Nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll

jendrikJendrik Leviticus, Maritha’s grandfather, was twelve years old in 1946.  He lived on Bikini Atoll in the northern Marshall Islands.  In his lifetime, the Japanese had controlled the islands, but just recently the Americans had “liberated” the Marshallese.

The Americans had a new toy that they’d used on the Japanese a couple of times, but they wanted to find out more about its capabilities.  They knew it was dangerous, and they figured that Bikini Atoll was about as far away from anywhere else as could be imagined, so they went to the Bikinians.

For the good of mankind, they said, we wanted to test our bombs at Bikini Atoll.  Could we?  Please?  What could King Juda and the Bikinians say?  The Americans had just destroyed the Japanese, who until then, had been the masters of the universe.  The lagoon was full of battleships.  They agreed, and the Navy moved them to the nearest atoll to the southeast, Rongerik.

The Navy assembled a fleet of obsolete ships in the Bikini Lagoon, and exploded the Abel and Baker blasts in 1946.  From Rongerik, the mushroom cloud could be seen.

I asked Jendrik if he remembered seeing those explosions, which he did.  I asked him what they looked like.

He thought for a moment.

“They looked like a bomb,” he said, gesturing a mushroom shape with his hands.  Ask a silly question…

Ultimately, 23 nuclear bombs were tested there, culminating in a Hydrogen blast that vaporized three islands in 1954.  The Americans had a pretty good idea by that time that they had no business blowing those things off.

Meanwhile, the Bikinians were starving on Rongerik.  It was uninhabited for a reason.  It didn’t have the resources of Bikini to support the population of nearly 200 people.

By accident mostly, the Navy rediscovered the Bikinians and moved them to Kwajelein, where there’s a U.S. Airbase even today.  For two years they lived in tents next to the airstrip living of commodity food until the Navy moved them finally to Kili Island.

Kili is about 1/3 sq. mi. in land area, and unlike the rest of the Marshalls, is not an atoll and does not have a lagoon.  An atoll is a ring of long, thin islands and reefs that circle a lagoon.  The lagoon is calm and safe and is where the Marshallese traditionally fished.  Without a lagoon, the Bikinians on Kili would always be dependent on U.S. commodities.

Somehow the Bikinians survived into the 1970s.  At that time, a few savvy elders figured that the U.S. government owed them something.  Seven old Bikinian men journeyed to Washington with very little knowledge or experience of how things worked in that city, but somehow they got the U.S. to agree to establish a trust.  An account of this heroic trip, and much more about the Bikinian’s story (what you just read is extremely condensed) is available in Jack Niedenthal’s book, For the Good of Mankind. For a taste of the book, read Jack’s 1997 Newsweek interview or this review by a fellow former Peace Corps volunteer.


Today Jack administers this trust for the people of Bikini.  Maritha and I met with him at his office in Majuro.  He gave us a copy of the book, and also two videos:  Radio Bikini and Bikini: Forbidden Paradise There are currently almost 3000 Bikinians who in various ways receive some support from this trust fund.  Maritha is one of them, and Jack has been fantastic to work with and an invaluable resource to us over the years.  Though we only met him once, we consider him a friend.

After a premature attempt to repopulate Bikini in the 1970s, about 100 people had to be relocated a second time.  Recently Bikini has finally been determined “safe” again, as long as people don’t eat the local food, so a few Bikinians have returned.

Of course it can never be the same.  Most Bikinians, like Maritha, have never seen it, and have little interest in moving out to the boondocks where the only excitement is entertaining the divers who come to swim the wrecks of the Saratoga and the Nagato.

Most Bikinians live either on Kili or on Majuro, like Jendrik, or scattered throughout the world, like Maritha.


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