Aussies Exposed to Radiation in Japan – 65 Years Ago

Not long after the end of World War II, John Collins would sit and eat sandwiches at Ground Zero in Hiroshima, then sift through the rubble left from the city subjected to the world’s first nuclear attack for items he thought could become historically valuable.
Collins was then a 19-year-old sapper with the Australian troops making up the bulk of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) stationed in Japan from February 1946 to April 1952.

Signs of Radiation Sickness?

But weeks after his Ground Zero foraging, Collins was hospitalized after he started passing blood in his urine. While being treated, his hair started falling out in large clumps.
He laughed at the time. He has had little to laugh about in the 60 years since.
After enduring chronic itches, rashes, allergies, colds, and the occasional dizzy spell, Collins was in 1986 diagnosed with a kind of bone marrow cancer called polycythemia vera.
Now — over 80, and 20 years after being told he had no more than two years to live — the BCOF veteran firmly believes his illness stems from radiation in Hiroshima when he was in the prefecture on a tour of duty in 1947.
Scores of Occupation troops from the United States, Britain and New Zealand who served in the nuclear-bombed cities of Hiroshima or Nagasaki and subsequently suffered from radiation-induced diseases have been given medical treatment and disability pensions from their governments.
But in Australia, where BCOF veterans call themselves the “Forgotten Force” because of what they believe is neglect by authorities, the government refuses to acknowledge servicemen like Collins who say they were affected by residue radiation in Hiroshima.
“They have no honor,” Collins says, referring to the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) officials who refuse to recognize the effects of Hiroshima’s radiation. “I get a war pension for other so-called minor matters — emphysema, PTSD and cervical spondylosis from my back fracture, but they don’t accept the bone cancer.”

BCOF Based in Hiroshima Prefecture

The BCOF was based in Hiroshima Prefecture, initially in Etajima, then in Kure, a port city about 20 kilometers from the city of Hiroshima.
At its peak in 1946, the BCOF consisted of about 45,000 members, the majority of them Australian, but also including troops from Britain, India and New Zealand.
About 20,000 Australians served in the BCOF and were accompanied by dependents of an unknown number, but believed to exceed 1,000.
Australian authorities have never conducted a formal study on the overall health of BCOF veterans, nor made official lists of dependents, and exact numbers remain unknown.

BCOF Families Report High Incidence of Mysterious Illnesses

Service members and their relatives say their easy access to Hiroshima and widespread consumption of produce from Hiroshima Bay exposed them to radiation contamination and led to extraordinarily high instances of cancer and premature death or illness.
“It is estimated through internal research that some 70 percent of BCOF male and female service personnel suffered from cancer-related complaints attributed to the effects of radiation. There are some cases of their children suffering cancers and physical defects,” says Ron Orwin, 80, a BCOF veteran who blames radiation contamination during his tour in Japan from November 1947 to May 1948 for a variety of ailments he has suffered, including chronic dermatitis and skin cancer.
“We are firmly of the opinion that such diseases were as a result of exposure to radiation even six months after use (of the atomic bomb). The government refuses to accept any connection between the irradiation of the Hiroshima area, claiming that (the bombing) was an air burst with no major long term fatal effects to the local Japanese and Occupation forces.”
Rosemarie Carman, who lived in Japan from age 4 to 9 while her father served in the BCOF, says that stories of force dependents who had died from cancer were common.
She had been hampered by the lack of an official list of dependents, but disclosed pages and pages of detailed examples she had compiled of BCOF members or their relatives who had died or fallen ill from cancer and other diseases they blamed on radiation from Hiroshima.
“I’m getting too morbid by listing it all,” Carman, now 64, says.

