The Unspoken History of the Marshall Islands
The Devastating Legacy of Nuclear Testing in the RMI
Under US trusteeship agreement of July 3, 1947, Committee on Foreign Relations, the American government had pledged to:
“promote the social advancement of the inhabitants, and to this end shall protect the rights and fundamental freedoms of all elements of the population without discrimination; protect the health of the inhabitants . . .“
“There are only ninety thousand people there. Who gives a damn?”
Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor, 1969
No-one is quite sure when the very first people arrived in the archipelago of the Marshall Islands, a broad swath of 29 coral atolls and five islands, strewn over 750,000 sq. miles, but artifacts found on Bikini Atoll by Charles F. Streck, an archeologist with US Army Corps of Engineers, were carbon dated and found to be about 4000 years old. Other sites on Bikini and Eneu date back to 1000BC. It is thought that waves of explorers set out from Southeastern Asia during the second millennium BC and that they may have used traditional ‘stick charts’ to navigate from island to island. These stick charts are literally maps of the sea, indicating ocean swells and the direction of permanent currents as well as any islands, usually indicated by attaching a small cowry shell. A skilled navigator would be able to navigate hundreds of miles using these maps.
A traditional Marshallese stick chart
Coral atolls are miraculous natural formations, successive, layered colonies of coral, built up over millennia, on the rims of extinct volcanoes. This is why they usually form a mishappen ring; a string of pearls in the deep, deep blue. They’re found scattered throughout the most geologically active regions of the world, especially the Western reaches of the Pacific.
Our story revolves around two of the Marshall Island’s atolls. One, Bikini, would become synonymous with the Atom bomb and inspire the creation of the bathing suit of the same name. The other, lesser-known of the two, is Enewetak which was to suffer even greater indignities than her sister atoll during the years between 1948 and 1958, the years of nuclear testing on the atoll. Enewetak means “The Island which points to the East’. The lagoon measures about 388 sq. miles, girdled by a slender, broken ring of small islands affording just 2.75 square miles of dry land. Many of the forty or so islands have never been inhabited. Storms have an inordinate effect on the islands, changing the location and size of sandbars in a dynamic way. The poor water-retaining quality of the coral allows for very few viable food crops. Coconuts, breadfruit, and pandanus, able to sustain themselves in porous soil and sand, are the staples. Beyond the atoll, other than the few sparsely scattered islands of the Carolines, there is only open ocean, until one makes landfall on Papua New Guinea, 1700 miles to the West.
Regardless of the time of the settlement of Enewetak, two things are certain. It is isolated, and once the ancestors of the current population were in place, they had relatively little contact with any of the other atolls. As a consequence, the Enewetak language and culture became quite distinct, and the people did not identify themselves as ‘Marshallese’ at all. Instead, they thought of themselves as separate and unique, “the people of Enewetak Atoll”, as opposed to members of an archipelago. According to their own lore, ‘we have been here from the beginning’. They have no concept of any existence before they arrived on the atoll. Land for the Marshallese is precious but not in a monetary sense; it is regarded as the physical framework for both a material realm that supports and sustains life, as well as spiritual realm that endows happiness, meaning and social cohesion to their lives. We will see shortly what happens when a terrible event destroys the foundation of that framework.
Little is known of the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands until the arrival of Álvaro de Saavedra, the Spanish conquistador, and cousin of Hernando Cortes, on board his ship, La Florida, in 1529. He had set sail from Zihuatanejo in New Spain on November 1st, 1527, looking for the survivors of the lost Loaisa Expedition. De Saavedra records the sighting of Utirik atoll on December 29th and Rongelap on January 1st, 1528. February 3rd sees de Saavedra anchored at a small island off the coast of Mindanao. This marks the first crossing of the Pacific from the Americas in recorded history and took de Saavedra 95 days, having sailed 1923 leagues or a little under 6000 miles.
De Saavedra tried twice to return to New Spain but was turned back by unfavorable winds both times. On September 21st, 1529, during his second attempt, he sights Ujelang atoll in the Marshalls, which they call Los Pintados (Painted Ones) since the islanders are all tattooed in traditional patterns. October 1st sees da Saavedra at Enewetak which they name The Gardens since this atoll is, at this point, lush with vegetation and the inhabitants are so friendly. da Saavedra will die shortly after this encounter, it is thought, from scurvy. The rest of his crew are captured by the Portuguese in the Moluccas and held for five years. Only eight of his crew will ever see Spain again.
The British naval captains John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert partially explored the Marshalls in 1788, en route to Botany Bay. They are formally claimed by Spain in 1874.
Following intervention by the Vatican and payment of $4.5 million Spain recognizes Germany’s claim to the Marshall Islands. The Spanish/American war of 1898 left Spain unable to administer its far-flung empire, necessitating the sale. Germany exploits the burgeoning trade in copra or dried coconut meal, which is a staple of the Marshallese diet. Local Iroij (high chiefs) maintain control under German administration.
