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Norwich man tells of nuclear test bomb horror

PUBLISHED: 16:22 28 February 2011

David Freeman next to the war memorial on the River Green at Thorpe St Andrew

David Freeman next to the war memorial on the River Green at Thorpe St Andrew

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

David Freeman might appear to live a fairly tranquil life, making bird boxes for schools from his home in Thorpe St Andrew, close to the picturesque River Green, but this modern day peace belies a life-long fight for justice.

For RAF veteran Mr Freeman was one of about 23,000 servicemen to take part in the nuclear tests on Christmas Island in the South Pacific in the 1950s and 1960s, and is convinced the tests ruined his health and that of his family.

Mr Freeman, 72, who lives with his second wife Dawn, whom he describes as being “one in a million”, at Birbeck Close, has recently been given the all-clear from his first six-monthly check-up, having been diagnosed with bowel cancer in May last year.

The father-of-three and grandfather-of-eight, says he has the late Radio Norfolk broadcaster Roy Waller to thank for having beaten the disease, after going to get himself checked out following a radio appeal by Mr Waller, who himself died last July following a liver illness.

And while Mr Freeman, who has also had to battle other health conditions, including a heart attack and aneurysm, cannot prove his health problems have stemmed from those nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, he is convinced they have something to do with the problems that have afflicted him.

Mr Freeman, a former Little Plumstead Primary School pupil, who had to leave school to help care for his mother Ada Annie, who died from bowel cancer aged 47, was just 17-and-a-half when he joined the RAF.

He was initially posted to Marham after completing his training, but it was not long before a naive and unsuspecting Mr Freeman was to leave rural Norfolk for his first overseas trip - to Christmas Island in 1957.

They flew from London to Scotland and then on to Goose Bay in Canada before further stops at New York, San Francisco and then on to Hickam Field, near Pearl Harbour, on Hawaii.

He said: “That was a great adventure because we had the chance to attempt water skiing for the first time at Honolulu beach. Although the air crew gave us a chance to look around most places, we never got a chance to look around Pearl Harbour.”

From Hawaii, Mr Freeman, at that time a leading aircraftsman, and his colleagues were flown to Australia and then to Christmas Island.

He said: “That was a bit of a shock. We were young and naive and none of us knew what to expect really. We were issued with a camp bed and various bits and pieces to set up our own tents.”

Most of the men who arrived at Christmas Island were soon struck down with dysentery in the first few days, while the rest tried to build their strength on food, such as salad, corned beef, ham and fish, sourced from the surrounding islands.

Mr Freeman said during their stay they were told little about their role or the tests. Then, on the eve of November 8, 1957, Mr Freeman and his fellow servicemen heard an announcement which said they were to be up and ready by 6.30am the next morning for a nuclear test that would come to be codenamed Grapple X.

Wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, beret and sunglasses, Mr Freeman and his fellow servicemen marched to the other side of the camp. They were told to sit with their backs to an aeroplane as it flew 30 miles out over the ocean and dropped an atomic bomb.

Mr Freeman said: “We had to just sit and wait for instructions. We had no idea what was going to happen. We had seen a film of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but those were atomic bombs, not a nuclear bomb. We were given instruction to cover our faces with our hands and then the tannoy went off with a countdown and we heard ‘bombs away’. As the seconds ticked off the whole site became very, very quiet and eerie – I didn’t even hear a seabird.”

At 5.57pm (GMT) on November 8, 1957, the Valiant bomber (XD824), piloted by Squadron Leader Barney Millett dropped a 1.8 megaton nuclear bomb which detonated after 52 sec of free-fall, beoming Britain’s first truly successful thermonuclear bomb test.

Mr Freeman said: “First of all we had the heat, tremendous heat, it went right through your shirt. It was just like a massive electrical fire being put up against your back, burning you. Then the flash – even though we had our hands over our eyes we could see the bones in your hand – it was that bright.”

There was also a tremendous sound which came through like “supersonic ripples” accompanied by the trademark mushroom cloud, which Mr Freeman described as being like a “massive fireball”. Mr Freeman said: “We got up and looked around and the next thing we knew, we were blown over by the tremendous force of the blast.”

The force of the explosion had also flattened their camp and bent trees over, prompting some to wonder whether the island itself might even snap in half.

Grapple X was Mr Freeman’s first and only experience of a nuclear test in the eight months he spent on the island, although others experienced more. He went on to spend time at Horsham St Faith, Coltishall and bomber command in Yorkshire during his RAF service, before going onto become a policeman in the RAF.

After being demobbed in 1969, he spent much of the rest of his working life in security, first with Securicor and then with Halifax in Norwich. But it is his experiences at Christmas Island which continue to dominate. Mr Freeman has been campaigning for years, with other British veterans, for compensation following the tests which the servicemen say has resulted in ill health.

He said: “All we want is recognition that they did treat us like guinea pigs, although even that is the wrong term. We were just the unwanted.”

The MoD, while acknowledging its “debt of gratitude”, denies negligence, and has fought court cases brought by some servicemen on the preliminary point that they were all launched outside the legal time limit.

But, despite the setback, Mr Freeman said the fight goes on. He said: “It’s going to the Supreme Court. Our solicitors are not going to let it go away. For us it’s not about the money, it’s for justice, that’s all.” Away from campaigning for the rights of nuclear test veterans, Mr Freeman enjoys gardening and makes bird boxes for schools across Norfolk.

Who would you like to see as an Evening News Original? Email
peter.walsh@archant.co.uk

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