New Zealand Navy veteran recalls witnessing French nuclear explosion 50 years ago in Pacific

It's been 50 years since two New Zealand Navy ships sailed to the Pacific to protest against French nuclear testing.

The sailors aboard the HMNZS Otago and the HMNZS Canterbury in 1973 were told by Prime Minister Norm Kirk they were on an "honourable" mission.

Newshub spoke to one of the men who went on the risky mission.

It was 1966 when France began testing its nuclear weapons in French Polynesia. There were massive explosions on Mururoa and its sister atoll Fangataufa.

After fierce criticism from several nations - including New Zealand - France conducted dozens more atmospheric nuclear tests.

In response New Zealand sent two frigates - the HMNZS Otago and the HMNZS Canterbury. They had one purpose - to witness the testing.

"We are a small nation, but we will not abjectly surrender to injustice. We work against the development of nuclear weapons everywhere and anywhere," said former Prime Minister Norman Kirk at the time.

HMNZS Canterbury veteran Gavin Smith was just 24, and the state of the atoll shocked him.

"One thing that sticks in my mind is the seawater there. There were no birds and no sea life - the water was dead."

Gavin Smith's embroidered cap reminds him of the Mururoa nuclear tests conducted by France.
Gavin Smith's embroidered cap reminds him of the Mururoa nuclear tests conducted by France. Photo credit: Newshub.

Smith still vividly remembers the explosion he saw.

"We saw a bomb test which was nothing like you see in the movies or magazines. It was a small cloud that half turned into a half mushroom," he told Newshub.

Eventually, France gave up nuclear tests. The last one took place in 1995, during which time there had been a total of 181 explosions.

Smith, now 74, still deals with some of the voyage's effects.

"I'm very fortunate. I only have skin cancers on my arms," he said.

He's incredibly proud of the work he did in the Pacific, but also fears their bravery has hurt generations to come.

"I'm proud that we went over there. I'm proud of our surviving veterans. Not so proud for our children and grandchildren and subsequent generations because there is an awful amount of illness amongst them," he told Newshub.

The veterans reunited on Friday evening to mark 50 years since they set off on a mission that will live many more years in New Zealand history.

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