Lost At Sea

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, March 1997

Lost At Sea

Tragic are the people of the lovely Marshall Islands. When America exploded the A-bomb it took their homes, and when it gave comfort it took their ambition, and when it offered only craven solutions it took their hope. Now the Marshallese look to America once more, and the natives are growing restless. A dispatch from the atomic archipelago.
By Tad Friend

At the Kwajalein Airport, Steven from Army public relations met our group and gave me a limp handshake. "I have been authorized to tell you that we are unable to support your application for admission to Kwajalein," he said, "but we will escort you to the boat to Ebeye."

A dislocated American community dropped in the endless blue of the western Pacific, Kwajalein island is a strange, Strangeloveian place, whose inhabitants spend their days tracking death machines. The U.S. Army rents the island from the Marshallese government for $9 million a year, and has established a $2 billion American missile-testing base with a vast array of satellite dishes, concrete bunkers, and high-tech installations. Technicians twiddling radar and telemetry equipment track Minuteman, Trident, and MX missiles that are fired from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, some 5,000 miles away. An alert is sounded; the missiles streak palely across the sky, reaching speeds of up to 10,000 miles per hour; and then they splash down in Kwajalein lagoon, where divers hunt for them like water dogs bobbing for wood ducks.

Public relations has rarely let journalists do more than pass through the residential part of Kwajalein since the release of Home on the Range, a 1990 documentary about the attempts by local islanders to get their land back when the U.S. lease temporarily lapsed in the late 1980s. The camera followed the island's actual owner into the Kwaj officers' club, where a big sign warned in Marshallese: "No Marshallese are allowed on these premises; anybody caught will face imprisonment and be ruined."

"Do you have a contact point on Ebeye?" Steven asked. I was beginning to dislike him: a short man with dingy, denture-colored hair. "No," I said. "Well..." he replied dolefully, shaking his head as if I would be parachuting into North Korea. We got into a blue van, and Steven drove us past the softball fields and tennis courts, down clean asphalt streets with American families in Sears-wear promenading on Huffys and Schwinns.

We stopped at the bakery and bought a bag of rolls. "You will not be able to proceed with that through security," Steven said. "It will cause a security situation."

"The bread?" I said.

"Yes," he said. "Because of the political situation. Like that root beer you've got." He stabbed at my soda. "It's only 50 cents here--special rate for Americans. On Ebeye it's $1.00, even $1.50. Black market opportunity."

Photographer David Roth and I were traveling with Jack Niedenthal, an American who is now employed as the official liaison for the Bikinian people, and his wife, Regina, a stout native Bikinian with a slow, inward smile. Had things worked according to plan, we wouldn't have spent more than a half-hour on Kwajalein, but things here rarely work according to plan. We had been scheduled to take a 19-seat Dornier straight from Majuro, the capital of the Marshalls, to the now-uninhabited Bikini atoll, to dive the recently opened test site where some of the world's first atomic blasts sank nine warships in 1946.

En route to Bikini, we'd bounced westward between the northern and southern chains of atolls, flying low over fringing reefs and bone-white sand spits, then plunging onto rutted coral runways to drop off basketball hoops and Primus stoves for Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries who wandered dazedly out of the breadfruit thickets. The Marshallese shyly hung back or were out of sight altogether, harvesting copra from the coconut groves.

The entire country's land area is only 70 square miles--slightly less than the District of Columbia--and yet that real estate is scattered among 1,225 islands that stretch over some 350,000 square miles of the western Pacific. It seemed as though we landed on half of them as we hopscotched west. Most were precisely the sort of picturebook Pacific arcadias dreamed by Gauguin, Melville, and Mead. Then, after 300 miles of island hopping, we hit Kwajalein--and the twentieth century--and stopped. Because Air Marshall Islands had only one working plane at the moment, we'd have to kill a couple of days here before the plane would pick us up again and take us the rest of the way to Bikini. It was your standard Marshall Islands snafu.

We brazenly smuggled the bakery rolls onto the ferry, risking life in the stockades, and made the 15-minute trip to Ebeye--just another leg in my two-week tour of this blighted outpost of the American empire. As the army transport vessel churned in the lagoon, I noticed the benches were stenciled with admonitions, presumably to the Marshallese: please clean up your mess.

