• Invisible Enemy

Experiences and Afterthoughts of Corporal Wilcox - M1927192


Corporal Wilcox H.G. serving on Christmas Island during the British Nuclear Weapons Tests Programme. October 3rd 1957 until late July 1958.


Canberra and the Dust Cloud

Experiences


A) PRIOR TO ARRIVING AT CHRISTMAS ISLAND


I with many other personnel were posted to R.A.F Innswoth to be kitted out with our tropical kit, prior to our flight to Christmas Island as with all overseas postings, we had our full compliment of United Kingdom kit to contend with, so we were fairly overloaded after being issued with tropical kit. On the 1st October 1957 we spent the night at R.A.F Cliffe, Pypard prior to transit the next day. I always remember the cold because during the evening I watched television wearing my overcoat.


Next morning we travelled to R.A.F Lyneham where we boarded a Comt Mk 2 of R.A.F Transport Command for our flight to Christmas Island. We took off mid-morning an travelled via Iceland, Canada, U.S.A and Hawaii. Prior to landing we flew over the island and it looked very inviting after the cold of the U.K. (Pity this scene was about to be transformed by a RADIOACTIVE MUSHROOM cloud within the next five weeks)



B) EARLY DAYS


On leaving the aircraft dressed in tropical kit which I had changed into during the overnight stop at U.S.A.F BASE OFFUT (NEBRASKA) the first thing to hit me was the heat, (like a furnace). This was possibly to be expected though, as we were only one hundred (100) miles NORTH OF THE EQUATOR.


On arrival at main camp approximately five (5) miles from the airfield, I was shown to the TRANSIT MARQUEE, which was to be my accommodation for the first night on the island.


I was issued with a military camp bed which when assembled was approximately six (6") inches off the ground. At this moment I was advised to build a wooden frame as soon as possible, to raise the bed at least one (1') foot off the ground. This was apparently to prevent ones private parts being attacked by land crabs.


The next day after completing the normal arrival procedures, I was allocated a four man tent along with three other personnel of the same trade. Two of whom would work alongside me at the airfield. During the early days there was considerable activity with more troops arriving on the island together with 'V' bombers and two squadrons of CANBERRA aircraft. This build-up was in preparation for operation GRAPPLE X planned for November 5th.


C) LIVING CONDITIONS


It took a few days to adjust to the living conditions which consisted of a four man tent with no artificial lights, darkness falls around 7pm all year round.


As the ablutions including the sea water showers (sea water soap required) were quite a distance from the tent, a wash basin facility was installed by ourselves for regular wash and shaving activities (consisting of a metal bowl on a wooden crate).


Sleeping at night was normally a problem, but if I was on night shift work which was quite regular, sleeping during the day was difficult due to the heat.


D) LAUNDRY FACILITIES


There was a laundry run by the ARMY but myself and other tent colleagues did not fancy the thought of numerous items, being washed in the same water, so a separate agreement was made. A five gallon drum boiled over a drift wood fire on the beach worked a treat. A good shake of the washed clothes followed by placing them to dry on the adjacent bushes completed the process. (I can't remember detergent being used).


E) DINING FACILITIES


All the main meals were supplied to us by the AIRMENS mess. The dining tents (Marquees with no sides) had two rows of tables and chairs. I learnt very quickly to eat my meal IMMEDIATELY before it was devoured by flies.


In wet weather I avoided sitting on the side of the tent because your meal tended to get washed away, and liquefied potato (POM) is not enjoyable. During my stay on the island, the Marquees were replaced by a wooden framed building, covered with corrugated metal sheets.


My most enjoyable meals were eaten on night shift, duty supper was officially sandwiches, but if you were friendly with the cook, occasionally a piece of steak could be obtained, together with potatoes and garden peas (frozen). When all cooked fresh on the hot plate at work, it was very tasty. I often shared my rations with the clerk in the OPERATIONS ROOM across the road, as there was usually sufficient for two people.



F) NORMAL WORK


Consisted of charging and servicing all batteries used for ground services, including MOTOR TRANSPORT, Aircraft starting and A.W.R.E. Test Equipment used during Nuclear Weapon tests. During my first few weeks our section had to install more equipment to cope with the increased workload. Also a new workshop and restroom, free of acid fumes was built by us from disused packing cases.




G) RECREATIONAL FACILITIES


I) OUTSIDE CINEMA


Very good, but if raining the film had to be interesting to encourage one to stay.


II) N.A.A.F.I


Teat and biscuits were very welcoming when available. I didn't drink much beer because during the 1950's beer cans were made of ferrous metal, hence they were usually very rusty. Glasses were often in short supply due to excess breakages.


III) SWIMMING


Swimming in the sea was not allowed, but a lagoon had been allocated for this purpose. As I am not a very strong swimmer, I rarely used this facility (a more recent question - was the lagoon radioactive after the Nuclear Weapon tests?)


H) WEATHER


The weather on the island was generally very warm, with a pleasant breeze off the sea. On occasions it rained very heavily, especially in the monsoon season. This often caused flooding in parts of the tented area, as the ground was hard and compacted due to the previously dry weather and trampling of numerous feet of the troops.


During the wet period it could get fairly chilly during the evening, but this was often offset by the excellent rum laced coffee, provided by the Airmen's Mess during the evening. I personally do not like coffee or rum, but mixed together it made a very welcoming drink.


I) PRECAUTIONS TAKEN TO PREVENT DAMAGE WHICH COULD BE CAUSED BY THE BLAST EFFECTS FROM THE DETONATION OF A NUCLEAR WEAPON


i) All tent flaps were left open.


ii) The few wooden buildings that were on the island had their doors and hinged windows removed. All openings were covered with plastic sheeting to prevent the ingress of sand etc. This allowed the blast to split the plastic sheet and travel through the building therefore preventing structural damage.


iii) All the aircraft were airborne and out of range at the time of the detonation of the weapon, except for the helicopters, which were roped down.


