by Thomas Van Osten
The soil here, in Bikini Atoll, is some of the most fertile in all of the Marshall Islands. Palm trees sway gently in the breeze as the Pacific waves wash over the sandy shores before gracefully retreating back to the sea. Lizards bask on rocks under the sun and crabs scuttle back and forth along the beaches of this small ring of islands in the middle of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. The lagoon is host to an abundance of reef-dwelling marine life, and on the islands themselves, coconut palms and breadfruit trees are abundant. The atoll is a little floating Eden, or so it appears, yet not a soul inhabits these islands. Not anymore.
For a brief moment at the end of 1945, everything seemed as though it was going to work out. An ugly global depression was just about through. The Axis powers had been defeated and the Allies, the good guys, had prevailed. But as those soon-to-be iconic mushroom clouds rose over Japan they cast a long pall over the pre-atomic world. The specter of nuclear annihilation had shown its face for the first time. This, of course, was of little consequence to the Bikini Islanders—the Marshallese speaking residents of Bikini Atoll. Their way of life had remained unchanged since they arrived in the atoll hundreds of years before Westerners had even left their own shores. Their islands and lagoon provided everything they needed. It was their proverbial table of plenty. But the atoll also had something that the United States desperately wanted.
The Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear device, proved that weaponized physics was possible. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that its use was plausible. But the question remained; could the use of nuclear weapons be practical? Could the power of the atom be harnessed for peaceful purposes? To determine this, more tests would be needed. But the United States Navy was more interested in the strategic implications of atomic weapons than it was in their peaceful application. Specifically, the US Navy wanted to study the effects of atomic blasts on ships at sea. But where? The Navy had several criteria for a testing site: It needed to take place in an area controlled by the United States, it had to be mostly uninhabited for obvious reasons, less than 1,000 kilometers from an airport so that the B-29’s could drop the bomb, but more than 300 kilometers from a city to minimize potential exposure to fallout. One candidate was the Ecuadorian Galapagos Islands, home to Charles Darwin’s famous finches and the cradle of all our scientific understanding of life itself. But the Galapagos plan never panned out. There was one other place that fit the bill nicely—a forgettable little atoll in the Pacific—home to about 170 people. A perfect site to host Operation Crossroads—arguably the opening ceremony of a global nuclear arms race that would, on more than one occasion, nearly wipe the planet clean of human existence.
And what of the 170 Bikini Islanders who had called the island home since time immemorial? The solution to that last part, turning a people’s home into a nuclear proving ground, was to simply pack up all the Bikini Islanders and move them to another island. Navy Commodore Ben H. Wyatt flew to Bikini Atoll to meet with the chief of the islanders. Wyatt claimed that their island was needed to serve “the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” He compared the Islanders to the “children of Israel” with which they were familiar through the stories told by Christian missionaries. The chief, referred to as King Juda, was, according to Wyatt, proud to serve in this capacity. A black and white and clearly scripted video recording exists of this “agreement.” The Islanders were relocated to Rongerik Atoll, 128 miles east of Bikini. Navy officials must have figured one tropical island couldn’t be too much different from another and that the islanders would do just fine in their new home. This turned out not to be the case, of course. The islanders couldn’t gather enough food and resources, particularly because Rongerik had no lagoon for the type of fishing the Bikini Islanders were used to. As if that weren’t enough, it was discovered that the several species of fish the islanders were fishing from a local reef were actually poisonous. One Leonard Mason, an anthropologist from Hawaii, visited the Islanders on Rongerik and recorded the following statement from one:
“We’d get a few fish, then the entire community would have to share this meager amount… The fish were not fit to eat there. They were poisonous because of what they ate on the reef. We got sick from them, like when your arms and legs fall asleep and you can’t feel anything. We’d get up in the morning to go to our canoes and fall over because we were so ill… Then we started asking these men from America [to] bring us food… We were dying, but they didn’t listen to us.”
After several months, the islanders had become completely dependent on US supplies, the delivery of which was spotty at best—feeding the inhabitants of some far-flung Pacific island was not very high on the U.S. Government’s list of priorities—particularly with an arms race about to enter full swing.
But returning to Bikini Atoll wasn’t an option. The test preparations were already well underway by the time the islanders were settled in on Rongerik. Accommodations had been built on the island—including the Up and Atom Officers’ Club, an open air bar and ping-pong den for servicemen. The test personnel, 42,000 throughout the course of the test, were housed on dozens of decommissioned warships, 95 in all, that had been sailed into and anchored in the lagoon. Possibly the most notable among them were the Prinz Eugen, a Nazi heavy cruiser, and the Nagato, flagship of Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto during the Battle of Pearl Harbor. Alongside these were several American ships scheduled for scuttling, including the USS Nevada which had been painted bright orange to make an easy target for the B-29 bombers that would be carrying the atom bombs. In order to ensure the ships could pass through the shallow waters leading into the lagoon, several channels had to be dug using explosives. During this process, the navy inadvertently destroyed several species of coral which are now locally extinct. On a lighter note, much of the aquatic life has since regrown, though not to pre-test levels.
As the test got further underway, all personnel were issued special protective glasses to ensure their eyes would not be burned out by the blast. The fireball of a nuclear explosion is hotter and brighter than the surface of the sun, which is particularly dangerous if you are a mere ten nautical miles from the explosion—the minimum safe distance determined by the navy. As the test drew closer, it was suspected that the goggles which were distributed to personnel might not be sufficient to protect the wearers’ eyes. To solve this problem, personnel were instructed to cover their eyes with their arms, close their eyes, and quite simply not to look at the blast. Quite an easy task when an event, cosmic in scale, that has only happened three times in the history of the planet, is occurring dead ahead of you.
On July 1st, 1946 at 9:00 a.m. the first of the test bombs, Gilda was dropped from the B-29 Superfortress Dave’s Dream—which speaks volumes about its namesake’s mentality. The bomber had previously flown as a photograph aircraft on the mission to drop the bomb on Nagasaki. The crew of the aircraft was skilled and no-doubt familiar with the mechanics of dropping a bomb the size and weight of a truck. The target for the drop was the blaze orange USS Nevada—the only bright object in a sea of blue and gray. However, the bomb missed its target by 700 yards, which prompted an inconclusive investigation as to who-dunnit. Error aside, five ships were sunk and fourteen were seriously damaged. Test animals that had been caged in place on the various ship decks had been mostly annihilated. But everyone’s a critic. 114 press observers were present to witness the explosion, and many of them expressed disappointment at the lack of destruction among the ships, as though witnessing the power of the sun unleashed upon the surface of the earth wasn’t stimulating enough for them.
The tests continued at irregular intervals until 1958, at which point new test sites were found. 23 tests in all occurred at the atoll which rendered it more or less uninhabitable. In 1987 the Islanders were permitted to return at long last. However, this homecoming was relatively short lived. The Islanders began to suffer from mysterious illnesses, and stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic mutations among their children were becoming unsettlingly common. In 1997, a team of French scientists determined that their primary sources of food and water were still far too irradiated to safely consume. The Islanders were evacuated once more. They dispersed. Many of them are living on Killi Atoll, and many of them live in the United States. About seventy of the original 170 Islanders are still alive, no doubt haunted by the destruction of their homeland. To its credit, the United States does pay several million dollars annually directly to the Bikini Islander community and to The Bikini Claims Trust Fund, which was established in 1987 to oversee the direction of compensation to the Islanders. Still, no amount of money can replace what was once a floating little Eden, home to an entire society swept up in a war it had no stake in, a war it didn’t ask for.