Able – July 1st, 1946 (23 kilotons) – airdrop
Baker – July 25th, 1946 (23 kilotons) – sub-surface suspension
Charlie – March 1st, 1947 (23 kilotons) – sub-surface suspension – canceled
Location : Bikini Atoll Lagoon
Bikini Atoll has a lagoon 240 square miles in area but a land area totaling less than 3.5 square miles. ‘Bikini’ means ‘the place of coconuts’.
The date is February 6th, 1946. The Second World War is finally over. MacArthur had accepted the unconditional surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri the previous September. The inhabitants of the Marshall Islands had every reason to believe that their remaining days would be as peaceful as those before the war so profoundly upended their existence. They had survived, relatively unscathed, through much of the period between the world wars. Even the Japanese occupation was relatively benign, as they left the islanders to fend for themselves. Then Japan entered the war and began militarizing the land it had acquired under the South Pacific Mandate. This included a base on Kwajalein from which they mounted the attack on Pearl Harbour.
MacArthur accepting Japan’s surrender
It was not until late 1943 that the US slammed into the archipelago of the Marshalls, attempting to dislodge the Japanese forces dug in there. This they achieve in a little over two months. The fighting moves on to other islands, inching closer and closer to Japan itself. A sense of relief sweeps over the islands. Their traditional, bucolic way of life is finally returning, until February 6th, 1946, that is. On this date, the US survey ship Sumner arrives at Bikini atoll and, without any prior consultation with the inhabitants, begins dynamiting gaping holes in the coral wall. It’s a sign of things to come.
Since the Trinity test in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the US had been searching for sites to continue their atomic weapons testing. The first series of tests aimed to see how these new weapons performed against potential enemy navies, to assemble a flotilla of ships and sink them. When they came across the atolls of Bikini and, later, Enewetak during intense fighting with Japanese forces there, the US realized it had found nearly perfect locations for the tests. Frighteningly, the Galapagos Islands (now a World Heritage site) were also on a list of potential locations with the same requisites; calm, relatively shallow waters, predictable wind patterns and with minimal populations that could easily be relocated. The following article describes the reasoning behind the selection of Bikini and, later Enewetak, for the tests:
‘The search for a site for the test operation had been started even before the task force was created. The specifications set out by the planners called for selection of a site within the control of the United States, uninhabited or subject to evacuation without imposing unnecessary hardship on large numbers of inhabitants, within 1,000 miles of the nearest B-29 aircraft base (in expectation that one atomic device would be delivered by air), free from storms and extreme cold, and offering a protected anchorage at least six miles in diameter and thus large enough to accommodate both the large fleet of target vessels and the additional vessels that would have to be used in support of the operation. Also required were enough distance from cities or concentrations of population, winds predictably uniform from sea level to 60,000 feet, and predictable water currents not adjacent to inhabited shorelines, shipping lanes, or fishing areas—all in recognition of the need to reduce or eliminate the possibility of radioactive contamination of the fleets or inhabited areas. Three Sites in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Pacific were reviewed. In the Pacific were little islands set in great reaches of an otherwise empty ocean and enjoying the warm and stable climate of the trade-wind zone. In the Marshalls, so recently captured from the Japanese, were coral atolls that had been little disturbed by the war, that were inhabited only by small communities of Micronesians, and over which an interim control was exercised by the United States through the Navy Military Government. Among these was Bikini Atoll. Bikini fulfilled all the conditions of climate and isolation. It was distant, 2,500 miles west-southwest of Honolulu, 4,500 miles by air from San Francisco, but it also was accessible to the military support facilities that still existed at Kwajalein Atoll, to the southeast, and at Eniwetok, to the west. Its inhabitants, who then numbered 162, could be moved to another atoll during the period of the tests.’ Enewetak Radiological Support Project, Dept of Energy. September 1982
Wyatt addressing the Bikinian people
The islanders are told that their islands are needed for testing a new type of weapon that is intended to “end all wars” and that they were “for the good of all mankind”. Navy Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the US military governor for the Marshalls, attempts to reenact an earlier meeting with King Juda for a newsreel, a falsehood in which the islanders happily surrender their homeland to the testing. It doesn’t go as planned. The only statement Juda will allow is, “We are willing to go. Everything is in God’s hands”, hardly the endorsement Wyatt was looking for. It’s supremely unlikely that they were told that some of the islands they knew would no longer be in existence when the tests were over.
On March 7th, despite their deep misgivings, the islanders depart Bikini for another atoll called Rongerik, for the duration of the testing, based on Wyatt’s promise that they would be able to return soon and pick up their lives as though nothing had happened. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Rongerik was eminently unsuitable for sustainable living which is why it was uninhabited in the first place. It had little in the way of local food sources or fresh water. It was also believed by the Marshallese that the atoll was haunted by the Demon Girls of Ujae. So, the unhappy people are summarily dumped there with a few weeks supply of food and water and essentially forgotten about.
Back on Bikini, the next four months are spent in feverish preparation for Operation Crossroads. There were upwards of 42000 enlisted men involved, on shore or aboard some 200 ships. There were 150 planes in the air, to measure effects, take photographs and gather air samples. The test required the assembly of a huge fleet of 95 surplus and captured enemy ships and anchoring them inside Bikini lagoon as a target for the bombs. Included were four obsolete U.S. battleships, two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, eleven destroyers, eight submarines and numerous smaller auxiliary boats as well as a few captured German and Japanese battleships. Unimaginable now but live animals were lashed to the decks to be charred alive and studied later. These included 200 pigs, 204 goats, 5,000 rats, 200 mice and 60 guinea pigs. This causes its own measure of controversy among the animal rights groups operational at the time.
At this point, there are just 7 working atomic weapons in existence. Their manufacture is incredibly expensive so, every test is an event. Some 42,000 people were on hand to witness this first test. Numerous manned aircraft and radio-controlled drones were in the air to monitor wind speed, direction and to monitor the fallout post detonation.
Not lost on the US government was the profound psychological effects of atomic blasts on the observer, including the general public, and these were being carefully monitored. In what might be regarded as the first ’embedding’, journalists from the world’s major new outlets, photographers, and newsreel crews were brought to Bikini to observe Operation Crossroads in all its awe-inspiring glory. The event was as much a PR exercise as a weapons test. The idea was for the authorities to control the narratives these journalists turned in. All information about the blasts, excluding any mention of lasting radiological effects on plants, animals, and humans, was the sole province of the Pentagon. The onus was to be the awesome power of nuclear weaponry and it’s potential for good. It was only in the hands of the United States, not the Godless Communists. The bomb was depicted as a defensive weapon, purely for the protection of its own citizens and allies while inflicting enormous and deserved damage on the enemy. The first test, appropriately enough, was codenamed Able.
July 1st. Able, was an air-drop, from the B-29, Dave’s Dream. The bomb was of the same 23 kiloton Fat Man design as the one that destroyed Nagasaki but, as it fell, it drifted well wide of it’s intended target and did far less damage to the fleet than was expected. Only 5 ships sank. Fourteen were damaged. A lengthy investigation was mounted attempting to find out why the drop was so inaccurate. Nevertheless, it was calculated that anyone on the ships would have received a fatal dose of radiation regardless of whether they were on deck or well inside the ships. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stated “a large ship, about a mile away from the explosion, would escape sinking, but the crew would be killed by the deadly burst of radiations from the bomb, and only a ghost ship would remain, floating unattended in the vast waters of the ocean.”
July 25th. Baker test. This weapon is suspended in the lagoon, 90ft below a landing craft, LSM-60. It’s calculated that Baker lifted a 2 million ton column of water into the air also creating a supersonic hydraulic shockwave which instantly buckles the hulls of a number of the assembled ships and drenching all them. The test severely irradiates the target ships and, despite efforts to decontaminate them, no such procedures had been tested in advance to see if they would even work or to measure the potential risk to clean-up personnel. In the absence of any specialized decontamination protocol, the ships were cleaned using the same deck-scrubbing methods used almost daily in the navy: simple hoses, mops, and brushes, with water, soap, and lye. Sent onto the targeted vessels within days—sometimes merely a few hours—after the atom bomb explosions, they scoured the irradiated surfaces for weeks on end, at times living on the same ships. In what will become something of a theme in future testing, the sailors were never issued any protective clothing. There was still a great deal of misunderstanding, or indifference, about the lethality of radiation. It was also at this inopportune moment that it became obvious that Geiger counters cannot detect plutonium’s alpha radiation. Nor could the radiation badges worn by clean-up personnel. The ship’s evaporators for the crew’s drinking water also drew from the lagoon, water that was now intensely radioactive. Decontamination efforts come to an abrupt halt.
There was an element of political intrigue involved in the tests before they even began; several opposing forces were at play. Many former Los Alamos scientists were arguing against any further testing at all. In August 1945, Lewis Strauss, future chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had argued that a demonstration of the new weapons against ships was needed in order to prove the force’s eminent survivability. In opposition, senator Brien McMahon and others were intent on a demonstration of their own that would prove exactly the reverse, that large fleets were slow, cumbersome and, therefore inherently vulnerable to attack from the very same weapons. Vice Admiral William Blandy, deputy chief of naval operations and later head of the Army/Navy Joint Task Force One had one remit for Operation Crossroads; to prove that the navy was still relevant in the new atomic era, that ships could survive a nuclear attack, whereas aircraft and ground forces would be annihilated. The Army and Navy were locked in an unspoken, decades-long internecine war. The traditional roles of each service were blurring. The Army controlled the land, and air as, at this point, the airforce was still part of the Army, while the Navy ruled the seas. But with aircraft carriers coming into their own, the navy was stepping on Army turf. The Air Force saw themselves as the force of the future; the Navy was incapable of delivering these new weapons and were, therefore, largely irrelevant. Such was the view of characters like Brigadier General William Mitchell.
Baker test video: https://youtu.be/h8d78s-qtqc
McMahon complained to President Truman that the test was weighted in the Navy’s favor, a test that could well determine the very future of the force. He need not have worried, however. When both Crossroads devices failed to produce the expected level of destruction, Strauss and Blandy, both of whom had a great deal riding on the results, felt a measure of vindication. But it was short-lived. The failure of the decontamination effort and the Atomic Scientist’s report were both huge blows. Yes, the ships may not all have sunk but, with a dead crew, or ships that were too radioactive to ever go back into combat, they might as well have.
The USS Independence was one of the target vessels
A day after the Baker shot Frank F. Karasti and three other seamen were ordered aboard the destroyer USS Hughes to prevent it from sinking. Karasti was twenty-six years old at the time. “Out of the four hours we spent on her, two were spent vomiting and retching as we all became violently ill.” Like many Crossroads veterans, Karasti never forgot that drinking water came from the Bikini lagoon water. Lesions appeared on his lungs about a month after Baker and serious breathing problems evolved. Since 1948 he suffered from “uncontrollable hypertension.” As with many atomic vets, Karasti’s skin developed frequent, severe weeping sores. “My skin is deteriorating on my whole body and it is possible to wash off parts of it while bathing. . . . I have been aging ahead of my time and should I use any physical effort, I get ill for three days after.” Premature aging, severe nervous system, and breathing problems are often reported by vets who have spent any time in highly radioactive areas.
A third test, Charlie, which was to have been detonated in deep water outside the lagoon, as a potential anti-ship mine demonstration, was canceled as personnel needed for that test were wrapped up in the clean-up debacle from Baker.
In January 1947, visitors to Rongerik reported the islanders were suffering from severe malnutrition, facing potential starvation. To make things worse, in May of that year a huge fire destroyed much of the islands coconut grove, an essential element in the diets of the Marshallese people. Harold Ickes, a well-known columnist, reported that “these natives are actually and literally starving to death”. Once their situation came to light in the press, the US navy came under fierce criticism. But, once again, the Bikinian people fell foul of the military’s plans for the atolls as it pertained to the nuclear program and they languish almost another year on Rongerik, under deplorable conditions. Harold Mason, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii, traveled there to find the people emaciated and nearing death.
Finally, in March 1948 they were evacuated to Kwajalein, as a temporary measure and where they live in tents next to the airstrip. Clearly, they cannot stay there so they are moved yet again, onto another uninhabited island, Kili. Just one-third of a square mile in area, Kili has only one-sixth the land mass of Bikini but, most importantly, has no lagoon and no harbor. This left them unable to practice their centuries-old culture of lagoon fishing and they became entirely dependent on canned food shipments. As noted elsewhere, this will prove to be disastrous later as, unaccustomed to this type of diet, the Marshallese people fall victim to an epidemic of diabetes, the highest rates on Earth. With no insulin or dialysis facilities on any of the islands, amputations on the islands are shockingly frequent.
The Bikinians, unable to return home, are now scattered throughout the Marshall Islands or live abroad entirely. It is unlikely that they will ever see their home again. It remains highly contaminated to this day, despite Wyatt’s promise of 1946. Remediation trials came to naught, as it was found that extremely high levels of contamination remain both in the food system and groundwater. Much of the residual radiation has fetched up in the sediment at the bottom of each lagoon, regardless of which atoll.
Of the original 1946 inhabitants, just 25 remain alive as of last year.