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A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll
By Jack Niedenthal
Bikini Atoll is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that compose the Marshall Islands. These atolls of the Marshalls are scattered over 357,000 square miles of a lonely part of the world located north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. They help define a geographic area referred to as Micronesia.
Once the Marshalls were discovered by the outside world, first by the Spanish in the 1600's and then later by the Germans, they were used primarily as a source for producing copra oil from coconuts. The Bikini islanders maintained no substantial contacts with these early visitors because of Bikini Atoll's remote location in the very dry, northern Marshalls. The fertile atolls in the southern Marshalls were attractive to the traders because they could produce a much larger quantity of copra. This isolation created for the Bikinians a well integrated society bound together by close extended family association and tradition, where the amount of land you owned was a measure of your wealth.
In the early 1900's the Japanese began to administer the Marshall Islands. This domination later resulted in a military build up throughout the islands in anticipation of World War II. Bikini and the rest of these peaceful, low lying coral atolls in the Marshalls suddenly became strategic. The Bikini islanders' life of harmony drew to an abrupt close when the Japanese built and maintained a watchtower on their island to guard against an American invasion of the Marshalls. Throughout the conflict the Bikini station served as an outpost for the Japanese headquarters in the Marshall Islands, Kwajalein Atoll.
In February of 1944, toward the end of the war, in a gruesome and terrifying bloody battle, the American forces captured Kwajalein Atoll and thereby effectively crushed the Japanese hold on the Marshall Islands. The five Japanese men left on Bikini, while hiding in a covered foxhole, killed themselves with a grenade before the American military forces could capture them.
After the war, in December of 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to Army and Navy officials that joint testing of nuclear weapons would be necessary "to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships." Bikini, because of its location away from regular air and sea routes, was chosen to be the new nuclear proving ground for the United States government.
In February of 1946 Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls, traveled to Bikini. On a Sunday after church, he assembled the Bikinians to ask if they would be willing to leave their atoll temporarily so that the United States could begin testing atomic bombs for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars." King Juda, then the leader of the Bikinian people, stood up after much confused and sorrowful deliberation among his people, and announced, "We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God."
While the 167 Bikinians were getting ready for their exodus, preparations for the U.S. nuclear testing program advanced rapidly. Some 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation recording devices and the Navy's 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs soon began to arrive for the tests. Over 42,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel were involved in the testing program at Bikini.
The nuclear legacy of the Bikinians began in March of 1946 when they were first removed from their islands in preparation for Operation Crossroads. The history of the Bikinian people from that day has been a story of their struggle to understand scientific concepts as they relate to their islands, as well as the day-to-day problems of finding food, raising families and maintaining their culture amidst the progression of events, set in motion by the Cold War, that has been for the most part out of their control.
In preparation for Operation Crossroads, the Bikinians were sent 125 miles eastward across the ocean on a U.S. Navy LST landing craft to Rongerik Atoll. The islands of Rongerik Atoll were uninhabited because, traditionally, the Marshallese people considered them to be unlivable due to their size (Rongerik is 1/6 the size of Bikini Atoll) and because they had an inadequate water and food supply. There was also a deep rooted traditional belief that the atoll was inhabited by evil spirits. The Administration left the Bikinians food stores sufficient only for several weeks. The islanders soon discovered that the coconut trees and other local food crops produced very few fruits when compared to the yield of the trees on Bikini. As the food supply on Rongerik quickly ran out, the Bikinians began to suffer from starvation and fish poisoning due to the lack of edible fish in the lagoon. Within two months after their arrival they began to beg U.S. officials to move them back to Bikini.
In July, the Bikinian leader, Juda, traveled with a U.S. government delegation back to Bikini to view the results of the second atom bomb test of Operation Crossroads, code named Baker. Juda returned to Rongerik and told his people that the island was still intact, that the trees were still there, that Bikini looked the same.
