Imagine standing on a boat when a nuclear explosion takes place just 30 miles away from where you are anchored.
Wearing only shorts and sandals, you feel the blast on your back and are then told by your superiors to turn around to witness the aftermath.
Thankfully, for the vast majority of us that is only something we have seen in a film or read about in a book but for DAMHA resident David Oliver and around 20,000 others, it was a reality.
In his case, he witnessed the testing of an atomic bomb, and the even more destructive hydrogen bomb and David is now believed to be one of only 2,000 people still alive who took part in the testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs in the 1950s and 1960s whilst serving their country in the armed forces.
Recently he and the others were finally recognised for their bravery through the awarding of a new Nuclear Test Medal.
Born in Hamsterley Colliery, David opted not to follow many of friends and family by going down the pit and instead joined the Royal Navy just three days short of his 17th birthday on 29th September 1953.
Two years later, whilst on leave, he met the woman he would go on to spend 61 wonderful years with, his wife Evelyn.
The couple met whilst out with friends and he remembers “arm wrestling” her for the armrest at the cinema and the rest was history.
His first atomic experience, as he refers to it, took place in 1956 when he witnessed the explosion of a one megaton nuclear bomb on Montebello Island, off the coast of Australia.
He and other British personnel were on a neighbouring island where they spent weeks preparing for the test, and as a Leading Stoker on HMS Narvic one of his responsibilities was making fresh water for the officers and scientists.
David recalls: “We spent six weeks getting everything right for the test and we witnessed the explosion and the plume rising up a quarter of mile until the wind changed direction and the mushroom cloud headed our way.
“We had to evacuate immediately so everything was left behind on the island and we got back on the ships and sailed away as quickly as we could!”
In 1958, he was again present for a nuclear test, this time for Britain’s first hydrogen bomb at Malden Island in the Pacific. On this occasion they watched from the ship as the bomb exploded.
“It was very warm, so we were all just wearing shorts and sandals and nothing else and were told to only return round once we felt the blast of the explosions on our backs.
“I remember thinking at that moment that there would never be a nuclear war, having witnessed the utter devastation it caused. I knew there would never be any winners of a war like this.”
David recalls that for days after the hydrogen bomb test, they would still see seagulls dropping dead from the sky which had flown through the radioactive cloud. And he says at Montebello Island, even now, over 70 years later, it is still radioactive, and humans can only safely spend an hour there.
“We were never told of the dangers and had no protection at all,” he says.
“That’s why there are so few of us now left because the rest got cancers or other fatal illnesses due to exposure to the tests.
“It may have happened 30 miles away, but it felt so much closer and ultimately were just guinea pigs.”
David and Evelyn were married in 1959 and had two sons. After leaving the Navy he worked for the rest of his career in insurance and then as an HGV driver.
Evelyn sadly died 11 years ago in the DAMHA home they moved into in Leadgate, Consett.
“We had a great life together and I was holding her when she died,” he says.
“I still have lots of happy memories of her, including many pictures in our home and I even carry a photograph of her in my car. And her ashes at with the funeral director waiting for the day when we can be reunited together again.”
David says it was difficult getting over Evelyn’s death, but his neighbour/friend Pam and his other friend Billy were a source of great comfort to him and helped him through these difficult times.
He adds: “Pam still pops in to see me each morning to check I am ok, and we have formed a deep friendship. Billy sadly passed away in 2022 but knowing what a rock he had been for me; Pam and I make sure we take his wife Jean out each week to help her overcome her grief.”
David says it was lovely to receive a medal for being a nuclear test medal, although he wishes more of his friends/fellow servicemen were still here to receive one themselves.
“I have had a few health scares over the years which I thought may have been caused by the tests, but I am still here, and I try to stay as healthy as possible.