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Bury St Edmunds RAF veteran John Meehan posthumously awarded Nuclear Test Medal after ‘top-secret’ Christmas Island deployment





An RAF veteran from Bury St Edmunds who died two years ago has been recognised for his service to testing nuclear weapons in the late 1950s.

John Meehan joined the armed forces in 1955 and was deployed to Christmas Island in March, 1959.

None of the men were told where they were going or what they would be doing on deployment, stopping in both San Fransisco and Hawaii en route.

John Meehan (left) at Christmas Island. Picture: Louise Holtaway
John Meehan (left) at Christmas Island. Picture: Louise Holtaway
Debbie (r) and Louise (l) thought they'd apply for the medal to commemorate their late father. Picture: Ash Jones
Debbie (r) and Louise (l) thought they'd apply for the medal to commemorate their late father. Picture: Ash Jones

It likely came as a shock when they realised humanity would be testing one of its most powerful weapons of war on the island – the hydrogen bomb.

Mr Meehan died in 2022 aged 87 and one year after his death, the Government introduced the Nuclear Test Medal.

Wanting to commemorate their father’s efforts, his two surviving daughters, Debbie Meehan and Louise Holtaway, applied to receive a medal, which arrived last week.

The Nuclear Test Medal was awarded to Mr Meehan last week. Picture: Ash Jones
The Nuclear Test Medal was awarded to Mr Meehan last week. Picture: Ash Jones
Mr Meehan with family shortly before his death. Picture: Louise Holtaway
Mr Meehan with family shortly before his death. Picture: Louise Holtaway

Louise said: “We applied for the medal because we thought dad should be remembered for what he did.

“Dad didn’t talk about what happened on Christmas Island in much detail, only the social side of it. He always tried to make the most of his trip away as it’s quite a beautiful place.

“It’s something that, until now, wasn’t recognised, although giving medals for nuclear testing had been discussed by Government for years before it was implemented.

“It’s astonishing to think that they would stand there without protection while they incredibly powerful bombs went off. Dad said you could see people’s skeletons through their skin.”

John Meehan as a young man. Picture: Louise Holtaway
John Meehan as a young man. Picture: Louise Holtaway

Louise said some of those who were involved in the tests developed health issues related to the blasts and died young.

Mr Meehan was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 79, but his family did not think it was connected to the tests. A tumour in his spine robbed him of his ability to walk, Louise said.

Louise said Mr Meehan was incredibly private about his time with the RAF. It wasn’t until later life that he revealed he once saved a man from a burning plane during his service. He was also a guard for Princess Anne.

After returning to Britain in 1960, Mr Meehan married his wife, Ann Marie.

Christmas Island in the 1950s. Picture: Louise Holtaway
Christmas Island in the 1950s. Picture: Louise Holtaway

He finished his service in 1977 at RAF Honington. Although he was born in Drogheda, Ireland, and his wife in Scotland, the couple made Bury St Edmunds their home until their deaths.

They had three children, all daughters, alongside four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Louise said: “We want the families of those who were deployed to Christmas Island to know they are eligible for these medals, even if the person in question has died.

“All the men deployed were young, in their 20s, and everything was very top secret.”