The streets on Ebeye were narrow and packed with children, many of them wheeling on a single roller skate while a friend used the other. The tropical heat was merciless, and there was nowhere to hide from the sun, since virtually all of the island's palm trees were chopped down long ago to make room for shanties.

I rode in a new air-conditioned Hyundai with Sam Bellu, a paunchy grocery store owner who wanted to show me around his island. Bellu, 51, wore camouflage shorts and had an air of impatience unusual among the famously reticent Marshallese. He was a proud guide, though, showing me the U.S.-built water tower, the U.S.-built hospital, the U.S.-built causeway to nearby islets. The 14,000 people crammed onto this 600-acre island mostly work as maids, cooks, and gardeners for the Americans on Kwajalein. Ebeye owed everything, it seemed, to American largesse. "The U.S. always looks after us," Bellu said. "They say, 'This is how you do it. You have to go to school, you have to work all day, to be a human being you have to live like us.'"

Bellu stopped the car near the island's dump. Children were here, too, playing king of the hill in the mound of trash. He stared at me, perhaps trying to gauge how closely I identified with my country. Then he decided to be frank. "On the bad side," Bellu said, "the U.S. did drop all those bombs here, exposing us to the radiation. It's theirs, not ours. How would you like it if I came with a pickup and dropped a load of rubbish into your yard?"

He killed the engine, and with the car's air-conditioning no longer putting out, I was immediately drenched in sweat.

Bellu was talking about the 66 nuclear bombs that the U.S. military had detonated in the Marshalls between 1946 and 1958, making the chain of islands one of most contaminated places on earth. But he could just as easily have been talking about America's cultural flotsam, which has likewise irradiated Ebeye and many other islands in the Marshalls and left them without a clear identity--not really American, not really Micronesian, not really anything. At Bellu's store, the JJJ grocery, the aisles and freezers are well stocked with Kool-Aid and Sonic Boom Pops and Shrimp-Flavored Toasted Chips, a QED of why 75 percent of Marshallese inpatients, staggering from shotgun blasts of American sugar, have diabetes. In the sprawling residential warrens of Ebeye, the shanties are tagged with sun-faded graffiti: "Fuck your mama, yes, yes," "Homeboyz," and "Crips," the language of Watts and Compton filtered through Hollywood and rendered, here, merely sad.

Like the Philippines, the Falklands, and Vietnam, the Marshall Islands chain has long been a helpless crossroads for the traffic of history. Superpowers, their eyes on wider horizons, have had their way with the place without ever grasping its nature. Named in honor of British sea captain John Marshall, who explored the archipelago in the eighteenth century, the islands became a German protectorate in the late nineteenth century, were taken by the Japanese in 1914, and then, after brutal battles here during World War II, came into American hands. The United States administered them as a trust territory until 1986, when the Republic of the Marshall Islands became independent.

The Marshalls' feudal system has survived democracy: The local iroij, or chief, still has absolute power. But American influence pervades, from the Patriot missile casings that serve islanders as washtubs to Rita and Laura, towns on Majuro that homesick soldiers named for Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall. The paramount American legacy, however, is nuclear. It began in 1946 with Operation Crossroads, tests ostensibly intended to determine whether ships could withstand atomic attack but at least in part driven by the military's desire to see what its new nuclear toys could do. Bikini was chosen because it had predictable winds and was out of the way. At least, out of our way. As Bob Hope once cracked, "As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn't been touched by the war and blew it to hell."

By far the most devastating test was the 15-megaton "Bravo" shot, in 1954. Detonated on the Bikini atoll, Bravo was 1,000 times more powerful than the Crossroads blasts; awesomely, it exceeded the combined strength of all the weapons ever fired in the history of humankind. Unfortunately, Pentagon officials proceeded with the test even though winds had shifted east from their customary north. All the men on a passing Japanese fishing vessel fell ill, and one died. On the Rongelap atoll, children played in the "snow" falling from the sky.

