Atom bomb test veterans welcome medal announcement ‘after 70 years of denial’

Atom bomb testing veterans have welcomed the Government’s announcement of a medal recognising their service after “70 years of denial”.

An estimated 22,000 veterans and civilians will be eligible for the Nuclear Test Medal, which has been introduced to mark the 70th anniversary of the nation’s first atomic test, Downing Street said.

The honour commemorates the contributions made by veterans, scientists and local employees from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati.

It comes after years of campaigning for atomic test survivors to be given medals by veterans groups, including the Labrats International charity.

Nuclear test veterans honoured
Rishi Sunak with Atom bomb test veterans Ed McGrath and Eric Barton after announcing Nuclear test veterans will receive a medal recognising their service (Joe Giddens/PA)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described the decoration as “an enduring symbol of our country’s gratitude” for those involved in the test programme.

He made the announcement on Monday during a service at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, marking seven decades since the first test of a British atom bomb.

Speaking afterwards, John Morris, of Labrats International and an Operation Grapple test veteran who witnessed several nuclear detonations, said: “To be given a medal today and to be recognised has completely overwhelmed me.

“I am not normally lost for words but the mere fact that they’ve turned round and recognised what we did for this country.

“Twenty-two thousand men and women provided us with a nuclear deterrent that’s kept us safe – finally, some 70 years later, they’ve recognised us.”

Nuclear test veterans honoured
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer (right), at the National Memorial Arboretum (Joe Giddens/PA)

He was an 18-year-old national serviceman when he was sent to Christmas Island in 1956.

Mr Morris, who was later diagnosed with a blood disorder, fears the bomb-drops he witnessed cost the life of his baby son, Steven, in 1962, as a result of malformed lungs, when the child was four months old.

The 85-year-old, from Rochdale, Greater Manchester, added: “It has been 70 years of denial, that’s the best word I can use.”

He added: “I’m overjoyed and I’m sad. It’s incredible.”

Nuclear test veterans honoured
Laura Morris (centre), whose grandfather John Morris is an atom bomb test veteran reacts to the medal announcement, alongside veterans Ed McGrath (left) and Eric Barton (right) (Joe Giddens/PA)

His granddaughter, Laura Morris, said the announcement had brought “relief”, adding: “We have always said the medal was the key to the door.

“What comes next are the other campaigns; war pension reform, access to historic medical records, and compensation, all these are things that need to be discussed.”

Another test veteran Eric Barton, wiped away tears as the announcement was made and, afterwards, said: “We have been campaigning for years for the recognition we deserve for the nuclear test bombs.”

Mr Barton, 80, added: “I’ll not say it’s a victory, that’s too much of a word.

Nuclear test veterans honoured
Atom bomb test veteran John Morris and his granddaughter Laura Morris lay a chrysanthemum after the service (Joe Giddens/PA)

“Just glad that we’ve succeeded in getting recognition.

“When I was on Christmas Island I had five friends, who lived in a 10-mile radius of where I was.

“None of them are left now, they’ve all died of cancer, at a young age, it’s just no good.”

Ed McGrath was posted from RAF Mildenhall to Australia at the age of 18 and flown up to Maralinga “drop zone” three times. The UK conducted seven nuclear tests at Maralinga between 1956 and 1963.

“The point is we had no reason to be there,” he said.

“Absolutely no reason to be there, in shorts and T-shirts.

“The only reason we were there was to experience the effects of the explosion, which were much larger than anything dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“As a naive 18  year old you don’t think seriously about these things, you just do as you’re told.”

Nuclear test veterans honoured
People lay flowers at the memorial after the service (Joe Giddens/PA)

The 84-year-old, from Surrey, was “gobsmacked” at the decision to award the medal, adding: “My experience has been there’s been a hardcore against us getting a medal, for some reason.

“They were worried – possibly – about the liability aspect, from radiation sickness.”

Mr Sunak said: “It’s a privilege to be here to honour the service of our nuclear test veterans.”

He said those personnel were “called on to serve at the height of the Cold War” adding “the importance of that contribution cannot be overstated”.

“I’m very pleased to announce today that His Majesty the King has decided to recognise that service formally by creating a new medal to honour those involved,” he said.

“It is a fitting tribute to the incredible contribution that you have made.

“It is an enduring symbol of our gratitude, so to all our nuclear test veterans – including those who are no longer with us and all the families who have supported them – on behalf of a grateful nation, I say thank you.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also thanked the veterans, saying the development of the British nuclear deterrent “wouldn’t have been possible, without you”.

Addressing the service, Veterans’ Affairs minister Johnny Mercer said: “We have finally delivered on that long overdue medallic recognition of our nuclear test veterans.

“Today does not signify the end of that recognition, but a new beginning of official recognition.”

He added: “I look forward to working with you in the years ahead to make sure that we get this right.”

Those who worked under UK command during tests at the Montebello Islands, Christmas Island, Malden Island and Maralinga and Emu Field, South Australia, between 1952 and 1967, will be eligible to apply for the medal.

It can also be awarded posthumously to veterans’ families.

The first awards will be made in 2023.

The Government is also investing £450,000 into projects which will build understanding of the experiences of veterans who were deployed to Australia and the Pacific.

As part of this funding, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is launching an oral history project to chronicle the experiences of those who supported the nation’s effort to develop a nuclear deterrent in a digital archive of testimonies.