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13 November 2014

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You are in: London > People > People Features > Face to face with a nuclear explosion

Christmas Island

Face to face with a nuclear explosion

Brian Cole was still a teenager when he arrived on Christmas Island, a tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in March 1958. He was there for 12 months and by the time he left, Brian had been a witness to five nuclear explosions.

In the late 1950s, with the Cold War in full flow, the world was gripped in a nuclear arms race.

Britain was developing and testing its nuclear capabilities with a series of tests on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, now known as Kiribati and Tuvalu, but which was then a British protectorate made up of dozens of atolls dispersed over a million square miles in the Pacific.

A wonderful adventure

Back in England all of this meant very little to Brian Cole. He was 'pretty much straight out of school with no trade, and no idea of what I was going to do.'

His answer came in the form of National Service.

"There was a notice put up saying that they were asking for volunteers to go to the nuclear tests in the Pacific," says Brian who was born in Liverpool in 1938 but who has lived and worked around London for the last 20 years.

"The Pacific sounded rather attractive… So I applied for it!"

It was the start, he says, of a wonderful adventure that would provide him with lifelong friends and some 'momentous memories that I will carry to my grave.'

Brian Cole composite

Brian Cole in 1958 and in 2009

Driving the DUKWs

Brian was one of 12 men selected to be DUKW drivers on Christmas Island, Kiribati's largest atoll. DUKWs were amphibious trucks developed by the Americans that could transport goods over land and water.

"It was very, very unusual. We hadn't seen anything like it," recalls Brian of these half-car, half-boat hybrid vehicles.

Driving the DUKWs was 'special fun' but the 4,000-odd men on the island were there for a very serious purpose. A nuclear test ban treaty was being negotiated between the major powers, so Britain needed to quickly complete its testing programme.

There used to be one nuclear explosion per year, but during Brian's 12 months on Christmas Island there would be five mid-air nuclear bomb tests – the bombs were either dropped from a plane or tethered to a balloon.

The Bomb tests

A countdown would begin a few days before a test. On the day, the countdown would be in hours, then minutes and so on. There was a palpable tension in the air, as all personnel were taken to designated assembly points on the other side of the Island for the explosion itself.

The mushroom cloud

The mushroom cloud

Even today, Brian struggles to find the right words to describe the experience:

"At a certain point before the actual explosion we were told to turn our backs to the point of the explosion and get ourselves into a safe position – we had to roll ourselves into a ball."

"We were just boys… I think the first time we became aware that it was a little bit dangerous was when, for the biggest test, we were required to push the palm of our hands into our eyes… And we could see our bones. It was actually an X-ray. It was that powerful."

"That is probably the most vivid memory and I will carry it to my grave. It was very, very… It wasn't frightening or shocking, although it becomes more frightening and shocking the more I think about it…."

"You felt the heat on your back and you felt the blast. But the actual seeing your bones… That was momentous."

Aftermath

Throughout Brian's time on Christmas Island he slept in a very basic tent. There was no special protection from the nuclear fall out. Some nuclear test veterans have suffered from health problems, such as Lymphoma and Leukaemia. Many of the men harbour a lingering resentment towards the British government.

DUKWs and Tents

DUKWs & Brian, far right, by his tent

However, Brian is keen to stress that he is not one of them; luckily he has not had any ill-effects from the tests and maintains that he has only happy memories of the time he spent in the Pacific.

But he acknowledges that he might be in the minority:

"There are a significant number of people who are very, very bitter; who feel that they were used and that they were guinea pigs. I'm in a definite minority who are charitable enough to think that I don't believe the military, at any rate, really knew the seriousness of what was going on. Perhaps the boffins did but I don't think we did."

"There was no help or support from the British government when we got back. We didn't need it. Most of us were not aware of the repercussions that may occur."

"It saddens me that we need to have organisations like the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association whose main purpose seems to be based on trying to get compensation and good luck to them but our memories were happy. I prefer to have happy memories."

The reunion

Happy memories are very much to the fore inside the London Eye on a beautiful March morning.

Brian Cole's reunion photo

(l-r) Ray Chimes, Brian, Barry Hands & Bob Murphy

It is exactly 50 years since Brian Cole, and the men that are with him today, left Christmas Island where they had lived together in a tent.

Two of their gang are unable to make the reunion, but of the four men who have, three of them have not seen each other for half a century.

It was Brian's idea to have a reunion and they even managed to get free tickets from London Duck Tours, the company which now uses DUKWs as sight-seeing buses.

The life of Brian

Brian's life has hardly been boring since he left Christmas Island. He has been a driving instructor, delivered buses in and out of London and even worked as a roadie for his pop star son, Lloyd Cole, of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.

Christmas Island

Christmas Island

But it is back to Christmas Island that his mind wanders:

"We were little more than children. We weren't aware of things like radiation and all the problems that may be associated with it. As far as we were concerned we were going out for a year on a Pacific island and we enjoyed the experience."

In what little free time they had on Christmas Island, Brian and his friends would play sports on the beach, go tuna fishing, hold shooting competitions and watch films in the open air cinema.

Most of the time though they were just young men doing their nation's work, enjoying each other's company on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere, trying to shield their eyes from the occasional nuclear explosion.

last updated: 30/03/2009 at 17:05
created: 26/03/2009

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