There’s no Earthly chunk of coral that’s more deserving of good news than Bikini Atoll, which the American military infamously bombed to smithereens at the dawn of the Atomic Age. So it was heartening to learn that the island and its immediate surroundings were recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, a move that will hopefully do wonders for the tourist trade. (The International Atomic Energy Agency states that brief visits are okay, but that permanent resettlement remains risky because of radiation in locally produced food.)
The rare sliver of cheer for Bikini Atoll provides an excellent occasion to check out this series of interviews with island natives, who recall both their people’s history as well as the terrible hardships of the past 64 years. When the Bikinians were evacuated from their homes in 1946, they had no idea of the generations of wandering and scarcity that lay ahead. A woman names Emso Leviticus recalls just how her fellow Bikinians were convinced to abandon all they knew:
We were elated when we discovered that the Americans weren’t going to hurt us, in fact, the Navy men were very kind and gave us big bins filled with all kinds of food that we had never seen or eaten before like C-rations, chocolates, corned beef and other wonderful things. They took some of us to the ship to get medical attention. One woman named Tamar was very sick, and when she returned, she was all better again. The Americans stayed awhile and I befriended one of the men. He often visited with me and built a cement water catchment for my house.
I can still recall the day when the more important looking Americans came to ask us to move from our islands. All of these new men were wearing beautiful uniforms. After church one day, they asked us to come together on Rosie’s and Dretin’s land called Loto, near Lokiar’s land, to have a community meeting.
We were all there–men, women and children–and we tried to listen carefully to what they were asking our leaders. All of the women became surprised when we found out that they were requesting that we move to Rongerik Atoll or Ujae Atoll. I remember that our leaders answered: “If we have to leave, we would rather go to Rongerik because we don’t want to be under the leadership of another king or iroij on Ujae.” No one dissented in front of the Americans when they asked us if we would be willing to go to another island so they could test their bombs. We had had a meeting beforehand. It had been decided that we would all stand behind Juda when he gave our answer to the man with the stars on his hat and clothes.
We were a very close-knit group of people back then. We were like one big family. We loved each other accordingly. After we made the final decision, no one made any problems about it. We agreed to go along with whatever was decided by our leaders.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Bikinians to regret their decision.