We had been driving along the Bay of Wrecks on the eastern coast of Christmas Island for over an hour and a half when we saw the flock of terns. A few were scattered over the pale tarmac in front of us, but thousands more were wheeling and hovering in the air, suspended above the saltbushes of the island’s interior. ‘Sooty Terns,’ Perry Langston said from the passenger seat beside me. I stopped the car and turned off the engine, leaving the air conditioning washing over us. ‘Must be one of their nesting grounds.’ For a few minutes we sat there watching them contract and expand in the air. At their tightest point they looked more like a swarm than a flock, turning the sky a flurry of living black.
I got out of the car and the sudden heat of the day hit me again. In the distance, to my left, I could hear the roaring of the reef. On my right a coconut plantation frayed the inland horizon. I began walking towards the terns. They were unperturbed by my presence and I was soon standing directly beneath them. Their high-pitched cries pulsed like electricity in the air. I looked through the edges of the flock towards our destination at the island’s south-eastern point. Down there, at the end of the road, was a tapering slip of land, still marked on some maps as ‘Ground Zero’, off which, fifty years ago, Britain exploded its first hydrogen bomb.
The bomb had been the fourth in a series of nine nuclear and thermonuclear tests, codenamed ‘Grapple’, conducted in the central Pacific between May 1957 and September 1958. Britain had already developed its own atomic bomb, tested at Maralinga in the Australian desert two years earlier. But the test limit in Australia was fifty kilotons. In their bid to keep pace with the Americans and the Soviets, the British wanted to develop a hydrogen bomb many times more powerful than anything tested in Australia. The first three Grapple tests were conducted off Malden Island. These were airbursts over the ocean, all in the kiloton range. The next six tests were conducted off or over Christmas Island, and of these, three were in the megaton range. This was why Britain had been willing to send 14,000 men and countless tons of equipment to a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific: to prove to the world and to itself that it could maintain its position and influence among the powers of a new world order.
In the reading I’d done before coming to the island, I’d often found references to its birds. Christmas Island is famous for both the number of species and the size of its colonies. Eyewitness accounts of the Grapple tests often mentioned them. Captain Cook, on first discovering the island on Christmas Eve 1777, was immediately struck by the ‘infinite numbers of a new species of tern’. So far though, in the three days I’d been on the island, I’d seen only cormorants and the solitary frigate birds of the northern beaches, their wings like finely turned blades as they slid off the currents with the motion of tethered kites.
I looked up into the birds again. At times one would fly so close I could see its tongue, the layering of its feathers, the light in its eye. Looking back down along the road, I saw Perry had also got out of the car. He was walking towards me, his white beard and yellow Brazil football shirt bright in the sun. As usual he was talking, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t hear anything except the cries of the birds. It felt as if I were caught in a woven cage of sound and it was then, standing at the eye of that feathered storm, that I began to understand.
The British, Fijian and New Zealand servicemen stationed on Christmas Island during the tests had witnessed each of the six explosions from the decks of ships at sea or from the island’s northern beaches and coconut groves. Sitting in rows on the sand, they’d been ordered to look away from the blast at the moment of detonation. No one had been able to order the birds to do the same.
In 1957 Paul Ahpoy was a twenty-one-year-old sailor in the Fiji Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Over the next year he was one of the few servicemen to witness all six of the Christmas Island tests. It was Paul who first told me about the birds, when I met him at the office of the Fiji Nuclear Test Veterans Association in Suva, Fiji’s capital.
‘For several days after each test,’ he explained, ‘we would hear the birds flying into buildings and trees. They had been blinded, you see. By the flash.’
That flash, described by another veteran as a light that ‘didn’t just illuminate the universe, it is the universe’, was so pervasive that even house birds were vulnerable. Mrs Sui Kiritome, who was living on Christmas Island at the time of the tests, had followed all the precautions recommended before a detonation. She and her husband had taken down any hanging pictures, left their doors and windows open and tried to ensure their animals were kept out of the light. On returning home from the Royal Navy frigate from which they’d witnessed the test, however, they’d found the doors blown off their hinges, the windows broken, a concrete wall split open and their pet frigate bird running around the house, blind.
Birds’ eyes are often on the sides of their heads, giving them almost 360-degree vision. Even if flying away from the blast, they would still have been blinded by the flash of detonation. Nobody knows the numbers affected. Some servicemen, such as Barry Cotton, tried to make amends however they could.
‘After the light flash, not a sound, nothing. Then suddenly the air was filled with screaming birds. We commandeered our lorry and driver and some heavy sticks and spades and went off into the interior of the island to do a bad day’s work. We killed all the blind and maimed birds we could find and buried them. There were hundreds and they were beautiful, but dead. I think we got drunk afterwards.’
The chain of events that led to the blinding of the birds can be traced back to August 6, 1945 when, in a bid to bring the war with Japan to an end, the US Air Force detonated the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ above Hiroshima. From that moment, the world entered the nuclear age and Britain was never going to want to be left behind. But after the passing of the McMahon Act by the US government in 1946, that’s exactly what looked likely to happen. The Act made it a crime punishable by death to transmit any atomic information to any country, ending the wartime US–UK cooperation on nuclear development. Given the cold shoulder by its former ally, it was inevitable that in time Britain would try to explode its own hydrogen bomb somewhere in the world.
America had achieved its goal of a fully functioning hydrogen weapon during the ‘Castle’ series of tests on Bikini Atoll in the central Pacific in March 1954. During these tests, entire coral land masses within the Marshall Islands were obliterated and vast craters blown in the ocean floor. A miscalculation in the material used for the Castle ‘Bravo’ test meant the bomb registered fifteen megatons instead of the projected five. US servicemen, Marshall Islanders and the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fishing vessel outside the danger zone, were all contaminated by radioactive fallout. When the Lucky Dragon returned to port in Japan, there was outrage. The only country to have been a victim of a nuclear weapon had been struck again.
Lewis Strauss, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, returned from the Bikini tests on March 31. On the same day he read out a statement in Washington. It was intended to calm the public, to assure them that those affected by the fallout would fully recover. It took just one question to unpick any reassurance he might have sown. Just how powerful, a journalist asked, could an H-bomb be?
‘In effect,’ Strauss answered, ‘it can be made as large as you wish; as large as the military requirement demands. That is to say, an H-bomb can be made as…large enough to take out a city.’
‘How big a city?’ the journalist asked. ‘Any city? New York?’
‘The metropolitan area,’ Strauss replied. ‘Yes.’