Gov’ts Dismiss Radiation Claims

A DVA spokesman, meanwhile, says “DVA is not aware of any data that supports this claim.”
In 2002, the DVA commissioned the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) to report on radiation dose estimates that could have affected BCOF personnel.
ARPANSA’s report was based on upper limit estimates and worst case scenarios.
A similar report looking into atomic radiation exposure from consumption of seafood in Hiroshima Bay was also carried out by Australia’s National Research Center for Environmental Toxicology (NRCET).
Based on the findings of these reports, the DVA decided that, although individual cases needed to be considered, it was generally unlikely BCOF personnel would have been contaminated by radiation in Hiroshima.
“The essential reason for the low exposure is that by the time the first Australian personnel arrived in the area, more than six months after the bomb detonation, decay and dispersion of the radiation meant that there was little residual radiation remaining,” a DVA Statements of Principal (SOP) report issued in July 2006 says.
A DVA spokesman said veterans’ claims for disability pensions are determined by these SOPs, which are rules that decide the factors behind a disease that is the subject of a claim.
“The SOPs are developed by an independent statutory authority called the Repatriation Medical Authority (RMA). The RMA consists of a panel of five practitioners eminent in fields of medical science. The role of the RMA is to determine SOPs for any disease, injury or death that could be related to military service, based on sound medical-scientific evidence. The RMA only determines SOPs after extensive investigations of the medical and scientific literature and research worldwide, relevant to each condition,” the spokesman says.
Scientists at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) in Hiroshima, a research body funded by the Japanese and U.S. governments, support the findings of the Australian organizations.
“There are two types of residual radiation: induced radioactivity and radioactive fallout. Within six days of the bombing, residual radiation levels in Hiroshima had declined dramatically.
“So in February 1946, six months after the atom bomb was dropped, residual radiation from the atomic bombing would have been almost the same as natural levels.
“As for radioactive fallout in Hiroshima Bay and other areas in the region, there is no data at RERF. However, the amount of radiation that can be absorbed through fallout or drinking contaminated water is only a slight amount of what would be obtained from direct exposure to the radiation emitted from the atomic bombing and is not a great reason for fear,” Toshinori Kurisu of RERF’s public relations and publishing department, says.
“RERF’s research has showed that this data has not influenced risks of such things as cancer. Even with exposure to external radiation, the amount of radioactivity detected 3 kilometers or further from the bomb’s hypocenter was extremely low, virtually near zero.
“Based on RERF’s data, the likelihood of anybody exposed to radiation about 5 to 10 kilometers away from the hypocenter being more susceptible to cancer is virtually nil.”

Radiation ‘Absolutely, Completely Feasible’

But not all experts rule out the possibility of contamination.
Sue Rabbitt Roff, a medical sociologist at the Center for Medical Education at Dundee University in Scotland and author of “Hotspots: The Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” argues that it was “absolutely, completely feasible” for BCOF veterans to have suffered from the effects of radiation in the atomic bombed city.
She says political considerations such as seeking to avoid criticism for unleashing such a destructive weapon made it in the best interests of the United States to make sure any long-term effects of the atomic bombs were minimized.
“The American government, which won the war, had a lot at stake to deny (the atomic bombing) was anything worse than a big firebomb. It was Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett who first revealed there were still ongoing troubles after the first dreadful burns,” she says.
“The American government put into place research agencies which would never take seriously the possibility that there was a long contamination of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Rabbitt Roff continues: “(The BCOF) was (in Hiroshima) in early ’46, so it was six to eight months after the detonation. (Their claims of irradiation are) absolutely, completely feasible. You try going into (the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident at) Chernobyl today — 20 years later — you won’t get near the place. You try to go to (Australia’s) Montebello Islands, where the British tested their atomic weapons 55 years ago — there’s a big sign up saying ‘Do not stay longer than 1 hour because of residual contamination.’ Try going to Maralinga (another British nuclear weapon test site in Australia).”
Meanwhile, ailing BCOF soldier Collins — six decades after his visits to Hiroshima’s Ground Zero — and the dwindling numbers of other atomic veterans like him are forced to continue to battle bureaucracies.
Their fight is made increasingly harder by advanced age and the declining health that accompanies it.
“Their main weapon is procrastination,” Collins says. “They keep delaying things as long as possible till the old veteran gets sick of waiting around and despairs of getting a result and walks away. Or dies.”
Robin Gerster, an associate professor at Monash University in Melbourne and one-time associate professor of Australian Studies at the University of Tokyo, is one of the foremost experts on Australia’s role in the postwar occupation of Japan.
He says that BCOF veterans such as Collins rightly find it hard to equate the “evidence” of the unsympathetic medico-scientific establishment with their intimate knowledge of the inordinately high rates of sickness that has afflicted them and their families. “From a country which purports to cherish its servicemen and women, they are entitled to feel that their governments have handed them a raw deal.”

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