machine-plants when I arrived at the island since that was the task I had been
trained for at Ripon but I had no idea what these "bomb tests" were going to be
like and, to tell you the truth, I wasn't really caring. I trusted my officers
and was sure we would be well looked after throughout our stay on the island. I
was secure, in my naive belief, that my superiors knew what was going on, even
if I didn't. Anyway, the little booklet on "Operation Grapple" had a foreword
written by Aubrey Jones, Minister of Supply, which seemed to cover all the
In the absence of
international agreement on methods of regulating and limiting nuclear test
explosions - and Her Majesty's Government will not cease to pursue every
opportunity of securing such agreement - the tests which are to take place
shortly in the Pacific are, in the opinion of the Government, essential to
the defence of the aggressor.
Given the fact that "bombs" usually
involved some sort of explosion, I was reassured to read the second paragraph:
No effort has been spared in
the organization of the tests to ensure the safety of personnel involved,
and to obviate danger to persons and property. The arrangements made to
this end will be continued throughout the operation ....
It was four o'clock in the morning
when I heard someone shout that land had been sighted. I dressed as quickly as I
could and immediately made my way up to the deck. A sight second to none greeted
my bleary eyes which soon adjusted to the half-light of the dawn. In the
distance I could see the outline of the island. rows of lights, similar to those
you might see on an airport runway, ran the length of and breadth of the strip
of land. Between us and the shoreline I could see the waves breaking in a foamy
crescendo as they exploded against the coral-reef. The TT Dunera slipped
through the water towards her anchoring point and, as the dawn sun slithered
high into the sky, I began to see the outlines of palm trees swaying in the
morning breeze. As the shoreline came closer and the sun shone like a white
diamond in the sky, I looked in astonishment at the water below us. this wasn't
the muddy, freezing and treacherous North Sea, the water was transparent and
sparkling in the sunshine which allowed us to view all the marine life. Before
long the ship was close enough for me and the rest of the excited soldiers who'd
arrived on deck to pick out long rows of light-brown tents dotted along the
coastline. Some small, matchstick-like figures, dressed in tropical combat gear,
flitted in and around the shoreline. Some LCMs (landing craft) began to skip
across the waves towards the ship where they would form our welcoming committee.
I took one last look at this scene before going down to the berths and preparing
for disembarking. Christmas Island looked like a bit of a paradise which had
fallen off and landed on earth. It was too good to be true.
The island had been discovered on
Christmas Eve 1777, hence the name. When viewed from an aircraft it takes the
shape of a gigantic lobster's claw. At its highest point it stands only ten feet
above sea-level, it is only two degrees north of the Equator, 3,600 miles from
California (the nearest mainland) and 4,000 miles from Australia. The
temperature never falls below 75 degrees F at night and frequently rises to 120
degrees F during the day. All in all, it is a long way from Johnstone.
Accommodation on Christmas
Island after the blast of 28th April 1958
The LCMs came alongside the TT
Dunera and we had to shin down a rope ladder to board them. I was a
non-swimmer and since my drunken escapades in the Dutch West Indies I was
apprehensive of water. The landing craft bobbed wildly and there was a
considerable gap between them and the side of the boat as I tried to jump to
safety. Eventually I made it in one piece and I can't remember any accidents
during the whole operation. We were soon on the beach and the officers sent us
to our designated areas.
I was stationed at an area
officially known as Port London, although we just called it Port Cam. It was run
by the navy so it was also referred to as HMS Resolution. There were a couple of
dozen soldiers from the RAF stationed there, as well as marines and a detachment
from the Fijian army. The Fijians were the most friendly bunch that you could
ever meet and they were really easy to get along with. They weren't allowed any
alcohol from the NAAFI so we always bought them a couple of cases of beer and
they, in turn, taught us how to catch crayfish and lobster. Sometimes they would
come over to our tents and sing a few songs for us while one of them strummed a
guitar. Later on, when I got to know some of them really well, they gave me an
honourary Fijian title; they called me "SonaLekaLeka". Every time I walked by
the camp, the large Fijian soldiers would shout this name at me and I would
smile and salute them. (Nearly thirty years later I would be told that this
meant "Little Scottish Short-arse"!)
The roads around this location were
made from hard-drying mud from the numerous beautiful lagoons which were dotted
around various parts of the island. Our camp had some buildings which had been
constructed from prefabricated material brought from Britain. There was a fuel
storage depot, refrigeration plant, cookhouses and other bits and pieces,
including a beach cinema, for our use. There was also a NAAFI canteen and bar,
along with a small village where the native Gilbertese islanders lived. My tent
was about two hundred yards from this little village and I had about five
Gilbertese men working with me in Port Camp. They did mostly labouring for the
services and they worked damn hard. I became very good friends with one of them
who was called April McDonald. He told me his grandfather was Scottish, which
was highly unlikely given the fact that April was as black as the night, and he
was always trying to impersonate my Glaswegian accent.
Tiny Robinson was given the same
tent as myself along with six other guys. Wee Frank, Chuck and the other boys
were sent to Port Paris, which was about five miles along the mud-road. It
didn't take long to settle into the camp and we were soon given our duties and
told what we were expected to do during our year-long stay. I now had my very
own bulldozer, a Fowler model, which I decided to name the Ann-Marie
after my little niece back home. She was delighted to see a picture of me
sitting astride the machine with her name painted in large capitals along one
side. I was responsible for loading and unloading the landing crafts which
brought the supplies into the island from the three merchant navy ships which
were named The Wave Ruler, The Wave Crest and The Wave
Sovereign. As I started my first morning's work I noticed that the TT
Dunera was pulling away from the shore where she had been anchored for a few
days. I watched all the people who were standing on her decks as they waved to
us. The majority of those who waved with the greatest enthusiasm were soldiers
who were on their way home. Every one of them had put in time on the island and
they knew what we were in for. They all stood there, waving and shouting, as the
ship sailed over the horizon. I was glad to see the back of it.
I had already started to write home
to Alice, the young girl who I'd met before I left Scotland. In one letter dated
the 5 February 1958 I described my new surroundings:
Well Alice we have been on the
island now for four days. It's quite good here. I hardly ever see Frank as
I'm working in Port London and Frank is up at the other Main Camp. It's
quite a big island and its very warm. Today is the best day of our week
(pay-day!) and that also means a "bevvy" tonight. I went up to the main
camp last night to play football and I met Frank there and all the boys
too, but I had to leave early as I had no lights on my truck.
I'm on constant night-shift
now so I may go for a swim in the lagoon this afternoon then get a couple
of coconuts for work tonight and I better not forget my bevvy either!
The food here is murder and
the tea has always got at least half a pound of sand in it. We can buy
canned fruit and sweets. Cigarettes are 2/6d for Capstan, a big difference
from British prices eh? I'll have to get a packet of Daz to wash my
pyjamas tonight ...
In another letter sent some ten days
later I'm already beginning to feel quite at home:
Thank you for your most
welcome letter which I received yesterday. I'm sorry I didn't answer
sooner as I was a bit dizzy last night (I was out for a bevvy ...).
I went to see Jack Palance in
"The House of Numbers" last night. It was quite good. I'm sitting in the
Fijian tent just now (The Fijian navy) one of the boys asked me who I was
writing to, when I said it was to my girl, he sang "Only You" as I sat
back and thought of you.
I've just arranged for someone
to take my films for development so I promise to send some as soon as I
can. I've not had it cut since eight weeks past, the sergeant-major said
he doesn't like "Teddy Boys" with their DA and Tony Curtis hairstyles.
I've just came back from the
cook house, there was nothing to pinch tonight and I'm starving.
Discipline on Christmas Island was
very lax. If we did a late shift, for example, then it was very common to see
men working on their equipment with a six-pack of beer beside them. Even if an
officer or sergeant approached, they made no effort to hide the fact they were
having a drink. The tents were sufficient for eight men with a small locker at
the side of each bed for personal effects. The bed itself was a small canvas
camp-bed which folded up and you also had a mosquito-net over it. Because of the
heat we only needed a couple of sheets for bedding. We hung our clothes up
wherever we could. The food was awful and we never saw anything that was
remotely fresh. When anybody went on leave to Hawaii they used to bring back
three or four pints of milk which would subsequently be raffled among the men.