The two atomic bomb blasts of Crossroads were both about the size of the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Eighteen tons of cinematography equipment and more than half of the worlds supply of motion picture film was on hand to record the movement of the Bikinians from their atoll, and also the Able and Baker detonations.
From December of 1946 through January of 1947, the food shortages worsened on Rongerik; the small population of Bikinians was confronted with near starvation. During the same period of time, the area of Micronesia was designated as a United Nations Strategic Trust Territory (TT) to be administered by the United States. Indeed, it was the only strategic trust ever created by the United Nations. In this agreement, the U.S. committed itself to the United Nations directive to "promote the economic advancement and self-sufficiency of the inhabitants, and to this end shall...protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources..." The Bikini people have long seen the irony in the conduct of the TT agreement that allowed the bombing of their homeland and that forced them into starvation on Rongerik Atoll.
In May of 1947, to make the Bikinians situation on Rongerik even more serious, a huge fire damaged many of the coconut trees. By July, when a medical officer from the U.S. visited the island, the Bikinian people were found to be suffering severely from malnutrition. A team of U.S. investigators determined in the fall, after a visit to Rongerik, that the island had inadequate supplies of food and water and that the Bikini people should be moved from Rongerik without delay. The U.S. Navy was harshly criticized in the world press for neglecting the Bikini people on Rongerik. Harold Ickes, a reporter, stated in his 1947 syndicated column Man to Man that, "The natives are actually and literally starving to death."
Immediate preparations began for the transfer of the Bikinians to Ujelang Atoll in the western Marshalls. In November a handful of young Bikinian men traveled to Ujelang, and with the help of Navy Seabees, they began to arrange a community area and to construct housing. At the end of the year, however, the U.S. selected Enewetak Atoll as a second nuclear weapons test site. The Navy then decided that it would be easier to move the Enewetak people to Ujelang despite the fact that the Bikinians had built all the housing and held high hopes that they would be relocated there.
In January of 1948, University of Hawaii anthropologist, Dr. Leonard Mason, traveled to Rongerik at the request of the Trust Territory High Commissioner to report on the status of the Bikinians living there. Horrified at the sight of the withering islanders, Mason immediately requested a medical officer along with food supplies to be flown in to Rongerik.
In March of 1948, after two unpleasant years on Rongerik, the Bikinians were transported to Kwajalein Atoll where they were housed in tents on a strip of grass beside the airport. The Bikinians fell into yet another debate among themselves about alternative locations soon after they settled on Kwajalein.
It was in June of 1948 that the Bikinians chose Kili Island in the southern Marshalls because the island was not ruled by a paramount king, or iroij, and was uninhabited. This choice ultimately doomed their traditional diet and lifestyle, both based on lagoon fishing.
In September of 1948, two dozen Bikinian men were chosen from among themselves to accompany 8 Seabees to Kili in order to begin the clearing of land and the construction of a housing area for the rest of the people who remained on Kwajalein.
In November of 1948, after six months on Kwajalein Atoll, the 184 Bikinians set sail once again. This time the destination was Kili Island, their third community relocation in two years.
Starvation also troubled the Bikinians on Kili; this situation led the Trust Territory administration to donate a 40-foot ship to be used for copra transportation between Kili and Jaluit Atoll. Later, in 1951, the boat was washed into the Kili reef by heavy surf and sunk while carrying a full-load of copra. In the following years rough seas and infrequent visits by the field trip ships caused food supplies to run critically low many times on the island and once even required an airdrop of emergency food rations.
While the islanders struggled to set up their new community on Kili, the beautiful atoll of Bikini was in the process of being irradiated. In the northern Marshalls in January of 1954, the Air Force and Army men arrived on the Bikinians' former, temporary home of Rongerik Atoll, and jointly set up a weather station to monitor conditions in preparation for Operation Castle. This was a series of tests that would include the first air-deliverable, and the largest hydrogen bomb ever detonated by the United States. The U.S. government was operating with the fear that the Russians had already detonated their own hydrogen bomb in 1952. Now, decisions concerning the U.S. testing program were being made at the highest levels of the government. The cold war burned with vigor in the minds of paranoid politicians the world over.