"I have had seven miscarriages and stillbirths," a Rongelapian woman told a House committee investigating Marshallese health problems in 1984. "There are eight other women on the island who have given birth to babies that look like blobs of jelly...no legs, no arms, no head, no nothing." Bravo made the Rongelap, Enewetak, and Bikini atolls uninhabitable. And for many years the U.S. treated the Marshallese as lab rats, keeping secret the results of "Project 4.1," its follow-up medical program. In 1956 an Atomic Energy Commission manager named Merril Eisenbud declared himself eager to see how radiation affected the Marshallese. "Data of this type has never been available," Eisenbud said in a secret hearing whose transcripts have since been declassified. "While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that these people are more like us than the mice."

In 1968 the Atomic Energy Commission and President Johnson himself announced that Bikini was absolutely safe, but the Bikinians, who'd been shuffled between crummy substitute islands for decades, often near starvation, were suspicious. Over the next decade, 137 Bikinians warily drifted back. Their suspicions were soon justified: In 1978 the Department of Energy tested the relocated Bikinians and found that their bodies registered 11 times the normal radioactivity. Panic-stricken, the DOE had everyone re-evacuated from the island.

The Bikinians finally filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 1981, and in 1982 the United States grudgingly established three trust funds, totalling $185 million, for environmental restoration and reparations. It also funded a $105 million cleanup of Enewetak's southern islands and in late 1996 gave Rongelap a $45 million resettlement fund. In 1988 the United States allotted $270 million for a Marshallese Nuclear Tribunal to compensate radiation victims. More than 1,000 Marshallese have been awarded damages for troubles ranging from benign parathyroid tumors ($12,500 per case) to leukemia ($125,000).

But the tribunal has also rejected more than 4,000 claims. A number of Marshallese complained to me that too many of their countrymen tend to blame every cough or cataract on the bomb, hoping for personal guilt-money to supplement the roughly $70 million a year in general aid that the United States provides under a 15-year "Compact of Free Association"--a huge percentage of the republic's $84 million budget. The Compact, however, is scheduled to dissolve in 2001, and Marshallese leaders are now desperately searching for ways to fill the coming void, including entertaining various schemes for siting nuclear waste dumps throughout the archipelago.

J. E. Tobin, an American anthropologist who was studying an exiled community of Bikinians on the island of Kili, foresaw the creation of a welfare culture in the Marshalls as early as 1953. "Positive action must be taken," he warned, "or we will find ourselves with a group of bitter, frustrated, old-time 'Reservation Indians' on our hands, with a dole psychology and a hopeless future."

Earlier in the week, I sat with senator Wilfred Kendall in the boxy, Lego-block-style capitol on Majuro. Kendall was itemizing his republic's problems, which he knows well as the former ambassador to the United States, as one of Majuro's five representatives to the 33-member unicameral legislature, and perhaps just as important, as the owner of Majuro's Mobil Station. (The country runs like a small town: It's easier to find Foreign Minister Philip Muller at his bowling alley than at the ministry he heads.) "Our reefs on Majuro are all destroyed," Kendall said, sweat coursing down his face. The central air-conditioning was out, indefinitely. "You can't swim in the lagoon, the dump is all filled up, and it stinks, terrible. We've got goddamn diapers floating all over the place. We don't have many tuna left since we started letting the Chinese fish 750 tons a year. We don't have much of anything, in fact." He lapsed into pained silence.

I hesitantly asked about global warming: A 50-centimeter rise in the sea level, which a UN scientific panel predicts during the next century, would swamp the entire country. Already waves lap over the road if the breeze freshens. "Yeah," he sighed. "We'll do something about that. But whatever it is, it won't be good enough."

It was hardly tourist brochure material. And yet for the first leg of my trip across the Marshalls, I'd been invited, along with six journalists from diving and fishing magazines, to "rediscover" Majuro, this long-overlooked spit that Robert Louis Stevenson once called "the pearl of the Pacific." A slim jawbone often only 50 yards wide, the island runs for 30 miles and carries the distinction of having Micronesia's longest road, which unsurprisingly is 30 miles long. Majuro is home to more than 20,000 of the country's 56,000 residents, most of them crammed into low-slung houses bleached by sun and salt air.

