Remember Together: Nuclear Test Veterans’: A Reminder of Our Nuclear Past

Posted on: 3 April 2024 by Eva Jones in 2024 posts

A group of four Nuclear Test Veterns

Student, Eva Jones, recounts the event she attended on ‘Remember Together: Nuclear Test Veterans’, a commemorative project that captures the important experiences of four Nuclear Test Veterans from Britain and Fiji.

In 2022, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that the country’s nuclear test veterans were to be honoured with a medal in recognition of their contributions to Britain’s nuclear testing programme in the 1950s and 60s. The testing programme, which comprised of dropping 45 nuclear bombs across Australia, Kiritimati (Christmas Island), other Pacific islands, and the United States, included the participation of around 22,000 British men and women. Today they are known as nuclear test veterans (NTVs); the long-unrecognised people whose contribution to the success of Britain’s atomic testing programme, which ranged from clearing nuclear debris to clerical jobs, has remained widely unheard of. That is why Big Ideas, funded by the Office for Veteran Affairs, have created ‘Remember Together: Nuclear Test Veterans’, a commemorative project that captures the important experiences of four NTV’s from Britain and Fiji. 

‘Remember Together: Nuclear Test Veterans’ was produced with the intention of broadening public understanding of Britain’s nuclear past and increase general engagement with the NTV’s who were actively involved in it. The project prioritises the personal stories of four NTV’s: Brian Davies, John Folkes, David Whyte, and Mr Naikawakawavesi. On March 21st I attended their online event for the students and faculty of the University of Liverpool and the University of South Wales, two universities currently collaborating to create ‘An Oral History of British Nuclear Test Veterans’, an ongoing online archive of life histories as told by forty NTV’s. However, ‘Remember Together’ strives to bring nuclear history to a primarily younger audience and to do so they conducted their interviews with Davies, Folkes, Whyte, and Naikawakawavesi through an intergenerational approach, allowing teenagers to lead the conversation with the NTV’s. This method was particularly effective in contrasting the innocence of the young, who have never witnessed an atomic detonation, and the almost reminiscing tone of the four gentlemen recalling their past experiences with Britain’s nuclear test programme.

The event began with Dr Virginia Crompton introducing the project, its aims, and their determination in ensuring that the authentic voices of the test veterans are heard. It was this unique focus on personal testimony which drew me to the event. For us today, understanding the physical and psychological implications of atomic weapons is confined to film screens or told in the pages of a book, but hearing the men talk briefly about their lives in relation to the nuclear tests humanised this aspect of British nuclear history. This was evident from the get-go, which began with the story of Brian Davies.

Witnessing The Bomb

Brian Davies lives in South Wales and joined Operation Grapple at Christmas Island, in the Pacific Ocean, in 1958 at 18 years old. After being flown over in a luxurious airplane and remembering the non-caring nature of everyone on board, he stated that his first impressions of the island was both of fright and joy. I was immediately struck by his recollection of the smallest and most ordinary details, like the bug bites he received because they had to sleep in tents. Collaborating with teenagers meant that the questions asked allowed for a more authentic conversation and so they asked about everyday activities, including football, which Davies’ recalls playing with his fellows and against the RAF. The way in which he spoke about these memories in a warm manner contrasted with an underlying sense of danger, particularly when he discussed witnessing the nuclear explosion. For instance, it was shocking when he stated that they were lying on the beach, thirteen miles from the blast, completely unprotected and how he was consequently left covered in blisters from the searing heat and radiation. His account is a reminder of the dangers of nuclear weapons, especially to health, but also that those involved in the testing programme were ordinary people and still participated in day-to-day activities despite, in hindsight, the significance of atomic tests.

 Christmas Island Operation image

Christmas Island [Operation Grapple, Credit: BNTV: the Charity for Atomic Veterans]

Flying Through The Mushroom Cloud

The second film shown was John Folkes’ story. His film in particularly has stuck with me since the event. When Folkes was a boy during the Second World War, he heartbreakingly lost his best friend during an airstrike on the way to school. However, he volunteered to join the nuclear test programme in Australia in 1956 when he was 19 years old. Astoundingly, Folkes has flown through a mushroom cloud and was given the task of taking radiation readings during nuclear explosions. Unlike Davies, Folkes seemed to look at this part of his life with more despair rather than fondness. He described how he was in aircraft five miles from the drop zone of the bomb, which is incredibly dangerous, and was told take his shirt off and hold it against his eyes. The bright light of the explosion was so strong that he recalls being able to see the bones in his fingers, and the intensity of the heat which made him flinch. Unsurprisingly, he stated that he’s plagued by nightmares from his time in Australia, which is especially sad as it’s been 68 years since the nuclear tests. I was left in disbelief when he mentioned that he was still proud of the work he and his fellow NTV’s undertook “in defence of [their] own country.” It’s for this exact reason – the sacrifice for patriotic duty – that NTV’s deserved to be celebrated and recognised for the risks they took for the country’s security.

John Folkes flying near the mushroom cloud, credits: Big Ideas, ‘Remember Together: Nuclear Test Veterans.

David Whyte

Scottish veteran David Whyte was the subject of the third film. Wearing his military cap and medals, Whyte discusses how he was sent to Christmas Island, like Davies, when he was just 20 years old. He described the island as a “tropical paradise” with its warm climate and “lovely area”. Unfortunately, the island was to be used to test the hydrogen bomb, the more powerful successor of the atomic bomb, which would devastate the islands natural beauty and indigenous population. Whyte witnessed 5 nuclear explosions during his time in the Pacific and although he was responsible for clearing atomic debris, he was provided with no form of protection from the radiation he was exposed to. I was astounded at how every testimony referenced the lack of protective equipment which left everyone involved in the nuclear tests extremely vulnerable. A thought which Whyte himself touched upon as he couldn’t understand why he was “sent into the danger area.” Yet, like his fellow NTV’s, Whyte felt a sense of pride of the work that he did.

“I’ll show you the way forward from my footprint.”

Naikawakawavesi, unlike the three previous interviewees, is from Fiji. Fiji, a previous British colony, was called upon to send their soldiers to Christmas Island to aid the British with the atomic test Operation Grapple. Naikawakawavesi was sent to the island in 1957, along with 300 other Fijian soldiers, to assist with the construction of various buildings for the British troops. Today he is 85 years old, and looks back at his history with the nuclear testing programme with a faint sense of nostalgia. I especially liked how he recalled spending his free time having picnics across the island! Nevertheless, he witnessed three atomic bomb explosions and his account of hearing the countdown, seeing the mushroom cloud, and subsequently feeling the searing heat 10 miles away from the drop zone was captivating. It was one of his final sentences of the interview which has stuck with me: “I’ll show you the way forward from my footprint.” He was referencing the project’s shared goal that we can teach the younger generation to learn from the mistakes of the past.

The final part of the event was interactive as we were encouraged to take part in a short quiz on Britain’s nuclear test programme. While I didn’t perform very well myself, it was a nice way to end the afternoon. We were also encouraged to write (or asking Dr Crompton to write on our behalf) a short message of support to the nuclear veterans. I found this to be a touching part of the event and encouraged all of us to really think about the significance of the stories we had just heard. Overall, it was a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking occasion, which has since left me thinking about the legacy of Britain’s nuclear programme and the test veterans’ emotive stories which remind us of our nation’s forgotten past.