The next day the New York Times ran the headline h-bomb can wipe out any city. A fierce public debate followed, drawing condemnation of nuclear testing from across the globe. Pope Pius XII used his 1954 Christmas message to call for international efforts to banish nuclear war. The United States, in so effectively testing its ‘superbomb’, had aroused international opposition that in only a few years would lead to a moratorium on testing in 1958 and to the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
In 1954, however, just four months after Strauss’s press conference, Churchill’s government signed Britain up to the development and testing of its own hydrogen bomb. Publicly, Britain appeared willing to join in discussions about a test ban, but behind the scenes, Sir William Penney, the head of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in Aldermaston, was being urged to develop a weapon, according to a general instruction from the Ministry of Supply, ‘of very high power that is capable of production in reasonable quantity, that can be reasonably easily handled and maintained and that can be accurately delivered’. The only problem was, in 1954, Penney and his team didn’t know how to make a hydrogen bomb or how long it would take to find out. What they did know was that time was tight. If Britain was to maintain its influence in the world, if America was to be persuaded to share its nuclear knowledge, then a megaton bomb must be developed and, crucially, tested quickly. Less than two years later, in February 1956, Air Commodore Wilfred Oulton was called to Air Command in London and given his brief for a new operation. ‘I want you to go out and drop a bomb somewhere in the Pacific,’ his commander, Air Vice-Marshal Lees, told him. ‘And take a picture of it with a Brownie camera.’
Within a year, Oulton was expected to establish a fully operational base involving all three armed services at a remote location where Penney and his team could test their experimental weapon. Two possible archipelagos were on the table: the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean and Christmas Island in the central Pacific.
When you travel to Christmas Island it is easy to understand why it was Britain’s first choice for the tests. Lying at the northern end of the Line Islands, one of three archipelagos that make up the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kirimbass’), it is isolated both from the world and from its own country. Kiribati is a nation of ocean, its borders marking out an area from east to west almost as wide as Australia. And yet there is very little of Kiribati: just 300 square miles of land in one and a half million square miles of ocean.
Before I left Britain I typed the I-Kiribati name for Christmas Island, ‘Kiritimati’, into Google Earth. I watched the Google globe spin on its axis and the screen zoom in on ocean, ocean, ocean, until eventually, literally out of the blue, Christmas Island appeared. It was beautiful: a skeleton of land around a latticework of internal lagoons, vividly green at its centre, fringed by beach echoed curve for curve by a white penumbra of reef. Zooming back out I looked at it again, lonely in all that sea, and understood why the Polynesians originally called it ‘Abakiro’, ‘The Far Away Island’.
I’d been prepared for Christmas Island’s isolation. I knew before I got there what a chance of land it was: one serviceman, arriving in 1957, was convinced that if the pilot of their Stratocruiser had deviated from his path by just a fraction of an inch, they’d have missed the island altogether. What I wasn’t prepared for was how fragile it would look. Through the plane’s window as I flew in from Fiji, just before dawn, it was no more than a shadow on the sea, so flat it seemed one shrug of the ocean would drown it forever. It seemed unlikely that such a place could have sustained a military operation the size of Grapple, let alone survived the thermonuclear explosions the operation had created.
An hour after my arrival I was standing on the shore of the island, my back to the blue-painted single-storey buildings of the Captain Cook Hotel. The waves before me were layered six or seven deep over the shallow reef. The larger ones broke further out in an unending dull roar. The smaller waves extinguished themselves at my feet, firing along the sand like lit fuses of gunpowder. The easterly trade winds pushing at these waves were the second reason, beyond the island’s isolation, why Christmas became the site for the nuclear tests. After the contamination scare of Castle Bravo, the British government didn’t want to take any chances. Christmas Island’s regular easterly winds meant that even if something did go wrong, any fallout would be carried away west, dispersed across thousands of miles of ocean.
Today the hotel caters for the small groups of dedicated fly- fishermen who travel to Christmas to catch bonefish in the lagoons and giant travelley and tuna in the ocean offshore. The buildings and site behind me had once been the Task Force Officers’ B mess. The rest of Main Camp would have stretched down the shoreline to my right: regimented rows of greenish-grey military tents coated with white coral dust. A Naafi, a hospital, a supply shop, lorries, cranes, bulldozers, laboratories, an outdoor cinema and even, at one point, a tent selling freshly caught fish and chips, a handwritten sign hammered into the ground at its entrance: fission chips.
Around the curve of the beach, I’d already found the remains of one of Main Camp’s churches. The salt-laced wind, time and local vandalism had left it roofless. Light switches hung from their sockets, a burnt-out gas canister lay in the chancel and a dead crab floated in the rusty water collected in the well of a shower. A blank rectangle of concrete below a sign, ‘Daily Notices’, marked the space where a board of events had once been embedded in the wall. In the opposite corner a pair of white clamshells had been set to resemble a pair of angel’s wings above the original foundation stone:
this stone was laid on 12th september 1958
by rev e g alsop raf, on the completion of this church
It was in churches such as this that those killed during Operation Grapple were remembered. Stone plaques were set into the coral walls bearing the names of the young men who’d drowned swimming or fishing over the reef, or who’d been victims of accidents during the construction of the base, roads and airstrip. Considering the scale of the operation, these plaques were relatively few in number. Many veterans of the tests, though, would argue that the casualty lists are still growing. For these men, the end of the official operation on Christmas Island was only the beginning of their private battles with illness and grief, which for some would extend into future generations.
The tests conducted on Christmas were declared ‘clean’ by the Ministry of Defence. They were atmospheric airbursts in which no debris from the land or sea was contaminated. Any fallout was blown away from those stationed on Christmas Island or on boats at sea. This was, and is, the official line. Many veterans of the tests, however, do not agree. Since 1983, when the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association was formed, it and similar organizations in New Zealand and Fiji have claimed that their members suffered illnesses and even died as a result of exposure to ionizing radiation during the tests. Most of the surviving ex-servicemen are now in their mid-seventies, but, encouraged by mounting anecdotal evidence, they are still pursuing their cause. They are asking for recognition from the British government that the men who made it possible for Britain to develop a megaton thermonuclear device faster than either the United States or the Soviet Union had done were placed at undue risk and, as a result, exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
So far, however, their campaigns have been largely unsuccessful. In 1998 two test cases against the Ministry of Defence, claiming war pensions on the grounds that participation in Grapple led to severe illnesses, were both rejected, by five to four, at the European Court of Human Rights. A subsequent appeal in 2000 was also rejected. Several independent epidemiological studies have, meanwhile, failed to convince the British government that the cancers, illnesses and premature deaths of Grapple veterans were because of radiation exposure. One study even concluded that a group of veterans actually had a lower incidence of leukaemia than the national average.
