It seemed to be snowing. Thin greyish-white crystals fell on the island’s beaches and rocks. It covered trees and houses in a thin layer, less than two inches thick. The people on Rongelap and Utirik had likely never seen snow before. They lived quiet lives in the tropical Marshall Islands. Their life had been interrupted for a bit during World War II, but now in 1954, things seemed relatively normal. Kids played in the powder, running through it, tasting it, forming it into balls and hurling it as friends, sisters, brothers.
A little over one-hundred miles away lay Bikini Atoll. Most of the people on Rongelap and Utirik had originally come from there. A few months earlier the US Government had come and asked the locals for a favor. Evacuate for a bit, let them run some tests on what they called a “great destructive power” that they hoped to turn towards the “good of mankind”.
By now the names and dates must have given it away. This was not normal testing, nor was the powder a kind of snow. This was the site of the infamous Operation Crossroads and Bikini Atoll was the chosen target for atomic testing. There is much to say about the Castle Bravo test. The political brouhaha of the Cold War, the exploitation of the locals, the brutal unfortunate ignorance of the enlisted men present at the test.
But this is a story about that terrible not-quite-snow that fell from the sky.
When the bomb exploded millions of tons of dirt, sand, coral, plants and animals, and seawater were suddenly vaporized by the heat and catapulted into the atmosphere. Within hours the radioactive debris dispersed on prevailing winds, heading westward over Rongelap, Ailinginae, and Rongelik Atolls. The dust fell over islands, battleships, people. Exposed water turned brackish and yellow. The exuberant children caused sores, hair loss, fatigue, and diarrhea within ours, signature signs of radiation poisoning. No explanation was given from the American medical teams. Their only task was to take Geiger recordings. The affected wouldn’t get medical care until two days later.
Unknown to the Americans, a Japanese tuna boat was also in the area. Twenty-three fishermen on the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (aka “The Lucky Dragon”) were also exposed to the ash. All developed radiation sickness. One lapsed into a coma and died later in a hospital back in Japan. The USA, after learning of what happened, would send the widow a 2.5 million yen check as ‘sympathy’.
In hindsight, negligence abounds. The Bikini natives were inhumanely exploited. The enlisted men were unwittingly exposed. The public was ill-informed. But I feel that this strange snow more than anything else encapsulates the confusion and horror of the unknowing participants of America’s radioactive past.