Communal fishing, Likiep Atoll, RMI
In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, the Marshall Islands are captured by the Imperial Japanese Navy. At first, the Marshall Islands are largely left to their own devices though Japan does administer them as if they were a part of the wider Japanese empire, excluding outside influence where possible. In 1920, the League of Nations cedes the islands to Japan under the South Pacific Mandate. In the buildup to World War Two, Japan begins to build fortifications on Kwajalein and other atolls. The atoll will become the primary base for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The islands of Mili, Jaluit, Maloelap, Wotje and Kwajalein are also developed into bases, forming a North-South line of defense in the Marshalls. Japan sees the atolls as stationary aircraft carriers.
The RMI manages to survive relatively unscathed through much of the war in the Pacific, until January 31st, 1944 that is. It is on this day that US forces land on Kwajalein in an effort to force Japan out of Micronesia. Five Japanese troops on Bikini commit suicide rather than submit to capture. Enewetak also sees fierce fighting but falls on February 23rd, marking the end of Japanese occupation in the Marshalls but 18 islanders are killed during this battle. They had scattered throughout the atoll in order to avoid the violence. It is one of a series of falling dominoes as allied forces slowly force Japan back toward its homeland.
US troops on Enewetak August 6, 1945 marks the first ever use of atomic weapons as the US drops Little Boy on Hiroshima.
September 2, 1945 is the day of the formal Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
February 6, 1946, just five months after the destruction of Hiroshima, the US survey ship, Sumpter, arrives at Bikini atoll, and, without any prior warning, begins dynamiting gaping holes in the atoll wall. There is no consultation with the local people beforehand. It foreshadows darker events to come. The inhabitants of Bikini are persuaded, many say under duress, to cede their homeland while the US conducts tests for its new atomic weapons that it does not wish to use on American soil. In what can only be described as a bald-faced lie, they are told that they will be able to return to Bikini in due time and carry on life as though nothing had happened.
Wyatt addresses King Juda
“An American came to Bikini. He said he was the most powerful man in the world. He said he wanted to drop a bomb on Bikini. He said America wanted to use Bikini and that we would have to leave.”
“It is difficult for me to express how sad I was as we were leaving. We looked back and saw them burning all of our houses.They burned everything. Even the outriggers we had to leave behind. As we left, a great sadness came over us. We were so sad that nobody ate anything as they moved us from Bikini to the Island of Rongerik.”
“All I know is what they told us at the time. They needed to drop the bomb on Bikini to see what would happen in case there was another world war. They said they needed to do this to keep all the ‘other’ nations under control. This is why they dropped the bomb on my island.”
“They came and gave us pictures of the bomb. Of course, back then I had no idea what an atomic bomb was. None of us had any idea what it was or that it would do such harm to our island…There is nothing in my life I want more than to go home to Bikini.The reason I can’t go back is because the Americans tell me there is ‘poison’ there. I don’t understand this but that is what the Americans say. This [Rongerik] is not my island. I want to go back to my paradise where God intended us to be. I am asking America to take us home. I want to go back to my island to live out my final days.” Kilon Bauno
The tests begin in July with two weapons, Able and Baker, within Operation Crossroads, inside the Bikini lagoon. The next twelve years will see 65 more blasts on Bikini and Enewetak, contaminating both atolls with extreme amounts of highly radioactive isotopes for generations. These remote atolls become what is euphemistically called the Pacific Proving Grounds.
“As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn’t been touched by the war and blew it to hell.”
Bob Hope commenting on Operation Crossroads
This photo of the Baker shot will become one of the most iconic images of the atomic era.
In 1947 the RMI becomes one of six entrants into the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) established by the United Nations with the U.S. as the Trustee. Since the trusteeship was not granted to the US for a full year after its occupation, it would appear that Operation Crossroads was entirely illegal.
Having resettled the Bikinian people on an uninhabited atoll called Rongerik, with a few weeks worth of food and water, the US seems to simply forget about them. From December of 1946 through January of 1947, the food shortages there remain unaddressed; the small population of Bikinians was confronted with near starvation, yet they are not finally evacuated for another year. They are eventually moved, temporarily, to Kwajalein. This is just the beginning of a nightmarish, nomadic existence for the Bikinians. They would end up on another barren, lifeless rock called Kili.
This was the only strategic trust ever created by the United Nations. According to the text of this agreement, the U.S. committed itself to this directive: “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…”.
Of course, none of this has actually happened, despite many millions of dollars funneled into the Marshall Islands since the end of the tests. Much of the money went to the secret study of the many radiologically derived diseases the people accrued after the testing and toward the building of a huge new base on Kwajalein. In hindsight, those words have a clanging, ironic ring. The United States has found a way to violate so many treaties and ignore almost every international agreement it has ever made, a trait that continues to this day.
