It was the dawn of the Atomic Age and the U.S. government could not have chosen a more pristine place for its deadly experiments. The paradise islands of Bikini Atoll were the designated test site for no less than 23 nuclear detonations. Moreover, decades later, the fallout continues…
Located in a remote stretch of Pacific Ocean, Bikini Atoll encircles a turquoise lagoon with 23 tiny islets. Politically, it forms part of the Marshall Islands – an independent island nation since 1979. Previously under Japanese control, the atoll fell under U.S. dominion during the Second World War.
Paradise was lost in December 1945. As political tensions between East and West intensified, U.S. President Harry S. Truman pronounced the urgent need “to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships.” Remote and geographically isolated, Bikini Atoll seemed like the perfect location for such a test. But there was one small problem: the atoll was inhabited.
The 167 indigenous Bikinians living on the atoll were part of an ancient Marshallese culture. Bound by clans and ruled by monarchs, the Bikinians were skilled boat designers and seafarers, their daily lives grounded in fishing and copra cultivation. Marshallese culture might be summed up by the single word: “Yokwe,” which means both “hello” and “goodbye” as well as “love.”
“[For] the good of mankind and to end all wars,” was how Commodore Ben Wyatt, the U.S. governor of the Marshall Islands, pitched Truman’s plans to the Bikinians in February 1946. With the understanding that the relocation of his people would be temporary, King Juda, the ruler of the Bikini Atoll, told the Americans, “We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God.”
The United States dispatched 242 ships and 156 aircraft to the atoll. Meanwhile, thousands of animals – including rats, pigs and goats – were also brought there for experimentation, along with no less than 25,000 radiation recording devices. And, over the years, some 42,000 military and civilian personnel assisted or witnessed the tests first hand. The Bikinians, meanwhile, were destined for other shores.
By March 1946, the Bikinians were shipped out to Rongerik Atoll – which for all appearances looked to be just a much smaller version of Bikini, only 150 miles east. However, the new arrivals were the only humans there, and they soon discovered why it wasn’t already inhabited. What sparse coconut trees Rongerik had didn’t yield much fruit, and neither did the atoll’s other vegetation. Worse, the fish in the small lagoon fed on toxic algae.
Meanwhile, back on Bikini, with the islanders safely dispatched out of the way, the U.S. government launched “Operation Crossroads.” The program ultimately tested the impact of two bombs, each of which had an explosive force equivalent to 23 kilotons of TNT. Individually, these yields were greater than those of the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, in 1945. And to observe the Crossroads bombs’ effects on American warships, some 78 vessels were left anchored in the lagoon.
The first of the tests, “Able,” began on July 1, 1946, with a bomb that the flight crew in charge of dropping it had nicknamed “Gilda” after the eponymous femme fatale in that summer’s hit movie. While the bomb detonated 500 feet above sea level, it was off target by more than 2,000 feet, and yet still the blast sank five ships and damaged 14 others.
With the second test – “Baker,” on July 25 – the bomb nicknamed “Helen of Bikini” was detonated 90 feet underwater and resulted in a massive tidal wave that ultimately sank ten ships and left the rest of the target fleet heavily contaminated with radioactive sea spray. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the publicity of the bomb tests supplied the name for a new line of attention-grabbing swimwear: the “bikini.”
On Rongerik Atoll, however, the situation for the Bikinians – who now numbered 184 – was dire. “We’d get up in the morning to go to our canoes and fall over because we were so ill,” said one islander, whose testimony was recorded by Leonard Mason, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii. Subsequently, in March 1948, after nearly two years of forsaking their needs, the U.S. government relocated the Bikinians to Kwajalein atoll, the military command center for Operation Crossroads.
For the next six months, the Bikinians lived in tents next to the same runway used in the operations that ultimately devastated their home. Then, finally, in November 1948, they moved to the small island of Kili – though the tiny strip of land had even less food options than Rongerik. And with no atoll lagoon, the islanders traditional fishing practices were obsolete. Now the Bikinians became completely reliant on imported food supplies.
Back on Bikini, the U.S. Government was still dealing with the decontamination issues from the Baker test. However, it wasn’t long before plans were in the works for “Operation Castle” – arguably the most destructive and terrifying nuclear experiment to date. The first of the new operation’s tests was code named “Castle Bravo.” And when, on March 1, 1954, the hydrogen bomb detonated on Bikini Atoll, it yielded a phenomenal 15 megatons – a force that dwarfed the power of the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, its explosive yield was a thousand times greater than that of either of those devastating weapons.
In fact, the blast was so powerful that it utterly destroyed three islands in the atoll, ejected millions of tons of sand, coral and water into the sky and left a crater one mile wide and 200 feet deep. What’s more, the enormity of the blast yield coupled with unusual easterly wind shear on the day of the test – both of which were unaccounted for or dismissed in the decision to detonate – resulted in a radioactive plume drifting for miles around the world and white ash falling like snow on Bikini’s inhabited neighboring atolls and surrounding Pacific ocean. Tragically, moreover, children played in the fallout.
By nightfall, the atoll residents of Rongelap began to show symptoms of radiation poisoning, including vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and hair loss. Yes, in what is considered the worst radioactive contamination accident in U.S. history, thousands of individuals were exposed to the fallout. Even the military personnel involved in the test had to be airlifted to safety.
Nonetheless, the U.S. government proceeded to detonate another twenty, though smaller, nuclear bombs on Bikini, concluding their tests in 1958. A decade later, the Bikinians – now numbering 540 – were given permission to return to their atoll. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” announced the Atomic Energy Commission.
During the early 1970s, around 100 Bikinians resettled to their ancestral homeland. However, by September 1978 researchers identified high levels of radioactive Cesium-137 in the islanders’ blood. Hence, though it was safe to walk on the atoll reefs and eat the fish from the lagoon, the water in the wells, soil and fruit trees – despite the latter having been replanted – remained contaminated. Bikini was therefore evacuated once again.
Many Bikinians continue to feel a sense of loss, however. “As a result of being displaced we’ve lost our cultural heritage – our traditional customs and skills, which for thousands of years were passed down from generation to generation,” Bikini councilwoman Lani Kramer told the Guardian.
In compensation, the U.S. government set up trust funds and has since paid out at least $150 million to the islanders. But in 2001 the Marshall Islands nuclear claims tribunal successfully argued that the islanders should receive at least $500 million more. Apparently, however, the islanders’ efforts to get the U.S. Court of Appeals and even the U.S. Supreme Court involved to force the U.S. Congress to fund the settlement have failed.
In a bid to ground the atoll in productive activity, the area was opened to visitors in 1996. Currently, a maximum of 11 tourists are allowed to visit the atoll per week, and much of the surrounding reef has recovered since the nuclear tests and is filled with vibrant marine life. More than this, the offshore wrecks, which include the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, are nothing short of phenomenal for diving. And in 2010 UNESCO named the Bikini Atoll one of its World Heritage Sites.
Will Bikini ever be habitable, though? A report from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory suggests that the levels of radioactivity on the islands continue to drop. However, unemployment on the Marshall Islands is hovering at 40 percent, while job prospects in the United States are considerably better. Hence, it is doubtful that the younger generation of Bikinians, now compromising a scattered population of around 3,000 people, will want to live in a homeland they’ve never known.