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Bikini Atoll: History Unfolds from the Depths of the Ocean

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nuclear bomb test at bikini

By Selene Muldowney

Nineteen fifty seven gave rise to the original Japanese Kaiju, Godzilla: the creature who rose from the depths of the ocean. When the Japanese freighter Eiko-maru is destroyed near Odo Island, another ship, the Bingo-maruis sent to investigate and meets the same fate as the first. Fishing boats are destroyed, fishing catches mysteriously drop, and suddenly folklore concerning a giant sea monster emerges. Japanese scientists speculate this deep-sea monster may have awoken from his deep sleep from the hydrogen bomb testing. The research team determined a weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, capable of disintegrating oxygen atoms and killing organisms by asphyxiation, would destroy the monster. Although the plan to destroy Godzilla was successful, the researchers left us with a dire warning: further nuclear weapons testing may give rise to another Godzilla in the future.

The Bikini Atoll, birthplace of Godzilla, is a place where hazmat suits were once donned, and bikinis cast aside. While the name evokes tropical scenery, endless sandy beaches, and beautiful women dressed in tiny swimsuits, this is not the case.

Bikini Atoll is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that comprise the Marshall Islands. These atolls of the Marshalls are scattered over 357,000 square miles located north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This lonely part of the world is defined as Micronesia, first discovered by the Spanish in the 1600s and then later by the Germans. The Bikini Islanders maintained little to no contact with the outsiders because of the Bikini Atoll’s remote location in the northern Marshalls. The southern atolls were more attractive to the early visitors because of the fertile, lush topography. In the early 1900s, the Japanese began to administer the Marshall Islands and after a bloody and gruesome war in 1944, the Bikini Islanders’ life of harmony drew to a close as the American forces crushed the Japanese forces, taking control of the islands.

After the war ended in December of 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to Army and Navy officials to begin testing atomic weapons to determine the effects of airborne and underwater nuclear explosions on ships, equipment, and materials. A fleet of 95 surplus and captured ships were used as targets, including the Saratoga, the Arkansas, and the Japanese battleship Nagato. In March of 1946, the residents of Bikini Atoll were forcibly relocated in preparation for Operation Crossroads, and over the next 12 years, the United States delivered and detonated a total of 23 atomic and hydrogen bombs on this tiny slice of paradise, rendering it uninhabitable to this date.

The Bikini Atoll, a chain of 23 islands with inviting sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and a turquoise lagoon, present an idyllic beach paradise and a startling paradox for the nuclear age. It is an incredible feat of nature that this natural wonder in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, once rocked violently by nuclear bomb blasts, appears so beautiful and abundant almost 70 years later. From the air, Bikini is an inviting paradise with lush green grasses and unchecked vegetation, the coral reef has regrown, and the lagoon is crystalline. Few homes remain in standing condition, providing the unsuspecting traveler a glimpse of what was once civilization on this now deserted island. From the air, her secrets are intact.

Much like radiation, the impacts of World War II, the Cold War, and the continued nuclear arms race linger. When the United States government persuaded the residents to leave their homes they were promised they would be able to return as soon as the testing ended. It has been more than half a centurysince Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls asked the Bikinians to leave their atoll for the “good of mankind and to end all world wars”.

From the time of their exile in 1946 to present, the Bikinians struggled to cope with their new existence. They were transported from atoll to atoll, likened to the Biblical exodus of the Israelites struggling for survival. While they hoped for relief from their struggles, their once beautiful paradise was in the process of being destroyed. Operation Castle began in January of 1954: a series of tests that would include the first air-deliverable and the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever detonated by the United States – its code name was Bravo. As the sun rose across the horizon on March 1, 1954, Bravo was detonated on the surface of the reef in the northwestern corner of Bikini Atoll. Coral, sand, plant, and marine life were obliterated. A fireball of intense heat shot toward the sky at 300 miles per hour. Within minutes a grotesque plume of ash filled with nuclear debris, shot upwards toward the sky generating winds hundreds of miles an hour. The gusts stripped the island of life – peeling each branch and vegetation from the soil. Shortly thereafter, a white snow-like ash fell on everything including the Rongelap and Ailinginae Atolls, located 125 miles east of Bikini. A total of 84 people living on the islands, including children who played in the fallout, became the casualties for this massive explosion. That night the children fell ill to radiation poisoning and were moved to Kwajalein Atoll.

Bravo was a thousand times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the end of World War II. One and a half hours after the 15-megaton blast, 23 members of a Japanese fishing boat, the Fukuryu-maru (Lucky Dragon), were also contaminated as they watched in awe the white ash fall on them. These men had no idea they would become part of a scandal that rocked their nation. This explosion eventually became the inspiration for the original movie Godzilla.

