I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they ask, ‘Where is that?’
When I mention Bikini, their reference is the swimsuit. Few seem aware that the bikini was named after the nuclear explosions that destroyed life on Bikini atoll; its Paris designer hoped his ‘unique creation’ would ‘cause an explosion right round the world’. Sixty-seven nuclear bombs – each of them massive – were exploded in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958: the equivalent of more than one Hiroshima every day for 12 years.
As my aircraft banked low over Bikini lagoon, the emerald water beneath me disappeared into a vast black hole, a deathly void. This is the crater left by the 1954 Hydrogen bomb known as Bravo. When I stepped out of the plane, my shoes registered ‘unsafe’ on a Geiger counter. Palm trees stood in unworldly formations. There were no birds.
I trekked through the jungle to the bunker where, at 6.45 on the morning of 1 March 1954, the button was pushed on the most powerful force on earth. That morning, the sun had risen; then it rose again as apocalypse. Now claimed by the undergrowth, the concrete bunker is like a capsule to modern times. There are cartons of Milkmaid powered milk, packets of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a sign that is beyond irony: ‘Please leave this property as you find it. Thank you for kindness and understanding.’
The explosion vaporized an entire island, its fall-out spreading over a vast area. There was a ‘miscalculation’, according to the official history; the wind ‘changed suddenly’. These were the first of many lies, as declassified documents and the victims’ testimony have since revealed.
Gene Curbow, a meteorologist assigned to monitor the test site, said, ‘They knew where the radioactive fall-out was going to go. Even on the day of the shot, they still had an opportunity to evacuate people, but [people] were not evacuated; I was not evacuated… The United States needed some guinea pigs to study what the effects of radiation would do.’
The secret of the Marshall Islands was Project 4.1. Official files describe a scientific programme that began as a study of mice and became a study of human beings exposed to the radiation of a nuclear weapon. Most of the women I interviewed had suffered from thyroid cancer; many in their communities did not survive.
The US Navy returned the population of Rongelap atoll, which is downwind of Bikini, even though the food was unsafe to eat and the water unsafe to drink. As a result, reported Greenpeace – which eventually sent a ship to rescue them – ‘a high proportion of their children suffered from genetic effects’.
Most of the women I interviewed had suffered from thyroid cancer; many in their communities did not survive
Archive film refers to them as ‘amenable savages’. A US Atomic Energy Agency official boasts that Rongelap is ‘by far the most contaminated place on earth’, adding, ‘It will be interesting to get a measure of human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.’
Holding a photograph of herself as a child, with terrible facial burns and most of her hair missing, Nerje Joseph told me, ‘We were bathing at the well. White dust started falling from the sky. I reached to catch the powder. We used it as soap to wash our hair. A few days later, my hair started falling out.’
Lemoyo Abon said, ‘Some people were in agony. Others had diarrhoea. We were terrified. We thought it must be the end of the world.’
Human radiation experiments
As a nine-year-old, Tony de Brum witnessed the Bravo bomb. He became foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an indefatigable voice demanding justice for his people. Clutching the evidence, he stood up at the United Nations in 2005 and said, ‘United States government documents clearly demonstrate that its scientists conducted human radiation experiments with Marshallese citizens. Some of our people were injected with or were coerced to drink fluids laced with radiation. Other experiments involved the resettling of people on islands highly contaminated to study how human beings absorbed radiation from the food and environment.’
The Marshall Islands were, until 1986, a Trust Territory administered by the United States with a legal obligation to ‘protect the inhabitants against the loss of their land and resources’ and to ‘protect their health and well-being’. In 2004, the US Cancer Institute reported to Congress that future Marshallese generations were likely to contract 530 cancers.
The US relinquished direct control of the islands only after the Marshallese had agreed to accept a mere $150 million as compensation for their suffering and to allow the huge US base on Kwajalein atoll, with its ‘mission to combat communist China’ and known as the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Facility.
Commanding the Pacific all the way to Asia and China, the base continues to subject the islanders to the testing of weapons of mass destruction. Missiles are launched at night, or fired into the lagoon from California. Following each ‘shot’, islanders fall sick with a ‘mystery illness’. The Environmental Protection Agency says fish in the bay cannot be eaten; fish was once the staple. The cost of firing one missile is $100 million, or two-thirds of the compensation paid to the islanders.
My plane touched down on Kwajalein next to the base golf course. I was directed to a ‘holding pen’ and told to ‘listen up’. There was a large TV screen showing the US Air Force channel, and the weather across America’s military empire. In Guantánamo, the concentration camp, it was ‘fair and warm, expecting a pleasant change’.
I took a boat across the bay to Ebeye island, where many of the workers on the base live. At the end of each day, having mowed the lawns, swept the jogging track, watered the golf course and waited tables in the Pizza Hut, they are ferried back to their poverty.
Missiles are launched at night, or fired into the lagoon from California. Following each ‘shot’, islanders fall sick with a ‘mystery illness’
Ebeye is a slum of refugees from all over the Marshalls. Some 12,000 people live on a strip of land less than a mile long. The rubbish tip is the highest point on the island. White gravestones with black crosses are lapped by the ocean, as if the dead are trying to escape. There is dengue, tuberculosis, polio, the highest rate of diabetes in the world and a reported case of leprosy.
On the day I left, the Marshall Islands Journal reported that a missile test was planned that week, though ‘it may not work’ and people should not go near the ‘debris impact area’.
In 2014, President Obama announced that the US was ‘creating the world’s largest marine reserve in the Pacific, banning fishing and other commercial activities across pristine sea dotted with coral atolls’.
In fact, as part of Obama’s military build-up in the Pacific, known as the ‘pivot to Asia’, the US has taken control of nine million square miles of ocean – an area double the size of the mainland United States. Under cover of a marine reserve, a ‘marine range complex’ will be run by the Pentagon, with torpedoes, underwater mines and numerous other detonations. Bikini was just the beginning.