Turning from the sea back towards the hotel I noticed a concrete plinth at the edge of the beach. A brass plaque on one side commemorated the dawn of the new millennium in 2000. Until 1995 the equator and the International Date Line had intersected over Kiribati like the cross hairs of a sniper’s sights. But following the ‘Kiribati Adjustment’ in 1994–95, which saw the Date Line moved to the east of Kiribati, Christmas Island now claimed to be the first inhabited land mass to receive each new day. It struck me, as I stood there watching the land crabs side-scuttle into their sand holes, that for the next week, if I got up early enough, I could be the first person to inhabit the day. For a few seconds I could live in the rest of the world’s future, a day in which nothing had happened, in which no one had been born, and no one died.
Touching the plinth, as if it were some kind of lucky charm, I carried on walking back towards my unpacked cases in bungalow number thirty-five. As I did I realized it was perhaps fitting that back in 1957, when this hotel had been the Main Camp, Christmas Island hadn’t received the first light of each new day, but the last. Each dawn in the course of the operation was not a few seconds of untouched day but rather the tail end of a date marked by man, signed off six times during Grapple with his most powerful invention yet.
My interest in Christmas Island and the Grapple tests grew from an accident of birth: my own. From 1972 to 1976 my parents worked in Fiji with the Overseas Development Agency. In 1974 I was born in Suva, before moving with my family back to Wales at the age of two. As I grew older I became fascinated by this country of my birth on the other side of the world. That fascination eventually led to a number of return visits. It was during one of these in 2003 that I’d met Paul Ahpoy and Filipe Rogoyawa, two Fijians in their late sixties, in the basement headquarters of the Fiji Nuclear Test Veterans Association on Amy Street, in Suva.
The ‘headquarters’ had no computers or filing cabinets, only a long wooden table and an assortment of old school chairs. Once my eyes had adjusted from the bright day outside, I saw that the dominant feature of the space was a stack of beige folders piled at one end of the table and along a single shelf on the back wall. These folders, Paul and Filipe explained to me, contained the returned questionnaires that the association had sent out to other Grapple veterans across the Fijian archipelago. Some of them also held the transcripts of interviews conducted with veterans about their experiences on Christmas Island. The stories, memories and medical histories the questionnaires and interviews had generated formed the main body of the association’s work. This evidence, along with similar surveys of British veterans by UK associations, would be passed to a team of lawyers in London who were, at that time, preparing a compensation claim against the Ministry of Defence for illnesses suffered because of radiation exposure during Operation Grapple.
As many as 300 Fijian soldiers and sailors served at Christmas Island during 1957 and 1958. All of them were young and all were volunteers. Depending on their duties, their experiences on Christmas varied widely. The Fijian soldiers, unlike their British and New Zealand counterparts, were not allowed beer. The Fijian sailors were given a freer rein, and for many, as Paul confirmed, ‘it was the time of our lives’. For forty years none of the Fijians received a pension for their service as it was only in 1999 that Christmas Island was reclassified as an ‘active military operation’.
It was in that basement I first heard about the procedure followed for each of the Grapple tests. It was a story I would hear and read repeatedly, with some variation, over the next three years.
‘The routine was always the same,’ Paul said. ‘At four in the morning they told us to go and line up on the beach. They’d play music on the big loudspeakers, all types of military bands. We could hear the jets warming up on the airfield ten or twelve miles away.’
Some of the men were given white cotton overalls and goggles. Others just wore their regular uniforms. They were told to sit down, facing away from the direction of the blast. Lorries nearby were prepared for a possible evacuation, coloured squares attached to the trunks of coconut trees marking out the different escape routes to be followed. At this point Paul got down on the floor of the basement to demonstrate the position they were told to adopt: knees to chest, elbows outside legs and palms pressed hard against their closed eyes.
‘They’d count down over the loudspeakers. “Five, four, three, two, one… Bomb gone!” Then all silence, but after that we all start squirming.’ Paul wriggled before me on the floor. ‘Because someone is holding a big blowtorch behind you, and we could see the flash through our hands, see the bones, y’know?’
After the flash came the immense sound of the explosion and then the shock waves. Paul described how sometimes the stones around them were thrown into the air, then kept there by a succession of after shocks. ‘Boom, boom, boom, about six of them.’
When they were allowed to turn around and open their eyes, Paul saw what he and other veterans have described as ‘a second sun’, so bright it turned the tropical night into day. The men on the beach, and those on the decks of ships out at sea, all watched that second sun rise. As it did, it changed shape, from a perfect sphere into ‘a giant ice-cream cone with white cream dripping over its side’, then into the now-familiar mushroom cloud, its stem glittering with ice crystals, towering into the sky and on into the stratosphere. Everyone who witnessed such an explosion mentions the immediate silence. According to Nick Harden, a veteran of the tests, ‘all sound stopped, chirping, crabs, as if all nature held its breath’.There are some reports of this silence being broken by men crying.
When the Fijian servicemen returned home from Christmas Island, some reported immediate complaints that many have attributed to exposure to radiation: loss of hair, vomiting, dizziness, memory loss. Over the following years some of the men discovered they were sterile while others reported multiple miscarriages among their wives. As more time passed an increasing number suffered from premature cataracts, skin diseases or various forms of cancer, particularly leukaemia. It was only after 1983, however, when the British veterans’ association was set up, that the Fijian veterans began to organize themselves around the growing question of the role their service at Christmas Island may have played in their illnesses. As with their British counterparts, this question became more urgent when they suspected it was not just they who had been affected. There was, it seemed, a disturbingly high rate of infant mortality and birth defects among the veterans’children. Paul’s daughter died of an undiagnosed illness when she was three. ‘She was playing with her toys and she just lay down and went to sleep,’ he told me, before adding: ‘The lucky ones are those who don’t have children.’
In the books I’d read about the tests, I’d found hardly any mention of the I-Kiribati (‘Gilbertese’ in 1957) islanders living on Christmas at the time. Every now and then a veteran’s account would mention the ‘Garth’-like physique of the men, or that the local village was strictly out of bounds. Paul Ahpoy told me how the villagers had been evacuated before each test to safety ships offshore, where they’d been shown films in the hold until the test was over. In Kirisimasi, a book produced by the FNTVA, there had been just one interview with an I-Kiribati woman. Other than this, I could find no accounts of the I-Kiribati experience of the British tests, or evidence of any follow-up medical studies of the islanders.
The current population of Christmas Island is predominantly Micronesian and numbers around 5,000, higher than at any other time in its history. Compared to Christmas, the other inhabited islands of Kiribati are tiny – elliptical dashes of land, often overcrowded and increasingly under threat from ‘king tides’ and rising sea levels. While I was on Christmas the Kiribati president spoke at the United Nations of his concerns that in fifty years’ time parts of his country may no longer exist. Christmas Island, as the world’s largest coral atoll, constitutes seventy per cent of the total land mass of Kiribati. It has, therefore, presented itself to the I-Kiribati authorities as a natural destination for relocation.
Before leaving England, I’d been given the email address of Alice Taukaro, a young I-Kiribati woman who lived on Christmas. She had promised to help me find islanders who still remembered the nuclear tests. As we drove into London, the island’s main village, we passed signs of this recent population growth: the newly-built Line and Phoenix island administration offices, several different denominations of church (Mormon, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Protestant) and two high schools. Other than a few windmill-powered water pumps the land between these buildings and the villages was largely featureless, the low-lying saltbushes and scrubland punctuated by an occasional coconut tree or, further off, the regimented lines of a plantation. After the wind and motion of the coast I was struck by how still the interior of the island was, as if stunned under the heat of the day.
Along the tar-sealed road, red land crabs, many with one oversized prizefighter’s claw, scuttled away from the wheels of the car. At the time of the tests these crabs were everywhere. Like the birds, they often couldn’t escape the sudden blast and flash of the detonation. One veteran had described how after a test explosion he’d found a crab’s empty shell, its claws raised to fight, still facing the direction of the blast. Today the crabs are still everywhere. I’d woken that morning to find one clinging to the mosquito netting over my window. Later that week I went for a run into the interior. For an hour the only sound other than my breath and footfall was the clicking of hundreds of crabs as they parted across the tarmac a few metres in front of me, before closing again behind.
In London, Alice pointed out the main props of the island’s infrastructure: the hospital, the bank, the council meeting house, the communications and Internet centre from where she’d emailed me. At the edges of the town I could see the apparatus of the port: loading cranes, storage sheds and fuel depots. This port had been established and expanded by first the British and then the US military, and was now where much of Christmas Island’s money was made and spent. Most of what was consumed on the island, from fruit and vegetables to cars and TVs, had to be imported. Much of the island’s economy, meanwhile, was driven by the export of copra, or dried coconut kernels, and fish, which left these quays and wharfs for the outside world.
Although this made the constitution of the national economy relatively clear, I found it harder to ascertain exactly how the majority of Christmas’s population earned their income beyond subsistence farming or fishing. There was a small service economy of teachers, administrators and a handful of policemen. The Captain Cook Hotel also provided a certain number of jobs, as did a couple of scuba-diving operations. There was work to be had at the port itself, and in the network of services that supported its operation. A weekly export of live tropical fish on the Air Pacific flight to Hawaii indicated that some money could be made by the collection of these specimens. The best-paid occupation, however, was that of a fishing guide to the American and Japanese tourists who flew in each week to fish in the lagoons and from boats offshore. The tips a guide earned alone amounted to a weekly wage far beyond the reach of most islanders.
The physical debris of the Grapple tests – piles of rusting Land-Rovers and bulldozers, steel instrument casings and all the other detritus of the operation – had only recently been removed by a long overdue British clean-up team. A few bunkers remained, as did the concrete bollards at the side of the roads listing which regiments had built that particular stretch, but on the whole the marks of Grapple were slipping away from the island.
One morning, Alice took me to see Tonga Fou, a local historian, on what turned out to be his eightieth birthday. When I arrived he was lying on a bed in the backyard of his house covered by a mosquito net listening to Radio Kiribati, a transistor radio propped by his ear. Flipping back the net he swung his legs to the floor and walked towards me like an elder statesman about to take the stage.
Tonga came to Christmas Island when he was twenty-nine. Like many young Gilbertese men, he’d been recruited from Tarawa to assist with Operation Grapple. When the tests ended, some of the men chose to stay on the island, previously inhabited only by Gilbertese working in the copra plantations. Tonga’s experience of the operation had been more intimate than most. During quieter periods he took R J Cook, the scientific director of Grapple, fishing round the island. Through this connection he ended up working alongside the rest of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment team. ‘Sometimes they would have containers,’Tonga told me, ‘which they would tell me not to touch, because it is poison.’
Tonga recalled the time with fondness. His calm, solid face was quick to smile and he often broke into a high, girlish giggle.
‘It was a lot of fun – we worked with the soldiers, fishing together, playing together. In these days we don’t think about the bomb because we enjoying ourselves.’
It was through these relationships that Tonga and the other Gilbertese learned about the nature of the bombs to be tested.
‘During the Second World War,’ Tonga said, ‘we saw the Japanese bombing on Tarawa. We thought at first it would be like one of those bombs. But then the soldiers, they ask us, “Do you know the H-bomb?” Well, they explained to us for the first time, about the H-bomb. The A-bomb which is being dropped at Hiroshima, about one thousand bombs like that inside the smallest H-bomb.’
I asked Tonga if he was scared when he heard this.
‘Oh yes!’ he said, frowning and nodding his head. ‘What about us if something goes wrong?’
When I showed him some of the books about Grapple I’d brought to the island, his smile returned. He flicked through the pictures, picking out senior members of the Task Force as if discovering old friends in a high-school yearbook. In return he showed me his own collection of Grapple material: some of the operation’s pennants and badges sent to him by veterans, a memoir written by Kenneth Hubbard, the group captain of the RAF Valiant squadron that dropped Britain’s first H-bomb, and a booklet produced by Air Commodore Oulton for the servicemen arriving from the United Kingdom to participate in Grapple. The booklet opened with the neat, circular reasoning behind the tests:
In the absence of international agreement on methods of regulating and limiting nuclear test explosions – and Her Majesty’s Government will not cease pursuing every opportunity of securing such agreement – the tests which are to take place shortly in the Pacific are, in the opinion of the Government, essential to the defence of the country and the prevention of global war.
Over the following seven chapters, complete with line-drawn illustrations, the booklet outlined the scientific journey towards thermonuclear capability since the end of the Second World War and the roles of the various services in the forthcoming operation. In a chapter discussing the nature of the tests themselves, the limited dangers of high atmospheric airbursts is made clear:
If the explosion has been high in the air then the explosion will not touch the ground or the sea and the only R.A. [radioactive] material in the rising cloud are the tiny bits of the bomb. These are so small that they are carried to great heights and fall so slowly that they take weeks or even months to reach the earth. By that time their activity will have decayed and in any case they will be very diffuse and will not be dangerous.
From the point of view of fallout a burst high in the air differs greatly from an explosion on the ground or at sea level. In such a case, where the fireball touches the earth or the sea, tons of dirt or water will be drawn up into the cloud. This will become coated with R.A. material from the bomb and there will be greater fallout. As the cloud rises the smallest particles will be taken up with it, but the larger ones will begin to ‘fallout’ from the stem and the base of the cloud. A burst at ground or sea level will not be included in Operation ‘Grapple’.
Tonga wasn’t alone in recalling the good times had by those involved in Operation Grapple. On my way to Christmas Island I’d stopped off in Fiji where I once again met up with Paul Ahpoy. This time he brought with him another veteran, Tekoti Rotan. Tekoti was originally from Banaba, an island so catastrophically mined for phosphate by Britain that at the age of eleven, along with every other Banaban, he had been repatriated to the island of Rabi, in Fiji. Twelve years later he had been posted as a stevedore to Operation Grapple. ‘None of the European officers who were stationed here wanted to go,’ Tekoti told me. ‘So they must have known something, eh?’
In the four years since I’d seen Paul, he had travelled widely in the name of the test veterans’ cause. ‘The best thing to do is for veterans all over the world to get together,’ he told me, ‘instead of inviting the politicians, because they come and go.’ The legal case prepared in 2003 hadn’t come to anything, and the material collected by Paul and others was in the process of being passed to another team of solicitors who had taken over the case.
Back in Fiji, more of the association’s members had died of cancer. ‘I’m afraid there are not many of the talkative ones left,’ said Paul. The most significant change, however, was Paul’s renewed optimism, founded upon a report on the New Zealand Grapple veterans that was about to be published by Dr Al Rowland of Massey University. Tekoti showed me some newspaper cuttings which suggested the report contained new material that would be beneficial to their case. ‘They are still saying those tests were quite safe,’ Paul said. ‘But probably, with the professor’s findings, that will change.’
Both Paul and Tekoti claimed Operation Grapple had caused them and their families suffering (Tekoti’s first and second wives had both had multiple miscarriages and his grandson was born with a ‘twisted foot’). And yet, like Tonga, their reminiscences of Christmas Island were often remarkably warm. ‘We were all young, you know,’ Tekoti explained, ‘so it was some excitement. It was like a dream. Because we were so out there in the middle of the ocean, I think we forgot about everything.’
‘Although we were isolated, as young people, we enjoyed it, eh?’ Paul confirmed. ‘We would fish, catch land crabs and pick birds’ eggs. We went to the Naafi or to the two bars at either end of the beach, and we could drink as much beer as we wanted.’
This attitude was one shared by many of the UK veterans. Some young men on national service even viewed Christmas Island as a ‘cushy number’. Living conditions were hard, tempers could fray (when the cinema projectionist played the song ‘How’d ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?’ one night, the audience wrecked their only source of entertainment), but many speak of their time on the island as one of the best of their lives.
Even when I asked Tonga about the tests themselves, his first response was positive. The mushroom cloud was, he says, ‘Nice, very nice to look at.’ The films they were shown in the hold of the safety ships, meanwhile, were ‘Oh, very nice films, Jungle Jim, yes.’ Over time, however, his view of those days has darkened. Just as the soldiers first drew his attention to the dangers of the H-bomb, so returning veterans to Christmas Island, in conveying their concerns over contamination, have cast a shadow over Tonga’s experiences of Grapple, and a question mark over its legacy on the island.
When I mentioned the veterans’ claims, Tonga’s tone changed to one of quiet offence, informed, in part, by a retrospective awareness of the colonial order.
‘They think of us as someone who does not know anything. But you don’t treat him the right way. The question I say is why? Why the British tried their tests on Christmas Island, why they come this long distance? For one reason. One reason. To take a picture of the H-bomb. But why are they not thinking that human beings are staying on the island?’
The possibility of radiation exposure during Grapple had made Tonga reconsider some of the deaths he’d witnessed on the island in the past fifty years.
‘We don’t know, we don’t know,’ he admitted, ‘but my feeling is that there is radiation. When I think of the people who were there at the bomb, how they died, it was mostly women, suffering with bleeding.’ Although healthy himself, Tonga had his own story of loss since the explosions of Grapple. After suffering from intermittent blisters on her face and neck from 1960 onwards, his wife had died in 1990.
When I stood to leave, Tonga shook my hand. I felt guilty. He’d welcomed me with a smile, but now he was looking at the floor, frowning. He held my hand for a moment as we stood there, then looked up again.
‘It was not just the people who were there, you know,’ he said. ‘No. When my wife gave birth to our daughter, the doctor was very surprised. The baby was bleeding from everywhere, her nose, her mouth, her ears, her eyes.’ Tonga shook his head slowly. ‘But we do not know, because they have sent no one to the island, no expert, no doctor. So yes, I wonder, I just wonder.’
In the forty years that he’d lived in Kiribati, Perry Langston had experienced most of the possible incarnations of a wandering European in the South Seas. Having originally arrived in the area to work for the British colonial service, Perry had since been a fisherman, a fishing guide, a diving instructor, a teacher, a plantation manager and a navigator. Although he was now married and had settled on Christmas, the desire to explore was still with him, however familiar the territory. ‘A road trip, eh?’ he said when I told him I’d be driving down to the test site on the south-eastern point of the island. ‘Sounds good. Mind if I tag along?’
On that long drive south the next day, Perry demonstrated an impressive knowledge of the physics behind the tests, reciting an accurate summary of much of the material I’d been reading that week. How an atom bomb uses nuclear fission, the splitting of the atoms of a very heavy element such as plutonium. How a hydrogen bomb works in the opposite way, using the fusion of atoms of the lightest element, hydrogen. How, in fact, the bombs exploded in the area we were driving towards had been both – an atomic unit used to trigger the hydrogen unit. How that initial implosion had to be ‘perfect! That’s why the critical mass of plutonium is a perfect sphere, you see.’ Perry made the shape of a circle with both his hands. ‘Absolutely perfect.’
