National and media anniversaries of signal events like Sept. 11th are important in helping to form the collective memory that over time and across generations shapes what a society remembers — or what it forgets. An anniversary that serves as a news peg for journalists re-ignites powerful emotional connections for those who lived through the event, communication scholar Jill Edy writes, and may be even more influential for those who did not live through the event because it “creates a world they never experienced.” Even more important, Edy notes, anniversary journalism “impacts whether we remember our past at all.”

An un-remembered part of the U.S. past occurred on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, some 3,000 miles west of Honolulu and 4,800 miles from the West Coast. On Nov. 1, 1952, at 7:15 a.m., the U.S. government detonated the world’s first thermonuclear device, codenamed “Mike,” the most powerful man-made explosion in history up to that time. In layperson’s terms, it was the prototype for the “hydrogen bomb.”

Mike unleashed a yield of 10.4 megatons, an explosive force 693 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that had annihilated Hiroshima in 1945 and the fourth most powerful shot of the 1,054 acknowledged nuclear tests in U.S. history. Ushering in the thermonuclear era, the Mike shot raised to a new level the capacity for mass destruction that had been inaugurated by humans with atomic weapons only seven years earlier. Because of this new dimension in the power of nuclear weapons, President¬†Eisenhower observed in 1956, “Humanity has now achieved, for the first time in its history, the power to end its history.”

The Mike shot was controversial. Debate raged within the scientific community over detonating the so-called super bomb. One camp warned that the atmospheric chain reaction from the thermonuclear explosion would immolate the entire planet, the University of Hawaii’s environmental coordinator John Harrison reports; or “drive the radioactive dust into outer space!,” health and environmental scientist Merril Eisenbud notes. Calling such fears farfetched, those in the second camp, led by influential physicist Edward Teller, prevailed. The public was not told about the shot at the time for fear that it would influence the presidential election held just three days later. Sixteen days after the Mike shot, U.S. officials announced a thermonuclear experiment, but provided no details.

Mike was a proto-bomb; in fact, it was more like a building, Harrison explains as he studies a sepia-toned photograph of the cylindrical Mike device, about 20 feet in height and eight to 10 feet in diameter. Weighing 82 tons and standing vertically like the shiny innards of a giant thermos bottle, the cylinder dwarfs in the photo a scrawny, shirt-less man sitting in a chair, elbows cocked on his knees, and staring at the earth on Elugelab Island of Enewetak Atoll. The cylinder is attached to king-size tubes to keep its contents of hydrogen fuel, liquid deuteride, refrigerated below its boiling point of -417.37 degrees fahrenheit.

More than 11,000 civilians and servicemen worked on or near Enewetak to prepare for the blast. They left Enewetak by ship before the Mike device was remotely detonated on the earth’s surface from 30 miles away. The energy from the splitting of atoms with heavy nuclei like plutonium produced temperatures on the order of those at the core of the sun that were necessary to kick-start the fusion of the liquid deuteride with other lightweight hydrogen nuclei. This fusion produced even greater energy, so much that, as physicist Kosta Tsipis writes, “An exploding nuclear weapon is a miniature, instantaneous sun.”

The Mike test vaporized the island of Elugelab. Researcher Leona Marshall Libby wrote at the time that Mike’s detonation created a fireball that swooshed outward and upward for three miles in diameter and turned millions of gallon of lagoon water to steam. It left behind a 1.2-mile-wide crater and a deeply fractured reef platform. Harrison notes that in the aftermath of a subsequent, adjacent thermonuclear test — the Koa shot in 1958 — the weakened seaward wall of the reef next to the Mike crater cleaved away and plummeted into the ocean depths.

 

EPIPHANY OF A “NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST”

Harrison, who lived at Enewetak for five years beginning in 1978 while serving as a UH administrator and senior research scientist there, says the destructiveness of the Mike shot defies human comprehension. He recalls the scores of times he guided his outboard motorboat across segments of the choppy aquamarine waters of Enewetak’s 388-acre lagoon encircled by the 42 made-by-coral islands so pristine and lovely “they are God’s gift to the entire world.” His boat would slice into the shallower turquoise waters that overlay the close-in reefs and “then all of a sudden into the deeper, more cloudy waters that delineated or that filled this enormous, enormous round circle that was the Mike crater.”

Each time Harrison made that journey, he says, “it changed my life.” The experience overwhelmed his senses every time he crossed that threshold into the darker, murkier blue waters within the crater. He would struggle to understand the cataclysm of that instant that had transformed an island into a massive hole in the reef. “Then and now and to the day I die,” he says, “I could not, I can not and I will never wrap my mind around the significance of that.”