Our arrival on Majuro was big news. At the Tide Table restaurant we were toasted by a dignitary who then serenaded us with "Kansas City." The Marshall Islands Journal ran a story headlined "Majuro Media Blitz: 'Big Hitters' to Majuro," just above "Aussies Like Clean Teeth." We were ceremoniously lodged at the comfortable Outrigger, a brand-new hotel built as part of the country's ambitious attempts to jump-start a tourist industry. Considering how few tourists have passed through in recent years (in 1995, a measly 700), it's a huge gamble--and one that has already entailed significant sacrifices for the citizenry. While spending upward of $15 million on the new Outrigger, for example, the government canceled the school lunch program to save money. Room televisions at the Outrigger get CNN and VH-1, but it's a tape loop from three months earlier. As of this writing, guests at the Outrigger believe that Bob Dole is still running strong in the South.

While Majuro itself fails to enchant, the atoll's farther-flung islands are gorgeous and boast some of the finest reef diving in the Pacific. One morning we took the boat to nearby Arno and were escorted by 30 spinner dolphins plunging abreast of the bow. Below, we swam with star puffers, eagle rays, and silver-tipped sharks cruising over chunks of brain coral. When we surfaced, white curtains of rain were drawing all around us, and a single tern sailed over the gunmetal water.

The morning after our dive, I had breakfast with Jim Abernathy, a white-bearded, sixtyish American who had been a longtime consultant to the country's first president, Amata Kabua. We met in the Quik Stop coffee shop, a fluorescent-lit beehive in the heart of Majuro where most of the country's governance actually seems to occur. I asked Abernathy, whose attitude toward the Marshalls veers between cynicism and baffled tenderness, what change he'd like to see in his adopted republic. "I'd go back to the end of World War II," he said, "and just have the U.S. pass the islands by. If we hadn't come in, they'd have a nice little country." He smoked and stared out the window.

Just then Rick Stinson slid into our red plastic booth carrying the requisite mug of Kona coffee and cigarette. A shrewd, funny Australian consultant with an unshaven face, Stinson had been hired to help reorganize the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I asked him the same question I'd asked Abernathy."You can't change just one," Stinson said."They have no idea what they're doing. I asked the Undersecretary of Administration to write down what his three most important duties were, and he wrote (1) answering the phone, (2) sweeping the floor, (3) responding to mail. They don't have money for stationery--they don't even have a list of their own staff. They're very friendly, though."

Jiba Kabua came over to our booth. The late president's eldest son, a senator and the scion of an all-powerful iroij family, Kabua was selling $5 tickets for a local band's concert, wheedling us in the fashion of a high-school raffle. Abernathy and Stinson each bought one. ("If we didn't," Abernathy later explained, "he'd think we don't like him. But he'll just lose the money in a poker game.")

When I asked Senator Kabua what one thing he'd change about the country, his thoughts turned to sex. "When the peoples' arms and legs are chained in boredom," he said, "this gets free." He put his index finger atop his trouser zipper and waved it about. "It used to be subtle. I would roll a leaf in my right ear to signal the woman, 'Watch out, today is our day.' But the new model is Hollywood. A guy goes into a bar and has a drink and pop, let's go. You bring us all the fatty foods, all the Hollywood pictures--what a job it does on the libido." His finger stood bravely erect, like a planted flag.

That evening, I saw firsthand what the senator was talking about. Around midnight all of us Big Hitters were at The Pub, the darkest joint in Majuro. A local band played bouncy, gecko-bar versions of "Lady Madonna" and "Fly Like an Eagle" as drunks were being stacked like cordwood in the parking lot. I was dancing to "The Locomotion" with a tourism promoter from Hawaii named Heidi when I was suddenly cut in on by a tiny Marshallese woman. She began thrusting her hips against me in a busy, circular motion, buffing my groin like a floor waxer. I leaned away, but she pressed home, grinning to reveal very few teeth. I looked over and saw that Heidi was getting the same from a Marshallese man, as the band played on.

Jack Niedenthal is a 39-year-old man with dark spaniel eyes, the hair of an aging rock star, and an allergy to button-down shirts. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, he fell in love with the Marshalls in the early eighties as a Peace Corps volunteer on Namu, an outer island with only 200 people and no airstrip. ("NAMU" is unevenly tattooed across the fingers of his left hand.) "The Marshallese were the nicest people I'd ever met," Niedenthal said, fondly recalling his Peace Corps days. "Namu was enchanting. There was no electricity, no running water, and you slept in a little shack with a kerosene lamp and the sound of the ocean roaring in your ears. We'd fish during the day, and at night the guys would come around and play guitar and I'd lie in my hammock, just thinking."

