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Australia's Oppenheimer moment: blowing up our outback

From nuclear bombs to scandalous crimes, Forgotten Australia podcaster Michael Adams explains the bizarre twists and turns of what happened in Australia's past from October 9 to 15, including the strangest Long Bay Gaol escape ever.

By Michael Adams

Thanks to blockbuster movie Oppenheimer, we’ve all become armchair experts on the subject of the first atomic weapon tests at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in July 1945.

But few of us know the story of the first nuclear blast on the Australian mainland.

And it wasn’t at Maralinga in 1956.

Our initiation into radiation took place at Emu Field, Woomera, on 15 October 1953.

While the first test of Oppenheimer’s deadly toy – as noted nuclear physicist Sting once memorably described it – was the result of the USA’s WWII Manhattan Project and had been codenamed ‘Trinity’, the infernal device that sent a mushroom cloud up over the South Australian outback was the product of UK’s Cold War atomic aims and was given the secret squirrel moniker of ‘OperationTotem’.

The first British atomic tests in Australian territory had been at the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia in October 1952.

This one, codenamed ‘Operation Hurricane’, had been a 25 kiloton weapon.

That made it 10 kilotons more powerful than the Oppenheimer’s ‘Little Boy’ bomb used at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 – and exactly the same yield as that which blasted Nagasaki 3 days later.

The Monte Bello detonation was underwater and the islands were uninhabited.

But Emu Field was very different.

This claypan – in the Woomera Rocket Range – was selected because it was far from prying eyes, because it offered a nice flat surface for planes to take off and land, and because there was ‘no-one; around to be impacted by the blast before the mushroom cloud rose up and its radiation dispersed in the upper atmosphere.

But Emu Field lay in the centre of where the Aṉangu people had lived since the Dreamtime.

Aboriginal communities and missions lay in all directions.

There were to be 2 Totem bomb tests.

The first Emu Field device was to yield a blast equivalent to 7 kilotons of TNT.

 It was placed atop a steel tower – a la Oppenheimer – and detonated at 7am on 15 October.

Broken Hill’s The Barrier Miner front page headline blared: ‘Australia’s Atom History.’

Reporter W.S. Noble had been given access as a special correspondent.

‘With a shattering roar and a flash that lit the whole countryside, the atom weapon was exploded rom a compartment high on a tower, which I could see from the ridge on which I stood, 15 miles away. The British atom bomb, the first in history to be exploded over land, today blew the top off the dawn in the South Australian desert with a crack that, it was said, could be heard 200 miles away and with overtones that echoed across the world.'

The mushroom cloud, he wrote, ‘climbed unsteadily to 15,000 ft, leaned, and dropped, and the world stumbled one more step toward the twilight.’

Photos of this wonky radioactive formation graced the front page of Sydney’s The Sun, which also carried W.S. Noble’s report.

A caption even called it ‘this strange-looking smoke cloud’.

What didn’t make the newspapers was that this test had been carried out during unexpected atmospheric conditions.

Rather than the mushroom clouding blasting up high and drifting away, its sideways slump meant some radioactive fallout stuck to moist air and became an oily black fog that rolled into Aboriginal communities. 

Aṉangu people, living around Wallatinna and Mintabie, became sick and some died.

Survivors would tell terrifying stories of the approaching death cloud at the 1984-85 Royal Commission into the British Atomic Tests. 

This included the late Aboriginal activist Yami Lester, who on 15 October 1953, been an actual little boy, playing with an actual toy.

He told the ABC in 2011:

‘I got up early in the morning, about 7:00am, playing with a homemade toy. We heard the big bomb went off that morning, aloud noise and the ground shook. I don't know how long after we seen this quiet black smoke — oily and shiny — coming across from the south. Next time we had sore eyes, skin rash, diarrhea and vomiting everybody, old people too.’

Yami Lester would be partially and permanently blinded by the radiation.

The second Totem blast – on 27 October – didn’t result in a radioactive black mist.

But, like Totem I, radiation from its high-altitude mushroom cloud would drift all the way north-east across Australia.

During the Emu Field experiments, British and Australian air force personnel were also exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation.

In some cases, this was deliberate – such as air force crews from both countries being ordered to fly through the clouds soon after detonation.

Even daring W.S. Noble told readers he’d taken a joy flight over the blast site within an hour of the atomic explosion.