We were always given powdered eggs for breakfast which tasted of chalk. In fact,
I believe most of our food actually dated back to the last war, so we were fed
on Second World War rations. We actually survived on the food which could be
purchased in the NAAFI canteen; at least we could spend our wages there on real
food like chips and the odd sausage.
Because the quality of the good was
so irregular we often suffered from stomach complaints like diarrhoea or
constipation. To combat these illnesses a lot of us used to buy tins of Del
Monte fruit-slices or fruit-cocktail from the NAAFI. After we'd eaten two or
three tins of fruit we would finish the night off by downing the diluted beer
which could also be purchased on the island. We weren't allowed to buy any
spirits though - that was reserved for the higher ranks. So while the officers
got drunk on a better class of liquid, the rest of us from the swinish multitude
got stoned on third-rate shandy. This class difference was rather silly in my
opinion since whatever way you look at it we were all trying to reach the same
destination as quickly as possible . . . oblivion.
Entertainment facilities on the
island were extremely basic. Most free nights were spent watching films which
were down in the Port Camp cinema. I've always been a great film fan and I
really enjoyed all the pictures which were laid on for us. The "cinema"
consisted of rows and rows of wooden planks which were arranged in front of a
simple projector screen. Night after night we would all dutifully line up and
watch whatever was on offer. Usually the selection wasn't too bad. I remember
watching a young unknown actor called Paul Newman play a boxer in a film called
Somebody Up There Likes Me. A couple of guys got carried away after that one and
a few fist-fights broke out. Nobody meant any harm. It was just their way of
killing time, which really dragged. I can also remember seeing a Marilyn Monroe
flick during a really hot period in the height of the summer of 1958. Everyone
was sweaty and uncomfortable, a condition not helped by the large land-crabs
which crawled all over the place and the sight of the delicious Marilyn. )Don't
forget there were over ten thousand men in one place at one time.) Halfway
through the picture, the beautiful Ms Monroe appeared on screen wearing very
little in the way of clothes. This brought all the usual wolf whistles and
cat-calls from the young crowd. But just at the moment, it all got too much for
one guy. The explosive cocktail of heat, beer and Marilyn's cleavage, pushed the
guy to the edge of insanity. He bounded over every plank in the beach-cinema,
stepping on countless heads on the way, before he finally took a flying-leap
straight through the screen and into the outstretched arms of the Hollywood
star. We were going to kill him. the pictures got cancelled for a week. The poor
guy never lived it down and every one ribbed him about it for days. I think we
were all secretly jealous.
I was always a great footballer and
I regularly took part in the matches which were organised there. The pitch was a
mixture of fine coral and sand which gave you a hell of a burn if you took a
sliding tackle at another player. In fact, I still carry two bad scars from this
sort of play during my stay on the island. I managed to play for my regiment,
the army and even my "country" when we organised England v Scotland games to
kill the time. Everyone took things seriously when these matches wer held and
the odd brawl after the fixture wasn't unheard of.
Every Sunday we would all troop off
to hear Mass said in a little makeshift chapel. I actually looked forward to
this since it broke the monotony and allowed everyone a few moments peace.
'there was never any problem about religion whilst I was on Christmas Island
apart from the odd bit of harmless fun now and again. One of the boys from Govan,
for example, heard me sing a few Irish Rebel songs during one of the hottest
nights of July 1958. The next morning, while I nursed a hangover, a small crowd
began to parade up and down the beach banging a drum like hell and trying to
squeeze a tune out of a flute they'd stolen. the English troops didn't have a
clue what was going on. I suddenly realised what tune they were playing ... "The
sash"! The half-wits had organised a wee "Orange Walk" on 12 July to get their
own back at me. When it dawned on me what they were doing I laughed and
laughed. What else could I do but applaud their ingenuity? The whole lot of us
got legless in the NAAFI that night.
With hindsight I've always felt a
bit sorry for the guys on the island who found it a wee bit difficult to mix. I
was the complete opposite, of course, and I really enjoyed the company of my
friends who played a big part in helping me complete my stay. Some men, however,
really got it bad and it must have been awfully difficult for them to kee going.
I spent most free nights, after the pictures or football, down in the NAAFI
where I got drunk with the other guys. I was never a great drinker or smoker
before I was posted there but I soon got going when I arrived. There was simply
little else to do to pass the time. I suppose I thought of the trip as nothing
more than one big, innocent adventure. My skin turned chocolate brown from the
sun and my dark hair turned an unbelievable shade of blonde. I was at the peak
of my physical fitness, a state I would never reach again. Some of the other
guys, especially the married men, really got it tough during during their stay.
Some would receive a letter from the wife and family, perhaps containing a
little snapshot, and they would just sit and stare at it for hours and hours.
The rest of us always left them alone to their thoughts. sometimes all hell
would break loose when someone received a "Dear John" letter from the girlfriend
who'd decided to call it a day. That happened a few times and it was more to be
pitied than laughed at. We kept our mouths shut on such occasions knowing our
own turn could come with the next post.
I grew up quite a bit during the
first six months on the island. I was definitely at my best then. I had
something pure and special inside me. I can't explain it in words. Whatever "it"
was it soon went and I never found the time to appreciate and cherish it. I had
to let go of the gift that money can't buy ... youth. A person or persons
unknown to me had decided that I was ready to watch the bombs. As far as the
scientists were concerned the show as only starting but for me, and God knows
how many others, it had already ended.
Anticipation and tension mounted
steadily when we realised the first bomb test was imminent. The official date
for the test was towards the end of April but preparations were well underway
when I put pen to paper in a letter to Alice dated Monday, 23 February 1968:
Just a wee note hoping to find you in good health
and keeping out of mischief. Well Alice, the work is now pouring in for
us, that's the reason I haven't written sooner. The boats with equipment
for the bomb-test are rolling in. I've been towing low-loaded trailers of
hydrogen all morning and part of the afternoon, I could have carried on
but my bulldozer broke down. All the famous British Scientists and
brain-boxes arrived last night in a Comet Plane. Sorry if I'm talking or
writing something that might not interest you Alice but that's the only
things I know that go on.
By the time I wrote back to Alice on
Thursday, 17 April at 10.30 p.m., I was already beginning to worry about the
implications of these tests. The officers didn't tell us much about them; they
probably just didn't have any information and a noticeable aura of trepidation
begins to invade my correspondence:
I've got a lot on my mind at
the moment Alice, there's a bomb going off thirty miles from here. It's
the biggest any country in the world has ever attempted to set off.
Believe me Alice, we're not out here for a pleasure cruise. The worst has
yet to come, so between you, the bomb and us I don't know where we stand.
There's boys writing out their last will and things like that, so you
can't imagine what I've got in my big thick skull. I'm sorry if I'm kind
of frightening you Alice, but I guess you are old enough to understand.
Before I recount the experience of
my first nuclear bomb test which took place 28 April 1958, I would like you to
read a brief article which appeared in the Soldier magazine. This piece was
published in the March 1959 edition, some eleven months after my first bomb test
in April 1958. Although the article does not specifically refer to the 28 April
test it still infers that its author was present at one of the tests that year.
I find this article highly intriguing for several reasons which I will mention
later but for the moment let us examine the description of a bomb test in 1958
which the article's un-named author reputedly witnessed:
A Supper of 38 Corps Engineer
Regiment describes how the troops live on the Army's farthest-flung and
loneliest station: Christmas Island, a coral atoll in the middle of the
Pacific Ocean where Britain is testing her nuclear weapons.
The count-down begins and
then, at last, the voice says: "The bomb has left the aircraft. Five,
four, three, two, one, FLASH!"
On the word "Flash" we feel
the warmth on our backs as if someone had passed an electric fire behind
us. The commentator counts on an then come the words we have been waiting
for: "You may turn round now and face the burst."
We turn and see a ball of
fire, brighter than the sun. We shield our eyes. Gradually the brilliant
ball fades to yellow, deepens to orange, rising rapidly in the sky all the
time and leaving behind a white column that will soon become the stalk of
a gigantic mushroom. The mushroom slowly takes shape, white and fluffy and
unreal. We gaze in wonder.
Suddenly we are jerked back to
realty. "Stand by for the blast," warns the commentator and we get ready
for the blow. But at that distance, all we hear is a big bang. We feel
nothing more than a slight movement in the air and we continue to watch
two Canberra aircraft fly right into the middle of the mushroom, sniffing
for information which is vital to scientists.