Although an undying enthusiast for Christmas Island (he marvelled at the unchanging scenery as if seeing it for the first time), Perry was not blind to its problems, not all of them local. Rising sea levels had seen king tides sweeping into the interior of some of the islands with increasing regularity. Both the issuing of more fishing licences and an increase in illegal fishing had led not just to a dangerous lowering of the fish stocks, but also to more international boats docking at Kiribati’s ports. This, Perry said, had led in turn to an increase in prostitution, particularly of children. Cases of HIV on the islands were also on the increase. ‘Yes,’ he continued, looking out at the monotonous scenery of ocean, reef, shore and sky. ‘This is a beautiful place. Beautiful. But we have our problems. That’s for sure.’
After our stop for the colony of sooty terns on the Bay of Wrecks, it took another half-hour’s driving for us to reach the end of the road. When we did, it was abrupt; the tarmac strip simply petered out into the scrub bush. Another half-mile further on and the island itself tapered into the ocean that stretched for thousands of miles away to the south. I turned off the car’s engine. The layered waves kept up their rolling static on the reef. The sky was clear. I got out of the car. There was nothing there. Not even any coconut trees, just low scrub, thick and wiry. I looked over and saw Perry standing on the other side of the car. ‘This is it. This is where it all happened. Ground Zero,’ he said. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
This was where the two balloon-suspended airbursts, Grapple Z ‘Pennant’ and Grapple Z ‘Burgee’, had been detonated. It was also the peninsula off which the other four thermonuclear bombs had been dropped, officially five miles from the shore on which we were standing. I remembered Paul Ahpoy telling me about the time he drove down here with a group of other Fijians after one of the tests. The undergrowth was scorched and when he’d kicked a stone it had disintegrated into dust, crumbling over the toe of his boot.
On the drive down to the end of the island we’d briefly stopped at one of the last pieces of Grapple debris; a rusted hollow steel cube half-embedded in a sand dune. This was a forward measuring and observation post and one of the closest manned positions to the blast. It was in a cube like this that Air Commodore Oulton had chosen to observe Britain’s first megaton H-bomb. Peter Jones, who would later become head of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, had bored a tiny hole in the wall facing the explosion and placed a white screen on the wall opposite. In this way the shelter was turned into a giant pinhole camera. When Grapple X detonated, the group of soldiers and scientists inside that cube had been able to watch the explosion and mushroom cloud inverted on the white screen on the far wall of the shelter.
I looked up into the clear sky. Up there, fifty years ago, the view of the same explosion from the RAF Valiant that dropped the bomb must have been spectacular. Before I’d come to Christmas I’d heard a recording of the Grapple X drop. The tension in the bomb aimer’s voice had been palpable. I’d never heard a ‘now’ so inhabit the essence of itself as the ‘Now!’ that followed his ‘Steady, steady, steady…’ It was as if, at that moment, the word became the bomb, slowly turning out of its cradle to fall and spin through the air below.
Having released the bomb, ‘Blue Danube’, the Valiant would have lifted, suddenly lighter, with just fifty-three seconds to complete a 1.8 G 140-degree roll escape manoeuvre. Flying with their flash-screens down, and away from the blast area, the crew would have seen nothing of those first crucial seconds when the bomb erupted into a fireball more than a mile across and over one million degrees Centigrade at its core. Only when the mushroom cloud was already climbing higher than their plane was the crew able to turn the bomber around to see a towering cloud of fire and gas, shot with red and orange flame, ice caps forming on its uppermost reaches. Elsewhere in the skies above Christmas, six RAF Canberra ‘sniffer planes’ would have already been flying towards that same cloud, preparing to collect samples of atomic dust on their wing tips to take back to the Britain for testing. Down on the island itself, meanwhile, Oulton had decided to leave the shelter to ‘get some first-hand experience of the blast wave’. He wasn’t to be disappointed. When the shock wave arrived, it blew him and his colleague off their feet, ‘like scraps of straw in a gale’. At that same moment, where Perry and I stood on the south-eastern point, the blinded birds would have begun their screaming.
Many of the consequences that emanated in the wake of the shock wave of Britain’s first megaton H-bomb were well defined. The immediate outrage of other nations such as Japan, Ceylon and India; the repositioning of Britain on the chessboard of world politics; the birth of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; the US government’s amendment of the McMahon Act to allow nuclear collaboration between the United Kingdom and the United States once more (with Christmas Island turned over to the United States for more nuclear testing in return). Other consequences of the Grapple tests have been less clear, the veterans’ claims against the British government of exposure to ionizing radiation being the most significant. The landscape of this ongoing dispute through which I’d travelled both to and within Christmas Island was not simply formed by contested evidence. It was also a dispute of contested histories. Blurred by extreme secrecy during the tests and eroded by the action of time on memory since, there are some striking contradictions between the official and unofficial records as to exactly what happened on that strip of land in the central Pacific between November 1957 and September 1958.
As Perry and I drove back north again that evening, I became acutely aware of the balance of these differing histories. Having just stood at Ground Zero, having met veterans and read the official accounts, I felt somehow at the fulcrum of that balance; in some way obliged to choose on which side to place the weight of my opinion.
The British government has always maintained that safety was paramount in the planning of the Grapple tests. All personnel would be stationed more than twenty miles from the detonation, out of range of the dangerous initial radiation produced by the blast. The risk of any secondary exposure to ionizing radiation, through contact with radioactive material, had been greatly reduced by the choice of ‘clean’ high-atmospheric airbursts. As Oulton’s booklet had stated: ‘A burst at ground or sea level will not be included in Operation Grapple.’
There was no official medical survey of returning veterans after the tests, but since 1988 there have been three epidemiological studies conducted by the National Radiological Protection Board. Individual cases for compensation have been taken as far as the European Court of Human Rights. None of the conclusions of the NRPB studies provided a firm link between participation in the tests and increased levels of mortality and incidence of cancer (although the third study did acknowledge ‘some evidence of a raised risk of leukaemia among test participants relative to controls’). The individual cases, meanwhile, were all defeated in the courts. ‘In view of all the evidence,’ a House of Commons report concluded in April 2003, ‘there are no grounds for compensation to be paid to British nuclear test veterans.’
Faced with this official account of Grapple, I found myself wondering if there had been two possible cases of contamination on Christmas Island. The first was that of ionizing radiation, as claimed by the Grapple veterans. The second was that of the very claim itself. For if the veterans’ claim couldn’t be proved, wasn’t it possible that in spreading their concerns to the Fijian veterans and the inhabitants of Christmas Island they had spread unnecessary and painful doubt, casting ‘normal’ deaths and illnesses within the scope of an avoidable accident? Had I also been contaminated with this doubt? Seeing cover-ups or mistakes where there were none? Chasing the tail of an old non-story while Kiribati and Christmas faced up to the ‘real’ challenges of the twenty-first century: global warming, overcrowding, king tides, HIV and child prostitution?
The evidence suggesting that this might not be the case is the evidence stacked against the official history of the tests. This consists largely of anecdotal accounts from personal narratives: the letters of bereaved wives, sisters and children convinced that exposure to ionizing radiation at Christmas Island played some part in the death of their husband, brother or father; the medical histories of skin diseases, cataracts, leukaemia, multiple myeloma, miscarriages, sterility, hair loss, infant mortality and birth defects. The memories and eyewitness accounts speak of a very different Grapple experience to the one described in the official records: one of lax or non-existent safety procedures, of induced psychological disorders among the men, of panic and confusion after the tests. At times these accounts have been supported by what would appear to be incriminating documents. One of the most quoted of these is a paper entitled ‘Atomic Weapons Trials’ written by the Defence Research Policy Committee to the Chiefs of Staff Committee in May 1953 which states:
The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of exposure on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection.
Then there is the October 1957 memo from the RAF nuclear Task Force Commander in Australia:
Aircraft of the No. 76 Squadron flying to Christmas Island and stopping at Nadi [in Fiji] and Canton may be radioactive internally…the fact that an engine may be ‘hot’ should be concealed from the Nadi authorities unless they ask.
Over my week on Christmas Island it was these divergent and contradictory accounts that increasingly intrigued me. Two particular areas of contradiction between the official and unofficial narratives seemed especially significant. The first was the detonation height and distance of Grapple Y, at three megatons Britain’s largest ever H-bomb. The second was a question of rain. With Grapple Y there was simply disagreement. With the rain there appeared to be a complete contradiction: one of existence versus omission.
None of the official accounts of the Grapple Y detonation on April 28, 1958 mentions any incidence of rain following the explosion. Group Captain Kenneth Hubbard, squadron leader of the Valiant bombers, observed the explosion from the ground. In his memoir he gives a detailed description of the detonation of Grapple Y:
The weapon detonated as planned some 53 sec after release, which meant an altitude of 8,000 ft above sea level… The fireball appeared as a huge red and orange cauldron of fantastic energy, which gave the impression of revolving. As it did so, it emerged at its apex into a stream of orange-coloured cloud mass moving upwards all the time, and as it ascended the colour changed to white. Then somewhere in the region of 50,000 ft it curved and fanned out from its centre making a cap similar to the top of a mushroom.
The Ministry of Defence report on Grapple Y was written by Group Captain W E Townsend:
The Task Force Commander ordered the next one as a live drop and the countdown proceeded until the round was released at 1005 hours and burst at 8,000 ft above Ground Zero, fifty-seven seconds later… It was learned this was a ‘clean bomb’. The airburst precluded any water or dust being drawn up from the surface which may give possible radioactive fallout and it was not anticipated that any fallout from this bomb would occur.
Lorna Arnold is British nuclear historian. In both her books, Britain, Australia and the Bomb and Britain and the H-Bomb, she draws on the official accounts of Grapple Y. Although she quotes Oulton stating in his final report that ‘immediately after the shot the weather had deteriorated’, she too makes no specific mention of any rainfall after the detonation. Many of those stationed on Christmas Island during Grapple Y, however, do.
The ball grew and grew, sending up a huge jagged column, the top of which formed into a giant mushroom cloud, which bellowed towards us, obliterating the sky. Someone nearby said: ‘Christ, what have they done to us?’ It then rained down on us and most of us got soaked. Roy Dunstan, Grapple veteran, diary entry.
We were watching the black cloud and smoke from the blast which was drifting towards us. When it came overhead, I felt something like a light shower falling on me. I thought it was rain. My husband stood under a lifeboat so he was protected from the light shower. Mrs Sui Kiritome, who observed Grapple Y from the deck of a Navy frigate.
Was there rain? Yes, sometimes, usually for an hour afterwards. Tonga Fou.
We would go out and wash in the rain. We thought, hey, a free shower, eh? They told us not to eat the fish for three days afterwards. Paul Ahpoy.
The explosion set off a line of thunderstorms, below which we were forced to return to Christmas Island. There was torrential rain, which entered the unpressurised aircraft like a sieve, turning the only detector, a small rudimentary device on the captain’s lapel, immediately the wrong colour. Captain W G Stewart, co-pilot of an RAF Shackleton during Grapple Y.
The official records of the detonation of Grapple Y all make specific mention of the fact that the bomb was detonated at the planned 8,000 feet (even though Hubbard says it exploded fifty-three seconds after leaving the aircraft, while Townsend states it was fifty-seven seconds). This, it was felt, was a high enough airburst to avoid the contamination of material that occurs during a ground- or sea-level explosion. Many eyewitnesses of Grapple Y, however, believe the bomb detonated at a much lower height. Veterans, both at the time and since, have frequently referred to the ‘bomb that went wrong’. According to Tom Birch, one of those veterans, ‘immediately after the detonation there was panic among the boffins’. Paul Ahpoy told me that ‘all the engines on the landing craft were running’ in preparation for an evacuation. Major James Carman, another veteran speaking on a 1990 Channel Four Dispatches documentary about Operation Grapple, confirmed that ‘general opinion was that someone had got the sums wrong’.
The safety limit for the tests had been set at two megatons. Grapple Y had measured three megatons. It was certainly more powerful than intended, but had something else also gone wrong in the delivery and detonation of the weapon? Captain W G Stewart, the co-pilot of a Shackleton during Grapple Y, was interviewed by journalist Eamonn O’Neill for Ken McGinley’s book No Risk Involved:
O’Neill: At what height would you say that particular device was detonated at?
Stewart: It went off at 800 ft. Yes, it was definitely 800 ft.
O’Neill: Are you certain it might not have been higher…several thousand feet for example?
Stewart: No. It was definitely under one thousand feet.
O’Neill: An official government report on that blast puts the height at 8,000 ft, what is your reaction to that?
Stewart: No… that’s wrong. It was much, much lower than that. Definitely under 1,000 ft.