On March 1, 1954, the US unleashed the most powerful explosion in history on an unsuspecting world. The Castle Bravo shot on Bikini atoll, instantly vaporized three small islands, turning them into a fine ‘snow’ which fell, hours later, on Rongelap atoll to which the Bikinian people had just been relocated. The snow, as much as 2″ deep, is actually massively irradiated, granular coral calcium. Not knowing what it is, many children played in it, rubbed it on themselves and even ate it. One old man, thinking it might cure an infection he has, rubbed it in his eyes. The ash also fell into the open rainwater catchments for drinking water on the island, turning it bright yellow.
John Anjain speaks of that morning that will so profoundly affect the rest of his life and that of everyone who was on Rongelap, including his son Lekoj, just one at the time of the test, who would die of leukemia at age 19. Bear in mind, when reading his statement, Bikini is 115 miles from Rongelap;
‘Early in the morning of March 1st, 1954, sometime around five or six o’colock, American planes dropped a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. Shortly before this happened, I had awakened and stepped out of my house. Once outside, I looked around and saw Billiet Edmond making coffee near his house. I walked up and stood next to him. The two of us talked about going fishing later in the morning. After only a few minutes had passed we saw a light to the west of Rongelap Atoll. When this light reached Rongelap we saw many beautiful colors. I expect the reason that people didn’t go inside their houses right away was because the yellow, green, pink, red and blue colors which they saw were such a beautiful sight before their eyes.
The second thing that happened involved the gust of wind that came from the explosion. The wind was so hot and strong that some people who were outside staggered, including Billiet and I. Even some windows fell as a result of the wind.
The third thing that happened concerned the smoke-cloud which we saw from the bomb blast. The smoke rose quickly to the clouds and as it reached them we heard a sound louder than thunder. When people heard this deafening clap some of the women and children fled to the woods.
Later some men went fishing, including myself. Around nine or ten o’clock I took my throw net and left to go fishing near Jabwon. As I walked along the beach I looked at the sky and saw it was like white smoke; nevertheless, I kept on going. When I reached Jabwon, or even a little before, I began to feel a fine powder falling all over my body and into my eyes. I felt it but didn’t know what it was.
I went ahead with my fishing and caught enough fish with my throw-net to fill a bag. Then I went to the woods to pick some coconuts. I came back to the beach and sat on a rock to drink the coconuts and eat some raw fish. As I was sitting and eating, the powder began to fall harder. I looked out and saw that the coconuts had changed color. By now all the trees were white as well as my entire body. I gazed up at the sky but couldn’t see the clouds because it was so misty. I didn’t believe this was dangerous. I only knew that powder was falling. I was somewhat afraid nevertheless.’ Lekoj Anjain being treated for thyroid cancer. He would die shortly after this photo was taken.
Many believe the “accident” was anything but. Both manned and radio-controlled, were in the air specifically to monitor wind speed and direction and to gather air samples. It was clear, at the time, that the wind was blowing precisely in the direction that would worst affect the people on Rongelap and Uterik. Dr, Alvin Graves, scientific director in charge of operations for the Bravo shot called for the go ahead anyway. Upon reading all the evidence, it’s hard not to believe that the test was timed precisely in order to inflict maximum damage on these people.
The lie behind the US’s assertion that the wind direction had changed at the last moment would come crashing to Earth in a 1982 New York Times interview with Gene Curbow, the senior technician monitoring weather conditions on Rongerik. Speaking with columnist Judith Miller, Curbow stated, ”The wind had been blowing straight at us for days before the test. It was blowing straight at us during the test, and straight at us after it. The wind never shifted.” Curbow had been taking radio-sound weather measurements up to an altitude of 100,000 feet before and after the test. In the event, the islanders are severely poisoned by a toxic soup of heavy isotopes and fall desperately sick almost immediately, with extreme nausea, skin burns, diarrhea and falling hair.
The day after the test, two American men arrived, carrying a strange machine that made rapid clicking sounds; they looked very worried, looked at the water catchments and then, after just ten minutes, they left without saying a word. Even realizing that these people were in desperate need, they are not evacuated until a full 48 hours has elapsed. Most of this group will fall victim to thyroid cancer in the years to come. The same applies to the people of Uterik, three hundred miles downwind of the test who had to wait a further 24 hours to be rescued.
