This blog has been written by Dr Becky Alexis-Martin, who attended the unveiling of a new memorial on Christmas Island on 28th April 2018. 60 years after the largest British detonation on the Island.
A group of smartly dressed men stand to attention in the sweltering heat before a rapt audience. The gentle susurration of cicadas is the only sound, as one man slowly raises a new flag. This flag represents the shared past of Kiritimati (Chris-i-mas) and Great Britain, when their lives were perilously entangled during the Operation Grapple tests that produced Britain’s first hydrogen bomb. We bow our heads for a minute’s silence. The hush continues until Reveille plays, and then the flag is raised. This is the sixtieth anniversary ceremony for the commemoration of the Grapple Y hydrogen bomb, which was detonated on 28th April 1958.
This group of aged British nuclear test veterans and their families have travelled thousands of miles across continents to undertake this ceremony, to place a new memorial for all of the communities affected by Operation Grapple, to revisit their past and to share their experiences with the people of Kiritimati – whom they were forbidden from fraternising with during the tests many years ago. For our veterans, it has taken sixty years for this opportunity to arise. Sixty years since they were young men, racing land crabs and playing in the sea together on Christmas Island, working long hours in sometimes dangerous conditions.
This memorial ceremony is the result of a year of planning and organisation by Ron Watson. Ron decided that it was time to return to Christmas Island, as it was then, to discover what it is like now and support the local community. Ron was accompanied on this endeavour by a collective including Robert & Jacqueline McCann, Ray and Mary Carbery and their son Gavin, Ron Taylor, Leslie Hawkins. There are two different routes to Kiritimati nowadays. Some of the group travelled via Nadi, Fiji; and the rest travelled via Honolulu, Hawaii.
However, all travellers were greeted with fresh coconuts and a garlanding ceremony on their arrival, by both the women of the local tourism office and some of the men of the Kiritimati Nuclear Victims Association. The local men hugged their international counterparts, grinning broadly while they gazed at our veteran’s photos and exchanged stories.
The veterans stayed at the slightly ramshackle Captain Cook hotel, a Kiritimati government-owned facility in the exact place of the officers’ quarters where Main Camp used to be. It has taken sixty years for our Sappers to receive promotion to higher ranking accommodation on Christmas Island. The land around the hotel is dotted with reminders from another age, from old squadron plaques to the ruins of the Camp Church, where until recently local people used to live.
The sturdy cement bases that anchored military structures to the ground have remained intact after sixty years, but many of the buildings have been dismantled and repurposed by local people. There are relics of the later American occupation during the Operation Dominic tests, including an old basketball hoop that somehow still stands. There are also still land crabs.
While our group relaxed and enjoyed the sea views, Ron Watson got to work at a series of meetings to organise the finishing touches to the memorial and the impending ceremony. The memorial has been built by Kiritimati Islanders to a simple and classic design in cream. Upon the memorial there is a plaque that bears the following dedication “In commemoration of all of those from Kiritimati, the United Kingdom, Fiji and New Zealand who took part in the nuclear tests on this island”.
This inscription intends to memorialise everyone who has been affected by Operation Grapple & Dominic. The memorial is permanently situated underneath an Australian pine tree, planted in Ronton (London), Kiritimati by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1959. It is not far from the courts, on government land for perpetuity - the local tourism office will happily show you where it is, if you plan to visit in the future.
On the day of the ceremony, the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement. The veterans had spent some time preparing their speeches for this special day. I ventured up early in the afternoon to ensure that AV equipment and my camera were set up correctly, then I relaxed and waited for the veterans and their wives to arrive at the ceremony. The service included an introduction by local government, a speech on pacifism and the bomb from the local pastor, the ceremony itself, and a talk by Chairwoman of the Kiritimati Nuclear Victims Association, Teeua Tetoa.
There were unexpected aspects, such as when a friendly stray dog scampered into the memorialisation ceremony. He was on a mission to “christen” the new memorial, and looked very pleased with himself for becoming a part of nuclear history. Once the ceremony was completed, the community came together to feast on local specialities, including breadfruit chips, crab, fish and pandanus fruit stewed in coconut milk. There were also cakes and biscuits for the less daring. We enjoyed chatting to local people, mingling, eating and gossiping together.
This was a unique memorial for a unique event, Britain’s first and last solo H-bomb operation. The world has changed irrevocably in sixty years. Kiritimati is now independent of British rule and a burgeoning tourism spot. A new building is being constructed that will soon replace the old Cassidy Airport. We do not know what the next sixty years will hold, but we now have a permanent memorial to the nuclear communities of Kiritimati, and they will not be forgotten.
The full dedication ceremony can be viewed here:
Dr Becky Martin can be followed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MysteriousDrBex