The weather station on Rongerik began regular observations to determine barometric conditions, temperature, and the velocity of the wind up to 100,000 feet above sea level. As the test date for the Bravo shot grew near, the men at the weather station performed many observations per day. They were checking surface wind direction and barometric conditions hourly and upper-level conditions every two hours. As the test date neared, late in the month of February, documented proof exists** that Joint Task Force-7 knew that the winds were blowing east from Bikini toward Rongerik Atoll and other inhabited islands because of the continuous reports coming in from their weather station. The decision to go forward with the test, knowing that the winds were blowing in the direction of inhabited atolls, was essentially a decision to irradiate the atolls of the northern Marshall Islands, and moreover, to irradiate the people who were still living on them.
Early in the morning on March 1, 1954, the hydrogen bomb, code named Bravo, was detonated on the surface of the reef in the northwestern corner of Bikini Atoll. The area was illuminated by a huge and expanding flash of blinding light. A raging fireball of intense heat, that measured into the millions of degrees, shot skyward at a rate of 300 miles an hour. Within minutes the monstrous cloud, filled with nuclear debris, shot up more than 20 miles and generated winds hundreds of miles per hour. These fiery gusts blasted the surrounding islands and stripped the branches and coconuts from the trees.
Joint Task Force ships, which were stationed about 40 miles east and south of Bikini in positions enabling them to monitor the test, detected the eastward movement of the radioactive cloud from the 15 megaton blast. They recorded a steady increase in radiation levels that became so high that all men were ordered below decks and all hatches and watertight doors were sealed.
Millions of tons of sand, coral, plant and sea life from Bikini's reef, from three islands and the surrounding lagoon waters were sent high into the air by the blast. One and a half hours after the explosion, 23 fishermen aboard the Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, watched in awe as a "gritty white ash" began to fall on them. The men aboard the ship were oblivious to the fact that the ash was the fallout from a hydrogen bomb test. Shortly after being exposed to the fallout their skin began to itch and they experienced nausea and vomiting. One man died.
Meanwhile, on Rongelap Atoll (located about 125 miles east of Bikini), three to four hours after the blast, the same white, snow-like ash began to fall from the sky onto the 64 people living there and also on the 18 people residing on Ailinginae Atoll. Bravo was a thousand times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the end of World War II. Its "success" was beyond the wildest dreams of the American scientists who were involved in the detonation - they thought that the blast would only carry a payload of approximately 3 megatons.
The Rongelapese, not understanding what was happening, watched as two suns rose that morning, observed with amazement as the radioactive dust soon formed a layer on their island two inches deep turning the drinking water a brackish yellow.
Children played in the fallout; their mothers watched in horror as night came and they began to show the physical signs of exposure. The people experienced severe vomiting and diarrhea, their hair began to fall out, the island fell into a state of terrified panic. The people had received no explanations or warnings whatsoever from the United States government. Two days after the test the people of Rongelap were finally taken to Kwajalein for medical treatment.
On Bikini Atoll the radiation levels increased dramatically. And, in late March following the Bravo test, the off-limits zones were expanded to include the inhabited atolls of Rongerik, Utirik, Ujelang and Likiep. It is startling to note that none of these islanders were evacuated prior to this blast or even before the subsequent nuclear weapons tests. In the spring of 1954, Bikar, Ailinginae, Rongelap, Rongerik, were all contaminated by the Yankee and Union weapon tests which were detonated on Bikini Atoll. They yielded the equivalent of 6.9 and 13.5 megatons of TNT respectively.
Back on Kili, in January of 1955, the Trust Territory ships continued to have problems unloading food in the rough seas around Kili and the people once again suffered from starvation. The following year the food shortage problems grew even worse. Consequently, the United States decided to give the Bikinians a satellite community located on public land on Jaluit Atoll, thirty miles to the north. Three families moved to Jaluit. During 1957 other families rotated to Jaluit to take over the responsibilities of producing copra for sale.