“There is no way that the mind can grasp that amount of force,” he elaborates. “We have nothing to compare it with.” Even so, once in the middle of the Mike crater, he sensed that he had experienced “the ultimate epiphany of what a nuclear holocaust is all about.”

A rare snapshot of the havoc caused by the Mike shot is provided by a before-and-after survey made of Enewetak by a scientific research team from the University of Washington and written up in a one-of-kind report archived by Harrison. Just eight days after the Mike shot, the team found water, plankton, sponges, starfish, snails, clams and 22 kinds of fish contained much more radioactivity than samples collected before the Mike shot on Oct. 21-28, with the highest levels found in those collected closest to Ground Zero. After the Mike shot, the few live rats found were “ill and lethargic” and the sole bird found on one islet “had been blown to bits by the shock wave,” suggesting that animals had little chance to survive the blast. The report notes, “A large number of dead and dying fish were seen in and close to the turbid water flowing from the target area westward inside the lagoon.” The greatest radioactivity in fish was later found to be concentrated in the digestive tract, followed by the liver and muscle; in rats and some birds radioactivity was concentrated in bones. Even algae that had been scrubbed with a brush and detergent retained “specks” of fallout, the report says, indicating most of the “radioactivity is actually present within the alga.” Lastly, spotlighting the significance of color in absorbing the heat of the fireball, the team notes, “Birds with dark colored feathers were burned more severely than were the white fairy terns.”

A 1978 study of 476 Enewetak rats by environmental scientists from Bowling Green State University, M. Temme and W. B. Jackson, noted possible genetic effects caused by radiation. They hypothesized that radiation effects may have caused deformations in an important inherited marker of some rats — the ridge of the roof of the mouth. The scientists described these ridges as exemplifying “expressions of genes affecting development.” Since 1978, Jackson told Honolulu Weekly on Oct. 21, followup studies have supported the notion of possible radiation-induced genetic effects.

HIDING 8,580 HIROSHIMA-SIZE BOMBINGS IN 16 YEARS

Most of the atmospheric testing on the U.S. side was conducted in the Pacific, but the full extent of these tests has become clear only in the past decade with the lifting of official secrecy. Only since December 1993 has the explosive force of 44 of the 66 U.S. nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands been revealed to Marshallese officials and others.

In 1994 the most relevant, comprehensive list of all 1,054 U.S. nuclear weapons tests worldwide was made public, allowing scholars to calculate for the first time the full extent of the entire U.S. nuclear testing program that ceased in 1992. These documents show that nearly three-quarters of the yield of all 1,054 U.S. nuclear tests worldwide occurred during only 82 tests conducted in the U.S.-administered Pacific Islands or the Pacific waters during the 16 years of the U.S. Pacific nuclear testing from 1946 to 1962. This prolonged secrecy, even beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union, hid for decades the yield of Pacific tests amounting to at least 128,704 kilotons during the 16-year period, a destructive force equal to detonations of 8,580 Hiroshima-size bombs.

The atolls of Bikini, Enewetak and Johnston plus Pacific waters served as sites for nuclear weapons experiments far too powerful and unpredictable to be conducted on the U.S. mainland. The yield of what the New York Times described as the mightiest nuclear explosion within the continental United States, which was the explosion of the first hydrogen device in Nevada in 1962, was but .0069 of the magnitude of the most powerful Pacific test, later disclosed as the 15-megaton Bravo shot of 1954. In serving as sites for such immense infernos, these Pacific atolls and their people contributed enormously to U.S. superpower status today. And, they contributed to restraint, and the retreat from overt nuclear hostilities during decades of the most dangerous political confrontation in history, the Cold War. Recent revelations regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis are chillingly reflective of that nuclear brink.

OMIT “THERMONUCLEAR” FROM PRESS RELEASES

Ten months after the Mike detonation, in August 1953, U.S. officials detected the first Soviet hydrogen explosion and announced the event to the world. The Eisenhower Administration then set up a deliberate policy to confuse the public about the escalating order of magnitude in destructiveness between atomic and thermonuclear weapons, Jonathan Weisgall writes in his pathbreaking book titled Operation Crossroads. “Keep them confused,” Eisenhower told the Atomic Energy Commission. “Leave ‘thermonuclear’ out of press releases and speeches. Also ‘fusion’ and ‘hydrogen.'” The agency complied. Only decades later, in 1979, did the public learn of this obfuscation.