Some of us in the 38 Corps
Regiment have spent many hours
in the forward areas immediately after a megaton-bomb explosion, wearing
protective clothing to keep out radio-active dust and carrying dosimeters
to record the Rontgen rays. But contamination is negligible. My total dose
to date is about the same as I get from my luminous wrist-watch every
fortnight of my life.
If I didn't know better I would
think that this was a very full and graphic description of a nuclear bomb test
in the Pacific Ocean, written by a member of the armed forces who was actually
resent when the tests took place in the 1950s. I do know better and from
personal experience I can assure you that witnessing a H-bomb test was nothing
like the events described in this magazine article. This is what happened to
another twenty-year-old sapper from 38 Corps Engineer Regiment who was also
stationed on Christmas Island in 1958, his name was Ken McGinley.
A glorious dawn broke over Christmas
Island on 18 April 1958. I stuck my head out of our squat little tent on that
morning along with hundreds of other servicemen who were taking part in
Operation Grapple. Even at that early hour the tropical sun's rays were hot
enough for us to move around shirtless and the sky was full of ugly cormorant
sea-birds whose image decorated the operation's emblem. As I watched them flying
around I never guessed for a moment hat later the same day I would shovel up
hundreds of their corpses with the eyes burned out of their pointed-heads after
they too had witnessed a megaton nuclear explosion.
We were given a single white cotton
suit to pull on over our shorts and shirts while others just stood with their
long trousers and khaki jackets. The sailors and the marines were, for the most
part, dressed in normal gear with no special protection. This was to be the
first nuclear bomb test which I'd ever witnessed and it would be the one and
only time I'd ever be issued with any form of protective clothing. People claim
we were issued with scientific equipment in the form of little badges or
dosimeters which measured the levels of radiation we were exposed to but in my
personal experience this did not take place. To this day I've still to wear one
of these metering devices. I've also seen photographs of men wearing
futuristic-looking goggles with hoods, raped-up seams and special boots who were
reputedly stationed on Christmas Island during the nuclear bomb tests. Yet, in
the year0long period I was on the island and throughout the five nuclear tests I
witnessed, I never once clapped eyes on any such equipment nor, for that matter,
any individual from the services wearing it.
On the morning of that test all the
military personnel were gathered on to the main beach. We were told to sit down,
relax and wait for further instructions from our commanding officers. The heat
of the early morning sun made us very uncomfortable so we asked for permission
to remove our cotton suits. but they told us to "Shut up and be quiet".
As I sat on the beach I started to
become increasingly worried and all sorts of crazy thoughts raced through my
mind. Two days previously I'd helped the Gilbertese villagers, mot of the
Fijians and the two WVS ladies, aboard the "safety-ship" HMS Messima. The
Gilbertese couldn't wait to board the ship since they'd been promised the chance
to go below decks during the test to watch Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse
cartoons. As I helped one of the little WVS women to disembark from the landing
craft she turned to me and said sweetly:
"We will pay for you all, God
These words had hit me like a slap
on the face. I had never thought we were in any sort of danger until that very
moment. but, as the date of the bomb test neared, lots of other soldiers who
were brave than I ever was also started to get worried. I wrote home to Alice
and outlined my fears in no uncertain terms:
Before it (the H-bomb) went
off hundreds of boys went down on their knees to pray, I joined them and
prayed to spare everybody's lives and prayed that our love would never
die. It was a frightful experience Alice, I hope I never go through it
again. The reason for my starting and finishing my letters as a friend was
because I was scared of what would happen when the bomb went off. I wanted
you to think that we were friends, although I am very much in love with
you. The reason being if anything would have happened I was hoping you
wouldn't take it as hard if we were "just friends". But now I love you
more than ever Alice, so never fear about getting friendly letters again.
This illustrates the psychological
condition I was in as the tension mounted minutes before the test took place.
Suddenly, before I could have any more misgivings, a voice came through the
"This could be a live run," it said
dramatically. "Five ... Four ... Three ... Two ... One ... Zero ..."
There was a moment's pause. Then it
"Cover your eyes!" bawled the voice
from the loudspeakers.
I had my fists shoved into my eyes
and my back to the area where the bomb was going off. At the moment of
detonation there was a flash. At that instant I was able to see straight through
my hands. I could see the veins, I could see the blood, I could see all the skin
tissue, I could see the bones and worst of all, I could see the flash itself. It
was like looking into a white-hot diamond, a second sun.
Then the heat came. A slow, intense,
searing heat which ate its way into your very bones. It didn't feel"... as if
someone had passed an electric fire behind us". On the contrary, it felt as if
someone had passed an electric fire through us. I let out a scream with the
"Okay, look at the bomb now," said
the voice from the PA system.
The whole scene was unbelievable. A
gigantic, dirty-looking mushroom cloud was forming on the horizon. An enormous
ball of fire inhabited the base of the cloud and deadly-looking ripples of waves
began to emanate from its base. It headed directly for us as we stood on the
beach. I quickly glanced around me at the other men just as we got hit by a
gale. Some tents got wrecked and the cookhouse collapsed.
"Did you see those trees snap in
half?" I spluttered to one guy.
"A bloke over there has shat
himself," said someone else. No one laughed when he said this. We were all
frightened ourselves and our own bowels were in uproar. A man directly in front
of me suddenly started to cry like a baby. A silent, low-level panic had
descended upon even the bravest of men. I was worried about Frank. I didn't know
if he was safe or not.
Immediately after the blast I
glanced towards my sergeant who was standing there shaking his head in
disbelief. I was perplexed with this reaction since I always assumed the higher
ranks knew what to expect, fut from this sergeant's expression it appeared he
was just as shocked as I was.
I returned to the tent for a few
things then headed towards my bulldozer when suddenly a torrential downpour
began. By the time I reached the bulldozer it had eased off a bit but the
controls were soaking and I had to wipe large dirty puddles off the seat.
Although I was shaken, I managed to mount the bulldozer and carry on with my
normal day's work. Concentrating the ;mind on simple tasks cuts through a lot of
dangerous psychological confusion.
The details contained in the above
description of the events leading up to and during the 28 April bomb test could
probably be applied to any of the 1958 H-bomb tests I witnessed on Christmas
Island. It is far more accurate, in my view, than the piece which appeared in
the Soldier magazine. That particular article did not mention the
apprehension amongst many of the soldiers before the blast, the lack of
effective protection during the blast nor, indeed, the subsequent damage as a
result of the post-detonation winds. The paragraph which compares the risk of
radioactive contamination to the radiation contained in any ordinary luminous
wrist-watch is so condescending it's almost below contempt.
The general public in the United
Kingdom were kept informed about the progress of the Christmas Island bomb tests
via some rather guarded articles which popped up from time to time in the
British press. The Times ran a piece the day after the 28 April detonation
which, like the Soldier review, had all the hallmarks of an official Whitehall
press release. The article in question was presented thus:
A British nuclear device was
successfully exploded at a high altitude over the central Pacific
yesterday. It eas announced last night that Mr. Audrey Jones, the Minister
of Supply, had received a report from Air Vice-Marshall Grandy, task force
commander, Christmas Island.
It was stated scientific
measurements were being collected for accurate evaluation, and that early
indications were that fall-out would be negligible. The device was dropped
by a R.A.F.Valiant commanded by Squadron Leader R.N. Bates.
An Admiralty statement said:
"Four warships and two Royal Auxiliary vessels make up the Royal Navy's
contribution to the nuclear test programme in the Christmas Island area.
In addition the Navy is manning Port London, where its base has been given
the ship name H.M.S. Resolution.
With the assistance of Army
personnel, naval officers and ratings have been responsible for the
administration of the post and for the discharge of stores from ships
bringing essential equipment to the three services.
H.M.S. Resolution which is
commanded by E. Bruce R.N. was commissioned on Christmas Eve last."
Our Service Correspondent
If this had been a normal
atomic bomb test there is no obvious reason why it should not have been
held in the Montebello islands off the Australian coast. there has been a
widespread impression that an important British thermo-nuclear test was
The article in the Soldier magazine
and the above piece in The Times both fail to mention the possibility of local
radioactive fall-out. They simply dismiss it as "negligible". I believe that
this was incorrect. The heavy rain which I witnessed after the 28 April blast
cannot be ignored. Admittedly there was nothing unusual about this phenomenon so
I didn't really think much of it at the time. With hindsight, however, I am
inclined to wonder whether this original assessment might have been a little
premature. Predictably, the article in The Times never mentions this rainstorm
nor the possible dangers which could befall anyone caught out in the open during
it. (The piece in the Soldier magazine only mentions a "slight movement in the
air ..." which bears out my belief that the unidentified author has taken
complete leave of his senses.)
