Story of serviceman versus the state

At 19, most young men are looking for adventure.

Catherine Tundle

This was certainly true for the young servicemen headed to the Pacific to participate in a nuclear bomb testing programme in the 1950s.

Decades later, however, many of the men began to attribute developing illnesses and diseases to radiation exposure, despite the Government’s continuing assertions that they had been safe.

It is the men’s fight for compensation that Victoria University anthropologist Dr Catherine Trundle is writing about in a new book.

Catherine’s book will canvass the experiences of 60 test veterans and their widows from New Zealand and the United Kingdom, some of whom joined a group action seeking compensation from the British government for illnesses caused during military service.

As part of her research, Catherine discovered what it was like for New Zealand servicemen who toured the nuclear testing zones on navy ships, collecting weather samples.

Many believe that they were exposed to radiation when they swam in the lagoon near the bomb detonation site, drank the rainwater collected on the ships and ate locally caught fish during the tests, she says.

They also remember their superiors assuring them that the level of nuclear fall-out in the environment was safe.

These accounts, as well as details of the veterans’ legal fight to have the state accept culpability and acknowledge their health problems were caused by radiation exposure, will be at the heart of Catherine’s book.

The fight has been unsuccessful to date, with the servicemen finding it difficult to access archival records that might support their case. These records were either destroyed, were never collected or are still classified.

“Governments also want definitive scientific evidence linking radiation exposure during service to particular medical conditions. But there are limits to what science can prove when it comes to low-dose toxic exposure,” she says.

“I think this case helps address an important moral and political question—how much risk should servicemen be exposed to in the armed forces?”