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On the brink of the unknown
THE FLASHBACKS don’t trouble Doug Hern any
more, and at 71 he admits he counts himself
fortunate to be still doing a job he enjoys.
That has not been the case for many of those who
stood with Doug 50 years ago on the beach of a tropical
paradise and witnessed a vision of hell.
Doug is now Litigation Secretary for the British Nuclear Test
Veterans Association (BNTVA), having been one of thousands
of Servicemen ordered to
Christmas Island in the 1950s. Veterans have
Doug had no idea what lay in
gathered to mark
store, and his journey to the Pacific
saw him mixing with the stars of
the 50th anniversary
stage and screen in America.
of the first British
“I was crash-drafted from
Chatham, and flew to Christmas
nuclear bomb
Island via New York, Chicago and
test in the Pacific.
Travis,” said Doug.
Doug Hern talks to
“Then we took Qantas to
Honolulu and the same plane on
Mike Gray about
to Christmas Island. his experiences on
“We didn’t have a clue what we
Christmas Island
were heading out there for – I was
a ship’s chef at the time.
“We knew we were going for
“We were mustered again in
weapon testing, but no one knew
early November,” recalled Doug.
anything about nuclear bomb tests.
“We were told to take the walls
“I flew out on my 21st birthday,
off our tents to the foreshore and
and I had a cousin who had
lay them on the ground.
moved to New York and worked
“They played music on the
at Tiffany’s, so he got me in to the
loudspeakers till ten, then described
cocktail bar there.
what the plane was doing.
“I met Phil Silvers and Bette
“They gave no indication of the
Davis, among others.”
height of the aircraft or what the
But then it was back to earth
bomb burst would be.
with a bump. On arrival at
“We went through the same
Christmas Island he discovered
procedure as before, then the bomb ● A British Blue Danube bomb casing, used with various warheads in the early Grapple nuclear bomb tests at Christmas Island
his home for the next year was not
was gone and they counted down.
all it could be.
“Then we felt the heat. Bearing
scientists to look at.
“All we had was the roof of a tent
in mind we were told to face away,
“We were in flipflops and shorts,
– I think they had arrived without
in a hunched position with knees
but when they met us they were all
the wall units,” said Doug.
up and hands over our closed eyes,
done up in protective suits and
Group seeks answers
“This was September, the start
it was like someone had switched
took the fish away in boxes.
of the rainy season, so in the
an electric fire bar on in the back
“Also, after the burst we had to MEMBERSHIP of the British Nuclear Test He believed the fact that the Association
morning it rained up till about ten,
of your head.
keep the beaches clear of dead fish Veterans Association (BNTVA) is in decline had to create a Widows’ Representative and a
then it was boiling hot – 110˚ in the
“But it was bearable heat, like
and birds. Thousands of them. – but Doug Hern said the support group will Children’s Representative spoke volumes.
shade and 86 per cent humidity.
opening the door of a baker’s oven.
“Many birds had died in flight, continue to fight for answers for its members. As for Doug, who joined the Royal Navy in
“I remember I found fungus
“They counted to ten then we
killed instantly, and that used to last He said there was a perception that the group 1952, he went into Civvy Street following a bad
growing on the sleeves of my
were told to turn round, and we
for three weeks after detonation.” had become political, but the truth was “that motor accident in 1960.
uniform, and my wardrobe was
saw this thing in all its majesty.
The blast from Grapple X also we had to apply pressure for the benefit of our He skippered survey vessels in the 1970s,
the first orange box I got my
“It was a spindly thing compared
caused damage, blowing in windows members – when we started asking questions and ended up on a pollution control shallow
hands on.”
to what they unleashed in 1958.
and overturning equipment. and getting no answers, or answers that didn’t water vessel on the North Sea coast until
The buzz on the island was
“It wasn’t awe-inspiring, but it
Word got round that the next add up.” 1981.
that they were going to see some
was something I didn’t particularly
test, in May 1958, was going to be He said he has had no follow-up tests, and He then joined a pollution control systems
“pretty heavy-duty testing”, on the
want to see again.”
big. The rumours were right. the same went for most of his compatriots firm, and is still an active pollution control
scale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Far exceeding the power of the
The aim of Operation Grapple – indeed, it was very difficult to even estimate consultant.
The 1945 weapons yielded
Japanese bombs, Grapple X yielded
was to provide the UK with a the number of people involved in the various “I am still working at 71 – something a lot of
between 15 and 20 kilotons each,
1.8 megatons – the equivalent of
deployable hydrogen bomb at a British nuclear tests, though it certainly people I knew did not get to enjoy as they died
a kiloton giving a blast equal to
1.8 million tons of TNT.
time when the USA and USSR numbers in the thousands. in their 40s,” he said.
1,000 tons of TNT.
In between tests the Servicemen,
were racing each other to ever
The first test which Doug
scientists and support staff, and
greater levels of destruction. “When the blast hit us, it caught “So I had about another 30 “I do not think the scientists
attended was a dress rehearsal,
local civilians, went about their
And as Grapple X proved a huge up the edges of some of the tent days in Honolulu before they flew knew what was going to happen.
using a conventional 1,000lb
lives as best they could.
success, the top-secret Grapple Y walls laid out on the floor and me back. They were on a learning curve and
bomb, but Doug and his
“We were told we would be
was far more ambitious. rolled them up like lino, sometimes “When I was there, one night we were the fodder for it.
colleagues, mustered on the beach,
absolutely safe, but there were
“It was exactly the same as with people inside them – they there was a huge fireball in the sky “I am suffering ill effects.
did not even notice its detonation
things that occurred that didn’t
before,” said Doug. were bruised, and I think there which lit up the city like daylight. Doctors say that is nothing to do
in the October clouds.
add up,” said Doug.