Six months after the Soviet H-bomb, on March 1, 1954, U.S. bomb-makers caught up by unleashing from Bikini Atoll a deliverable hydrogen weapon, code-named Bravo, its 15 megatonnage making it nearly one and a half times the yield of the Mike shot. Bravo was the most powerful U.S. bomb ever detonated and one equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, according to U.S. government documents released in 1994. Weisgall observes, “Hiroshima paled in comparison to Bravo, which represented as revolutionary an advance in explosive power over the atomic bomb as the atomic bomb had over the conventional weapons of World War II.”

NUCLEAR VICTIMIZATION OF “OUR OWN PEOPLE”

Bravo also introduced the word fallout to everyday language worldwide when snow-like radioactive particles dusted 236 residents of nearby Rongelap Island, 28 U.S. servicemen and 23 crewman of a Japanese fishing trawler. In fact, the thermonuclear era produced radioactive components and fallout that encircled the globe, settling silently from the heavens. Beginning particularly with the Mike shot, “the chemical signature of our bones changed,” Harrison told Honolulu Weekly last month. The atmospheric weapons tests that proliferated in scale with the Mike shot dispersed radioactive forms of iodine, cesium, strontium and other elements. As a result, Harrison notes, all organisms, including humans, carry the watermark of the nuclear era woven into their tissues.

The Mike shot marked an acceleration of the man-made proliferation and escalation of mass destruction and the ensuing nuclear age transformed the planet and its inhabitants. As award-winning journalist Eileen Welsome writes in her book The Plutonium Files: “The radioactive debris found its way into starfish, shellfish, and seaweed. It covered alfalfa fields in upstate New York, wheat fields in North Dakota, corn in Iowa. It seeped into the bodies of honeybees and birds, human fetuses and growing children. The atom had split the world into ‘preatomic’ and ‘postatomic’ species.”

Moreover, the “postatomic” species must live with the effects of the nuclear age for centuries and generations to come. Environmental radioactivity derived from some nuclear weapons components like plutonium will persist for up to 500,000 years and may be hazardous to humans for at least half that time.

Fallout and other residual radioactivity from atmospheric nuclear testing conducted by all nations have caused or will cause through infinity an estimated three million cancer fatalities, researchers Arjun Makhijani and Stephen I. Schwartz wrote in the Brookings Institution’s 1998 monumental study titled Atomic Audit. That number of casualties is nearly five times the 617,389 U.S. servicemen killed in World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War combined.

In 1980 a Congressional oversight committee report titled “The Forgotten Guinea Pigs” concluded, “The greatest irony of our atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of U.S. nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people.” The House report included in its conclusion — but only in an obscure footnote — mention of Pacific Islanders, whose ancestral homelands had sustained the most U.S. nuclear firepower.

EXODUS AND A 33-YEAR EXILE

U.S. Pacific nuclear testing that began in July 1946 required U.S. officials to evacuate 170 Bikinians and 142 Enewetakese, thus transforming them into so-called “nuclear nomads,” which the Bikinians remain today.

The Enewetakese, when evacuated from their homeland in December 1947, were told by a senior official, Capt. John P.W. Vest, that they would be able to return to their atoll within three to five years. Instead, for the next 33 years they were exiled on the smaller, desolate Ujelang Atoll, 150 miles to the southwest.

Other official U.S. commitments made then are contained in documents once classified as top secret that attorney Davor Pevec uses in representing these islanders. The Enewetakese “will be accorded all rights which are the normal constitutional rights of the citizens under the Constitution, but will be dealt with as wards of the United States for whom this country has special responsibilities,” according to a memorandum from the Atomic Energy Commission attached to President Truman’s Directive of Nov. 25, 1947 to the Secretary of Defense.

The Enewetakese on Ujelang suffered greatly because of logistical problems, inclement weather, bureaucratic negligence and the island’s desolation. Even the Department of Interior, in a letter dated Jan. 13, 1978, acknowledged that during their 33-year exile on Ujelang the Enewetakese “have suffered grave deprivations, including periods of near starvation.”

An anthropologist who lived among them on Ujelang and spoke Marshallese, Laurence M. Carucci, wrote that the stories of this period told to him over and over by elders focused on famine and hunger, near starvation and death from illness, poor fishing conditions, epidemics of polio and measles and rat infestation.

One Enewetak woman in her forties told Carucci in 1978 about these difficult days. She described the stomachs of children as being “stuck out like they were bloated and you would never think they were hungry,” but in fact they were. Then, she continued: “They would get hot fevers, then cold chills; hot fevers, then cold and sweaty. And then, in just a moment, they would be gone. Dead, they would never move again. Their life was gone. And, in those days, the wailing across the village was constant.”

Their hardship was so severe that in 1969 they commandeered a supply ship and demanded they be returned home. Their ancestral atoll was too contaminated with radioactivity for their return, but the U.S. government did begin an extensive clean-up and rehabilitation so that on Oct. 1, 1980 some islanders returned home.

Upon their return, they found a far different Enewetak. The Mike shot and 42 other detonations had devastated Enewetak so severely that more than half of the land and pockets of the lagoon today remain contaminated by radiation. The islanders who do reside there cannot live off of much of their land but must rely on imported food.

THE MOONSCAPING OF ENEWETAK

The Mike shot was the eighth of 43 nuclear weapons tests at Enewetak that transformed a placid atoll into a moonscape. Its people are still pleading with the U.S. government for $386 million in land and hardship damages and other compensation awarded to them two years ago by an official panel established by the U.S. and Marshallese governments.

This panel ruled in April 2000 that after serving as Ground Zero for 43 weapons tests and receiving fallout from other shots, Enewetak:

  • was uninhabitable on 49 percent of its original land mass, or 949.8 acres of l,919.49 acres
  • was habitable on only 43 percent of its land area or 815.33 acres
  • was vaporized by eight percent or 154.36 acres.

The lingering effects of U.S. Pacific nuclear tests are visible today in the numerous kinds of cancers and other diseases and the degraded homelands that are determined by an official panel established by the U.S. and Marshallese governments to result from the U.S. experiments of decades ago. Compensation for these damages is paid for from a $150 million trust fund that is now too depleted to pay fully current personal and property claims. Since 1946, researchers write in Atomic Audit, the U.S. government has paid at least $759 million in nuclear-related compensation to the Marshallese. But medical, cleanup and resettlment costs continue to mount, and Marshallese want more U.S. funding.

The Marshallese prospects for immediate help from U.S. officials in Washington seem dim, Congressional sources in Washington, D. C. told Honolulu Weekly. Enewetak’s $386 million in land claims is not included in the budget Congress is considering for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2002. Nor are funds for a medical program that in 2001 ceased to address Marshallese health needs that are urgent enough to warrant sending a six-person delegation to Washington last month to plead with Congressional leaders and staff. Provisions of the Compact of Free Association set to definitely expire next year are being negotiated with the Bush Administration but any agreement must then be acted on by Congress, which is soon to adjourn. Arguing that U.S. assistance provided in past agreements is “manifestly inadequate,” Marshallese officials in September 2000 petitioned Congress for increased U.S. medical and other assistance to meet the mounting costs of damages to persons and property presumed to be caused by U.S. nuclear testing; that petition is still being studied by the Bush Administration and no Congressional measure on it is pending.

FROM CRATER TO CRYPT

Much of the plutonium-contaminated soil removed in the operation to clean up Enewetak was dumped into one of the atoll’s smaller craters on Runit Island and then encrypted into a massive dome-like structure. This crater was created May 5, 1958, during the 18-kiloton test shot code-named Cactus. The crater, 30-foot-deep and 350-foot-wide, was filled with about 111,000 cubic yards of radioactive soil and other materials and then entombed beneath a dome of 358 concrete panels, each 18 inches thick. Researchers in Atomic Audit calculate that the unprecedented job, completed in 1980, took three years and about $239 million.

Soon afterward, a delegation from the National Academy of Sciences inspected the dome and, Harrison recalls, issued a report noting the inadequacies of the dome, specifically that the predicted longevity of the containment structure was at best 300 years. Yet, the plutonium-laced debris encased in the dome will remain radioactive for 500,000 years and hazardous to humans for at least 250,000 years.

The Runit Island entombment is of special interest because a nuclear-waste crypt is now being finished 800 miles from Honolulu to bury plutonium-laced materials under a cap of coral soil at Johnston Island, where four failed nuclear-tipped missile shots in 1962 showered the atoll and waters with radioactive debris.

From test site to dump site, the Runit Island crypt eerily symbolizes the legacy of the thermonuclear age that has caused the Marshallese to suffer greatly and continue to suffer disproportionately in adverse health, environmental and cultural conditions.

The Mike shot of Nov. 1, 1952 and its aftermath begs for reflection from a nation so riveted on a purported nuclear threat in the Middle East and North Korea that it ignores the era of mass destruction introduced by the United States on Enewetak with the world’s first thermonuclear explosion.