Operation Grapple veterans, now all aged at least in their 80s, held a reunion in Palmerston North this weekend. Photo / Supplied / Anu Sefton
By Jimmy Ellingham, Manawatū reporter, RNZ
New Zealand sailors exposed to British nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1950s remain unhappy they have never had a government apology for being placed in harm's way.
On the weekend the veterans, now aged at least in their 80s, held a reunion in Palmerston North.
For many of them it could be their last chance to catch up with their mates from Operation Grapple, which happened in 1957 and 1958, when New Zealand vessels HMNZS Pukaki and Rotoiti observed tests near Christmas Island, south of Indonesia.
About 550 New Zealand sailors were sent there to observe, including Nuclear Test Veterans' Association president Tere Tahi, who witnessed four explosions.
"Veterans had protective clothing on, dark glasses, their hands over their eyes, and they could see right through - when the blast came the light gave you an impression of seeing the bones of your fingers. That's how strong it was."
The 84-year-old said at the time - aged just 18 - he felt privileged to see the tests.
"I found out later on that the blasts we saw up at Christmas Island were 100 times more powerful than what they had at Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in Japan, in World War II]."
In the mid-1990s, Tahi and fellow veteran, the late Roy Sefton, organised the first reunion in Palmerston North, which revealed four decades of suffering.
"They stood up and spoke about the defects they had with their children, and that was terrible.
"A guy stood up and said, 'How come I lost my two boys? They were 18 years old. They had cancer.' He was carrying the genes, you see."
Sefton and Tahi led the veterans' association and have lobbied successive governments for an apology for being exposed to radiation, to no avail.
But last year, as association president, Tahi was invited to England to hear Prime Minister Rishi Sunak say what seems to be the hardest word.
"The best part of my visit was listening to the prime minister of England. He stood up and said he was sorry for the hurt that the government has caused the British nuclear test veterans during the hydrogen bomb tests. Then he said that includes the Commonwealth countries like Fiji, New Zealand and Australia."
About 40 veterans and family members came to this weekend's reunion, including 88-year-old Clive Strickett, from Hamilton.
"I'm here to see the guys, and the women, and have a damn good weekend, because it could be our last. You never know. We're popping off too fast."
After decades of living an active life, Strickett has had health battles in recent years, some of which he puts down to his time in the navy.
"I have nightmares, not memories. I wake up shaking all over, and it's not just the H bomb tests, which is sad to say. I've got some pretty bad memories of Korea too.
"My wife will tell you I dream more than I sleep sometimes and it's affected me mentally and physically quite badly."
The lack of acknowledgement from New Zealand's government was particularly frustrating for the veterans, given the effects the tests had on them were confirmed by a scientific study.
It was done by now-retired Massey University associate professor Dr Al Rowland.
"I conducted a big research programme on the nuclear test veterans and I discovered alarming evidence of long-term genetic damage."
This damage was a consequence of Operation Grapple, he said.
Rowland is the veterans' association patron and he said it saddened him that they still had not received an apology.
"What we are looking for is recognition of the research, from the government.
"The international scientific community have accepted the work and I've received a lot of plaudits. In fact, I received an ONZM for the research from John Key's government."
Despite that, he said the veterans' association had regular meetings with ministers but was making no progress.
Roy Sefton died two years ago, but down the years he fought for pensions for veterans and their families, his daughter Anu said.
"I think the thing that he would love is the guys all coming together and reuniting, sharing their stories," she said.
"I spent many years, with a whiskey in hand, listening to my father's stories over and over again - the same stories from being on the ships - and over and over again I laughed.
"There was real comradeship amongst these men and you can even see that here tonight."
Anu Sefton is vice-president of the veterans' association. She hopes others from her generation will step up and play an active part too.
"I look at these men and know that there's not long. Their stories, the effects that happened to them, it's so vital that we capture everything now because tomorrow they might not be here."
Eighty-four-year-old Ivan McCabe travelled to the reunion from Auckland, making his stay a double one.
As well as the veterans' association get-together the retired accountant will speak at a Manawatū Philatelic Society meeting about the history of warships as depicted by postage stamps.
All three ships he served aboard - Pukaki, Rotoiti and Royalist - have featured on stamps.
He remembers sailing to Hiroshima, Japan, after Christmas Island.
"I still vividly remember standing under the Peace Arch. As I stood there I thought I can understand or feel exactly what those people went through because I have felt the heat on my back. I have heard the bang. I have seen the flash and I have seen that mushroom cloud."
But, McCabe said he feels forgotten.
"The service that we gave to New Zealand has not been recognised. The history books have whitewashed us out.
"The one thing that we have noticed is that we were always the bad guys and the ships that went to Mururoa [to protest French testing in the 1970s] were the heroes, because they were there as protesters. We were there as active participants.
"Nobody wants to know about us."