Other men who were on the island
with me also remember the rain. Several of them have openly expressed their
doubts about the MOD's claims that it was harmless. Ken Taylor from London, for
example, was a cook on Christmas Island during my stay there. He was based at
exactly the same location that I was, HMS Resolution, when the 28 April bomb
went off. He clearly recalls the events of that morning:
"It bucketed rain after that one,"
he says. "It was heavy rain ... like liquid hailstones or even Singapore during
the rainy season."
Another witness to the same
detonation was a friend of Ken's from Birmingham. tom Birch, who was also living
under canvas at HMS Resolution. What he saw on the morning of the detonation
will stay with him for the rest of his life.
They delayed the test by about
an hour because there was a cloud bank building u off the south-east point
of the island where the test was due to take place. The cloud did not seem
to have gone when the detonation actually occurred. Ten to fifteen minutes
after the blast, as Ken Taylor and I walked back to the Port Camp, we
suddenly became aware of a very thick black cloud approaching inland from
the sea. It was as black as pitch. The cloud came over part of the island
then retreated back out to sea gain. By that time we had all been showered
in rain which was as big as "Ten-pence pieces". We all ran like mad to get
away from the rain it was so torrential. Lost of men must have been caught
out in the open though. Immediately after the detonation there was panic
amongst the boffins. From the way that they were acting it was clear that
something had gone far wrong. The whole thing appeared abnormal, unusual.
Landing crafts and other vessels were being started up all around us so
that we could be evacuated. As it turned out we never actually left the
island, the rain sort of cleared up and we were left looking at each
other. It all ended in complete chaos and confusion ... I remember the sky
the following morning, it was completely orange, almost like a martian
sky. Normally it was a brilliant blue colour. It was weird ... totally
But when one compares the above
testimonies to a Top Secret Ministry of Defence report on 28 April blast, the
contrast between our evidence and the official military line becomes even
starker. This report, which has never been seen publicly before, was unearthed
by the journalist Eamonn O'Neill when he was doing some research for this book
in the Public Records Office.
The document refers to the 28 April
megaton blast. It was written by Group Captain W. Townsend and it lists lots of
senor officers and various important observers who were present during the
preparations for the test and indeed the detonation itself; it also describes
the bomb blast itself. Here are a few excerpts:
As you can immediately see this
document completely fails to mention the pitch black and that it rained after
the blast on some parts of the island. It assumes, therefore, that none of the
servicemen were ever in any danger of being exposed to radiation. I have always
believed that this assumption could be challenged. Surely the fact that it
rained after the tests proves that something went wrong? Why do none of the
official accounts of this blast mention this rain? these are important questions
which should have been answered. but they weren't. The MOD have always stated
that the rain, if any existed, would not have done us any harm. They claim,
quite fairly, that it often rained on the island. Why should we be so concerned
about that particular rainstorm? The answer to this question and the reason why
I question the MOD's stance is simple enough. Firstly, I believe all the men,
including my own judgment, when they say that they instinctively knew that
something was wrong. Secondly, I'm absolutely certain that the rain was
radioactive and I'm sure you'll agree when you read the following letter from
Captain W. G. Stewart who, as a twenty-year-old RAF recruit, participated in the
same 28 April test. His account of the blast reads as follows:
I was co-pilot of a Shackeeton,
(Reg. 859), on a shipping patrol, 60 miles from the blast of an H-bob on
28th April 1958. The explosion set off a line of thunderstorms, below
which we were forced to fly to return to Christmas Island. There was
torrential rain, which entered the unpresssurised aircraft like a sieve,
turning the only detector, a small rudimentary device on the captain's
lapel, immediately to the wrong colour. I believe that another
Shackelton was caught in the same predicament.
Both Aircraft were scrubbed
for days, if not weeks, before a fast transit, or at least fast for a
Shackelton, across the U.S.A. back to Ballykelly, Northern Ireland. On
that trip, starting 15th May 1958, I flew 856, which could have been the
other involved. Weeks, perhaps months, later some bright medic realised
that if the aircraft were irradiated then, chances were, there they had
contained crews at the time, therefore we were given a blood test,
apparently a pointless exercise unless a pre-exposure comparison has been
done. (Author's italics)
Saying that the rain on that day
might have been irradiated is one thing but actually proving how it could have
come about is quite another. Only a scientist could do that. This important
issue was addressed in part during an interview which Professor Joseph Rotblat,
Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of London, gave when he was
interviewed on the BBC's Nationwide programme when it dealt with nuclear
test veterans in the early 1900s.
Professor Rotblat attended
pioneering experiments during the Los Alamos tests in the United States and is
widely regarded as an international expert on radioactive fall-out. In the
course of his television interview he was asked about the safety of air-burst
detonations of a nuclear weapon. An "air-burst" detonation involves a warhead
which is detonated high above the earth's surface. Most scientists agree this is
safer than a "surface-burst" which is detonated on the ground, like the Nevada
tests in the United States. A surface-burst generally lifts up enormous amounts
of surface-matter and therefore leads to widespread radioactive fall-out when
it's dispersed back to earth after the mushroom cloud has formed. The Christmas
Island tests, however, did not involve surface-busts - instead air-bursts were
used to stimulate an air-attack on a military port of strategic importance.
Authorities have always believed that an air-burst does not suck-up a large
amount of surface-matter and consequently the subsequent radioactive fall-out is
negligible. these common assumptions were challenged by Professor Rotblat during
the course of the interview and his answers underline my belief about the nature
of the puddles I cleaned after the 28 April bomb test:
Professor Rotblat proceeded to
explain two examples of local fall-out which could occur after an air-burst.
First, there is the "after-wind" effect, when a column of water is sucked up
from the sea. this reaches the fireball where it mixes with radioactive
materials and, under suitable atmospheric conditions, returns to earth in a
radioactive state. Secondly, there is the "rain-out" effect. This occurs after
the nuclear device has been detonated, when the fireball ascends it encounters a
rain-cloud, mixes with the cloud's contents then returns to earth in the form of
rain. Professor Rotblat concluded by stressing that these two examples could
have more significant implications if their "air-burst" occurred at a lower
level than the scientists had planned. As Professor Rotblat commented:
But that was only half the equation.
The real question which still existed concerned the precise height of the
explosions that I witnessed. I thought that many of them were much lower than
the experts had predicted. If this was correct then it would mean Professor
Rotblat's theory about the possibility of local fall-out could possibly be
applied. but how could I prove that these blasts were lower?
In 1988 a coroner's inquest would be
held into a man's death. The deceased gentleman was named Collin Frederick
Kendal Smith. He was an ex-serviceman who had spent almost exactly the same
amount of time on Christmas Island as I did. We must have seen the same five
tests go off during 1958. Like me, his first bomb test was on 18 April of that
year. He died of caner on 21 November 1985. During the inquest, the Coroner, Mr
E. J. Wain, spoke to Dr J. Fielding from the Royal British Legion. In the course
of this exchange the operation of the height of the detonation was raised:
Professor Rotblat's comments and the
above extract from the inquest serve only to confirm what I believe really
happened during and after the 28 April H-bomb test. But perhaps the most damning
piece of evidence comes again from Glenn Stewart, the pilot who, as a young man,
witnessed the 28 April blast. Eamonn O'Neill interviewed Glenn and asked him to
detail his experiences about the detonation he's witnessed.
If Glenn Stewart is correct then the
above interview can only lead one to conclude that the official 1958 document,
which lists the height of the detonation at 8,000 feet remember, has got its
sums wrong. If this seems slightly fantastic, then one should take note of the
following information which has only recently been uncovered by Eamonn O'Neill.
In the official 1958 To Secret
report on the 28 April test we are informed that:
This language makes no room for any
doubt. The facts that are presented go straight to the point, don't they? The
bomb was detonated "five miles", or 8.047 km, off the south-east peninsula of
the island ... that's what we're told, so that's the way it must have been.
Until the MOD changed its mind that is! At an inquest recently some documents
were given out which listed the bomb trials, distances and heights, etc. One of
the documents contained information about the 28 April test which included some
figures about the distances off the island where the trials took place. This
listed the ground zero area as being 2.5 km, or 1.5525 miles, off the edge of
the island! Even at the most conservative estimate this revealed that the MOD
was willing to reduce its original estimates outlined in the 1958 document by
well over a half. Moreover, Glenn Stewart, completely unaware, that the MOD had
revised its figures, pointed this flaw out during his interview with Eamonn
O'Neill. After he'd shown Glenn the figures about the height of the air-burst,
Eamonn allowed Glenn to browse through a copy of the 1958 report. Without any
prompting, Glenn spotted the error in the MOD's estimation concerning the
distance of ground-zero from the island. Indeed, he suggests that the real point
of detonation could have been as close as 1/4 mile or 0.40225 km away from the
The last piece of new evidence
cannot be ignored. If the MOD are prepared to revise heavily its figures
concerning the distance of the 28 April bomb when it was detonated, then one can
only speculate about the actual height of the device on that morning. If, as I
and many others believe, it was much lower than the 1958 document reports, then
Professor Rotblat's rain-out theory can be applied. All the witnesses were
interviewed separately and none of them were aware of the others' evidence. All
of them spoke about the rain long before TV programmes mentioned the
significance of it in relation to the rain-out theory. (Tom Birch's medical
records, for example, clearly illustrate his belief that the rain had harmed
him. This assertion dates back to 1983 which is a full year prior to anyone
mentioning rain-out in public.)
As we shall see in later sections of
this book, this information becomes even more startling when it is placed into a
different context and its significance in the longer-term is, to say the least,
powerful. For the moment though let's return to Christmas Island in the days
which followed the 28 April test.
Three days after the 28 April bomb
test, I awoke to find my face, neck, hands and the upper-area of my chest
covered in large water blisters. I made my way over to the medical officer's
tent and queued outside with a line of other men who had similar complaints. By
the time the medical officer examined me, my eyes were nipping profusely and
tears streamed down my cheeks. He prescribed me with a bottle which sprayed a
plastic-type covering on to the rash and a pair of sunglasses for my eyes. The
rash cleared up about two or three weeks later but it left a noticeable scar
along my chest and face.
One morning shortly after this I
attempted to get out of bed only to find my right leg was refusing to move.
Initially it felt as if I might have a bad case of "pins and needles? but then
it went completely numb. I panicked and dressed as quickly as I could before
making my way over to the medical officer's tent again. On the way over I became
really frightened and I started to cry. The doctor said the best thing to do was
to put the leg in plaster for a few days. His plaster fell off after two days
and I found it difficult to move around on the island with two crutches. I was
eventually taken into the medical tent for observation for a couple of days,
with my right leg suspended in a sling. The patient in the bed opposite me was a
sailor by the name of Tanky, who was suffering from coral poisoning. His
shinbone had a hole in it where the coral reef had penetrated it. The wound was
deep enough for me to have put two fingers in it. As we sat talking, one of of
his pals came in to visit him. The moment I saw the guy I realised he had some
sort of mental problem but I didn't want to say anything to Tanky.
"It's a bit chilly in here,"
remarked Tanky's wide-eyed visitor.
After he'd said this he disappeared
outside for a few moments before returning with a large piece of crunched up
newspaper which he suddenly set light to. He casually proceeded to set the
medical tent on fire. thankfully someone appeared and all the patients were
hauled to safety. This incident gave me a shell of a fright and the shock
actually helped my leg, for within a few days it was much better. The guy who
set fire to the tent was placed under medical supervision and escorted off the
After the bomb tests, discipline
deteriorated rapidly and men would do anything to get off the island. I sat at
breakfast with Corporal Ginger Redman one morning. He was looking rather ill and
had been complaining of stomach pains, headaches and vomiting, so I advised him
to report sick. Later in the afternoon I went to visit him but the doctor, an
officer, wasn't going to let me in since he was sure Ginger was really skiving
off his duties> I knew Ginger well and I realised dodging work wasn't his style
so I persisted until he gave way and let me in. When I went in I saw poor Ginger
lying on a bed with his eyes sunk in his head and his skin a jaundiced yellow
colour. I whispered a few words into his ear but he didn't answer so I left with
the intention of calling back a few hours later.
In the evening, after I'd visited
Frank and NAAFI for a few beers, I walked the short distance to the medical bay.
I looked at Gineger's bed but it was empty so I called over an orderly and asked
him about it.
I went over to the bed and pulled
the single white sheet back. Ginger lay dead.
Some men who had arrived with me on
the TT Dunera and who'd been stationed with me at the main camp were
being sent home on medical grounds. Other men at my camp started to lose their
tempers for the smallest reason whilst others just walked around in a trance all
On my way back from the main camp
one evening I noticed two servicemen standing in an area of scrubland looking u
towards the sky. I stopped the truck and asked if they wanted a lift back to the
"No, it's all right, mate," said one
of them calmly, in a soft, southern-English accent, "don't mind us, we're just
talking to our new friends."
I looked around to see if there was
anybody else but the three of us were clearly alone. After some strong words
they reluctantly accepted a lift from me. As we moved off they started to cry
because they said they were leaving their friends, the telegraph poles, behind.
By the time we reached the medical bay I was starting to get a bit frightened
myself but I held my composure long enough to drop the two soldiers off. I never
saw them again and I heard later they were taken straight off the island for
A week after this incident I was
told I was entitled to a week's holiday in Honolulu. A crowd of us piled aboard
an aircraft and left Christmas Island for the first time in six months. The
island looked tiny when we saw it from the air, which was a total contrast to
the view from the Dunera on our arrival. We didn't need to look through
windows for our view since the pilot had left the aircraft's main door open. I
was flying for an hour before I realised it was my first journey aboard an
fourteen hundred miles later we
arrived in Honolulu to be greeted by girls wearing grass-skirts and singing
traditional songs. I was grinning like hell when one of them came over to me and
placed a garland of flowers, called a lei, over my head. We journeyed from the
airport to the US army barracks named Fort De Russey where we would stay for the
duration of our holiday. I'd already made friends with a little guy from
Liverpool called Spud Murphy so I wasn't short of company. The pair of us gasp3d
when we saw our rooms in Fort De Russey. They were sheer luxury! The beds were
lovely and soft, there were curtains on the windows and we had access to the
base's dining facilities - all for only one dollar per day.
When we went out for lunch we
visited Hickham Air Base which is near the infamous Pearl Harbour. Its
dining-room had palm trees growing inside the eating area and all the officers
and ordinary solders mixed together when they were eating, a total contrast to
the class system which existed in the British Army. After we'd introduced our ID
cards we were directed to the food counters. Our jaws hung open when we turned
the corner. There were steaks an inch thick, pork chops and something called
french fries. But best of all was the unbelievable selection of milk! I hadn't
tasted real mild for months so I headed for it like a bullet out of a gun. there
was strawberry milk, mint milk, banana milk, chocolate milk and good old white
milk. I grabbed four pints for starters and settled down to stuff myself.
I spent two days in Fort De Russey
near Waikiki beach. Spud and I went to a revolving bar one night and got legless
on two drinks. To this day I still don't know how the bar actually revolved
because I'd never been to a place like that before or since. The bars I
frequented in Scotland only had revolving customers.
The following morning Spud and I
went out on to the shore at Waikiki beach to play football. We kicked the ball
around for a while then started heading it to one another. Some local children
gathered around us as we played this strange game - they'd never seen soccer
before of course. The next thing we knew, a photographer from the local
newspaper turned up to take some pictures of us. A week later they were printed,
along with an article about us, in the popular Sunday Post newspaper in
Scotland. My mother was full of maternal pride when she read of our exploits:
Ever heard of the fabulous Waikiki
beach at Honolulu? To sun-soaked holiday paradise for American film stars and
millionaires where nothing is too expensive if it means entertainment and
pleasure for the wealthy visitors.
Well those dollar-happy holiday
makers have just been taught to have a bundle of fun with nothing more expensive
by way of equipment than a tanner ba' and no training apart from a lesson or
two, in the guid auld Scottish game of "headies". And it was a Johnstone lad who
did the teaching.
Kenneth McGinley is serving three
years as a Sapper on Christmas Island in the Pacific and he recently went on a
leave trip with a buddy to this wonderful Waikiki beach. A quick look around the
golden sands, a dip in the warm azure sea and then, like all guid Scots, Sapper
McGinley said, "Let's get the ba'"
This lad who lives at Lillybank
House and was formerly employed with Wilson Bros., was an outstanding Secondary
Juvenile with the St. Fergus Club in Paisley before signing on with the R.E.'s
and he never loses the opportunity of a game - even in a place like Waikiki.
The upshot of all this was that he
and his pal began a nice quiet game of "headies" on the beach, but before long
they were surrounded by a large crowd of enthralled spectators who watched for a
while until they finally demanded to be initiqated into the mysteries and
technicalities of the game.
With the result that scores of
millionaire bonces are now bus8ly engaged each day nodding the wee ball back and
forth across the sands of Waikiki.
Sounds like a cue for a song that -
and who knows - we may get one. Meantime, a Johnstone lad has taught the big
time Americans how to really enjoy a day "down the water!"
Spud and I were a bit short of cash
after our revolving bar escapades so we went for a walk around the town to kill
time. Two young, clean-cut men approached us and asked if we wanted to make a
bit of easy money. We agreed and followed them to a local clinic where we sold a
pint of blood each for ten dollars. After I'd given the blood I looked around at
the rest of the customers in the clinic. They were all deadbeats and
poor-looking drop-outs who would have looked more at home a decade later during
the hippy era. I felt sorry for them and a little ashamed of myself for actually
selling my own blood but I needed the money so I hung my head and left as
quickly as I could.
Oh my third day I walked around the
beach-front area and approached a stall where a plump lady stood selling various
items. I pointed to something and asked its price:
"That's a dollar, honey," she
I pointed to something else on the
"And that's a dollar too, honey,"
I pointed sheepishly to another
trinket in front of her.
"And I suppose that costs a dollar
as well," I joked.
"It sure does, honey," she said, "'cos,
this is a 'dollar-stall'."
The woman started talking to me and
asked me where I was from and how I came to be in Honolulu. When I mentioned
Christmas Island she perked up and appeared to know all about the bomb tests.
The next thing I knew, she had invited me back to her house to meet her husband.
I agreed and went to Fort De Russey to grab my luggage.
When I returned she's shut the stall
and was standing next to the longest car that I'd ever seen in my life. It was
like a large boat on wheels and it had gigantic tail-fins like a spaceship. She
drove us to the drive-in restaurant called the "Kau Kau Korner" where her
husband and son worked. both of them shook my hand warmly and the son casually
asked me if I would like a record specially played on the radio. I said that
that would be fine and I asked for one of Elvis Presley's hits of the time. The
next thing I knew the radio station was announcing my name and playing an Elvis
record for me. I thought I was dreaming.
I stayed with this family, whose
name was McGarry, for nearly the rest of my time in Honolulu. They had two
lovely children called Joey and Timmy, both of whom I took an immediate liking
to during the days that I looked after them. The McGarrys used to take me out on
runs in their speed-boat which was called Thumbs-Two. I thought this was
a strange name for a boat so I asked them why they called it this.
"My husband lost two fingers in his
old job," laughed Mrs McGarry, "but they paid him compensation which is what we
used to buy the boat. We thought we'd call it Thumbs-Two in honour of the
missing fingers, without which we'd all still be on dry land."
The McGarrys' house was a
magnificent glass-fronted affair with lots of windows and more breath-taking
views than you could ever possibly imagine. They were always throwing parties
and for the time I stayed with them I seemed to be the main attraction. Night
after night a steady stream of visitors would file in to look at me and listen
to my strange accent. I didn't mind this attention in the slightest; indeed, for
a twenty-year-old from Scotland it was like walking on to a Hollywood film set.
I spent two days in Fort de Russey
again before I left Honolulu. Mrs. McGarry and some of the family turned up to
see me off at the airport. They kissed me goodbye and gave me some small gifts
as I boarded the aircraft. I was said to be leaving Honolulu but I was still
shrewd enough to buy plenty of fresh milk before I left which I was supposed to
give to wee Frank when I arrived back on Christmas Island. I deviously changed
my mind and raffled the milk instead. I made a clear profit of seven pounds with
a clear conscience, Frank would have done exactly the same thing.
As soon as I returned to Christmas
Island I heard a rumour about a sergeant who had died after witnessing a bomb
test. The nature of this death and subsequent burial was a big talking-point
among all the troops who had known him. After he'd died his body was placed into
a makeshift coffin which had been knocked together by some soldiers on the
island. The coffin was put on to a LCM and taken out to HMS Narvick so
the sergeant could be buried at sea.
After a short journey out to sea the
coffin containing the sergeant's body was tipped over the side of the ship into
the clear-blue Pacific Ocean. It soon became apparent, however, that the coffin
wouldn't sink so some soldiers were ordered to shoot some holes into the side of
the coffin. Much to the captain's horror the coffin still refused to submerge so
it was hauled back on board. The troops had to bore some more holes into it and
the casket was riddled with a few rounds of bullets before it was hurled into
the sea again. Only then did it finally sink.
Stories like this inadvertently led
to an atmosphere of sheer depression which spread rapidly throughout the camps.
In the high summer of 1958 men began to drink more and serious grudge-fights
broke out on a more frequent basis in the NAAFI. I found myself smoking more
heavily than I'd ever done previously. It was around this time when the orders
were pinned to the board informing us that another bomb test was due to go off
on 22 August. The test was given a press built-up by The Times in London:
Britain is to resume her
nuclear tests at Christmas Island shortly it was announced by the Ministry
of Defence last night. No further details of the coming tests were given
and the Ministry did not disclose when they would start.
Christmas Island - an isolated
coral atoll in the Pacific - was chosen for Britain's first hydrogen bomb
tests. The first such test took place high in the air over the central
Pacific. In May last year when the "device" was dropped from a Valiant
four-engined jet bomber. The testing of further nuclear devices followed.
In April this year the
successful explosion of a British hydrogen bomb was reported. Mr McMillan
told the House of Commons that the test was in the megaton range.
Restrictions on traffic in the
test area was lifted on May 3.
Earlier this month it was
announced that Air Vice-Marshall T.A.B. Parselle had been appointed new
commander for the task force "Grapple" which is conducting the Christmas
When the day of the bomb test
arrived we expected to be issued with the white cotton suits and to be lined up
on the beach before the bomb went off. But as I sat on my bulldozer waiting for
these instructions, I was told to forget about the bomb and carry on working as
it was "only" an atom bomb. (This meant it was roughly similar to the bombs
dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) No preparations were undertaken, no cotton
suits were issued, no line-ups took place, nothing. Everything carried on as
normal and I worked away on my bulldozer, striped to the waist, wearing a
floppy-hat and shorts as the time of detonation neared. Because the highest
point in the island was only ten-foot above sea-level, I could easily stand on
top of the Ann-Marie and take in an excellent view of the A-bomb
test-site which was at the other end of the island. The bomb went off on time
and I gazed at the initial flash then at the gigantic mushroom cloud that formed
against the pale blue sky. I didn't think much of the explosion since it wasn't
nearly as big as the earlier H-bomb which I'd witnessed in April. The wind which
followed the August test didn't cause much damage and there wasn't any rain
either. After it was all over I went back to work as normal.
The soldiers were never well
informed about the bomb tests. We only found out about a test a day or two
before it was due to go off. After the 22 August test we would witness another
three nuclear experiments within the space of one month. Two of these would
involve the detonation of the enormous hydrogen bombs. God only knows what
psychological effects these tests had on the soldiers. I was really nervous when
I heard I was going to witness another H-bomb test and I said so in my next
letter to Alice:
The bomb went off this
morning, the one we have all been waiting for. It was the biggest and most
successful megaton explosion ever set off in the world. It was a bit
frightening and half of my tent-mates sat up all night when they heard it
was the big one. I was scared Alice, no kidding. I guess it was that extra
prayer that gave me a little more courage.
The 2 September test was carried out
using a similar procedure to the other H-bomb detonation in April. All the
soldiers were taken down to the beach at dawn, ordered to sit down and then told
to wait for the blast. The crucial difference, however, was that none of us were
given any white cotton suits. In other words, we witnessed a massive H-megaton
explosion wearing shirts and shorts.
