First shooting: Forgiven, but not Forgotten – the US nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands

Nuclear bombs were the first serious threat to the existence of the Marshall Islands. 67 (in words: sixty seven!) nuclear fusion and nuclear fission bombs the US detonated over parts of ‘their’ former UN trust territory. Quite a few here say the new bomb, which threatens the Marshall Islands now will hardly be less destructive. They are talking about climate change. It will not contaminate the land. It will devour it.

It is just before eight o clock in the morning and we are on our way to our first shooting on the Marshall Islands. We are on the Majuro Atoll. As soon as we sit in the taxi, a heavy tropical rain sets in. The taxi sign lies in the trunk, Mark is driving. The day before, we asked a cab driver to pick us up for our shooting the next morning. His reaction was unexpected. He suggested that we just rent the taxi for a day, but without him. He would sleep and we could drive as long as we wanted. A good deal for both. Or maybe not. Mark is tired, he curses. ‘What kind of a car is that?’ The hand brake is stuck. The automatic gear-shift lever too. At least, the air conditioning is working. So now we have a car. The warm rain is getting stronger and turns the only main road that leads from one end of Majuro Island to the other in a raging river. We wonder if the rains have always been so heavy. At Kiribati we were told that the rain that is now missing there falls even stronger elsewhere.


To the left and right we pass houses, and directly beyond we see the churned-up ocean on one side and the quieter azure-gray lagoon on the other.
We are looking for the place where people will gather for the peace march on the anniversary of the “Castle Bravo” explosion. It was the biggest bomb ever to be detonated, a fusion bomb that observers said had made them feel as if the mouth to hell had opened. With unfathomable 15 million tons of TNT it exploded on March 1, 1954 at Bikini Atoll. The force of the explosion and the radioactive radiation hit the inhabitants of the surrounding islands violently. People died, became ill and had to leave their home islands forever.
March 1 of each year, they commemorate the victims of US atomic bomb tests conducted between 1946 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands.

No one likes to be on the road in this storm. Vague directions we had got the previous day lead to wild speculations and only we have completely crossed the whole place for the third time, we discover a school class, which is just on its way to the commemoration. We follow the school bus. As we arrive there are already several school classes and a band with brass and drums waiting. Also activists and survivors of the nuclear tests and their relatives are there. The rain has decreased a bit. It starts. We position ourselves with camera, sound recording device and umbrella on the median strip of the street and film the march as it passes us.

The march ends in front of the parliament building in ‘town, town’, as the city center is called here. Most of the attendees of the ceremony are children, accompanied by a few teachers. Actually, today is a holiday, off school. But it’s like everywhere on the blue planet. Going for a swim in the afternoon has its price: the participation in the day of remembrance. A pedestal with a lectern and space for the ‘important’ guests has been prepared. The schoolchildren find space in adjacent tents. The Mayoress of Majuro, the US Ambassador, a representative of the NGO “Nuclear Free Movement”, a representative of the four affected atolls and the President of the Marshall Islands Hilda Heine give speeches. In between, a ukulele band plays traditional music.

Again and again our big camera fails. Since the rain clouds have become thinner and an equatorial sun heats the equipment through the remaining gray clouds, the Canon quickly reaches the end of the line. We will have to buy an icebox to cool the camera. But we do not have it yet. Mark can only shoot about four minutes and twenty seconds at a time before the emergency shutdown takes effect. He concentrates on the important things, keeps cursing but still goes on filming as soon as the camera works again. Apart from the important speakers sits a sad woman who has been holding up a photo for a long time. Her arms are already trembling. But she doesn’t give way. It is important that all people see the picture. Also our camera. Mark nods to the woman and forms the words with his “May I?” He whispers and she nods. The photo shows Lemeyo Abon.

Lemeyo Abon was one of the last survivors of the nuclear bomb tests, she died shortly before the ceremony on February 19 at the age of 77 years. As a child, she witnessed the explosion of Castle Bravo on Rongelap Island, just 200 km from Bikini Atoll.

‘When I was 13 years old, the Bravo hydrogen bomb exploded on the next island. It was early morning when we were preparing for breakfast outside the house. All of a sudden, dazzling light glared around the area and the sky became red very quickly. We heard the very loud sound, “BOOM!”, and the ground began to shake violently. The roof was blown away and a number of coconut trees had fallen down. Indeed I was scared.’ recalls Lemeyo in Hanyuda Yuki’s book ‘Longing for My Home Island.’ The book tells the story of her life, which symbolizes the life of a whole generation. She got very sick herself from the nuclear radiation, experienced the relocation to Kwajalein and the failed return to Rongelap, because contrary to the US forecasts, the islands are contaminated until today and thus actually uninhabitable. Actually, because despite the ongoing radioactivity some people live there again. Lemeyo spoke to international media, traveled to UN meetings to talk about the effects of nuclear testing. She accuses the US of using the islanders as guinea pigs to study the effect of nuclear radiation on human bodies. She has worked tirelessly to ensure that the history of the people of the Marshall Islands is not forgotten around the world. Today, on the 64th anniversary of the explosion of Castle Bravo, her funeral takes place in the family circle.

Meanwhile, the clouds have completely disappeared and the sun blasts mercilessly on the square in front of the parliament. It is hot. Very hot. Unimaginably hot, for European conditions. Somewhat impatient schoolchildren hold white balloons in their hands, and now and then one of them soars up into the sky. Too early. Released. Not paying attention. But then it is time. The children are allowed to fly their balloons. The now bright blue sky is full of white dots. The crowd dissipates. It is over.

For us the day is not over yet. We meet Alson, a Bikinian (a citizen of Bikini Atoll). What he told us was very impressive and we will tell you about it in our next post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *