We all know that America conducted nuclear bomb testing during the Cold War, somewhere out there, far away from us. Whatever damage was done has probably been healed by now, right?
The above picture of a beautiful paradise island, listed as one of the top diving sites in the world, may seem idyllic but it’s actually the setting of a much darker reality, a devastating story of an island cruelly stolen from its people and plagued by nuclear testing that went very, very wrong.
A large crater/ sink-hole left by the blast of an American nuclear test H-bomb
America’s Radiation Victims
For over 2,000 years, a peaceful and close-knit community of indigenous people lived on the remote paradise islet Bikini Atoll, part of the Micronesian islands of the Pacific Ocean. After World War II, the United States Army approached the 167 islanders to ask if they would be willing to leave their island temporarily so that the United States could begin testing atomic bombs “for the good of man kind and to end all wars”. Having been occupied before by the Japanese during both world wars, the passive, non-combative community yielded easily and trusted in the words of their latest visitors.
The evacuation process of the Bikinians began in 1946 and as the residents obediently packed up their lives, they watched as 242 navals ships, 156 aircrafts, 25,000 radiation recording equipment, over 5,000 animals for radioactive experimentation and thousands of U.S military and civilian personnel invaded their home.
Between 1946 and 1958, twenty-three nuclear devices were detonated at Bikini Atoll, one being the largest nuclear explosion ever set-off by the United States, more powerful than Nagasaki or Hiroshima.
One of the earlier atomic bombs set off on Bikini Atoll
The magnitude of the explosion detonated in 1954, sending millions of tons of sand, coral, plant and sea life high into the sky, was completely underestimated by the U.S and the aftermath was scandalous.
American VIP spectators were allowed to watch the nuclear spectacle from a safe distance as if it were Hollywood entertainment.
H bomb detonated in 1954 with effects three times more powerful than anticipated.
Vice Admiral William Blandy, his wife and Rear Admiral Frank Lowry in Washington D.C, celebrating the atomic tests on the Bikini Atoll in 1946. Blandy was in command of the testing.
Several islands 100 miles or so from Bikini that had never been warned or evacuated and unaccounted for in the blast radius, woke up to find layers of radioactive dust 2 inches deep falling everywhere, instantly contaminating their drinking water. Unaware of what was happening, children played in the ash and by nightfall the islands were in a terrified panic as the signs of exposure began to show; loss of hair, severe vomiting and diarrhea. It took two days before the U.S government came to provide medical treatment for the islanders and to evacuate them.
A nearby Japanese fishing vessel and its 23 fishermen were also exposed to the grey ash within hours of the blast, unaware that it was the aftermath of a hydrogen bomb test. The effects of the radiation resulted in sever illness and painful deaths. The incident inspired the cult film, Godzilla.
Now laden with deep craters and sink holes from the blasts, despite what the Bikinians had been led to believe, their home would never again be safe to live on.
Abandoned growing fields on Bikini Atoll (c) KYODO news
Their blundered relocation had left them starving on various other islands with inadequate food and water supply. Plagued by malnutrition and mysterious illnesses, their heartbreaking struggle to go home continued for decades while the U.S government did the bare minimum to provide handouts, moving them back and forth from islands like refugees living in temporary camps.
In an unbelievable turn of events, the Bikinians were allowed to return to their island in the 1970s after the Atomic Energy Commission declared the island ‘virtually free of radiation’ and informed the islanders that the well water and locally grown food posed no threat to their health.
An abandoned Bikinian home built for their resettlement in the 1970s
It took scientsits eight years after the re-settlement before they discovered and eventually confirmed to the residents living there that the island had ‘higher levels of radiation than originally anticipated’.
Initially the residents were given mixed messages and told to just stop eating certain local produce as it was contaminated from the poisonous soil. But tests soon led to the discovery that the 139 Bikinians living on the island already showed alarmingly high radiation levels, well above the maximum permissible level.
Once again, the devastated Bikinians were evacuated from their home. Bikini Atoll remains abandoned today, resembling an eerie paradise version of the Chernobyl disaster.
One elder of the island spoke of the ordeal:
We were so heartbroken that we didn’t know what to do. But our islands were now again being declared poison. The Americans were telling us that we had to leave. We had to follow what they were saying because we really felt that we had no choice. If they say it is not safe to live there, we have to go, even though we hated departing from the islands where we had come to know peace and quiet for the first time in many years. We even asked them if we could stay on Eneu island and we formulated a plan among ourselves where we were going to try to live by the airport, but they said we would have to wait until they knew more about the poison before we could remain anywhere on Bikini Atoll. And so we followed their wishes because we knew we shouldn’t go against what the Americans say. We were sad, but we didn’t want to make a problem for the Americans. If they say move, we move.
A large majority of Bikinians now live on the tiny island of Kili, quite some distance from their home and receive some compensation from American government for their survival.
Their new tiny island, bottom left, Killi Island
Another Bikinian spoke of the American customs adopted as a result of their island being selected for nuclear testing:
Now everything we do in our day to day lives involves competition. If you are not educated, you will be one of the poorest of people; if you have a car, and somebody wants to use it, they have to pay rent before they can drive off in it. This is the American way of life, and now we, the Bikinian people, fully understand how this works… The phenomena greatly disturbs some of our elders who remember what our lives were like on Bikini.
To this day, Bikini Atoll is still deemed completely uninhabitable by the AEC, although it is safe to walk on the island. The residual radioactivity on the islet however, is still the higher than on any of the other surrounding atolls in the Marshall Islands and the main radiation risk would be from the food: eating locally grown produce, such as fruit, could add significant radioactivity to the body.
The dangers of the radioactivity and limited services in the area led to divers staying away from one of the most remarkable potential scuba diving sites in the Pacific for many years. Today, the dive spot, which provides Bikinians with some much-needed tourism income, has been popular amongst adventurous divers since 1996.
The lagoon contains a larger amount of sea life than usual including sharks due to the lack of fishing and the sunken naval ships from the nuclear testing increase the fascination with the spot.
Since their initial exodus at the hand of the U.S government in 1946, the people of Bikini Atoll have been made many promises but very few have been honored over time. The growth and preservation of this defenceless and peaceful civilization was uprooted and deemed insignificant for the benefit of the most destructive of causes. The countless blunders that followed at the expense of the Bikinian people can only be described as an embarrassing stain on American history.
1946 Nuclear Test on Bikini Atoll:
1954 Nuclear H-bomb test on Bikini Atoll:
Ironically, the islanders and the descendants of islanders have adopted the American flag to represent their home, linking themselves to the United States due to their belief that the United States owes them a significant debt. The flag includes several key geographic elements representing their sadness over the loss of home.
The twenty three stars represent the twenty three islands of the atoll. The three black stars at the top right represent the three islands which were physically altered by the bomb blast.
The text, MEN OTEMJEJ REJ ILO BEIN ANIJ, translates to “Everything is in the hands of God.” It is the response Juda, leader of the Binkini islanders, said to Admiral Ben Wyatt when he asked the islanders to allow the United States to use the island for the “betterment of mankind.”
Images via David A. (scans of slides that he took as a Peace Corps Volunteer, 1975-1977), Jan Kocian and via Bikini Atoll History