When his Peace Corps duty was up in 1984, Niedenthal moved to Majuro and since 1987 has devoted himself to representing the displaced Bikinian people in all their dealings with the wider world. It's an insanely demanding job, mediating between a tiny, vulnerable constituency and the American colossus. Although he looked laid-back, I gradually discovered that Niedenthal was a constant worrier, the kind of man who pursues every stray question to its grave. He doesn't like anyone telling the Bikinians what to do. He also doesn't like anyone telling him what to do. The two are sometimes the same. At one point Niedenthal told me he expected to die young from brooding over the fate of the 2,200 Bikinians. It wasn't abstract to him: He plans to move back to Bikini himself one day with Regina and their three Bikinian children.

Niedenthal and I rented a tiny skiff from the docks at Majuro and puttered a few miles over to the island of Ejit. Upon landing we could faintly smell the stench of sewage. Styrofoam cups and USDA beef tins were scattered everywhere on the crushed coral commons. The place had the look and feel of a refugee camp. Two hundred and fifty displaced Bikinians live here, crowded into small tin-roofed plywood shacks (the rest dwell on the main island of Majuro and on the equally grim island of Kili).

As we walked around, we ran into Kelen Joash, a slight man of 66 wearing a white T-shirt and a Seiko watch. He was sitting on a plank, watching contentedly as workmen completed his $135,000 cinder-block house as part of a public-works project paid for, ultimately, by the United States. Joash was eager to move into his new house and get on with his life here on Ejit, but part of his heart remained on Bikini. Like all Bikinians in exile, Joash kept a bottle containing powdered coral from Wodejabato, a reef head just off Bikini. Wodejabato is believed to be a powerful spirit that banishes evil influences, eases heartbreak, and will eventually ensure the Bikinians' return home.

Speaking in staccato Marshallese as Niedenthal translated, Joash recalled the day the Americans first came to Bikini. "The Japanese had just lost, and we were scared," he said. "The Americans arrived with many, many people and planes and ships and uniforms with stars on them. It was wonderful to watch them come. One guy climbed a coconut tree and blew the top off with a grenade so they could stick an American flag in it. We were frightened--we didn't even know what a grenade was, let alone an atomic bomb."

Commodore Ben Wyatt chose to come ashore and address the wonder-struck islanders immediately following services at the United Church of Christ. (The Bikinians had been converted by New England missionaries in the nineteenth century.) God and the bomb were often yoked in those days, so Wyatt adopted biblical language. He compared the Bikinians to the "Children of Israel whom the Lord had saved from their enemy and led into the Promised Land." According to the official navy account, Wyatt told King Juda Kessibuki that a "power higher than anything on earth" would bless their move and finally inquired whether they would be "willing to sacrifice their island"--temporarily--"for the good of mankind and to end all world wars."

Probably closer to the truth is the recollection of another Bikinian I met on Ejit, a woman named Binirok who had been a 14-year-old girl at the time of Operation Crossroads: "They said, 'Move,'" she told me, "and we moved."

In July, 1946, the United States set off two 23-kiloton weapons, Able and Baker, in the vicinity of 95 surplus warships that had been gathered in Bikini lagoon. The Baker underwater test hurled a vast column of water a mile into the air and flung the 40,000-ton USS Saratoga half a mile away to sink, like a toy ship swatted by an ill-tempered child.

The world was electrified by this new atomic power, made giddy. French designer Louis Reard named his new two-piece swimsuit the bikini, hoping its effect on men would resemble an atomic explosion. When the Crossroads experiment ended, Admiral William Blandy blithely cut into a ceremonial cake baked in the shape of a mushroom cloud. In those days the lasting effects of radiation were barely understood, and "fallout" was not yet even a word. Army clerk Dick Anderson, marveling at the brilliant pink hue of the Able explosion, said, "It reminds one of cotton candy." Anderson has since had five operations for skin cancer.

