As the giant constellation aircraft lifted from the runway at London Airport and begun to climb into the early morning sky I realised I would be truly reliant on my own actions for the next eighteen months or so.
I had joined the Royal Air Force twelve months earlier as a National Serviceman, but had signed on for an extra year in order to get my trade as Shorthand Typist to prepare me for a career in journalism.
A quick eighteen hours, including ten hours sleep, was all the time we had to look around New York. I realised this was a real chance for me to prove myself and grow up making my own decisions.
Three days after leaving England the DC8 aircraft belonging to United Airlines touched down in Honolulu International Airport, and all the servicemen were greeted with the formalities afforded to VIP passengers from a Red Carpet flight.
We were served first class meals and warmly welcomed. I know this would be the last touch of lusury for a long time.
At Pearl Harbour we saw the submerged “Arizona” shrine of 120 American seamen killed in the Japanese air attack, which brought America into the Second world war.
Café walls around the harbour still bore the scars of machine gun bullets fired from the Japanese aircraft. These served as a stark reminder of the event, which shattered the peace of that quiet Sunday evening on December 7th 1941.
“Hi fella, you English? The drawled question cam from a tall American standing in the doorway of a diner. When I said I was the guy took me inside the bar and got me a “screw driver” – Vodka Orange. He said it would blow my socks off and it really did.
Outside my new friend Steve, took me into town driving his long convertible. I spent the rest of the evening enjoying his hospitality whilst visiting several night clubs.
Steve warned me to be wary of the dancing girls. He told me that would roll me for every dollar I had and only shake hands for it. We made our way back to base. Tomorrow we would be on Christmas Island.
I studied the flight bulletin from the Captain which said we would be arriving at 16.00 hors and the temperature would be 110 deg.F. in the shade, outlook fine.
Looking through the window as the aircraft came in on its final run, the first impression I had was that the island had itself been hit by an H bomb.
Everything, as far as the eye could see was a white shining dust broken by the occasional palm tree, and the glare of the sun off the runway hit my eyes and made me squint in an attempt to see more of what was going to be my home for the next year or so.
I could see multi-coloured lagoons pass under the planes wings, and a dark rim around the coast of the island, where the sea deepened from a few feet to fathomless depths, all within a few yards.
This was the coral reef, to go beyond meant certain death, either being battered against the rock or being eaten by the ever present sharks.
Three Bedford lorries were waiting to meet the aircraft as it came to a lurching halt outside a large brown marquee marked “Air Movements”.
As I walked down the steps from the plane the intense brightness of sun reflecting off the bleached coral, made me squint. I clipped on my sun glasses to my spectacles.
The men loading the kit bags onto the lorries were wearing grimy shorts, rubber soled shoes, which fastened between their toes. Only one or two them wore hats.Their shoes made a kind of “flip flop” noise and were known by that name.
Their bodies were bronzed by the merciless sun beating down at an angle of 90 deg.
“Here come the Moonies” called one of the men, “Get some island time in” commented another.
The tall eagle-eyed sergeant in charge of the bedding store, consisting of three large marquees, looked at us new arrivals, and uttered a four letter word.. “What have I done to deserve this lot” he said out loud.
An hour later, after signing many forms I was given a foul smelling green mosquito net and a piece of canvas inside of which were four angled iron bars.
We were shown to a large marquee and told we would sleep in there for the night.
The light was just beginning to fade as the forty men worked out how to set up “kip” in the confined space.
When my bed was assembled it was no more than six inches off the floor; a slight movement and you would end up on the sandy floor.
After fastening the top of the mosquito net to the side wall of the tent I got between the sheets, that had become covered in gritty pieces of coral and sand, and tried to rest.
On the side wall of the tent were the words KOREA 1954’ and small squares were cut in them to form “windows”.
Before getting into bed I had put a torch and a short sharp Bowie knife under my pillow – just in case.
“What the hell – somethings crawled over my face” cried one of the men.
I snapped on the torch and came face to face with an evil looking land crab, complete with two giant pincers, telescopic eyes and eight hairy legs, not more than a few inches from my face.
A quick crack across the crab’s back with the heel of a heavy boot and it was dead.
Squashed to a pulp.
Creepy crawlies had not bothered me much back home, but these new creatures sent a shudder along my spine. One could not always see them, but could hear them sliding down the flysheet of the tent.
