Christmas Island veteran recounts his experiences 60 years ago

27 May 2021

A veteran from Southend, Essex, has retold his story to SSAFA - to raise awareness for those serving on Christmas Island over 60 years ago.

John Halsey has spoken to SSAFA about his service on Christmas Island and the Nuclear Testing of 1958.

John joined the Army Apprentice School in 1952 at the age of 16 before joining the Royal Engineers and spending three years in Germany between 1955 and 1958.

In 1958, he travelled from Germany to Christmas Island through the Panama Canal.

John said: “We took a troop ship and travelled across the Atlantic, through the Panama Cana and across the Pacific to Christmas Island. As we anchored and came up on deck, it was still dark. But as the sun rose, we saw palm trees and a tall chimney churning out smoke – the star mix.”

He began working on the quarry, crushing up coals and rocks used for laying roads on the Island.

“It was incredibly labour intensive – we worked 12-hour days and it was hot. We arrived there in February and it reached around 90 degrees Fahrenheit.”

After around 6 months working in the quarry, John began working in the main camp with the Electrical Mechanical troops.

“I’d never done the job before and was responsible for putting up telegraph poles. It wasn’t a pleasant job, but we just got on it with and cracked on.”

Whilst John was on Christmas Island, 5 ‘H-bombs’ or Hydrogen Bombs were dropped with the first one being tested in April 1958.

“I wouldn’t say I was scared; it didn’t scare me. I thought ‘they must know what they’re doing’ – we trusted the scientists.”

“When the bombs went off, we were congregated into an area and told to sit down. We would have a smoke, a chat, and a laugh – they would start the countdown from 30 to 0 and you had to close your eyes and put your hands over them. When the bomb went off, you could see the bones in your hands.”

He continued: “The last bomb I saw, at the time I was in the forward area camp, went off around a mile away and we sat on the beach. You could see the three balloons and the basket underneath – that is where the bomb was.”

John estimates that there are around 1,200 veterans still alive today out of the original 22,000 men who went out to Christmas Island in 1958.

“We were guinea pigs and the problem is that no Government will acknowledge that.”

In 1962, John left the forces after serving in Yorkshire, Wiltshire, and Cyprus. He went on to work on building sites and spent 20 years working at a floor laying company, where he travelled across the UK, as well as to Paris and Amsterdam.

John is one of the many members of the SSAFA Southend Veterans Club. The club provides a safe space for veterans and their families to meet, enjoy a lunch and socialise together. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the club hasn’t been able to open.

He said: “I’ve been attending SSAFA’s Southend Veterans Club for around 4 or 5 years. It’s a brilliant club and I’m looking forward to when the club can reopen again. It’s the social element for me – I don’t want to be on my own and the club allows me to chat with other veterans in the area. We regularly call each other up and meet at the local Wimpy for a tea!”

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