During this period the Bikinians signed an agreement with the U.S. government turning over full use rights to Bikini Atoll. According to the agreement, any future claims by the Bikinians based on the use of Bikini by the government of the United
States, or on the moving of the Bikinian people from Bikini Atoll to Kili Island, would have to be made against the Bikinian leaders and not against the U.S government. In return for this agreement, the Bikinians were given full use rights to Kili and several islands in Jaluit Atoll which were Trust Territory public lands. In addition, the agreement included $25,000 in cash and an additional $300,000 trust fund which yielded a semi-annual interest payment of approximately $5,000 (about $15 per person a year). This agreement was made by the Bikinians without the benefit of legal representation.
Typhoon Lola struck Kili late in 1957 causing extensive damage to crops and sinking the Bikinians' supply ship. Shortly afterwards in 1958, Typhoon Ophelia caused widespread destruction on Jaluit and all the other southern atolls. The Bikinians living on Jaluit moved back to Kili because the satellite community became uninhabitable due to the typhoon damage. The Bikinians continued to fight the problems associated with inadequate food supplies throughout 1960.
The difficulty of inhabiting Kili is due in part to the small amount of food which can be grown there, but more so because it has no lagoon. Kili differs substantially from Bikini because it is only a single island of one-third of a square mile in land area with no lagoon - compared to the Bikinians' homeland of 23 islands that form a calm lagoon and have a land area of 3.4 square miles. Most of the year Kili is surrounded by 10 to 20 foot waves which deny the islanders of the opportunity to fish and sail their canoes. After a short time on Kili - a place that islanders believe was once an ancient burial ground for kings and therefore overwrought with spiritual influence - they began to refer to it as a "prison" island. Because the island does not produce enough local food for the Bikinians to eat, the importation of USDA rice and canned goods, and also food bought with their supplemental income, has become an absolute necessity for their survival.
In 1967, U.S. government agencies began considering the possibility of returning the Bikinian people to their homelands based on data on radiation levels on Bikini Atoll from the U.S. scientific community. This scientific optimism stemmed directly from an AEC study that stated, "Well water could be used safely by the natives upon their return to Bikini. It appears that radioactivity in the drinking water may be ignored from a radiological safety standpoint...The exposures of radiation that would result from the repatriation of the Bikini people do not offer a significant threat to their health and safety." Accordingly, in June of 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly promised the 540 Bikinians living on Kili and other islands that they would now be able to return to their homeland. The President also stated that, "It is our goal to assist the people of Bikini to build, on these once desolated islands, a new and model community." He then ordered Bikini to be resettled "with all possible dispatch."
In August of 1969 an eight year plan was prepared for the resettlement of Bikini Atoll in order to give the crops planted on the islands a chance to mature. The first section of the plan involved the clearing of the radioactive debris on Bikini Island. This segment of the work was designed by the AEC and the U.S. Department of Defense. Responsibility for the second phase of the reclamation, which included the replanting of the atoll, construction of a housing development and the relocation of the community, was assumed by the U.S. Trust Territory government.
By late in the year of 1969 the first cleanup phase was completed. The AEC, in an effort to assure the islanders that their cleanup efforts were successful, issued a statement that said: "There's virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life."
All that was theoretically left now in order for the people to return was for the atoll to be rehabilitated, but during the year of 1971 this effort proceeded slowly. The second phase of the rehabilitation encountered serious problems because the U.S. government withdrew their military personnel and equipment. They also brought to an end the weekly air service that had been operating between Kwajalein Atoll and Bikini Atoll. The construction and agricultural projects suffered because of the sporadic shipping schedules and the lack of air service.
