WHEN he was just 20, Ken Miller was part of the most terrifying thing the British government has ever done.
But last week he died alone and almost unnoticed, another forgotten hero of Cold War nuclear testing.
His friend David Singletary said: “He kept hoping for recognition from the government, but it’s too late now.”
Ken has no family to mourn him, and blamed the weapons trials for rendering him childless. He died within days of the government’s decision to deny those like him a medal.
Ken was a junior rating aboard HMS Warrior when it took part in three atomic bomb tests at Christmas Island in 1957. He later married three times, but only one wife was able to conceive. Several babies were lost in repeated miscarriages.
Ceri McDade of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association said: “We think one nuclear veteran dies every week, on average. We hear of veterans like Ken all too often and it really upsets them, even all these years later, that there are no children. They always say the Ministry of Defence is just waiting for them to die, so the problem goes away.”
Ken was one of 1,300 crew on the aircraft carrier when was the control ship for Operation Grapple in the South Pacific. Scientists were trying to develop a hydrogen bomb, but all three explosions were ruled too small to be any good. The biggest Ken witnessed was codenamed Orange Herald, and was 36 times more powerful than the blast which levelled Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War.
The ship was used as the base for scientists, observers and military top brass. Ken was ordered on to the deck to watch each explosion, and the whole crew drank and washed in distilled seawater.
Mr Singletary, who is also chairman of the local branch of armed forces charity SSAFA, said: “He said they were told to turn their backs for the flash, then turn round and watch the mushroom cloud as it formed. At the time no-one knew what was going to happen.”
Six months later, Warrior was sold to the Argentinians. Ken was transferred to a shore job at Portsmouth, where he met and married his first wife Megs in 1960. They tried for years to have children but she suffered repeated miscarriages, and eventually it appeared Ken was sterile. They moved to Swansea where he got a job in the Ford factory, and he became a shop steward fighting for the rights of his colleagues.
Megs died of stomach cancer after 30 years of marriage. A second marriage in 1992 lasted eight years before ending in divorce, but again there were no children. In 2006, via an internet dating agency, he met Lei Genxiao, a Chinese mum-of-two. The couple married in China, but the government would not let him stay, and the UK government refused her a visa to move here.
His friends do not know how to contact her, and she is thought to be unaware of her husband’s death.
Ken moved into an assisted living complex in Port Talbot, where he continued to argue with the authorities to let his wife join him. But a few weeks ago he developed a chest infection, and was hospitalised.
Mr Singletary said: “Ken put me down as his next of kin because he had no-one else. I got a call from the hospital last weekend to come and see him as soon as possible. I asked the nurse how urgent it was, and she said ‘very urgent’. I was on the ward 15 minutes later, but he’d already died.”
He added: “Ken had no family, his time in the navy saw to that. He was sterile, he’d had a double hip replacement, lost a lung. You’re not going to tell me those things happen to every 80-year-old.”
Official documents obtained by campaigners from the Public Records Office include one stating that over-exposure to radiation can lead to affects on the reproductive organs, including “temporary or permanent sterility or reduced fertility”.
It is thought that around 50 nuclear test veterans die every year. Just before Christmas, the 1,500 thought to still survive were told their service did not involve enough “risk and rigour” to deserve a medal.
They have been repeatedly turned down for compensation, and have to provide proof they were irradiated just to win a small war pension. Every other nuclear power on Earth provides formal recognition, compensation or medals, to their atomic vets.
Last week, Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer was asked to justify why the test vets had been refused a medal. He told Parliament it was not “within my gift” and added: “My job is to make sure these people are looked after properly. I am confident we are doing that.”
Ken’s funeral will be held on Christmas Eve – the latest hero who died still waiting to be noticed.
For more than 30 years the Mirror has campaigned for justice for the brave men who took part in Britain’s nuclear weapons tests.
The Ministry of Defence has fought back every step of the way.
We have told countless heartbreaking stories of grieving mums, children with deformities, men aged before their time and widows struggling to hold their families together, all while campaigning for recognition.
Two years ago we launched an appeal for a medal for the 1,500 survivors.
For the first time we were able to prove some were unwittingly used in experiments.
Our appeal was backed by then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson but his review foundered after he lost his job.
It had only six meetings in two years. They never asked to meet veterans. They never questioned the evidence.
Instead they asked for information from the MoD, which has a track record of denying what its own paperwork later proves.
And as our medal campaign gathered steam, civil servants simultaneously withdrew public documents from the National Archives.
Would anyone working in Whitehall today stay there, if 3 megatons of plutonium exploded south of the river?
The test veterans and their families will never stop fighting. The Mirror will never cease to demand they are heard.
Prime Minister, listen to them. Overturn this disgraceful decision.