We knew what to expect with this
second bomb test so we weren't as shaken up as we had been with the previous
one. The damage in and around the camp was just as bad, though, and after the
test took place we returned to find our tents in a real mess as a result of the
wind which immediately followed the blast.
The NAAFI had its windows blown in and the cookhouse collapsed again.
Another H-bomb was detonated nine
days later. By that time I was ready to go home. I know for a fact that some men
committed homosexual acts in the hope they'd be caught, changed and sent back
before another bomb test. Other men also acted completely out of character. My
big pal Tiny Robinson, for example, became broody and the pair of us almost came
to blows one night after we'd had a bad argument. During the argument we
suddenly realised what we were doing so we stopped dead in our tracks. Nobody
said a thing, they didn't have to. Everyone knew that the pressure was mounting.
Tiny, like the rest of us, just wanted to go home to his family. Nobody
criticised his brief loss of temper, family men were respected on Christmas
Island and everyone knew how hard it was for them.
About a dozen or so Fijian soldiers
were kept on the island during the bomb tests in September 1958. We were
friendly with one of them called Albert. He was a massive big guy who could work
us all under the table any day of the week. A few hours after one of the
September bomb tests Albert was found sitting on a deserted beach trying to eat
the coral which had been washed up on to the shore. Albert knew this could have
killed him but he still kept shovelling it into his mouth. Two of us grabbed him
and tried to stop him harming himself but as we got him to his feet he started
to cry loudly:
"SonaLekeLeka," he sobbed to me, "I
wanna go home, I don't want to stay in this place, please take me home, away
from this place, please!"
Albert was placed in solitary
confinement for a few days before he was finally removed from Christmas Island.
The military personnel on the island
often ate various types of fish which could be caught in and around the shore. I
was taught to catch cray-fish by some of the Fijian soldiers and the Gilbertese
villagers. This practice continued before, during and after all the nuclear bomb
tests. After the September tests, for example, we often visited the spa, an area
of the sea near the shore-line which was next-door to the testing area. We
fished this area for cray-fish the day after the last two or three bomb tests.
And as many witnesses will testify, the bird and marine life suffered heavy
casualties after the tests. At Port Camp, for example, I was assigned on a
couple of occasions to collect the dead birds which were lying all over the
place. I personally collected about fifty which had badly singed and scorched
wings. Others were half-dead but were blinded by the explosion so they just
flapped their bruised wings as they lay in a pathetic heap on the mud roads. On
closer examination, you could see that their little eyes had been burned out of
their sockets. It was really horrible. I collected some marine-life which was
also washed up on the beach along Port Camp. Some sharks had managed to find
their way through the waters around the treacherous coral-reef, more by luck
than design probably, and were beached on the shore. They were dead by the time
I reached them but you could clearly make out the distinct scorch-marks which
ran along one side of the poor creatures. The burning flesh gave off an awful
stench. I later spoke to some crew members of the Wave Crest, anchored
near the coast, and they told me that following the initial blast they'd seen
hundreds of dead fish floating around the coral tempting all the hungry sharks
from the open sea where they normally fed.
The last nuclear bomb I witnessed
was on 22 September 1958. There were no special preparations for this test and I
watched its detonation from the seat of my bulldozer, the Ann-Marie.
Apart from my normal working togs (ie, shirt, shorts and boots) I had no
By the autumn of 1958 I was falling
ill more frequently than I'd ever done in the past and I was in a state of
confusion about my career in the army. After the 2 September bomb test I awoke
to find my voice had completely gone, my throat was on fire and I had a severe
cough. My neck was also badly swollen. I was told to drink lots of cold water
but that didn't really help. By 15 September it was established that I was
allergic to penicillin and that my glands were severely swollen. It took the
medical staff on Christmas Island over a month and a half before they realised I
was really ill. On 28 October I was admitted to Tripler US Army Hospital in
Honolulu suffering from chronic tonsillitis. During the intervening months on
Christmas Island I had felt very uncomfortable yet was still forced to do hard
quarry work. On 29 October I underwent an operation to remove my tonsils. I was
as nervous as hell before going into theatre because I always had my brother
Jimmy's death at the back of my mind. He had died on the operating table while
having his tonsils out so I didn't write to my mother in case she got upset.
'During the operation I woke u and looked at the surgeon just as he was placing
my detached tonsils into a small jar. He smiled at me and told me to go back to
sleep again; needless to say I refused.
A few days later, I noticed there
was a problem in the muscles in the right side of my face. I became really
worried about this and called the doctor over to examine me. He diagnosed a
condition called "Bell's Palsy". I returned to Christmas Island where I was
fitted with a splint in order that the right side of my face might be elevated
to a comfortable angle. My condition improved over the next few weeks and I
managed to get rid of the splint within a fortnight or so.
Everybody was desperate to get off
the island as soon as possible. some of our kit was sent on ahead of us but we
still kept a spare outfit for our journey back to Britain. some other troops had
already arrived on the island to relieve us and they quizzed us about conditions
on it. We didn't want to rub too much salt into their wounds so we said that it
hadn't been too bad during our eleven-month stay. This optimism wasn't all a
front for we heard there weren't going to be any more bomb tests so we knew the
next bunch of soldiers wouldn't go through the same fear and apprehension which
we'd all had to endure.
Some troops left Christmas Island
via ships like the Captain Cook or the TT Dunera; others, like us,
left by air. On 15 December 1958, after spending 351 days on the island, I
boarded an aircraft with Frank. Tiny and other troops. During this time I'd
witnessed five nuclear bomb tests. As our plane took off I settled back into my
seat and I closed my eyes. I refused to take one last look at Christmas Island
as the small aircraft circled it before heading towards Honolulu. . . .
* * *
Our return journey was broken up
into several legs. We stopped in Honolulu first in order to refuel the plane.
This gave me the opportunity to call up the McGarrys and a local girl who I'd
met when I was on leave there. The McGarrys never made it down before I left but
the girl showed up with a gigantic garland of flowers for me. I dutifully wore
it as I said my goodbyes to her but the moment I boarded the aircraft all the
guys started shouting names and singing love songs to me. I was sad to leave
Honolulu that afternoon. It was a really beautiful place which appears to have
been somewhat exploited and spoiled by the hordes of tourists who have since
Our next stop was San Francisco on
the West Coast of America. It was the very first time I'd ever been in the
United States and it was an experience I'll never forget. The contrast between
Christmas Island and San Francisco was like black and white. The city was at its
post-war height when we saw it; all the buildings were made of spotless white
brick, the pavements were gleaming, massive cars which guzzled the endlessly
cheap petrol cruised by, the garde3ns in Union Square were full of sightseers
and people walked around the night without fear of being disturbed. We ere able
to view the complex freeway interchanges against the skyline of the city with
the famous Golden Gate Bridge forming a frame to the whole scene. It was
As Frank and I walked into our hotel
we noticed a tall, bald-headed man standing in the foyer. Frank walked up to him
and prodded him in the chest:
"You're that big, baldy guy out of
Dagwood and Bumpstead aren't you," he laughed, but before the poor man
could reply Frank spat out a catch-line from the American TV programme: "Don't
go Near the Water!" he shouted at the top of his voice.
"Where the hell do you come from?
asked the tall man.
"We're from Scotland," replied wee
Frank, "and you're in that programme aren't you? You can't kid me, pal . . .
you're the boss, the big, baldy boss . . . "Don't Go Near the Water.' Ha, ha, I
watch that Dagwood and Bumpstead all the time!"
"Yes," said the man, "that's right,
my name's Fred Clark."
Both of us got Fred's autograph
before we went to our room on the twenty-fourth floor. Wee Frank was delighted.
The excitement of going home meant
neither of us were able to sleep that night so we ended up ordering breakfast at
three a.m. After I'd stuffed myself with pancakes and maple syrup I went for a
quick bath while Frank lay on the bed. I was in the bath for no more than two
minutes when suddenly there was one hell of a rumble. The building shook like
hell. I thought Frank had maybe fallen out of bed or done something he shouldn't
"What's going on!" I screamed from
the bathroom as I pulled on my robe.
"I don't know! But whatever the hell
it is I don't like it . . . get out of here now!"