Stewart’s claim was further supported in the Dispatches documentary. One of the men interviewed about Grapple Y was Dr John Large, an independent nuclear consultant. Like Stewart, he was convinced Grapple Y had exploded lower than the other air-dropped detonations. The evidence for his claim lay in the stem of Grapple Y’s mushroom cloud, what veteran Roy Dunstan had described in his diary as the ‘huge jagged column’. Holding the official photograph of Grapple Y’s mushroom cloud to the camera, Dr Large traced the striated edge of the cloud’s stem with his finger. Such striations, he explained, like the teeth of a double-edged saw when compared to the smooth stems of the other atmospheric mushroom clouds, could mean only one thing: heavy debris, such as seawater or soil, had somehow been drawn into the cloud. The only way this could have happened was if the detonation was at a much lower altitude than 8,000 ft. If this was true, then had the Grapple Task Force literally been ‘hoisted by their own petard’? Had Oulton’s successful completion of his original brief – to ‘drop a bomb in the South Pacific and take a picture of it with a Brownie camera’ – also provided the proof that a ‘dirty’ detonation of the very type his booklet assured would not occur during Grapple had in fact happened?
Perry and I finished our road trip that day watching the sun set while we drank a couple of cans of lager beside the ‘Bathing Lagoon’ in the north of the island. I remembered the photos I’d seen of soldiers and sailors here during Operation Grapple. Black-and-white images of diving contests, swimming races and even games of water polo. The lagoons, with their offer of both fishing and swimming, had been one of the main areas of recreation for the men stationed here. Back then shark nets had been erected in some of the lagoons, but I wondered if, after Grapple Y, these waters hadn’t contained a more lethal and invisible danger than any shark. If the alternative history of Grapple Y was to be believed then a rainstorm so soon after a detonation was likely to have been irradiated. Similarly, if seawater had been contaminated during a low-altitude detonation, then how safe had it been to eat the fish and crabs caught around the island? The longest-lasting radiation particle following a nuclear explosion is plutonium. More or less harmless outside the body, plutonium can be lethal when ingested. I thought of all the fresh fish Paul Ahpoy had said the Fijians used to catch, the salt water showers, that sign outside a tent at Main Camp: fission chips.
Sitting there at the bathing lagoon I realised that the balance of disputed histories I’d been aware of during the drive north was more a narrative of imbalance (of grossly mismatched juxtapositions). The intimate decay of an individual’s body against the public agenda of world politics; the advanced theories of nuclear physics against an island whose language didn’t even have words to contain the ideas for radiation or shock wave; the knowledge gained over the course of the Grapple tests against the doubt seeded in the minds of its veterans; the detailed analysis of each explosion against the failure to survey the men who had witnessed them; the histories of nations and their legacies against the histories of individuals and their offspring.
On returning to Britain it was clear to me that even if the disputed histories of Operation Grapple were to be agreed on, even if the Ministry of Defence were to acknowledge the hot rain or the low-altitude detonation, the Fijian, New Zealand and UK veterans stood little chance of proving their claims of radiation exposure on Christmas Island. This was mainly because while a cancer can be diagnosed, its cause cannot. There is no specific radiogenic cancer, and as the veterans grow older it could be argued they would have suffered from cataracts or leukaemia anyway. It was partly for this reason that the epidemiological studies of the NRPB proved so inconclusive. Even if they had suggested a slightly increased chance of leukaemia following participation in Grapple, they could not provide what the British government required for a compensation claim to be considered valid: a guarantee that such participation would lead to the cancer. The veterans of Christmas Island, it seemed, would have to suffer not only their illnesses, but also the ongoing uncertainty about what may have caused them. Even if they firmly believed they knew that cause, they would still be denied recognition and the accompanying compensation.
I had forgotten, however, about the Massey University study that Paul Ahpoy and Tekoti Rotan had told me about in Suva. I was reminded of it when my attention was drawn to the following question in the House of Commons:
13 June 2007. Dr Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I would like to point out to the Prime Minister that there is a group that represents British nuclear test veterans, including those who worked on Christmas Island. Some startling work from New Zealand shows that genetic abnormalities are associated with the brave men and women who stared into the face of atomic bombs. Does the Prime Minister agree that we ought to help the people from our country who went out there and served for us?
The next day I emailed Dr Al Rowland, the author of the report. When he replied he attached the full results of his report, including the overview of the study:
This report presents the findings of three assays performed to assess the genetic status of those New Zealand military personnel who participated in Operation Grapple in 1957–58. Two of the assays: the G2 assay and the micronucleus (MN) assay show no difference between the veterans and the matched controls, which suggests that DNA repair mechanisms in the veterans are not deficient.
The results reported here using the mFISH assay, however, show elevated translocation frequencies in peripheral blood lymphocytes of New Zealand nuclear test veterans 50 years after the Operation Grapple series of nuclear tests. The difference between the veterans and the matched controls with this particular assay is highly significant. The total translocation frequency is 3 times higher in the veterans than the controls who showed normal background frequencies for men of this age group. This result is indicative of the veterans having incurred long-term genetic damage as a consequence of performing their duties relating to Operation Grapple.
A careful comparison of the veterans and the controls for possible confounding factors, together with a close analysis of the scientific literature in related studies, leads us to a probable defining cause for the chromosome anomalies observed. Ionizing radiation is known to be a potent inducer of chromosome translocations. We submit the view that the cause of the elevated translocation frequencies observed in the veterans is most likely attributable to radiation exposure.
Here, it seemed, was another kind of history: the history of an individual’s genetics. The existence of such a history meant a crucial switch in the focus of the Grapple debate, from proving the cause of radiation or the incidence of a cancer in a group of men to being able to determine whether an individual had, fifty years ago, been exposed to radiation. The narrative of this genetic history was written in an indelible script, what Dr Rowland referred to as ‘a unique permanent signature in the genome’. Was it possible that the veterans’ story was one that would be bound by the limits of science? Having believed themselves harmed by some of the most advanced technology of the 1950s, the opportunity of achieving recognition for their beliefs was now being presented to them through some of the most advanced science of the twenty-first century.
The Grapple veterans are still, however, a long way from the end of their journey, and for some that end may be the discovery that they were not, in fact, exposed to any ionizing radiation on Christmas Island. But the report’s closing lines still read, for me, as a quiet validation; an answer, at last, to all those piled-up beige files of returned questionnaires in a basement in Suva, to the personal testaments of Christmas Island veterans, to the letters of bereaved wives and children, to Tonga Fou’s ‘I wonder, I just wonder’.
We submit the view that the probable cause of the veterans’ elevated translocation frequencies is radiation exposure. This view is supported by the observation of a comparatively high dicentric chromosome score in the veterans, which is characteristic of radiation exposure.
The findings presented here are based on only 50 veterans from New Zealand who took part in Operation Grapple. We would encourage those in authority to initiate research to corroborate our findings by conducting a similar study on British and Fijian personnel who also took part in Operation Grapple.
Photograph © Popperfoto/Getty Images, Hydrogen bomb test at high altitude over Christmas Island, May 15, 1957