Michael Bain: A shameful neglect of our Moruroa campaign veterans

A French atmospheric nuclear test at Moruroa atoll in the Gambiers during the 1970s. France detonated 181 nuclear tests in the South Pacific, more than a quarter of them atmospheric, before ending testing in 1996. Image: Emaze

OPINION: By Michael Bain

Last week was ANZAC Day on April 25. I took my kids to the Dawn Service at Auckland’s War Memorial Museum. It’s become an annual trek for me.

I prepare the night before, pinning my father’s medals to the jersey I will wear in the morning, making sure they go on the right hand side. I pin a poppy to the left chest of my jersey and below that is pinned a Moruroa Nuclear Veterans Group badge.

Michael Bain’s father’s medals on ANZAC Day 2016. Image: Michael Bain

I am proud of the service my father gave to his country. He was called upon in 1973 by then Prime Minister Norman Kirk and he, like his shipmates, answered that call.

As a nation we were proud of them. Heading off to French Polynesia in the middle of winter to be New Zealand’s official on-site presence as France commenced another round of nuclear testing.

They were sent there to remind France that New Zealand and other South Pacific countries did not approve of what the French were doing. By sending our sailors there we forced the world’s spotlight to be shone on France and their nuclear testing at Moruroa.

Spotlight too bright
That spotlight proved too bright and like startled bugs when a rotting log is lifted, the French government hastily retreated, taking their nuclear testing underground. We had won!

HMNZS Otago …remember the Moruroa sacrifice. Image: NZ History

Our boys had shown the world the shameful and embarrassing, not to mention scandalous, actions of the French government and military on that little Pacific atoll. It was a victory for right and justice and became the foundation upon which our nuclear free stance has been built.

However in the ensuing years, as a nation, we have forgotten what happened in that fateful winter of 1973.

We attend ANZAC Day commemorations and we say “we will remember them”. But that is becoming simply lip service.

How can we stand there on ANZAC Day and repeat those words when we have forgotten a whole campaign?

We remember South Africa, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Malaya, Thailand, Falklands, East Timor, Kuwait, Afghanistan. All rightly so.

But to neglect the Moruroa veterans as we have, does them a disservice.

Service ‘for nothing?’
It says to them that their service and sacrifice (and the ultimate sacrifice that many of their shipmates have made) was for nothing.

It says that their medals mean nothing to the country that have dished them out. The neglect in the annual ANZAC Day services turns those medals into little trinkets not worth the ribbon that they hang off.

It’s almost as if we as a nation don’t want to remember them because it is deemed too hard. It forces us to ask of ourselves whether we willingly sent our men to be exposed to nuclear radiation.

So instead we collectively say, “here’s a fancy medal. Now go away. We don’t want to remember you.”

They are the forgotten heroes. They’ve had to fight for everything they have got thus far and there are more battles yet to come.

Harsh words? Perhaps. But then these sailors are suffering and dying thanks to their service of their country.

Health issues
Health complications and cancers are common among these veterans and anecdotally, occur more regularly than the general population of their age.

During the annual get togethers their society organises, talk often turns to how the health of each veteran and their descendants is before the inevitable talk of who crossed the bar in the past year.

They suffer, we fail to remember or even acknowledge they exist. Norman Kirk promised those men that a grateful nation would remember them. Instead we have discarded them on the scrap heap of history.

It’s been 45 years of neglect. How much longer will it take for us to get it right and properly acknowledge these heroes as we should?

Michael Bain sits on the executive committee of the Moruroa Nuclear Veterans Group Inc as co vice-president as well as the media officer. The group is made up of former sailors on the HMNZS Otago and Canterbury, and the HMAS Supply, wives, partners and children of those sailors who served during the 1973 “tour”. This article was first published on Michael Bain’s blog Wokboy’s Wonderings and is republished here with permission. Bain is also a doctoral candidate at AUT’s School of Communication Studies.

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