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Callous act that saw Kiwis used as nuclear test subjects

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Firstly, greetings of tears, greetings of love to those who have gone to the ancestress of night. Those of you who carried the kaupapa of Operation Grapple and have left from the departing place of the spirits Rerenga Wairua, greetings.

Although you are on the other side of the veil, this is the voice of you all in this exhibition Operation Grapple. Therefore it is correct to come hither and then return to the origin of man. Therefore the dead to the dead, and the living to the living.

The essence of life to us all!

On Friday October 28 at 1730 hours MTG Hawke’s Bay opened the exhibition Operation Grapple by Denise Baynham, photographer and storyteller. A portrait exhibition of New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans, the exhibition is to honour them, to recognise them and to tell their stories of a trauma hidden in the history of New Zealand.

Operation Grapple, 1957-1958, was a military exercise which saw the exposure of our New Zealand men to nuclear radiation, for the purpose of research for the benefit of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.

Great Britain wished to record the effects of nuclear radiation exposure upon the human body by detonating four nuclear bombs with Her Majesty’s subjects standing on the ships upper deck, in the open in order to feel and absorb the full effects of nuclear radiation.

The New Zealand Government willingly directed its forces to assist the British Nuclear Testing programme for this purpose as a matter of vital national concern. In response to this British initiative the Queen’s ships Pukaki and Rotoiti sailed to Christmas and Malden Islands in the Pacific to fulfil this mission.

In 1952 the British had used Australia, specifically the Monte Bello Islands for its first atomic weapons test location, only to find that resulting contamination levels were well below permissible levels.

In 1953 they repeated testing in Australia in the Emu Plains, again in 1956 on the Monte Bello Islands including this time Maralinga, and in Maralinga again in 1957.

The United States of America and Britain had sovereignty issues between themselves over ownership of this part of Polynesia, which in itself denied Pacific Islanders ownership of their islands and their food sources from land or sea.

Considered a low density occupied area the impact on Polynesian people and their food sources was not considered by colonial powers, as it was for the betterment of the Commonwealth. Needless to say there was widespread unease in the islands of the South Pacific. New Zealand’s’ representative on the matter, Sir Leslie Munroe, rejected all concerns from the peoples of the Pacific nations.

The detonation of the four Operation Grapple nuclear bombs witnessed by our NZ men were on:

22 August 1958. The first bomb codenamed ‘Pendant’. It had a yield of 24 kilotons, the energy released equivalent to 24,000 tons of TNT.

2 September 1958. The second bomb codenamed ‘Flag Pole’. It had a yield of 1 megaton equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT.

11 September 1958. The third bomb codenamed ‘Halliard’. It had a yield of 800 kilotons, equivalent to 800,000 tons of TNT.

23 September 1958. The fourth and last test of the series was codenamed ‘Burgee’. It had a yield of 25 kilotons, equivalent to 24,000 tons of TNT.

When the detonation occurred the men with eyes closed also covered with their hands, could see through their eyelids the bones of their hands like an x-ray.

These men were dressed in overalls to stand against the full impact of four nuclear bomb explosions. A callous act. A callous transgenerational act, for these men, their children and grandchildren suffered high rates of cancer in their bones and leukaemia in their blood.

What is needed for these men is recognition from the government.

Mihi atu ra kia koutou, he mihi arohanunui ra kia koutou, especially those who have gone to the ancestress of night.

Published in Hawke's Bay Today on on 29 October 2022 and written by Te Hira Henderson, Curator Taonga Maori at MTG Hawke’s Bay.


14 November 2022

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