The late Roy Sefton never stopped advocating for New Zealand sailors who witnessed nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s and 1970s. His work will live on, Jimmy Ellingham reports.
One by one they stood, telling tales of cancers, deformities in their children and miscarriages.
Some who escaped those horrors had inner demons, mental scars left by the mushroom clouds’ fallout.
It was 1995 and the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association was meeting for first time, almost 40 years since Kiwi sailors had witnessed British nuclear testing in the Pacific and nearly 25 years on from the navy being sent to protest French testing at Mururoa.
The association was formed by Palmerston North’s Roy Sefton, who died last week, and Tere Tahi, of Bulls.
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Tere Tahi says nuclear test veterans want recognition for the dangers they were exposed to in the South Pacific.
Tears welled in veterans’ eyes as the horror stories emerged and Sefton and Tahi, as chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of the association began a long fight for recognition for the dangers they faced and their ongoing effects.
It’s a fight still happening and one Tahi, 82, is determined to continue in the absence of his friend.
Speaking to Stuff from his Bulls home, where a landscape painting by Sefton hangs in the living room, Tahi reflects on Sefton’s achievements: getting invalids’ pensions for veterans and getting to grips with the science behind what’s happening to the former sailors and their families.
Roy Sefton died last week after 25 years of advocating for nuclear test veterans.
Sefton worked long hours for the association, often late at night on the phone to Britain.
Tahi, association patron Al Rowland, a retired Massey academic involved in research which found long-term genetic damage to the veterans and their families, and Sefton’s daughters, Anu and Tracey, are keeping up the fight.
Crewmen face a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb in the South Pacific in the 1950s.
Tahi wants to work through the office of Veterans’ Affairs Minister Meka Whaitiri, with the goal of arranging a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
The association has met with many ministers down the years. It has tried presenting scientific evidence, to no avail. Perhaps presenting humanitarian arguments might help to get the veterans’ acknowledgement for what they went through, and practical help for their children and grandchildren’s health problems, Tahi said.
Sefton and Tahi are veterans from the 1957 and 1958 British testing in the Pacific, known as Operation Grapple. Sefton was on the HMNZS Pukaki, which sailed through ground zero, and Tahi was on HMNZS Rotoiti. The ships were there to collect weather information.
The crew from Rotoiti get together at the Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association meeting in 2005.
From Rotoiti’s deck the teenaged Tahi witnessed five tests in awe, blissfully unaware of their risks.
“I thought it was sensational seeing this colourful mushroom,” he said. “It’s still clear in the mind because at the time it was beautiful to see.
“The light from the bomb – we could see the skeleton of our hands through everything we had on.”
Long after his eight years in the navy, Tahi suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixteen sessions with a psychiatrist helped him stop thinking about the bombs.
Tere Tahi’s medals include one marking Operation Grapple.
In 2008, his 24-year-old grandson Matt Tahi died of bone cancer. One of his two daughters hasn’t had children because she doesn’t want to expose them to health problems.
His story isn’t unique among nuclear test veterans. Of the 360 or so Kiwi sailors involved in Operation Grapple, Tahi thinks about 60 survive. There are more from HMNZS Otago, sent to protest French testing in 1973.
“We don’t have recognition. That’s what we’re after. [Officials] should accept that we’ve been affected by radiation.”
If an apology were to come, it would seal Sefton’s legacy, Tahi said. “It’s exactly what we want.”
Tere Tahi’s grandson Matt Tahi died of bone cancer in 2008.