“We got about a day’s warning were some broken bones.” “The Americans had set off a with the nuclear tests, but there
They could not fail to see the next
“I was put into the fisheries area
this time, and they moved us out After the blast – at an estimated nuclear test [800 miles away on have been studies done recently of
explosion as Operation Grapple X,
when I wasn’t working. I went out
at about 4am, in darkness. three megatons, the UK’s most Johnston Atoll] and no one was low-level radiation ingestion that
on November 8 1957, put the UK
to where the long lines were and
“I felt trepidation this time. We powerful nuclear explosion – a expecting it – it had Honolulu in suggests things like diabetes can
in the thermonuclear club.
brought fish in to the island for
knew this was going to be a lot cloud formed and it started to rain a real panic.” result from it.
bigger than the last bomb. heavily, Doug remembered. That 3.8 megaton test, at high “I suffer from diabetes and a
“When there are about 30 or 40 “There was an order to board altitude, was soon followed by kind of psoriasis of the skin.
of you in close proximity you are the landing craft on the beach, and another in the Hardtack series, “I am not bitter, but believe me
all there caught up in thoughts of some of us got that far, but then this time with plenty of warning. there are people who have suffered
your own. the order was countermanded – This prompted Hawaiians to and died in far worse situations
“The last thing you are going to we were already soaked by then. head down to the coast with their than I am in – and as litigation
do is show your feelings to others. “We just went back to our tents, picnics for ‘atomic parties’, with secretary for the BNTVA I see the
“There was an air of camaraderie put our tent walls back and carried the detonation as the highlight.
death certificates and it is not nice.
and bravado; people were cracking
on as normal.” By this stage Doug was looking “Some people on the island
stupid jokes, but it was also an air
Doug recalls five tests while he forward to the arduous journey were really frightened, and there
of nervous tension.
was on the island, and he also saw home – but he believes he took were suicides.
“I remember it was a very
one of the massive American tests, with him far more than just “My nightmares didn’t start
cloudy day; we had just come out
although from afar. disturbing memories. immediately, but I did get
of the rainy season so there were
“I had a spell of leave in “I do not regard this as witnessing flashbacks for about five years
some big clouds about.
Honolulu,” he said. tests – we are surviving victims of before it settled down.
“We went through the same
“I was supposed to be back nuclear weaponry,” said Doug. “But at the time I didn’t have
routine – we were wearing no
at a certain time, but they had “They used the things that they any thoughts that I was going to
more than boiler suits and anti-
taken all the seats out of the were going to use in aggression. be affected by it, or my family.”
flash gloves, and nothing much on
’plane and were taking as much “I feel now we should not Doug’s youngest daughter died
our heads.
fresh vegetables and salads as they have been there, not under those of a rare form of cancer before she
“When the bomb exploded the
could out to the island. conditions. reached her teens.
heat was absolutely amazing.
“It was hot when the first bomb
went off but this was way past that
temperature, and the electric fire
MOD: ‘No evidence of excess illness’
bar effect in your head was much A MINISTRY of Defence spokesman said: “This and radiation/publications/w_series_reports/2003/
quicker and more vicious. previous Governments’ frequently-stated position is nrpb_w27.htm
“It also started much brighter, that there is no evidence of excess illness or mortality When compensation claims are received they are
and you were looking at the bones among the veterans as a group which could be linked considered on the basis of whether or not the MOD
of your hands through the flesh to their participation in the tests or to exposure to has a legal liability to pay compensation, said the
and through your closed eyes. radiation as a result of that participation. spokesman. Where there is a proven legal liability,
“This time when we were “Formal and well-documented procedures were compensation is paid.
ordered to turn round we didn’t in place to ensure the health and safety of those Separately, all former members of HM Forces
have to turn very far to see the participating in the tests.” suffering from Service-attributable illness or injury
shape and size of the explosion. The spokesman explained that there have been three are eligible to receive compensation in the form of a
“It was going up at such a rate, studies into cancer incidence and mortality among War Pension.
just a massive ball of black and nuclear test participants (NTVs) conducted by the The Veterans’ task was to provide logistic support,
● The Very Rev Nicholas Frayling, Dean of Chichester and Chaplain orange and yellow and red. independent National Radiological Protection Board. mainly construction work – they were certainly not
of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, and association “The blast cleared the clouds The latest report NRPB-W27, entitled Mortality and the subject of the tests, said the spokesman.
chairman John Lowe, ex-HMS Narvik, at the test veterans memorial away like the rings of Saturn – a Cancer Incidence 1952-1998 in UK Participants in the The effectiveness of the planning and preparation
in the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. More than 100 circle of blue sky which rapidly UK Atmospheric Nuclear Weapons Tests and Experimental before the tests is demonstrated by the fact that the
veterans , families and friends attended a service of remembrance, expanded. The clouds were just Programmes published in 2003, concluded that overall majority of participants received little or no additional
organised by membership secretary Bob Smith, on the 50th blasted away. levels of mortality and cancer incidence in NTVs radiation exposure as a result of participation.
anniversary of the fi rst nuclear test over Malden Island, at which Rev “We had heard an explosion, have continued to be similar to those in a matched Stringent safety precautions were in place at all
Frayling spoke of the sacrifi ce of those who attended the tests, and and as the clouds cleared over us control group, and for overall mortality to be lower times during the tests and very few veterans were
who are continuing to fi ght for recognition. The monument is inlaid it was as if we were in a tunnel in than expected from national rates. exposed to a measurable radiation dose so there are
with sea shells from the sites of the bomb tests. Picture: Burton Mail the Underground. The latest report is available at no blanket grounds for common law compensation.
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