The British government has never taken responsibility for the suffering inflicted on the Aboriginal communities as a result of the Emu Field tests. 

There’s much more to this almost-unknown story, as told in Elizabeth Tynan’s excellent 2022 book The Secret of Emu Field.

Squizzy Taylor caught in murder manhunt!

On 11 October 1923, Melbourne was gripped by a manhunt. Three days earlier, 2 gangsters had stuck-up, robbed and shot bank manager Thomas Berriman at Glenferrie Railway Station. The crooks had grabbed £1851 – about $160,000 today– and made their getaway in a motor car driven by a third crim.

Mr Berriman had been saved from instant death because a thick wad of papers had deflected the bullet. But the slug had caused a serious wound in the right side of his chest and he remained in critical condition in hospital.

Berriman’s bosses at Commercial Bank posted a £500 reward, 5 top detectives were on the case and Keith Murdoch’s The Herald covered every breaking development with photo stories.

That reached a frenzy when, on 11 October, the cops raided a St Kilda joint at 5am and arrested Melbourne’s most notorious villain, Squizzy Taylor, along with his flapper girlfriend, Ida Pender, and Squiz’s fellow crook, Angus Murray. But the third man involved in the shooting, Richard Buckley, aged 60, would prove more elusive.

Thomas Berriman died on 21 October.

Angus Murray was charged with murder – even though witnesses reckoned Richard Buckley had fired the shot. Squizzy Taylor – suspected of masterminding the whole murderous caper – was only charged as an accessory and for harbouring Murray.

While Murray awaited trial, Squizzy tried to bust him out of gaol. But this plan was foiled, and Squizzy was charged for that, too.

Angus Murray was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Despite a campaign for his sentence to be commuted attracting some 70,000 signatures, he went to the noose at Melbourne Gaol on 14 April 1924.  He was the last man hanged in what’s now the Old Melboune Gaol tourist attraction. Future Victorian executions were conducted at Pentridge.

Squizzy beat the most serious charges and did just 6 months for a minor conviction.He was out by the end of 1924. But he wouldn’t enjoy his freedom for too long – as we’ll see in a couple of weeks.

As for Richard Buckley, he eluded the Melbourne police for 7long years. How’d he do it? By holing up in a cottage in Ascotvale and by dressing as a woman. After he was caught in 1931, Buckley was convicted and sentenced to death for murder.But he benefited from so many years having elapsed, from his advanced age and from public opposition having further stiffened against capital punishment.

Buckley was paroled in 1946 because he was 83 and about to die. But the cheeky old killer had another 7 years in him, passing peacefully at his Port Melbourne home in September 1953.

Had Squizzy Taylor made it to old age – and become one of those ‘elder statesman’ ex-crooks, like Chopper or Darcy Dugan – he would’ve no doubt sung the praises of Kevin John Simmonds.  

During the daylight hours of 9 October 1959, Simmo, as he’d been nicknamed since his childhood in Griffith, busted out of Long Bay Gaol.

He’d been serving a 3-year stretch for robberies and car thefts. The audacity of those crimes had already seen him splashed across the newspapers in 1956.

Now Simmo was on the run with his fellow young prisoner Leslie Alan Newcombe.

Simmo was no ordinary crook. He didn’t drink alcohol – preferring milk to beer – and he was a fitness fanatic and martial arts practitioner who’d fancied himself a muso and had even cut a record. Simmo – aged 24 when he escaped – was also an absolute dreamboat. If he’d been born in America, Kevin John Simmons might’ve have been a Hollywood matinee idol, his name on movie posters rather than wanted posters.

In the moments after the Long Bay break-out, with the alarm sounding, Simmo and Newcombe carjacked a vehicle, outran an angry civilian giving chase in his car, and then they’d fled on foot into the vast scrub around Long Bay.

There was an absolutely huge manhunt in the hours that followed.

But Simmo was cool as could be. He told Newcombe they could bury themselves in dirt, leaving only part of their faces uncovered so they could breathe. With the cops and warders sometimes just feet away, they didn’t move and inch. When darkness fell, Simmo and Newcombe crawled through police lines and made their way to the Sydney Showgrounds. There, they holed up in an ingenious lair they fashioned in a huge stack of hay bales in a pavilion.

But they needed money to get out of the country. To commit a robbery they needed a gun. Newcombe said he knew where to get one:  the minimum security prison farm at Emu Plains, where he’d served some time.