J) NUCLEAR TEST (GRAPPLE X) 8TH NOVEMBER 1957 (Should have been 5th but weather conditions were unsuitable)


i) Reveille on the day was approximately 4:30am to enable breakfast to be taken and allow time to proceed to ones designated location for the period of the test, which I believe was timed for 8:00am.


The location I was given together with many other personnel was 23 miles from the planned detonation point (ground zero), 5 miles off the south east point of the island.


ii) Neither PROTECTIVE CLOTHING NOR INDIVIDUAL DOSIMETERS to measure radiation level the human body has been exposed to were worn by myself or other personnel at this location. Only normal Karki Drill (K.D.) shorts, shirts, shoes, socks and a bush hat were worn.


iii) After roll call the following instructions were given (to be used at detonation time).


a) Sit on the ground with your back to the detonation.


b) Close your eyes, place your fists in your eye sockets. (Do not look at the mushroom cloud until told).


c) Remain seated until after the blast. (Which arrives about a minute after the FLASH)


You can't see the 'V' Bomber at this point but you hear the engines running, preparing to 'take off'. At this time you begin to think is everything going to plan, will the plane LIFT OFF alright or will it crash with the weapon on board?


You breathe a sigh of relief as it takes off and climbs to its designated height of approximately 40,000 feet.


Eventually you hear a member of the aircrew (over the tannoy) updating you on the flight and informing you of all details of the dummy run.


With the dummy run complete and all appears well, the actual run commences, you think again will everything go to plan?


Just before, the statement from the A/C informs you of 'bomb gone' you are told to carry out the instructions given in paragraph 'J (iii) a) to c).


When the flash of the detonation OCCURS the bones in your fingers can be seen through your closed eyes (like an X-Ray) and the heat is felt on your back.


After the blast you tend to relax as you appear to be safe and well.


You don't realise at this time that you have been present when history has been made.


(The first British Nuclear Weapon of MEGATON size has been detonated).


K) POST GRAPPLE 'X' AND PRE GRAPPLE 'Y'


After a successful completion of GRAPPLE 'X' a rapid withdrawal of troops began. The VALIANT and CANBERRA squadrons left the island together with their ground crews.


Many other troops, some who had only come for the duration of GRAPPLE 'X', returned to the UK. This now left the island with only HASTINGS, DAKOTA ad HELICOPTER aircraft.


The HASTINGS being used for the regular service to Hawaii for food and mail.


The DAKOTAS being used for regular service trips to outlying islands, used for tests.


The HELICOPTERS as always used for emergency rescue etc.


With a considerably reduced task force we headed into Christmas. on Christmas day many tents had a visit from the Station Commander. (Whose name was Group Captain CHRISTMAS).


Eventually the word went round that GRAPPLE 'Y' was to take place on 28th April 1958.


Once again more troops arrived together with the return of the VALIANT and CANBERRA bombers.


L) NUCLEAR TEST GRAPPLE 'Y' 28TH APRIL 1958


a) The preparations to reduce damage from the effects of the 'BLAST' were generally the same as for GRAPPLE 'X'.


b) All other arrangements were similar to GRAPPLE 'X' except for:-


i) My distance from the weapon (Ground Zero) was only 18 miles, this location was on the actual airfield.


ii) I together with all other personnel at this location were wearing WHITE COTTON OVERALLS WITH HOODS to presumably protect the body from increased heat, due to being 5 miles nearer to Ground Zero.


iii) This location allowed one to watch the 'V' bomber loaded with the weapon to taxi (approximately 200 yards away) along the perimeter track and 'take off'. Once again you saw the bones in your fingers and felt the heat and the blast.


iv) Although one still had a concern reference safety it wasn't quite as bad as GRAPPLE 'X' (perhaps this was due to it being the second test witnessed and one felt like a Veteran).


After Thoughts


A) HEALTH. During the many years since my return to the United Kingdom I have read much about the tests and the ill health many veterans have suffered. I consider myself fortunate as I believe my health is reasonable considering my age. We do know that scientists have found that Nuclear radiation does affect the chromosomes of the blood and human genes. Knowing this gives me cause for worry, because if my genes have been affected in any way, health problems could arise on my children, grand-children and even great grand-children.


B) QUESTIONS (that need to be answered truthfully)


i) Why were the veterans not issued with individual DOSIMETERS?


ii) Why were all RAF personnel servicing Canberra aircraft which had flown through radioactive clouds not issued with protective clothing, but A.W.R.E scientists who were removing the radioactive dust samples from the aircraft were?


iii) Why have the veterans not had regular medicals to assess whether they have been affected by radiation?


iv) Why have the Americans accepted that radiation from Nuclear tests does cause damage to health, but out Government does not?


v) why did the Task Force Commander for Grapple 'X', 'Y' and 'Z' not display an increased 'duty of care' to the troops during these six Nuclear tests?

(The six weapons being tested were all detonated either over the island or within 5 miles of the coastline)


C) SUMMARY


As a 20 year old I must say that except for the two days that I experienced a detonation of a Nuclear weapon (when I believe I was quite scared) I enjoyed my time on the island.


I suppose at the time I believed the powers-that-be were protecting me and were concerned about my well-being.


Sadly during the years since my return many things that I have learnt, indicate that the safety of troops didn't matter.


Was I a Guinea Pig?



Gordon Wilcox (left) with Douglas Hern (BNTVA Historian)

ABBREVIATIONS


A.W.R.E - Atomic Weapons Research Establishment

A/C - Aircraft

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