A young boy on caught in the fallout of Bravo
The weapon is so powerful, at 15 megatons, that it contaminates 28 atolls over an area of about 750,000 square miles, essentially the entire republic, according to the US’s own classified survey of 1955. Further testing at Bikini can only be conducted from barges in the lagoon because the land is so utterly poisoned. Fallout from this test will later be found as far afield as Australia and even Europe, on the other side of the planet. A Japanese tuna boat, the Lucky Dragon #5, was caught just outside the exclusion zone and got the worst of all the fallout, being covered in radioactive ash for over three hours before escaping and heading back to Japan, albeit with a very sick crew. The radio operator would die of his injuries some months later, the first recognized victim of an H-bomb. Hindsight being 20/20, it is now starkly obvious that coral atolls are the very worst environment for open-air, high-yield nuclear weapons tests.
The total accumulated fallout from all the tests has been calculated at a staggering 3000 times that of the Chernobyl disaster, plus all that released from the Hanford Reservation and Three Mile Island…combined. It dwarfs any recognized radiological release by orders of magnitude. In 1998, staff from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a comparison study to compare the amount of radioactive Iodine-131 at four different sites, measured in curies. The CDC team reported its finding that the atmospheric release of curies of Iodine-131 at the Hanford nuclear processing plant in Washington State was 739,000 curies. Hanford is one of the worst Superfund sites in the country. It was shut down in 1987 but tanks at the site, holding both liquid and solid nuclear waste, have been leaking for decades. Birth defects such as anencephaly have spiked in an area centered on Hanford in recent years bang in the middle of the towns of Yakima, Benton, and Franklin. At Chernobyl, the release was 40 million curies. At the Nevada bomb test site, the total is calculated to have been 150 million curies and its now widely accepted that those tests were responsible for widespread cancer spikes in small towns in southwest Utah, places like Enterprise, Cedar City and Parowan. Thousands of local sheep sickened and died.
In the Marshall Islands, the total was close to 8.0 billion curies, more that 30 times as much radiation as the other three sites combined. Bear in mind, just a 1,000 curies will produce serious health effects in a direct exposure of just a few minutes.
Any hard and fast figures from US authorities on the prevalence of cancer and other, lingering effects of the tests are very hard to come by without trawling through arcane government databases that are difficult to decipher unless you are an epidemiologist. This is partially due to a rash of very suspicious fires that destroyed much of the medical data gathered on the islanders in two widely separated locations, one in Majuro and one in Japan. Ask yourself, in whose best interest would that be? One has to rely on testimony from the islanders themselves, at the Hague, the UN and elsewhere, to fully understand the scope of their suffering.
The forty years after 1946 would see the populations of Bikini and Enewetak atolls moved repeatedly in order to make way for the tests and then later, in response to the contamination those tests would leave in their wake. Incredibly, until the people began to fall seriously ill, little thought was even given to the clean-up of the islands. It was only admitted in the mid-1980’s that the food system was still hopelessly contaminated and remains so even now. The traditional Marshallese diet of crab meat, pandanus, breadfruit and copra (coconut meal) are all inedible. Crabs are bottom feeders and since much of the radiation fetched up in the sediment at the bottom of the lagoons, the crabs became repositories for huge amounts of radioactivity. Local vegetation, including crops, soaked up groundwater within the atoll walls, which also proved to be a source of a great deal of radioactivity. This forced the people to rely entirely on the importation of canned goods from the US and elsewhere. Unaccustomed to this form of diet, the Marshallese people rapidly developed diabetes, amongst the highest rates anywhere in the world and, without dialysis or insulin treatment facilities on the islands, limb amputations have become shockingly commonplace. This may well be seen as ‘blowback’, the unforeseen consequences of a military campaign that had absolutely nothing to do with the innocent, those most affected.
Moved from Rongerik to Kwajalein, the islanders rapidly realize they are not being treated so much as studied, that the doctors from the National Naval Medical Center and, later Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), were more interested in watching them and the effects of the radiation in their bodies, than making them well. All the research into contamination and sickness, which was all under a 42-year study mounted by Brookhaven, remained secret and deep suspicions arose as a result. Meanwhile, they continued to suffer from radiologically-related diseases, especially thyroid cancer, stillbirths, retardation, stunted growth and severely deformed fetuses, all unknown before the tests. In these years they begin to believe they are being treated as guinea pigs and, indeed some 20 years later, a secret program called Project 4.1 comes to light, which shows, categorically, that these people were being kept in place in order to observe the effects of long-term exposure to a highly radioactive environment. The full title of the project is the ‘Study of Response of Human Beings Exposed to Significant Beta and Gamma Radiation Due to Fallout from High Yield Weapons’. Little wonder it was hidden for so long. While they were being actively studied for cancers, uptake of nucleotides from the environment and deformities, no program was ever mounted to actually treat them. If treatment was, in part, the intent, wouldn’t the AEC have imported radiological treatment equipment or a chemotherapy lab? None of this happens. There are still no such medical facilities in the Marshall Islands to this day. The inference is that the islanders didn’t warrant the outlay. The AEC spared no expense in irradiating the islands for generations to come but suddenly became fiscally prudent when treating the aftereffects. Project 4.1 would culminate in the now infamous Green Book, written by Eugene Cronkite of the National Naval Medical Center.