The pair of us got dressed and ran
to the nearest lift. It took ages for the elevator to reach the ground floor and
by the time we finally got there the whole foyer was teaming with people running
to and fro. Within another half-an-hour the front pages of the early morning
newspaper headlines ran "EARTHQUAKE HITS CITY!"
Two days later we left San Francisco
and flew to Dalouth, Minnisota. The journey was awful for wee Frank since he was
suffering from toothache. Our sergeant kept telling him to eat something and the
nice stewardess waved scrambled eggs under his nose every two minutes but he
would have none of it and spent the entire flight under a blanket growling
inintelligible oaths at anyone who dared annoy him.
The arrival in Minnisota was a hell
of shock to all our systems. Indeed, when I think about it now it's hardly
surprising that so many of us got drunk during the trip home. We'd left an
island that Robinson Crusoe would have found lonely, thousands of miles from
anywhere, and within twenty-four hours we'd been dumped in the middle of San
Francisco, one of the largest cities in the world and prone to earthquakes every
so often, and then flown into a small town called Dalouth which had temperatures
of twenty below. It had taken us nearly a year to become used to tropical
conditions and now we were instructed to run across the runway tarmac in case we
froze up. Everyone was confused that night and to make matters worse we'd been
warned not to talk to anyone about our experiences on Christmas Island and never
divulge descriptions of the bomb tests we'd witnessed.
We stayed in Minnisota for two
nights then we flew on to Newfoundland in Canada. The weather was even worse
there and the snow drifts reached at least three feet high. Some local girls
invited us out when we arrived and it was here I tasted my first ever
A couple of days later we flew from
Newfoundland b ck to London. When we arrived back on British soil I think we
expected to be treated like some kind of long-lost heroes. I knew there had been
lots of publicity about the bomb trials in the British newspapers and that all
the scientists were proclaiming the wonders of this so-called "Atomic-Age". We
saw ourselves as pioneers at the forefront of the new age - we'd actually seen a
bomb go off so we knew from first-hand experience what the new military
deterrents looked like. If the politicians were right and this device would
allow us all to live in safety for ever and ever then surely we deserved some
credit for being around when they tested the damn thing. but when we arrived
back in London Airport the first thing we encountered was a line-up of grouchy
customs men who didn't give a damn where we'd been or what we'd seen exploding.
Our uniforms didn't seem to be worth much. We were all really desperate to get
home, yet here we were being held up by a wee man looking for some fags that
Frank and I had planked inside our luggage. I even had to pay duty on a radio
I'd bought to keep me company on Christmas Island. Nobody gave a damn about us.
We went straight to Euston Station
and hung around waiting on the next train to Scotland. We finally caught a train
to Glasgow which took a longer route than normal. The ticket inspector said that
we should have taken an earlier, more direct, train. We protested and said that
it didn't matter since we all had army travel warrants but he had had enough so
we paid up in silence and settled down to catch some sleep before we reached
Just in case you think we're
exaggerating our feelings concerning our return journey I would like to point
out that years and years later I found a newspaper article from The Times dated
1958 which highlighted the case of some other soldiers in a strikingly similar
situation to ours. After I had read the article I grew even more angry since it
illustrated the cold-hearted and calculated fashion in which all us returning
soldiers were treated. The article ran as follows:
Three British service
men arrived last night from Christmas Island, Britain's nuclear weapon
test base in the Pacific after what one of them described as "a terrible
The men were Sapper
P. Cleeland Royal Engineers and a sergeant and a corporal of the R.A.F.
Sapper Cleeland who had a fractured knee in plaster and was using crutches
as a result of an accident said ther3e was no one to meet them in New
York, and no accommodation had been arranged. They had to borrow $10 each
from the British Consulate to pay their hotel bill. "We got to New York at
9pm and didn't get into bed until two in the morning," he said.
The R.A.F. sergeant
said: "We felt like paupers. For a whole day on the journey from Honolulu
to New York we had only a few sandwiches. We hadn't any money. We were
told before we left Christmas Island that signals had been sent ahead and
everything would be looked after."
In New York they had
to pay $6 each for a bed and "that left us just about enough for a couple
of cups of tea".
After visiting the
sick bay, Sapper Cleeland left in an ambulance. The R.A.F. men who have
completed a tour of duty on Christmas Island travelled to London.
A spokesman told The
Times last night that no complaint had yet reached the War Office and
therefore there could no official comment. There had been few, if any
complaints from men returning from Christmas Island and it would seem that
there was some special reason for any discomfort experienced by these men
on this occasion. Perhaps the authorities were more concerned with getting
the men home than getting them home in comfort.
An Air Ministry
spokesman said that men leaving Chr8istmas Island were given a subsistence
allowance, but it was not clear whether these three men drew the allowance
which was "something of the order of 15 pounds sterling".
After an awful train journey we
finally arrived in Glasgow to find the place much the same as we'd left it
almost a year before. But each of us had changed inside and in our own way we
knew it. For months and months we'd planned and fantasised about what we'd do
when all we wanted to do was go home and go to sleep.
I caught a bus to Johnstone along
with a few other lads and I waved to big Tiny as he got off at Paisley Cross. As
he saluted me with his massive hands I never imagined for one moment that I
wouldn't see this gentle giant for almost thirty years. I continued my journey
with only a snooty Frank for company until we finally reached Johnstone a few
stops later. It was a rainy and cold 22 December 1958 and I was glad to be home.
Two nights later I went to midnight
Mass. Going to a Christmas service in my home church, Mt Margaret's, was
something I'd often dreamt about when I'd been on Christmas Island. The thought
of proudly wearing my uniform as I walked through the church door with an air of
confidence and having a calm, settled mind had been a private vision which had
frequently pulled me through many nights of loneliness and terror during the
Halfway through the Mass, as I sat
five rows from the front, I began to see flashes of light and hear loud sounds
in my ears. I turned to say something to the person sitting next to me but I was
already falling to the floor. I passed out in front of the whole church and had
to be carried out of my seat. When I came to, I was shivering and shaking like a
leaf; it was the first time in my life that I'd ever fainted.
After New Year I returned to Ripon.
Although I was looking forward to seeing all the boys again I knew my heart
wasn't in it any more. I constantly felt ill and it wasn't any surprise to find
myself being admitted to Caterrick Military Hospital with a bad flu-type illness
at the end of February 1959. I stayed there for approximately four days before I
was discharged back to Ripon. My next posting was to Otterburn in Northumberland
where we had to build a road deep in the damp countryside. It was a very lonely
place and we stayed under canvas for the whole period. I didn't feel very fit
either and the fact that we only got terrible rations made me feel even worse.
One night, while I was staying in
the tent in Otterburn, I woke up with a start and went into a series of painful
spasms. The front of my pyjamas felt damp so I sat up in bed and examined them.
I was drenched in a pool of blood. Someone put me on to the back of a motorbike
and rushed me to a local hospital where I was given an injection to make me
sleep. I remember them telling me I'd suffered internal haemorrhaging. When I
woke up the next morning a dirty old doctor shoved two paracetamol tablets into
my hand and gruffly told me I'd be all right. I was discharged ten minutes
I returned home to Scotland that
same weekend and visited my own doctor in Johnstone. He said I was in no fit
state to return to active service but I did attempt to journey back down to
Ripon after my weekend leave was finished. My girlfriend Alice accompanied me to
Central Station in Glasgow on the Sunday night but I felt too unwell to tackle
the rest of the journey so I about-turned and headed back home. I was in a hell
of a state.
My local doctor supported me with a
series of long-term sick-notes and I was admitted to Cowglen Military Hospital,
which is just outside Glasgow, in the summer of 1959. I was put through a whole
series of rigorous tests which eventually led the doctor to diagnose a serious
duodenal ulcer. Is pent sixteen days recovering there before I was discharged
and sent back to Ripon to be examined by an army doctor. I was told I was being
discharged from military service on the grounds of "Ceasing to Fulfil Army
Medical Requirements, Para 503 (xvi) (b) (11) Q.R. 1955."
I still attended a local doctor on a
regular basis who took a special interest in my health. He was particularly
concerned about my ulcer and the fact I shook and sweated continuously for no
apparent reason. The first time I visited him as a civilian after being
discharged from the army, he examined me and shook his head.
"What's wrong, Doctor?" I asked him.
"You're such a young man," he said
sagely, "and you'll always regret the day you ever set foot on Christmas
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