Between 1946 and 1958, the year President Eisenhower announced a moratorium on atmospheric testing, the United States set off 23 weapons on Bikini atoll. As it became apparent that they still weren't going to be allowed to return home, the Bikinians slowly, against their trustful grain, came to feel betrayed. "The United States promised they would take care of us like we were their own children," Kelen Joash told me, apologizing if he was hurting my feelings. "They said that no matter where we went, if it was on a sandbar or if we were adrift on a raft at sea, they would take care of us." This exact "sandbar and raft" phrasing is repeated by virtually every original Bikinian, as solemnly as the 23d Psalm.

Now Kelen Joash looked fondly over at his shiny new windows. "It's a beautiful house," he said, "and I do thank America for this. But sometimes we feel like the moneys are not keeping pace with our desires. I don't have beds and furniture yet, so I'll be looking for a budget for that."

"The Bikinians were once the hillbillies of the Marshall Islands," an official on Majuro had told me. "Now they're the Beverly Hillbillies."

The Air Marshalls plane finally came to pick up Jack, Regina, David, and me on Kwajalein, and an hour later the Bikini atoll slid into view. From the air it looked like any other island in the Marshalls, until we circled the Bravo blast area, a deep-blue, mile-wide bite in the reef. We landed on Eneu, where the American military observers had crouched in concrete bunkers to watch the blasts, and then took a half-hour boat ride over to Bikini. Everything looked bright and alive on this boomerang-shaped island, with lush groves of coconut, breadfruit, and pandanus. Red hermit crabs scuttled about, intent on sideways errands. But there was also an air of neglect, of ruin. The old houses, uninhabited since the late seventies, were overgrown, and orange cassytha, a parasitic vine, had crept over much of the island, like a runaway soccer net.

The Department of Energy had set up a small base camp on a crescent of white sand. There was a cafeteria, a barracks, a video room, and a few rooms built to accommodate the sport divers who come to explore the spectacular wrecks submerged in the lagoon. Aside from us, the dive masters, and a few Marshallese workers, most of the other two dozen people on the island were DOE scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who are studying ways to make the island inhabitable once again.

At sundown the team leader, William Robison, genially offered me a gin and tonic. A handsome, silver-haired man who wore flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt, he looked more like a beachcomber than a master of the atom. I told him how odd it was to find a place that had seen 23 nuclear blasts looking so normal, so beautiful, even.

Robison agreed, stressing that there was no present risk to us. "The gamma radiation you get walking around here is just natural background radiation, no problem at all." The danger, he said, was not in the air, but in the soil: Nearly all the dirt on the island was laced with cesium 137, a radiocontaminant that concentrates in fruits and vegetables grown here. Although not immediately dangerous, cesium 137 can be lethal if ingested over a long period of time. "Let me show you something," Robison said. We hopped into a rickety white truck and drove to an experimental garden in the middle of the island, where DOE specialists run tests on coconuts, papayas, breadfruit, and bananas. We walked over to a trench that had been dug beside a coconut tree, and Robison jumped in.

"This is the story of the island, right here," he said, pointing 15 inches down to where the rich black humus ended and the dry coral sand began. "The problem is that this soil is very potassium-poor. And cesium 137 is chemically very similar to potassium. So all these plants take up cesium from the soil through their roots instead of potassium, and the cesium concentrates in the fruit. If we do nothing, it will take roughly 100 years for food grown here to be safe enough to eat."

Robison has been working on the problem for the past 20 years. "Science got us into this mess," he said, climbing back out of the trench, "but it can also get us out. It's a beautiful island. And we owe the Bikinians their home back."

For a long time the Bikinians wanted simply to remove all the soil from the entire island, a hugely expensive denuding project known as the Big Scrape. "That gets rid of the cesium, all right," said Robison, "but then you're left with a barren beach." His mouth pursed.

Robison favors a much less drastic approach, one that involves scraping just the soil close to residences while periodically treating the island with large doses of potassium fertilizer. "We figured out that putting adequate amounts of potassium chloride on the soil every five years for the next 80 years will prevent the cesium from being taken up into the plants," Robison said. "Eventually the cesium will radioactively decay and become harmless."