Cronkite will stress, “The project is classified SECRET RESTRICTED DATA. Due to possible adverse public reaction, you will specifically instruct all personnel in this project to be particularly careful not to discuss the purpose of this project and its background or findings with any except those who have specific need to know”.
In a related incident, Merrill Eisenbud stated during a 1956 AEC meeting in New York, “Now, data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live the way westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”
Each subject in the Brookhaven 4.1 study was represented by a huge medical file of which there were copies at Brookhaven Medical Laboratories on Long Island, at RMI public health offices in Majuro and also in an embassy in Japan. Incredibly, when the RMI began pressing its legal claims to restitutions, a mysterious rash of fires broke out in locked safes and file cabinets both in Majuro and in Japan, destroying much of the needed documentation. Somebody clearly didn’t want them seeing the light of day. The AEC never did provide complete copies of these files despite repeated requests. Photos taken of the many deformed fetuses have been virtually impossible to find. It was at about this time that a disinformation campaign sprang up in Majuro, financed by the AEC, telling the islanders that birth defects were a fact of nature and were in no way related to radiation in the environment. They trotted out the same tactic in and around Nevada.
In 1956 John Anjain had a meeting with Department of Energy officials who told him it was time for he and his people to return to Rongelap. He asks if the atoll is still contaminated. He is told that it is but that it is not dangerous so, the following year they did return on the assurance of the DoE that there would be no problems. In 1958 and 1959, the birth defects began.
After they returned to Rongelap, the islanders were visited annually and later bi-annually by US government scientists and doctors conducting follow-up studies to Project 4.1. They collected samples from the environment and the islander’s bodies so that they could track the movement of the isotopes through the food chain and the human body but again, no treatment was offered. Stunningly, no connection was ever elucidated to the people, between the cancers they were suffering and the still contaminated Rongelapese food system. Reports by US Atomic Energy Commission researchers contracted between 1946 and 1961 to monitor radiation levels in marine and terrestrial life in the northern central Pacific were not collated, nor linked to human exposure to radiation. None of the findings explicitly acknowledged human exposure through the food chain. No explanation has ever been forthcoming from Brookhaven, the DoE or anyone else about this oversight. These people were simply left in a poisonous environment and watched for 28 years while they got sicker and sicker until they pleaded for rescue from Greenpeace. In 1985 Greenpeace dramatically rescued the inhabitants of Rongelap aboard the now-fabled Rainbow Warrior, and transported them to Kwajalein, much to the disgust of US authorities; they’d just lost their guinea pigs. This happens without any assistance from the US government.
Victims of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki became medical subjects of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission during the American occupation of Japan after World War Two. We would have to wait for declassified documents to reveal what appears to be this precursor to the Project 4.1 study, established in Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bombing there, overseen by US doctors, who would simultaneously suppress any results attributing any negative effects of the bombings. Not only did these subjects receive no information about the results of their tests but the US government provided no treatment. Benjamin Spock would later comment on this program:
‘Our government set up a massive study of the Japanese victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the data was kept secret, and it was later used in a way that brought charges of manipulation and deliberate suppression of the dangers of radiation. Now, nearly four decades later, it has become clear that radiation released was ten times more dangerous than anyone believed possible, not just to those killed at the time, but to the “survivors” as well.’
This has emerged as a pattern wherever radiological poisoning of a population from nuclear weapons or power stations were concerned. The government authorities, particularly the AEC, would trot out statistics that bore up their assertion that there simply wasn’t enough radiation in the environment to produce cancer. This is a brazen half-truth, completely ignoring the prevalence of alpha particles, the deadliest of them all, lingering in the environment long after the other radiation had dissipated. These particles cannot penetrate skin or clothing but when lodged inside a lung or migrating to the bone marrow, will destroy a body, slowly, from the inside. Such was the case in Nagasaki, in the Marshall Islands, and at the Nevada Test Site. In what looks like an admission of guilt, Federal officials have refused to provide detailed records of the cleanup vet’s time in Japan for study. It took nine years after exposure to the 1954 Bravo fallout for the first thyroid tumor and hypothyroidism to occur in an exposed Utrik woman from the Iodine-131. At the time, it was stated that Uterik had not received a significant amount of fallout. Radioactive Iodine-129, has a half-life of 15 million years and a well-documented capacity to accumulate in the foodchain, so will also remain a persistent problem for all the affected islanders and anyone caught in a fallout zone.