By the time morning came only the heavy sleepers felt ready to go. The majority of us had encountered the crabs and had stayed awake, or dozed off in a half sleep waiting for the next invasion.
Walking through the tent lines, passing the wooden washing troughs, where some were shaving two newly made friends and me made our way to the cookhouse for our first breakfast on the island.
I did not know it then but the cookhouse and island was to have a marked effect on my eating habits and powers of digestion when I returned to England.
After waiting twenty five minutes in a long queue I received a discoloured fried egg in my metal meal tray, and porridge. On the tables were large boxes of salt tablets which we were encouraged to take to replace the salt we had lost, because of the intense heat.
I could not eat all of it and went towards a big metal tank. originally filled with clean water, but had long ago turned to a thick brown coloured evil smelling syrup.
No wonder we had all those jabs, there must be a whole lot of diseases in the tank, I thought to myself as I “swilled” my tray and put it into my side bag.
As the days went by we got used to the flight overhead each evening so that the
small plane could spray clouds of liquid,which we were told would help
control the mosquito invasions.
Also I and my mates became more proficient at getting on and off the Bedford truck carrying your tray with a helping of breakfast. After several Journeys we managed to enjoy our breakfast, rather than it ending up on the floor of the lorry.
As we were getting used to the very hot weather we started to go For swims in the ocean, and seriously thought about kicking a ball about. After a little time we became used to the intense heat and hardly seemed to sweat when dashing around.
Not being very technical I got to learn about the various tasks the flight mechanics were doing. I was particularly interested in the Radio fitter who let me listen to the radio picking up programmes from England.
It was great one day I sat in on of the aircraft and listened to the English Cup Final. Without television this was a good source of news from home.
Someone in one of the tents started a rumour that we had tv in the lines. Within a few hours a minute search was undertaken to discover where it was. Needless to say we had no TV, but it was fun seeing the snowdrops checking out each tent.
One day the news came through that several service men had drowned when their small boat went over the reef. This resulted in a major inquiry involving senior officers from Army, Navy and RAF.
I was given the task of taking down the evidence as it was spoken. (they knew I did shorthand). At the end of each session I had to type it all up on an old typewriter. Massive job but I apparently did a good job and was commended for doing it. Guess it came in useful to prepare me for my wished for job of Journalist when I got out of the mob. I had signed on for the extra year to get my trade of shorthand typist.
As I worked with a senior officer I heard mention of dropping nuclear bombs to Test them out. We all then began to imagine what might happen. The tests were code-named “Operation ‘Grapple during late 1957/58.
As the weeks went by we were conscious of a build up of facilities, and additional aircraft, such as a V bomber and Canberras flying around.
Eventually the date was announced for the first A bomb test. We were assembled together, dressed in our normal shirt and shorts
A loudspeaker told us there was an aircraft flying overhead near the island and they would count down to when the bomb had been released. They told us to stand so that our backs were facing the direction of the bomb blast.
With out hands covering our eyes, we “saw” a huge flash and could see the bones in our hands as if they were being x-rayed. Then the sound wave swept over us at a tremendously high sound level; then came the wind and the heat wave swept over us.
Some of the guys were knocked over by the rush of wind and some just ran in all directions and stopped when they ran into a tree. To say you were not scared would have been lie or a pretence that you were brave.
I remember that the roof of the wooden building which was pay accounts was blown off and we later learned that many of the frigate birds and other winged creatures were killed instantly.
That night most of us went for a drink, if we could get one, and everyone was discussing the major explosion detonated not too far away from us. We were later told there were more to come.
One of the evening activities was going to the pictures in an outdoor roofless cinema without seats. To see the film one sat on the sand, maybe on top of a ground sheet. Several time your concentration on the film was broken by a couple of crabs trying to climb up your leg. As time went on we got used to this and got very good at anticipating their attacks. Some were massive. I have big hands but sometimes I found it difficult to stretch my hand across their backs to pick them up, or stamp on them. They had massive claws, one normally much bigger than the other.
Although we witnessed the A bomb tests dressed in our normal gear, we noticed the aircrew technicians wore extensive outfits to protect them against any heat or radiation.
Life in the tent went on smoothly, everyone getting to know each of us better. We all tried to keep the tent tidy and take our turns with the “domestic” jobs to keep life as well as could be expected.