After 23 detonations, the nuclear testing on Bikini ended in 1958, although it wasn’t until the early 1970s the residents would be able to return to their once fertile home. This homecoming celebration was cut short, however, after the Trust Territory officials discovered the radioactive element most prevalent on Bikini, cesium 137, had travelled through the food chain and into the bodies of the islanders. Evidence of radiation persists, though neighboring atolls present less risk. Today the people of Bikini remain scattered throughout the Marshall Islands as they await to return to their homeland once again. Bikini remains uninhabited yet it is not abandoned. In the early 1990s, divers and tourism agencies began to show a keen interest in Bikini’s alluring scenery, and after much consideration the government opened the atoll to visitors in June of 1996. The hope is to expand the economic base for possible future resettlement of the Bikinians.

Today the Bikini Atoll presents an exciting adventure for enthusiastic underwater explorers who want to experience her lush green topography topside and dive into the mysterious remains of the ships who were also casualties of the nuclear testing. As divers descend upon these shipwrecks, now laying in their watery graves, they can gain an incredible appreciation for their incredible and violent history.

Under the turquoise lagoon, the bones of Navy vessels, a Japanese cruiser, and a Japanese battleship. The main drivers for the nuclear testing was the United States Navy who were concerned with nuclear weapons obliterating their fleets. Brushing aside any opposition to the testing, the military loaded up an estimated $450 million dollars’ worth of target ships with livestock, including cows, goats, and guinea pigs. Operation Crossroads left behind a sunken fleet of some of the most historic war vessels once in commission. The testing resulted in serious radioactivity and environmental damage and yet despite a low-level of persisting radioactivity, the 13 wrecks that quietly sit on the bottom of the lagoon have proved to be a draw for recreational diving and tourism.

Bikini’s “nuclear fleet” mainstay is the USS Saratoga(CV-3), built for the United States Navy in the 1920s and measuring 900ft in length is the world’s only diveable aircraft carrier. Originally designed as a battlecruiser, she was converted into one of the Navy’s first aircraft carriers in 1928. USS Saratogawas one of the three prewar US fleet aircraft carriers to serve throughout World War II. She served in the Guadalcanal Campaign, Battle of the eastern Solomons, New Georgia Campaign, invasion of Bougainville, and provided air support during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaign. After a short career as a training vessel she was thrust into service in 1945 into the Battle of Iwo Jima as a dedicated night fighter carrier. In 1946 her illustrious career culminated in being designated as a target ship for nuclear testing during Operation Crossroads. She survived the first test with little damage then sunk during the next test.

Alongside the USS Saratoga lays the USS Arkansas(BB-33), designated as a dreadnought battleship. Dreadnought’s design had two revolutionary features: an “all-big-gun” armament scheme, with heavy caliber guns, and steam turbine propulsion. These vessels became the symbol of national power of the early 20th century. Commissioned in September 1912, USS Arkansasserved in both World Wars. During World War I she served as part of Battleship Division Nine, attached to the British Grand fleet, but saw no action. Following the beginning of World War II she was assigned to conduct neutrality patrols in the Atlantic. Upon America’s entry into the war she supported the invasion of Normandy and then provided gunfire support to the invasion of southern France. In 1945, she transferred to the Pacific Ocean and bombarded Japanese fleets during both invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In 1946 her service ended as an expended target during Operation Crossroads.

Another interesting ship with its own unique history is the YO-160, built in 1943 by the Concrete Ship Constructors of National City, California for the Maritime Commission. This concrete ship was in active service as a fuel barge in the Pacific Ocean before she was expended as part of the nuclear testing program with Operation Crossroads. She survived the first test performed on July 1, 1946 although upon inspection was deemed radioactive limiting personnel access of up to five hours at a time. On July 24, she was then used for a secondary test and sank immediately after the blast, primarily due to damage caused prior to the secondary blast.

The USS Gilliam(APA-57), launched in March of 1944 and named after Gilliam County in Oregon, was the lead ship her class as an attack transport during World War II. Gilliam served in the United States Navy for a short two years before she was prepared to participate in in the atomic bomb testing in 1946. USS Gilliamwas expended as a target ship on July 1, 1946 and the first ship struck by the blast. She sunk to the bottom of the lagoon.

USS Anderson(DD-411) was the first of the Sims class destroyers to be delivered to the United States Navy in 1939. She served in the Joint Task Force 1 in Pearl harbor after which she was slated to be utilized in Operation Crossroads. USS Andersonsank on July 1, 1946.