Now the escapees were going to break into gaol.

But when they did, a warder confronted them – and, in their panic, they beat him so badly that he’d later die of his injuries.

Now began the largest manhunt in NSW history.

But the Sydney police had no idea the wanted men were right under their noses at the Showgrounds.

Realising the heat wouldn’t die down for a long time, Simmo and Newcombe hatched a plan to hide in a bush cave in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. But on the north shore, during a break in to secure supplies, they got spooked and got separated.

Newcombe would be caught soon after in the city.

But Simmo would spend the next month at large on the Central Coast, pursued by a massive force of 500 police who had military style gear and support - dogs, fast cars, bush camps, machine guns, planes and choppers.

Time and again, Simmo escaped pursuers or slipped through supposedly invincible police lines. That he did all of this without provisions or shoes while wearing not much more than shorts was incredible ­– particularly as this was mountainous terrain during a time of flooding rains. There were mosquitoes, ticks and leeches as big as your finger. Conditions were so bad that cops –some of whom were WWII veterans – said this mission was worse than Kokoda. 

Simmo’s escapades turned him into a folk hero and saw him compared with Ned Kelly.

Like Elvis, he even had a teenage fan club.

Simmo’s luck ran out on 15 November, when he was caught by hero cop Ray ‘Gunner’ Kelly at Mulbring.

The townspeople of Kurri Kurri cheered Simmo when he was brought to their police station. Daily Mirror reporter Bill Jenkings, who we read about last week, got a wild photo of the handsome rebel combing his hair in his cell. When Simmo arrived in Sydney, where he was to face court, he attracted a crowd of some 500 people. Mainly women, they cheered and called out his name.

Simmonds and Newcombe were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison. Newcombe’s punishment would be reduced  to 15 years on appeal.

But prison for Simmo was to be a death sentence. He was reportedly brutalised for years by warders in Grafton Gaol. He was found hanged in his cell in November 1966. His death was ruled a suicide. But there were serious questions about whether he’d been lynched by guards.

As his sister Jan Simmonds would write in her memoir, For Simmo, had Kevin been born a decade earlier, his resilience and resourcefulness and bravery would’ve likely made him been a World War II hero – and had he been born a decade years later he might’ve covered himself in glory fighting in Vietnam.

What happened to him in Grafton was criminal.

One bullet, two kills

Around 1pm on 14 October married couple Henry and Agnes Long were taking themselves home to their children in their horse-drawn cart when they both fell from the vehicle. A shot rang out a second later. Both had suffered fatal gunshot wounds. But an autopsy showed there had been only one bullet – it’d passed through Henry’s neck and into Agnes’s heart. Yet witnesses had seen no gunman – and the innocent couple had no enemies and nothing had been stolen. Astoundingly, the bullet was traced to the captain of a ship at a wharf some 1200 yards away on the other side of the river. He’d used a .303 rifle to take a pot shot at a bird on the water. He’d missed, the bullet had ricocheted off the river and killed the unlucky couple.

Happy 100th Birthday, Cairns

On 13 October 1923, Cairns was proclaimed a city.  

The traditional lands of the Yirrganydji people, this cracking coastal paradise had for thousands of years been called Gimuy by the traditional custodians – after the slippery blue fig that grew all over the place. But it was the shiny yellow stuff – gold – that brought the white fellas in 1876.

The town that grew up was named for the then-Governor of Queensland, William Cairns. But given he only served from January 1875 to March 1877,  if the gold had been found a little earlier or later, one of our most famous tourist towns might’ve been called ‘Phipps’, after Governor George Phipps, or ‘Kennedy’, after Governor Sir Arthur Kennedy.

On the day Cairns became a city, it had a white population of 8000, a mere drop compared with its 170,000 today. The news wasn’t greeted with any fanfare by the local newspaper. The Cairns Post announced it in a small paragraph. In that issue, more attention was given to the 20th Century’s version of valuable yellow stuff in an article headlined ‘What About Cheese?’, which dissected the drop-off in Australia’s cheddar commerce with Java.

The full story of Simmo can be heard in the four-part Forgotten Australia episode ‘The Fugitive’. The full story of Henry and Agnes Long can be heard in the episode ‘Bolts From the Blue’.
Michael Adams’ is the author true crime books The Murder Squad and Hanging Ned Kelly.

 

 

 

 

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