Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow recently paid tribute to an RAF veteran, along with numerous colleagues, who participated in covert nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean during the 1950s.
This veteran had miraculously survived two nuclear blasts, making their recognition even more significant.
At the age of 85, Thomas Walsh was finally presented with the Nuclear Test Medal (NTM) following a persistent advocacy effort by veterans and their families in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence.
This medal is given to both service members and civilians who were stationed at sites where UK atmospheric nuclear tests occurred between 1952 and 1957..
Thomas received his medal this week while staying at Northwick Park Hospital and was honoured by the hospital.
CEO Pippa Nightingale said: “It is an extraordinary part of history to have taken part in and even more extraordinary that Mr Walsh said he has never suffered any ill effects. We wish him all the best and a quick recovery.”
The then 18-year-old was doing his national service in the Royal Air Force when he was shipped out to remote Christmas Island.
“None of us really understood the potential threat to our lives back then. You just did what you were told and trusted your superiors.
“We were told to go and stand in a grove of palm trees near the beach. We had no protective clothing and were told to cover our eyes with our hands to protect against the flash.”
An RAF dropped the first bomb which detonated in mid-air to minimise the danger of fallout.
Thomas said: “I heard a distant explosion and when I put my hands across my eyes I could momentarily see all the bones in my hands lit up like an x-ray followed by a strong hot wind.”
Operation Grapple was the UK’s first step towards becoming a nuclear power as the Cold War crept over Europe and involved the detonation of several atomic and hydrogen bombs in 1957 and 1958. Thomas and his friends took part in second test the following yet with a far more powerful bomb.
The veteran, who has lived in Harrow all his life, has never suffered any ill effects but said he shudders to think what might have happened.
“We’re all aware of the danger of nuclear radiation nowadays so I consider I had a lucky escape given I was just wearing shorts and flip flops at the time.”