July, 1994 – U.S. Representatives George Miller and Ron de Lugo write to Dr. Ruth Faden, chairperson of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: “…There is no doubt that the AEC intentionally returned (Marshallese) to islands which it considered to be “by far the most contaminated places in the world,’ but which it told the people were safe. Nor is there any doubt that the AEC, through the Brookhaven National Laboratory, then planned and conducted test after test on these people to study their bodies’ reaction to life in that contaminated environment. ”
The glaring realization that all that research produced was that, not only can exposures to radiation stimulate short term effects but that others could take decades to manifest and that, once they were in the system, could last for generations, genetic mutations passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. The AEC knew this and hid the research. When scientist and doctors in the States began protesting AEC secrecy they were branded as potential communists. The AEC had deemed anyone expendable under the auspices of the program, anyone in the Marshall Islands or downwind of the Nevada site. The AEC routinely suppressed fallout data that showed enormous increases in the number of leukemia and thyroid cancer cases resulting from the tests in Nevada, as far away as upstate New York. In the RMI, as in the US, the truly insidious character of the tests revealed itself slowly over decades as, like dominoes, the structural elements of this society that had lasted peacefully for thousands of years began to fall. The social and cultural fabric of an entire people was unraveling.
Lijon Eknilang was on Rongelap when the ‘snow’ fell.
“I cannot have children. I have had miscarriages on seven occasions. On one of those occasions, the child I miscarried was severely deformed – it had only one eye…Our culture and religion teaches us that reproductive abnormalities are a sign that women have been unfaithful. For this reason, many of my friends keep quiet about the strange births they have had. In privacy, they give birth, not to children as we like to think of them, but to things we could only describe as “octopuses,” “apples,” “turtles,” and other things in our experience. We do not have Marshallese words for these kinds of babies, because they were never born before the radiation came. Women on Rongelap, Likiek, Ailuk, and other atolls in the Marshall Islands have given birth to these “monster babies.” Many of these women are from atolls that foreign officials have told us were not affected by radiation. We know otherwise, because the health problems are similar to ours. One women on Likiep gave birth to a child with two heads. Her cat also gave birth to a kitten with two heads. There is a young girl on Ailuk today with no knees, three toes on each foot and a missing arm. The most common birth defects on Rongelap and nearby islands have been “jellyfish” babies. These babies are born with no bones in their bodies and with transparent skin. We can see their brains and hearts beating. The babies usually live for a day or two before they stop breathing. Many women die from abnormal pregnancies, and those who survive give birth to what looks like purple grapes that we quickly bury.”
‘I was pregnant when they dropped the bomb. I was flown off Rongelap with the other pregnant women and elderly people. The rest of the people left on the boat. I gave birth to Robert on Ejit, and he was normal. The child I had after Robert, when we had to return to Rongelap, I gave birth to something that was like grapes. I felt like I was going to die from loss of blood. My vision was gone, and I was fading in and out of consciousness. They emergency evacuated me to Kwajalein, and I was sure I was going to die. After the grapes, I had a third child. It wasn’t like a child at all. It had no bones and was all skin. When I gave birth they said, “Ak ta men en?” [What is that thing?] It was the first strange child that people had seen. I was the first.’
Lijon Eknilang again, as she talks of their unwilling departure from their homelands:
“It was very difficult for us, especially for old people. Three of them disappeared with grief into their huts and never came out again, until they died. It is our homeland. Where we belong to. It is our memory of our dead, the souls of our ancestors live there. Our land is everything to us, and it has been destroyed by the U.S. government. But we had to think about the future for our children. We would not want them to get all the diseases we are suffering from now.”
Cervical cancer is a staggering 60 times more prevalent for Marshallese women than for those in the US, Hepatitis B and liver cancer, 30 times. Average life expectancy for many is a truly dismal 40 years. The crushing sadness that some communities have suffered through and the horrific diseases resulting from the tests aftermath, have led them to this mind-numbing choice; oblivion, to stop procreating altogether, to make themselves extinct, to disappear from the face of the Earth.
What do you do when your ancestor’s grave is too radioactive to visit?
In the end, the raw yield of all the nuclear explosions in the Marshalls would be 93 times that of all the atmospheric tests in Nevada. Of all the tests conducted, both on the atolls and in the Nevada desert, all the most powerful weapons, bound to spread the most contaminants, were reserved for the atolls. However you regard the tests, it’s impossible to ignore the racial overtones. A small, and yes, unworldly populace, easily manipulated and moved around at will, the islanders were even referred to as “happy, amenable savages” in a cringe-worthy government newsreel prior to the Bravo test. Overlying everything is an incredible hubris from the US military and the AEC, that the Marshall Islanders were just a speed bump on the road to progress.