If the Bikinians approve Robison's idea, they could be home in five years. But it is unlikely that more than a few hundred will return, for the exile has, over time, become less about the fading of radiation than about the fading of a way of life. Back on Majuro, I had spoken with a 28-year-old Bikinian named Alson Kelen, who had lived on Bikini briefly as a boy during the aborted relocation effort in the 1970s. Now he wondered how Bikinians of his generation would fare on their homeland. "If the younger guys were to go back now, they'd probably starve," Kelen told me. "Ninety percent of them would rather move to the States. They just follow TV: For a while they all wore backwards shirts and drooping pants like the two black kids on MTV [Kris Kross]. Now it's a fade haircut and ratty ponytails."

Kelen fondly remembered the stories his father used to tell him of the old days on Bikini. "When I grew up," he said, "I'd use my father's arm as a pillow, and he'd tell me the legends, how to fish using a jabok, where you drive fish into shore with a net of coconut leaves. But when I talk to my younger brothers about when I lived on Bikini, about the papaya, about eating lobsters, about how fresh and virgin it was"--he brought his hand to his nostrils, as if sniffing a heady perfume--"after a few minutes they say, 'Hey, I heard videos are on sale.'"

Curiously, argue some DOE scientists, the Bikinian taste for American junk food has made the radiation problem on the atoll almost moot. "Since beer, Coke, and Kool-Aid have replaced coconut milk in their diet, the Bikinians could actually come back right now," soil scientist Earl Stone told Jack Niedenthal and me over a plate of baby-back ribs in the DOE cafeteria. White-haired, nearsighted, Stone spoke with the garrulous frankness common to certain men of research. "Even the Marshallese body shape has changed--not many of them can climb up the coconut trees anymore. The bottom line is, there's no cesium in frozen chicken."

One evening on Bikini, as the sun sank with absurd splendor into the lagoon, Jack Niedenthal and I sat on the porch of the DOE barracks and talked about money and values. The Bikinians had recently faced a fateful decision, he said, one that eventually took on the proportions of "a spiritual crisis."

In December 1994, Niedenthal and a group of prominent Bikini leaders met in a San Francisco restaurant with Alex Copeson, a smooth-talking British national. Copeson represented Pan Pacific, a consortium that wanted to use a few islands in the Bikini atoll to store surplus weapons plutonium and spent nuclear fuel, the most dangerous kind of nuclear waste. Copeson's partner, Admiral Daniel Murphy, former chief of staff for Vice-President Bush, had already sent President Kabua a letter offering him $160 million for a "suitable atoll."

Copeson screened a six-minute video, Used Nuclear Fuel Transportation: Safety Every Step of the Way, which purported to show steel waste containers safely sustaining an 80-mph broadside from a locomotive and being toasted to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a burning pool of aviation fuel. Then he launched into a vivid spiel about Pan Pacific's plan to bury the 125-ton containers full of plutonium 239--which becomes "reasonably safe" after 240,000 years--deep in the coral reef. One could envision a James Bondish techtopia, with men in jumpsuits zipping about on monorails.

After the islanders' half-century of experience with nuclear contamination, the proposal might have seemed a black joke. But Copeson stressed that it would enable the Bikinians to determine their own destiny at last. "I said to them, 'Get serious--you're never going to get that many tourists to dive those pathetic wrecks in the lagoon,'" Copeson told me recently from his office in Washington, D.C. "'But with our project you'll be earning over a billion dollars a year, and you can have your own airline, your own shipping line. Or you can go drinking and whoring--that's your business.'"

Niedenthal found Copeson's presentation terrifying. "Copeson knew I was going to be a problem," he said. "He kept telling me to get over my sixties flower-child ideals, to live in the real world." While Niedenthal knew the Bikinians' desire for money and the good life, having often seen them "turn into demons" at meetings in Las Vegas, he was nonetheless astonished by how seriously they were taking Copeson's proposal. "Everyone was listening to his ludicrous numbers. I mean, this guy was just like the guys who came to us wanting to establish a tire-burning plant or cart out garbage to us from Los Angeles. Copeson was just another scumbag--but they were almost ready to sign on the dotted line."

Although Niedenthal himself is not religious, he found himself adopting biblical language to sway the Bikinians. He told them he could prove from scripture that Copeson's idea was a mistake: "Read the entire Bible from cover to cover and try to find one verse that says, 'To turn a gift from God into a dump is the work of God.'" And then he added, "I can't stand before you and say, 'I don't care one way or the other.' I'm part of your community. My wife is a Bikinian. My children are Bikinians. I am thinking about my family and the generations to come."

