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BIKINI ATOLL : HISTORY

History of Bikini Atoll - An Introduction


Where is Bikini?

Bikini Atoll is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that compose the Marshall Islands. These atolls of the Marshalls are scattered over 357,000 square miles of a lonely part of the world located north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean. They help define a geographic area referred to as Micronesia.


Marshall Island History

Once the Marshalls were discovered by the outside world, first by the Spanish in the 1600's and then later by the Germans, they were used primarily as a source for producing copra oil from coconuts. The Bikini islanders maintained no substantial contacts with these early visitors because of Bikini Atoll's remote location in the very dry, northern Marshalls. The fertile atolls in the southern Marshalls were attractive to the traders because they could produce a much larger quantity of copra. This isolation created for the Bikinians a tightly integrated society bound together by close extended family association and tradition, where the amount of land you owned was a measure of your wealth.

In the early 1900's the Japanese began to administer the Marshall Islands. This domination later resulted in a military build up throughout the islands in anticipation of World War II. Bikini and the rest of these peaceful, low lying coral atolls in the Marshalls suddenly became strategic. The Bikini islanders' life of harmony drew to an abrupt close when the Japanese decided to build and maintain a watchtower on their island to guard against an American invasion of the Marshalls. Throughout the conflict the Bikini station served as an outpost for the Japanese military headquarters in the Marshall Islands, Kwajalein Atoll. In February of 1944, toward the end of the war, in a gruesome and terrifying bloody battle, the American forces captured Kwajalein Atoll and thereby effectively crushed the Japanese hold on the Marshall Islands. The five Japanese men left on Bikini, while hiding in a covered foxhole, killed themselves with a grenade before the American military forces could capture them.


Americas Decision to Use Bikini as a Bombing location

After the war, in December of 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to Army and Navy officials that joint testing of nuclear weapons would be necessary "to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships." Bikini, because of its location away from regular air and sea routes, was chosen to be the new nuclear proving ground for the United States government. 

In February of 1946 Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls, traveled to Bikini. On a Sunday after church, he assembled the Bikinians to ask if they would be willing to leave their atoll temporarily so that the United States could begin testing atomic bombs for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars." King Juda, then the leader of the Bikinian people, stood up after much confused and sorrowful deliberation among his people, and announced, "We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God."
While the 167 Bikinians were getting ready for their exodus, preparations for the U.S. nuclear testing program advanced rapidly. Some 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation recording devices and the Navy's 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs soon began to arrive for the tests. Over 42,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel were involved in the testing program at Bikini.
The nuclear legacy of the Bikinians began in March of 1946 when they were first removed from their islands in preparation for Operation Crossroads. The history of the Bikinian people from that day has been a story of their struggle to understand scientific concepts as they relate to their islands, as well as the day-to-day problems of finding food, raising families and maintaining their culture amidst the progression of events set in motion by the Cold War that have been for the most part out of their control.


Preparation of Operation Crossroads

In preparation for Operation Crossroads, the Bikinians were sent 125 miles eastward across the ocean on a U.S. Navy LST landing craft to Rongerik Atoll. The islands of Rongerik Atoll were uninhabited because, traditionally, the Marshallese people considered them to be unliveable due to their size (Rongerik is 1/6 the size of Bikini Atoll) and because they had an inadequate water and food supply. There was also a deep-rooted traditional belief that the atoll was inhabited by evil spirits. The Administration left the Bikinians food stores sufficient only for several weeks. The islanders soon discovered that the coconut trees and other local food crops produced very few fruits when compared to the yield of the trees on Bikini. As the food supply on Rongerik quickly ran out, the Bikinians began to suffer from starvation and fish poisoning due to the lack of edible fish in the lagoon. Within two months after their arrival they began to beg U.S. officials to move them back to Bikini.


In July, the Bikinian leader, Juda, traveled with a U.S. government delegation back to Bikini to view the results of the second atom bomb test of Operation Crossroads, code named Baker. Juda returned to Rongerik and told his people that the island was still intact, that the trees were still there, that Bikini looked the same.

© Pete Mesley's Lust4Rust and Shock&Awe Big Animal Diving - Auckland, New Zealand, 2103