Why have I pursued this for all these years? - John Morris

John Morris, nuclear bomb test veteran from Operation Grapple, 1956-8.

“Why have I pursued this for all these years? We, the veterans, deserve recognition for our contribution to history.

We didn’t know this at the time, but we were conscripted to participate, and we did. It is time to acknowledge it.

History provides a window into the past to understand the present and inform the future. Why, when history regretfully concedes that WWI combatants were used as cannon fodder and demobilised men of WWII received no psychological aftercare, cannot the Ministry of Defence admit the causation between unprotected exposure to the nuclear bomb testing programme and the disproportionate occurrence of premature deaths, serious illness, fertility issues and disability? This is well documented and presented in a court of law. Stop investing millions into fighting us. Compensate us to acknowledge our contribution. Show a duty of care that was missing then and continues now. Commission a medal so all families may have a physical representation of this legacy.”

My mission to achieve this can be described as a steady but determined journey of raising awareness, sharing stories and veraciously pursuing every opportunity to influence change. I began in the 1960s when National Service ended and news reports, anecdotes and concerns were shared amongst my Christmas Island pals. As the Representative at work for the Printworkers and Paper Makers Union in Bolton, I succeeded in getting a resolution backed for presentation at the national conference. My small contribution to raise awareness of events.

Then tragedy struck. I was married and we welcomed our son Steven, the first of the next generation for both sides of the family, but then sudden infant death syndrome happened when he was just 4 months old. Was this ‘cot death’ a tragic incident or a result of my exposure to radiation? Why is it deemed unreasonable to even ask the question? It continues to this day. The death certificate is inconclusive while the autopsy report was never released. Even a solicitor friend was unable to find it. My questions, along with those of hundreds of other families, will never be answered in my lifetime. Life and work changed, and priority was given to time at home to grieve and care for each other. Thankfully, my wife and I had 3 further children.

In early 2000, newspaper reports from media supporting the veterans such as the Daily Mirror (who continue to champion our cause) began to appear again despite the number of survivors being reduced significantly. One such article, led me to contact Rosenblatt Solicitors and, following detailed correspondence, I became 1 of the 1,000 veterans who took their compensation claim against the Ministry of Defence to the High Court in January 2009. During this long process, Rosenblatt provided the best hope that success was finally a possibility and gave the cause momentum. More personal stories of tragedy, bereavement and suffering were shared. It felt that the correlation between exposure and health issues was finally being pieced together. I travelled to London to support the successful action and was even more hopeful as at last we became a high-profile news item. However, the influence of the MoD resulted in an appeal overturning the ruling. Our hopes remain with the European Court.

Despite this set-back, this spurred me on. I played my own part by delivering presentations to local organisations, writing to lobby Members of Parliament and spreading the story out wide resulting in local TV and radio news items. The BBC North West current affairs programme ‘Inside Out’ aired in November 2011 focusing on how British veterans feel they were forgotten. This was promoted via an interview with Alan Beswick on the BBC Radio Manchester Breakfast Show. My journey continues and is supported by my family who send me news reports particularly from the Daily Mirror, links to articles as they appear on social media including those of the BNTVA. I was bought a copy of the book, ‘The X, Y and Z Files: The 100-year experiment’ by Sir James Gordon Josephson OBE (a recommended read for all). Reading it brought the memories back and has strengthened my resolve to highlight my part as a guinea-pig in the experiment.

Here is my story …

I started my National Service in December of 1956 as a naïve, unsophisticated lad from Little Lever, Bolton. After basic training and a boat trip halfway around the world, I landed in paradise – Christmas Island. Not only was I astounded by the climate, coconuts, beaches and crystal-clear sea but I thrived on the regimented lifestyle, 3 meals a day and the camaraderie. I was assigned to the R.A.O.C. Unit of Operation Grapple and worked in the laundry section. The orders were to provide a service for all personnel including those extending the runway. No one mentioned the role we were to play in the testing programme.

Three tests took place. Even though we didn’t see them you sensed them as there were atmospheric changes, water levels rose and the island felt changed. Luckily for us, the balloon bomb that drifted 25 miles off course, did not go in our direction. One of the other bombs detonated over an atoll, destroyed the whole land mass even though it was meant to test the impact on buildings. This level of guesswork takes your breath away.

It was during the fourth Grapple bomb, dropped nearest to the island, that I understood our role as human guinea pigs. Prior to the blast we, as low-ranking personnel, were told to sit in the open air with our backs to the explosion. Shorts and shirts were the norm but, on this day, we were told to wear our Army issued sunglasses and find a cloth to put over our eyes.

We were allowed to watch the plane do its final run and as it reached its ultimate escape force, we were ordered to turn our backs and put our hands over our eyes. We were hit with a flash 1,000 times brighter than the sun. My hands became an x-ray as I could see every bone and joint. We were then hit with the heat blast. It was so intense that the palm trees scorched as did our backs.

We were allowed to turn round and view the weapon. Difficult to describe, a heat ball filled the sky wide and high and I could see churning, rising swirls of black, red, orange and grey in an evil formation. Catherine wheels spiralled down which we later discovered were birds and fish on fire. A lagoon and sand were sucked up into the vacuum. This apocalyptic vision of the mushroom cloud, later referred to as a dirty bomb, was awe inspiring. Next, we saw, heard and felt the pressure wave coming. Men fell to the floor and debris flew through the air. This was terrifying. All ranks of men were disbelieving and stupefied by what had just happened. We were ordered into our evacuation vehicles. No-one could get into them for several hours due to the temperature of the steel. Emergency evacuation was put on hold.

We were all ordered back to normal duties and I returned to the laundry. Then the water fell – toxic, discoloured droplets of sea water and fish. Advice and guidance on safe working and living was non-existent. We continued drinking the desalinated water and enjoyed off-duty time in the sea. This contaminated life continued for several months until my discharge and the arrival of the next servicemen.

Our routine was interrupted when special laundry came in under supervision. It was that of people who had been directly involved in the frontline of the tests, for example, the personnel ordered to clean the planes that had flown through the blast cloud. We were told to wash this separately and run an empty cycle immediately afterwards which we now know was to avoid cross-contamination. Orders were followed but senior staff had overlooked that the water was recycled.

As the world recovers from Covid-19, we can reflect on the efforts, good, bad and misguided, to protect us all. As we return to normal, workplaces and public areas are aware that there is a duty of care. No such requirement was shown to us. On Christmas Island, there was no PPE; no instruction to take precautions. I continue with my pernicious anaemia and have survived prostate cancer. All this when studies into the dangers of radiation had been known since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This is acknowledged by the Labour Party. My history, my health and that of my family is treated as data not a human experience. The fight must continue.

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