In the end, to Niedenthal's great relief, the Bikinian elders decided to nix the deal and then made a firm decision not to entertain any further dump offers. Copeson remains bitter toward the Bikinians and the Marshallese government. "Their officials started squabbling over money they hadn't even earned yet," he said. "They're all scam artists, banging the tin cup in front of the white man. They'd open a whorehouse and sell their daughters and grandmothers for a dollar. They've never lived so good since that bomb, the fat lazy fucks. All they want to do is go gambling, drinking, and whoring in the U.S. The only contribution they could make to the world is to give someone their islands [for waste] and take a hike--be an absentee landlord for world peace."

Instead, the Bikinians are insisting that the U.S. government carry out a full environmental restoration of the island, and they harbor hopes of returning in the next few years. This December, they decided to "seriously consider" Bill Robison's plan for limited scraping and periodic fertilizer drops over most of the atoll. But after visiting her family's homestead on Bikini, Jack and Regina began to have some reservations about even a limited scrape, wondering if they really want to bulldoze the coconut and pandanus off their property: It all looks so lovely as it is.

Deep in the midnight-blue water of the Bikini lagoon, the USS Saratoga seemed impossibly large and strange. It was swaddled in sea fans, its 20-millimeter guns plugged with tampions of white whip coral. Jack, Regina, and I were following the huge figure of Fabio Amaral, our jolly Brazilian dive master, into the aircraft carrier's very maw, a dark elevator shaft that bottoms-out 130 feet below the surface and a half-century into the past.

Our halogen beams lit up the hangar deck, which remained pocked and buckled from the 1946 blast. Three Navy Helldiver aircraft were perched in the gloom, their wings folded up casually as if still ready to sortie. We hovered over the cockpits, observing the dials forlornly frozen in position, and then spiraled up through a school of saddleback groupers and three unicorn fish that cocked their horns at me quizzically, like exclamation points.

As we plunged below 100 feet I kept imagining I was hearing the faint, deadly tingle of nitrogen bubbles popping into my bloodstream. Diving at such depths always poses dangers, of course, and there's little margin for error. Getting the bends was simply not an option, since the nearest hyperbaric chamber was on Kwajalein, and the nearest plane was, well...

Fabio beckoned me to the compass bridge. His bulky form slipped through two dark, narrow doorways as effortlessly as the banded sea snake I just saw knifing by. I followed gracelessly, banging both doorways, battering my way into the tiny room. Suddenly I was overcome with a wave of claustrophobia. We hung in this watery dungeon, gazing through the tiny window holes as a batfish glided past. Fabio grinned--there was just enough light to see his teeth--and flipped the toggles of the ship's navigational lights panel. In my dreamy state I half-expected the ship to light up and surge forward again, rejuvenated from its 50-year nap.

Back on the dive boat--named the Bravo, wryly enough--we chattered exuberantly about the bombs, the fish, the exquisite play of colors. A diver pays $2,750 for a week here, a fair price for some of the best diving in the world. Certainly it doesn't translate into much of a windfall for the Bikinian people: Even when the operation is running at full capacity--12 divers a week--the 2,200 Bikinians will stand to gross only about $300,000 a year. But having tasted the fleshpots of America and seen how quickly they could get rich if they sold everything that matters, the Bikinians have chosen, for now, anyway, to enrich themselves slowly. In their wanderings they've concluded that it's better to live off a nuclear wreck than a nuclear dump.

That evening, Jack Niedenthal and I found ourselves staring at the moonlit lagoon, still rhapsodizing about the dive while Regina sat cross-legged in concentration, weaving herself a headdress of frangipani blossoms tucked into a pandanus leaf. There was a Bikinian flag snapping in the breeze outside the barracks, and I noticed how oddly similar it was to the American Stars and Stripes, with 23 white stars for the islands they hope to return to and three black stars for the islands blown to smithereens. I idly mentioned the similarity.

"It looks just like yours, goddammit," Jack snapped. Then he grinned. "That's the point--we're part of you forever."

Tad Friend's article on an environmental "direct action camp" appeared in the October 1996 issue of Outside.

Photographs by David Roth

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