In late 1972 the planting of the coconut trees was finally completed. During this period it was discovered that as the coconut crabs grew older on Bikini Island they ate their sloughed-off shells. Those shells contained high levels of radioactivity, hence, the AEC announced that the crabs were still radioactive and could be eaten only in limited numbers. The conflicting information on the radiological contamination of Bikini supplied by the AEC caused the Bikinian Council to vote not to return to Bikini at the time previously scheduled by American officials. The Council, however, stated that it would not prevent individuals from making independent decisions to return.
Three extended Bikinian families, their desire to return to Bikini being great enough to outweigh the alleged radiological dangers, moved back to Bikini Island and into the newly constructed cement houses. They were accompanied by approximately 50 Marshallese workers who were involved in the construction and maintenance of the buildings.
The population of islanders on Bikini slowly increased over the years until in June of 1975, during regular monitoring of Bikini, radiological tests discovered "higher levels of radioactivity than originally thought." U.S. Department of Interior officials stated that "Bikini appears to be hotter or questionable as to safety" and an additional report pointed out that some water wells on Bikini Island were also too contaminated with radioactivity for drinking. A couple of months later the AEC, on review of the scientists' data, decided that the local foods grown on Bikini Island, i.e., pandanus, breadfruit and coconut crabs, were also too radioactive for human consumption. Medical tests of urine samples from the 100 people living on Bikini detected the presence of low levels of plutonium 239 and 240. Robert Conard of Brookhaven Laboratories commented that these readings "are probably not radiologically significant."
In October of 1975, after contemplating these new, terrifying and confusing reports on the radiological condition of their atoll, the Bikinians filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court demanding that a complete scientific survey of Bikini and the northern Marshalls be conducted. The lawsuit stated that the U.S. had used highly sophisticated and technical radiation detection equipment at Enewetak Atoll, but had refused to employ it at Bikini. The result of the lawsuit was to convince the U.S. to agree to conduct an aerial radiological survey of the northern Marshalls in December of 1975. Unfortunately, more than three years of bureaucratic squabbles between the U.S. Departments of State, Interior and Energy over costs and responsibility for the survey, delayed any action on its implementation. The Bikinians, unaware of the severity of the radiological danger, remained on their contaminated islands.
While waiting for the radiological survey to be conducted, further discoveries of these radiological dangers were made. In May of 1977 the level of radioactive strontium-90 in the well water on Bikini Island was found to exceed the U.S. maximum allowed limits. A month later a Department of Energy study stated that "All living patterns involving Bikini Island exceed Federal [radiation] guidelines for thirty year population doses." Later in the same year, a group of U.S. scientists, while on Bikini, recorded an 11-fold increase in the cesium-137 body burdens of the more than 100 people residing on the island. Alarmed by these numbers, the DOE told the people living on Bikini to eat only one coconut per day and began to ship in food for consumption.
In April of 1978 medical examinations performed by U.S. physicians revealed radiation levels in many of the now 139 people on Bikini to be well above the U.S. maximum permissible level. The very next month U.S. Interior Department officials described the 75% increase in radioactive cesium 137 as "incredible." The Interior Department then announced plans to move the people from Bikini "within 75 to 90 days," and so in September of 1978, Trust Territory officials arrived on Bikini to once again evacuate the people who were living on the atoll. An ironic footnote to the situation is that the long awaited northern Marshalls radiological survey, forced by the 1975 lawsuit brought by the Bikinians against the U.S. government, finally began only after the people were again relocated from Bikini.
** According to a Defense Nuclear Agency report on the Bravo blast, the weather briefing the day before the detonation stated that there would be "no significant fallout...for the populated Marshalls." Later, at 6 p.m., however, "the predicted winds were less favorable; nevertheless, the decision to shoot was reaffirmed, but with another review of the winds scheduled for midnight." The midnight briefing "indicated less favorable winds at 10,000 to 25,000-foot levels." Winds at 20,000 feet "were headed for Rongelap to the east," and "it was recognized that both Bikini and Eneman islands would probably be contaminated."
Martin and Rowland, Castle Series, 1954, supra