But one of the members of the tend, lets call him Fred, was not too particular about his personal hygiene and we all kept on to him to have a thorough wash or even a shower.
Fred still continued in his unwashed state. Luckily for us recently a shower had been put up onto the concrete strip near to the tent line. Mentioning this to Fred we told him to get a shower. He did not.
So four of us got hold of him and took him out to the shower, armed with soap and large brushes. He had the cleanest wash he had ever had since coming to the island. After that he was a reformed character. If he seemed to want to miss a shower the four of us, with the brushes, would remind him and he took the wisest route to keeping clean.
One thing I am certain of is that being in a group as we were builds friendship and confidence, with everyone pulling his weight to solve problems affecting the group. I and the others learned key habits that I am sure made them better people after they returned to England.
Eating meals in the cookhouse became a routine even if we took our laden trays onto the lorries. One day one of the technical lads suggested we could cook what we want when we wanted, as food was available.
The technical lad decided to get hold of a biscuit tin, four cigarette cans and some sand. When the sand was saturated with Avgas (aeroplane fuel) it made a hot stove on which the “cooks” amongst us could prepare hot meals mainly meat based. The Avgas did not seem to interfere with the flavour.
Before I left England I had been to a holiday camp in Jersey. There I made friends with the owners. We always used to look forward to receiving post brought in on the aircraft from Hickam base in Honolulu.
One day just before Christmas I received a bag parcel, which was rather heavy. To my delight and that of my tent mates it contained several bottles, one of whiskey, one of Bristol cream sherry and one bottle of red wine.
The next few months saw the preparation for two further A bombs. To us it was routine, as we had already experienced one A bomb drop. The next two seemed quite routine, us knowing or thought we knew the general routine.
During the next two A bomb drops we were still dressed in our normal shirts and shorts with no protective clothing whatsoever. But we noticed all the senior scientists involved in setting up the bomb, wore heavy covering to protect them.
After these tests the talk and rumours started to circulate about us dropping an H bomb. We had no idea what to expect. Things seemed fairly routine. The day came we were directed to be a a certain point in groups and the count down began…”Bomb gone, thirty, twenty nine etc until it got to “one”.we had been instructed, as previously, to turn our back to the direction of the bomb Explosion, put our hands over our closed eyes and wait.
Although we had our eyes tightly closed with our hands over them we saw a blinding flash, followed by an extremely hot wave of air rushing over us; then the explosion followed by other waves of air.
Many of the servicemen panicked and ran towards the sea, some crashing into palm trees. I honestly believe most of us were frightened not knowing exactly what this force was going to do to us.
When things calmed down a little we were told that the blast had blown the roof off the pay account building, damaged a lot off tents and left hundreds of frigate birds blinded and killed. Compared to the A bomb this was a massive amount of force we had been exposed to, heaven knows how much radiation.
As time went on we learnt that a second H bomb was being assembled and would be tested soon. All we could gather is that it would be considerably more powerful that the previous one.
This time to our surprise we were issued with a cotton overall and a cotton balaclava. That was it, our protection against a bigger H bomb than last time.
Came the day and the bomb left the aircraft…Shortly afterwards there was the brightest flash I had ever seem through closed eyes covered by my hands. The enveloping heatwave, almost like boiling water and then the sound wave reached us. Similar to the previous H bomb BUT MUCH MORE POWERFUL.
It did a lot more damage to the island, the living creatures and really scared most of us. I now know that explosion put England into the premier league for dropping H bombs.
Shortly after the second H bomb explosion I was scheduled to go home. To our delight we were taken home in the Comet aircraft, with some Army guys who were not in the best insulated section of the aircraft.
Being signed on for the extra year to get my trade as shorthand typist I did not have long to serve my time in England. When I left the RAF I took up my lifelong career as a journalist.
The scientists and politicians have said those who took part in the test suffered no harm from the bombs. I have had cancer and our son and daughter have had illnesses you can attribute to my time on Christmas Island.
And still we get no recognition for our service. Tom Watson, former deputy leader of the Labour party had been running a campaign for get us a medal, and maybe compensation. Nothing has happened yet, although the majority of the nations partaking in nuclear tests have officially acknowledged their own servicemen who took part.
Today I believe I gained a lot from serving in the RAF and am certain it would not do the young people of today any harm to do the same.