Fremantle atomic veteran Ray Whitby’s 20-year battle for justice

Ray Whitby. Picture: Gabrielle Jeffery.
Ray Whitby. Picture: Gabrielle Jeffery.

A 20-year legal battle for recognition from the Department of Veteran Affairs is something no veteran should ever have to face.

Yet it is the reality for the last surviving atomic veteran, Ray Whitby.

Mr Whitby was one of eight servicemen sent in 1958 to an atomic weapons testing site on the Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast to help scientists collect samples.

He is seeking recognition and fighting for the Department of Veteran Affairs Gold Card, which gives them access to free medical care.In 1950, then Labour UK Prime Minister Clement Atlee sent a secret personal message to Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies wanting to test atomic weapons in Australia

“The British were worried and wanted to have their own atomic bomb as the Americans and French had one,” Mr Whitby said.

“The British PM asked Bob Menzies if they could come down to Australia to test their bombs.”

“He willingly agreed but he did not say a word to cabinet, taking it upon himself to give the go ahead.”

Three sites were approved: Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia and the remote Montebello Islands in Western Australia.

The commemorative plague on Alpha Island. Picture: ABC News.

In the Montebello Islands, testing was done on two islands specifically: Trimouille and Alpha.

In 1956, the largest atomic bomb ever tested in Australia was on Alpha Island.

“The one in ‘56 was known as ‘the dirty bomb’ – it was 10 times more powerful than the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan,” he said.

“It was tested on Alpha Island and no-one has been there since the test.”

“We were the first ones to go in 1958 and were not told about the danger from radiation.”

“When we arrived on the island, the scientist told me the Geiger counter was at the maximum reading for radiation levels – the island was deadly and there we were in short sleeves and sandals.

“There was no vegetation, no birdlife – just thousands and thousands of dead sea turtle shells as it used to be a big turtle breeding colony.”

“We should have not been there – they knew how dangerous it was.

“I’m not happy: out of that party I am the only survivor.

He said some of the party died later aged in their 30s and 40s.

“We (his wife), have spent about $400,000 of our own money on hospitals for cancer treatments,” he said.

“I was furious – my wife had five miscarriages before Reece was born.

“We named him after my wife’s doctor.

A Royal Commission in 1984 revealed the actual strength of the Alpha bomb – 98 kilotons and the fallout effects.

“It had been all hush hush until the Commission,” he said.

“I was successful for compensation but the Government immediately appealed it as I was 85 days outside of the cut-off point for claiming.

“The British Minister of Defence wanted to test the effects of radiation on children. Stillbirths, kids who died from misadventure – their bodies were taken for radiation testing.

“Parents of those children were never told, parents were never asked.”

In 2017, for the 60th anniversary, he went back to Alpha for the first time to help lay a commemorative plague with others.

“We were only allowed to be there for a few minutes as it is still too dangerous – we were there about twenty minutes,” he said.

“In 1958 we were on Alpha for 10 hours.

“At age 17 I wanted to serve my country, wanted to make it a career.

“After the exposure and I got sick I was given a medical discharge, two years from full service – I was no use to them anymore.

“How we have been treated, it’s inexcusable.”

A Department of Veteran Affairs spokeswoman said those on the HMAS Fremantle were 85 days outside the cut-off point and that based on scientific evidence at the time there was no evidence to suggest they would be impacted anyway.

RAY’S FIGHT

There are about 25 survivors Australia-wide as other tests were held on the islands at different times between 1952 and 1957.

Mr Whitby is not only fighting for his compensation but for the other survivors from the crews on both HMAS Fremantle and Diamantina.

Both were sent as research vessels to the Montebello Islands with Mr Whitby having gone there three times, twice on the Fremantle and once on the Diamantina.

He is seeking recognition and fighting for the Department of Veteran Affairs Gold Card, which gives them access to free medical care – whether war or service-related.

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