Since the end of testing in 1958, the Marshallese people have been fighting for reparations, for the destruction of their homelands and the lingering effects that the testing left behind. Those people who were able left the Marshalls entirely, to live in either Hawaii or the US mainland. Adding insult to injury, the US still operates a missile and radar base on Kwajalein. The lagoon serves as a juicy target for unarmed ICBM’s launched from Vandenburg Airforce Base in California, 5000 miles away. The base is seen as strategically essential, enabling the US to keep wary eyes on North Korea and China which is flexing its muscle in the region. In 1986, the Compact of Free Association is signed by the US and RMI government. It’s a hideously one-sided treaty, reflecting the enormous disparity in global clout and allowing the US enormous authority over the affairs of a nation in which it is ostensibly a guest. The Compact is ‘free’ in that the US is free to ignore any of its terms. With little leverage available and dependent on the US for funding, the islands were outgunned in signing a lease for Kwajalein, ensuring the base will stay, almost in perpetuity, regardless of the ‘independence’ of the islands themselves. When the US asserts that it has poured millions of dollars into the welfare of the Marshallese people, it fails to mention that much of that money was actually spent on its own vested interests, missile defense, nuclear and medical research and had very little direct benefit to the RMI itself.
And just to ensure that imbalance has legs, the Americans embedded a little-noticed caveat into the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that would allow them the right to unilaterally resume nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, this despite assurances it might have given to the contrary during the Compact negotiations. Here’s that same lack of honesty that marks so many agreements where the US is a signatory. “Safeguard C,” as the provision is known, also calls for the readiness, and presumably destruction of, Johnston Atoll and Kauai, as well as Enewetak under the auspices of the DOE’s Pacific Area Support Office based in Honolulu.
As recently as 2012 the US was strenuously arguing in a UN general session that they bore no responsibility for the horrific deformities and other illnesses the Rongelapese people had suffered in the years since 1954. They were purely incidental to the testing and fallout. That hearing, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, featured a plea for justice from Abacca Anjain-Madisson, who was on Rongelap when the Bravo test irradiated the atoll. She spoke of the pain and deep stigmatization of the women who had had such severely malformed fetuses and of the continued suffering of the cancer survivors. She also spoke of thinly veiled threats from the US in 2006 when the people were told they must return to Rongelap or risk losing their resettlement funds, this despite the fact that just 200 of the total 1557 acreage of Rongelap had been remediated. The rest was still uninhabitable. In a statement that defies all common sense, the US disagreed with a number of assertions of human rights law within the Special Rapporteur’s report, or that there is a continuing obligation by the international community to encourage a “final and just resolution” of the issue. In other words, they were washing their hands of any responsibility.
Eroding islands in Majuro
The testing on Enewetak between 1948 and 1958 left the entire atoll contaminated with Uranium 239, Iodine 131, Cesium 137, Strontium 90, and a host of other deadly isotopes, usually in the form of an extremely fine dust, much finer than sand, the clean-up vets said; easily breathed in, tracked back on your clothes and feet to where you lived. Cesium 137 is perhaps the worst contaminant, the most cancerous and has a half-life of 33 years. Iodine 131 will fetch up in the thyroid, causing cancer there while strontium 90 will head for the bone marrow and create havoc from there as this is where red blood cells are made. Strontium, with a 50-year half-life, will cause leukemia, cancer of the bone and other blood-related maladies.
Edward Teller, one of the creators of the very same weapons tested in the Marshalls was also the principal designer of the Reagan-era Star Wars program, which sought to render Russian ICBMs useless by shooting interceptor missiles at them, ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet’ as he described it. It was a hopeless boondoggle which produced just one, highly rigged interception and was eventually shelved, having cost upwards of $100 billion. Some put the total figure at twice that. A good deal of that money went into the base at Kwajalein as it housed part of the missile tracking radar system. Today the lagoon at Kwajalein, the largest in the world, serves as a target for missiles fired from Vandenburg AF base in California. Each test is purported to cost upwards of $100,000,000. On the other hand, the Marshallese people have had to pry open the unwilling fist of the US treasury in order to get recompense totaling just $150 million for the destruction of its entire way of life.
In an ironic, almost unnoticed footnote to history, Teller addresses the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Tulsa on December 6, 1957. Why is this significant? Teller is something of a superstar, certainly to those on the right, and openly imagines scenarios for all-out nuclear war with Russia. He was the keynote speaker on Friday and his subject was to be ‘Nuclear Energy Sources of the Future’ so everyone assembled was somewhat bemused when Teller instead began discussing carbon dioxide and global warming. Presciently, Teller had calculated that increased levels of CO2 would eventually lead to heating of the atmosphere, melting the ice caps and the flooding all coastal cities, worldwide. It’s one of the first public acknowledgments that human activity was having profound effects on the environment. You can debate Teller’s ethics as the creator of weapons of mass destruction but, he has proven to be only too prescient on this subject.
Many believe that Teller was, in part, the inspiration for the character Dr. Strangelove in the Kubrick film of the same name. That film’s subtitle was ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.