Also gracing the bottom of Bikini’s lagoon is Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s 708-foot flagship, the battleship Nagato. She was a super-dreadnought battleship built for the Imperial Japanese Navy during 1910. She was designated the lead ship of her class serving as a supply carrier for the survivors of the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Between 1934 and 1936 she was provided improvements in her armor and machinery. Nagato briefly participated in the Second Sino-Japanese War on 1937 then later served as the flagship of Admiral Yamamoto during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The USS Apogon (SS-308) was a Balao-class submarine named after the apogon saltwater fish found in tropical and subtropical waters. She was sunk at Bikini during the atomic bomb test “Baker” on July 25, 1946.

The USS Carlisle (APA-69), acquired by the Navy in 1944, was a Gilliam-class attack transport vessel serving in World War II. She never served in active combat and after working as a transport vessel she was reassigned as a target vessel for Operation Crossroads. She was sunk on July 1, 1946.

Launched in July of 1944, USS LSM-60 was a World War II landing ship, medium (LSM) amphibious assault ship of the United States Navy. She was most notable for being the first naval vessel to deploy a nuclear weapon. Her cargo deck and hull were modified to lower and suspend a fission bomb used in underwater testing. The bomb was suspended 90 feet below the vessel in the lagoon and on July 25, 1946 sank along with eight other target ships as the bomb detonated. She was sunk along with the USS Saratoga. Seamen onsite claimed that “there were no identifiable pieces” of her remaining after the detonation.

The USS Lamson (DD-367) was a Mahan-class destroyer in the United States Navy. She served in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, participated in the Battle of Tassafaronga, and remained undamaged until being hit by a kamikaze during the recapture of the Philippines. USS Lamsonwas reassigned to serve s a test vessel for Operation Crossroads in 1946, where she sank.

The ARDC-13, built in December of 1945, was a 2800-ton dry dock built and used during the Able and Baker nuclear weapons testing of Operations Crossroads. She was specifically commissioned to determine the effects of a nuclear explosion on land-based concrete structures. The ARDC-13’s design was important for better understanding in determining the need to build structures that could withstand severe waves and flooding especially for ports considered as targets for bombs. She structurally survived the first test although she did have some repairs made in preparation for the second. She was repositioned from her initial location in preparation for test B and sank in 1946.

The USS Pilotfish (SS-386) was a Balao-class submarine named after the pilot fish often found in the company of sharks. There is some controversy surrounding her final disposal during the Bikini testing. In July of 1946 she was selected for disposal in Operation Crossroads. Moored 363 yards (332 meters) from “surface zero” and sunk by the test Baker underwater explosion. The explosion’s pressure waves compressed her hull, forcing her hatches open, and flooding her entirely. Some sources claim; however, that the wreck was resurfaced and used again during Operation Sandstone in 1948. This general narrative has been disclaimed as a false narrative by the US National Park Service.

The Japanese cruiser, Sakawa, an Agano-class cruiser which served with the Imperial Japanese Navy and served during World War II, was best known for her role in the atomic testing during Operation Crossroads on July 2, 1946. Sakawa, along with Nagatowere the primary target ships in the atomic bomb air burst test Able. She was moored off the portside of the Nevada where the bomb was to be dropped, she was carrying various cages with live animals used as test subjects for radiation effects. The intense blast caused her to burn, crushing her superstructure, damaging her hull and breaching her stern. After failed attempts to tow her from the detonation site in hopes to salvage her, she sank.

These 13 vessels, now resting on the bottom of the lagoon in the Bikini Atoll, bear witness to the beginning of the Cold War – the race to develop weapons capable of mass destruction to balance the political and geographic structure of world powers. The United States resumed their nuclear testing program in the Pacific Ocean after deploying and successfully detonating atomic bombs during the final stage of World War II on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively. As a result of the massive destruction, the realization that these weapons could be used in further assaults became apparent to not only the United States but other countries who were also developing their own weapons programs.

The Bikini Atoll has conserved the tangible evidence of the power of nuclear testing. The violence witnessed on the landscape and living elements on the islands demonstrate the consequences on the environment and health of those who have been exposed to the blasts and radiation. These tests gave rise to images and symbols of the developing nuclear age, and led to the development of national and international movements advocating disarmament. The Cold War and its events have left a significant legacy. Bikini Atoll, now an image of idyllic peace and tranquility, symbolizes the dawn of a nuclear age that helped shape the foundation of the United States, Russia, China, and the British Empire.

While Godzilla is fictional, the circumstances that led to his creation were very real and more than anyone, the Japanese fully understood the impacts of a nuclear war.