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Nuclear testing caused decades of illness, former Black Country serviceman reveals

By Peter Madeley | West Bromwich | News | Published:

A veteran of Britain's biggest nuclear test says his family has been ravaged by illness as a result of his exposure to harmful levels of radiation.

The Grapple Y Hydrogen Bomb exploded over Christmas Island on April 8, 1958

National Serviceman John Ward, from West Bromwich, was sent to Christmas Island in the South Pacific in 1958 as a shorthand typist for an RAF air vice marshal.

While there he witnessed six nuclear blasts as part of tests for Britain's hydrogen bomb programme.

They included Operation Grapple Y, a 2.8 megaton hydrogen bomb that was the most powerful weapon Britain ever unleashed.

John Ward, from West Bromwich

Mr Ward, 81, who went to work as a chief reporter for the Express & Star, says his exposure to radiation has taken a terrible toll on the health of his family.

He has had bladder cancer, while his daughter Denise has suffered from serious illnesses for most of her life.

Now 56, she had most of her teeth removed when she was a child, has suffered double incontinence as her pancreas has stopped working properly, and endured 14 years of unsuccessful fertility treatment.

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Mr Ward's son, Mark, 54, has had part of a kidney removed due to a cancerous tumour.

"I am convinced that I have passed down bad genes due to the radiation I was exposed to during the nuclear tests," he said.

He is backing a campaign by West Bromwich East MP Tom Watson to give a medal to nuclear vets. The deputy Labour leader also wants an investigation into claims that servicemen were used as human guinea pigs for nuclear testing.

Servicemen slept in 8-man tents on Christmas Island was

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Mr Ward had not long turned 18 when he was called for National Service, signing on for an extra year on the basis that it allowed him to have a trade as a shorthand typist.

He was dispatched to Christmas Island in the South Pacific where Britain's nuclear test programme took place, along with around 22,000 other servicemen.

"We were facing back to the explosion and they warned us to put our hands over our eyes when it went off," he said.

"You could see the bones in your hand and you heard this incredible bang, then you felt a rush of air. The next thing was that a searing heat came over you. Then the windrush nearly knocked you over.

"You turned around and looked at the bomb and you could see the mushroom cloud rise and all the sea being sucked up."

Mr Ward says that at the time the spectacle was 'awe inspiring', and that he remembers thinking: "What is happening to us?"

"We were not warned about the effects of the fallout and all we were given as protection was a white cotton suit, some gloves and a pair of dark glasses," he added.

John Ward in the cotton suit he was given before nuclear testing began

Mr Ward, now lives in Chesterfield, says recognition for the veterans of Britain's nuclear tests is long overdue.

"It would help if we were issued a proper medal," he said. "As far as I am aware we are the only country involved in nuclear testing that has not recognised its veterans.

"They have forgotten all about compensation, but if they do give a medal it must be properly presented at a special ceremony.

"I don't want something that just gets sent through in the post."

Labour deputy leader Mr Watson said: "We put these men in harm's way through no fault of their own, and they deserve recognition for their service to their country.

"The least we can do is give them their own medal and their own service to recognise their sacrifice – many of whom made in their teens – and the impact that the radiation fallout may have had on the health conditions of their families."

The Ministry of defence said it is grateful to all those who participated in the testing, and would 'carefully consider every request to recognise accomplishments'.

A petition has been raised to support calls for a medal for the veterans. To sign it visit: petition.parliament.uk/petitions/220170

Peter Madeley

By Peter Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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