The mission for the cleanup vets who began arriving in 1977, was to scrape up the debris, sand and top soil from the most contaminated islands and bring it all, by boat or truck, to Runit where the 350 ft Cactus bomb crater was waiting to be filled. The spoils were mixed with cement to stabilize them and placed in the crater. An outer, retaining wall was placed around the outside of the crater. And then a dome comprising 357 18″ thick concrete panels was erected over it.
That dome was supposed to last a thousand years, but when it was built no-one, other than Edward Teller and perhaps a few others, had even the vaguest comprehension of global warming or rising sea levels. The dome already has water inside it, we know this. Again, in hindsight, it was beyond idiotic to put a vault full of highly radioactive substances on a coral atoll a few feet above sea level. In order to save time and money, and again, it has to be said, little to no regard for the local people, the facility was made without any form of lining to prevent water entering and exiting and it just so happens, coral is extremely porous. Enewetak is, on average, 6 ft above sea level. Waves do sometimes lap at the base of the dome at high tide already and cracks are beginning to appear in the dome. The fear is that a direct hit from a typhoon would tear the dome off completely and empty the contents, 110,000 cu. yds of raw plutonium and highly radioactive sand all over the Western Pacific. Cactus has already been penetrated by local people desperate for cash, looking for scrap metal to sell. One can only imagine how deplorable one’s prospects must be in order to dig your way into a highly radioactive vault, just so that you can put some food on the table. Metal has been tracked to the Far East that came from inside the dome. Its radioactive signature tells us so.
However you look at the post-war years in the Marshall Islands it’s impossible to look at US actions, even employing the most charitable language, as anything short of depraved indifference and, at worst, genocidal. They employed the same doctrine in Japan, days after destroying two cities, immediately settling down to study the suffering they had wrought; pulling the wings off butterflies. And then again in Nevada, trying to evade all responsibility for the massive increases in cancer rates for hundreds of miles around the test site. When thousands of sheep started dropping dead downwind, they blamed the farmers for poor livestock management. One such incidence is disturbing enough. Twice shows real intent. More, and you’re beginning to sense a really disturbing other reality, one in which you get the sense that, if you’re digging for the truth, you just may be the enemy. Where do you draw your evil line? For me, it was crossed and crossed gain, so many times in the RMI. The US has a deeply troubling history of experimenting on its own populace – or anyone else – when a perceived need arose, and it has, often. One can cite the government sponsored, 40-year Tuskegee experiment which left hundreds of African Americans with deliberately untreated syphilis and only came to an end in 1972 because someone blew the whistle. The groundbreaking book by Eileen Welsome, The Plutonium Files, is every bit as gruesome and, in some respects, even more disturbing. The people involved, doctors and scientists, knew what they were doing and somehow managed to excuse themselves.
So, I’ve looked at the protestations of innocence from the US government and its defenders and totally reject them; there is nowhere to hide from the recorded history. There is a huge disconnect between what the government purports to be reality and the actual truth. It’s all there in black and white. The powers that be were secure enough in the belief that we would be too lazy to seek out the documents that were declassified in the 1990’s. But many were not, Barbara Rose Johnson foremost among them. From the beginning of the nuclear program, anyone and everyone was expendable. Period. Islanders, airforce, army, navy, scientists, US civilians, any amount of land, all eminently disposable. One has to question whether any ‘democracy’ that sees a significant portion of its populace as kindling for a nuclear weapons program is even worth saving.
The Marshall Islands are suffering a slow, premature death. They are sinking inexorably below the waves. Long before that happens the groundwater will no longer be drinkable due to the encroachment of the sea. They have maybe seven years left, they reckon. Between 1999 and 2011, one fifth of the population left for the US, permissible through the right of free association but that road too will soon be closed off as the pact ends in 2023. In nine months of 2014, the capital Majuro was swamped by 15 ft swells on three separate occasions, something that used to happen just once in a generation. Along with the Maldives, the Marshall Islands are among the most threatened islands on Earth. It’s supremely unlikely that anything will halt the relentless rising seas but, even so, the people long to remain in the land of their ancestors – ‘where we belong to’. But those lands are also poisoned. So, many islanders have chosen not to have children, fully aware that this will mean the end of their families, but the alternative is the severe trauma and stigma of having a child that’s not even recognizable as a human being.
The UN Mission visiting Majuro in 1978. The sign reads: “Please release us from the bondage of your trusteeship agreement.”
I have drawn some material from a studiously referenced book called Killing Our Own, by Harvey Wasserman & Norman Solomon, Delta Press 1982. It’s essential reading if you want a clear idea of just how evil the American government truly is. (ISBN 0-440-54566-6)
There is no synonym for ‘enemy’ in the Marshallese language.