Nuclear tragedy in the Marshall Islands

By Sally Clark | May 25, 2022

Crater left by the 1954 Castle Bravo nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll seen from space (Google, Maxar Technologies, Image Landsat / Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, US Navy, NGA, GEBCO).

We were innocent 21-year-olds entering an organization called the Peace Corps in 1969. We came from all over the United States, some wanting to dodge the draft, but most of us were embracing a desire to help others. We were thrilled looking out the window of Micronesia Air plane peering down at a beautiful atoll, a thin necklace of green trees and white sandy beaches, floating on the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. As we approached for landing, we buzzed first over the runway to clear all the trucks, pigs, cars, chickens, and people off the landing area. Then we landed, on the rough runway, the pilot forcing the plane into reverse to come to a stop, much to our relief, at the end of the concrete road in Majuro, looking across at the Pacific Ocean.

We stepped off the plane and into an extremely humid hot environment, where we received greetings by the Marshallese placing leis over our heads, so many leis that they were eventually stacked all the way to our chins. Young, naive Americans, we knew little about the area, other than, perhaps, fleeting thoughts that we might find the remains of Amelia Earhart or artifacts from her plane there.

Our naivete began to diminish when we were told the Atomic Energy Commission was coming to check out the health of the children and adults and of course to give out candy and show a dated movie. We asked questions and learned about the nuclear test over Bikini and the fallout coming down over a neighboring island, whose residents thought it was snow. We were told that the Marshallese ran outside, allowing the fallout to land on their skin, with some children putting it to their eyes. Luckily many residents sensed danger and ran to the ocean, saving themselves from a future road of at least some fallout ailments.

As we spent more time in the islands, little by little more detailed stories emerged—of still births, high cancer rates, and other radiation-related health issues. Islanders had been moved from Bikini before nuclear tests were conducted; some of the explosions were so great that one of the small islands simply vaporized, leaving a deep cavern. Many Marshallese had to endure being relocated from their blessed atoll to Kili, an island in the middle of the ocean with no lagoon.

The horrors of nuclear weapons testing

Over the years, more and more people spoke out about such atrocities and such disregard for the Marshallese, who were actually called “savages” by a US paper in the 50’s. My heart wept as I learned more information about the scope of nuclear testing in the Marshalls.

Between 1946 and 1958, the Marshall Islands region was the site of the testing of nuclear weapons equivalent to the explosive power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years—67 in all at the Bikini and Enewetak atolls—a fact that is impossible for me to comprehend.

A resolution is now in front of the Congress asking the United States to prioritize nuclear justice in its negotiations with the Marshall Islands on an extended Compact of Free Association between the countries. The resolution recognizes that the United States nuclear testing program and radioactive waste disposal, including not just contaminated debris from the Marshalls but also material transported from the Nevada Test Site, caused irreparable material and intangible harm to the people of the Marshall Islands. We believe this harm continues to this day. Within this resolution is a call for an apology for what the United States did to the Marshallese and to raise awareness about the need for more action to undo this harm. US Rep. Katie Porter of California and senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Edward Markey of Massachusetts are spearheading this effort, which would formally apologize for the US nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands and raise public awareness of the issue. Please write or call your representatives and senators, asking them to support House Joint Resolution 73 and Senate Joint Resolution 40.

To do or not to do: Pyongyang’s seventh nuclear test calculations

What happened in the islands is simply incomprehensible to me. The toll on the Marshallese and the environment is impossible for me to grasp. And I have another nagging thought: Why as Peace Corps volunteers were we not warned about the radioactive fallout and the social issues we were being dropped into? Of course, there’s the implication that we were being used as pawns to smooth the relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States and to continue to have the islanders as our friends for strategic reasons.

Who makes these decisions to drop bombs on such beautiful, pristine islands? Who sends 20-year-olds into a potentially radioactive area without warning them? When can we as a human race honor peoples around the world and get out of building weapons and gaining lands for strategic reasons? Please stop. I’m sad and weep and write letters asking for an apology. So sad. Where is our soul?

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Judy Kitt
Judy Kitt
2 years ago

Beautiful piece, Sally. Thank you for sharing your memories and your perspective, and thank you for the work you are doing toward raising awareness of this terrible history.

Lonnie Benson
Lonnie Benson
2 years ago

My father was stationed at Eniwetok from 66 to 70. His deployments were 3 months at a time. In the early 80”s he was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia. He lost a spleen but survived. He passed away a few years ago at age 86. The home pictures we have of the devastation can’t be forgotten. My heart goes out to the islanders.

Ahimsa Porter Sumchai MD

My name is Ahimsa Porter Sumchai,MD. I recently visited the Lawrence Livermore Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry as a guest of Dr. Terry Hamilton who heads the Marshall Islands Biomonitoring Program. I founded the Hunters Point Biomonitoring Program in 2019 and we are detecting radioactive and cancer causing heavy metals in residents and workers living within the one mile buffer zone of federal Superfund sites at the Hunters Point shipyard where an estimated 100 ships exposed to 23 kiloton fat man plutonium bombs were hauled back in 1946 for futile attempts at decontamination. I would like to offer the author… Read more »

Kathleen McCroskey
2 years ago

Yes, a truly sad story and a reminder of the cost of not defining the Limits to Progress. “Progress” must not include nuclear bombs, hypersonic missiles, 42,000 Low Earth Orbit satellites, continued use of fossil fuels, deep-earth drilling for thermal energy, and many more such travesties.

João Ribeiro
João Ribeiro
2 years ago

It makes me wander about the russian troops that occupied chernobyl in the begining of the invasion of ucrania. Are they “guinea pigs” to test exposure to radiation, equiment, …?

Jenny Agutter fan
Jenny Agutter fan
1 year ago

I read some more about the US’s sordid history in the Pacific islands. For example, Palau passed an anti-nuclear constitution in 1979, and the US unsuccessfully tried to have it overturned multiple times (and because the US wants to keep a military base there, there’s been numerous beatings and assassinations of anti-nuclear activists).