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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 2, 2003

Bikini Atoll survivors recall horror of nuclear explosion

 •  War with Iraq would cost Hawai'i dearly
 •  Hawai'i clergy split on question of 'just war'

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Rokko Langinbelik remembers it well — March 1, 1954 — the day the United States government detonated a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb, code named Bravo, on the Bikini Atoll, 125 miles to the west of Rongelap Atoll where Langinbelik and her village lived.

Rokko Langinbelik, right, and Almira Matayoshi look at a map of the Bikini Atoll, site of a 15 megaton hydrogen bomb test in 1954.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The explosion left a mile-wide crater 240 feet deep, sent a radioactive cloud 20 miles into the atmosphere and produced a nuclear hurricane that spewed intense winds for hundreds of miles, engulfing Rongelap.

"I was there," Langinbelik said. "I was 12. It was like the sun was all around us. And we heard the big thunder. I was very scared. My parents didn't understand what was happening. I don't know why the government didn't move us. Before they would move us around."

Langinbelik was one of seven nuclear survivors, along with dozens of second and third generation survivors known as Micronesians United, who attended a Bravo remembrance yesterday at Ala Moana Beach Park.

"This is the 49th anniversary of the explosion," said Julia Estrella, one of the organizers. "But we wanted to get a head start. The goal is to focus world attention on this event for the 50th anniversary next year."

Estrella is on the United Church of Christ national committee to implement a policy statement asking the U.S. government to formally apologize to the people of the Marshall Islands for its nuclear weapons tests conducted in the 1940s and '50s.

"The government has never apologized to the Marshallese people," she said.

After 1945 the U.S. government moved Bikini inhabitants to Rongelap and Killi to use the atoll for nuclear bomb tests. However the Bravo test turned out to be five times more powerful than the experts had expected.

The government has since put about $150 million in trust to rehabilitate and resettle the islands. But Bikini and Rongelap Atolls still are considered unsafe for habitation, and islanders contend the trust fund is insufficient to restore the affected Marshall Islands.

Rine Jack, 35, and her daughter Doreen, 6, hold each other yesterday at Ala Moana Beach Park during a gathering of Bikini Atoll fallout survivors.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Beverly Keever, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Hawai'i, who has written about and researched the United States' nuclear tests in the Pacific during the Cold War, called the Bravo explosion the largest in U.S. history and said it produced "a thousand times more yield than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima."

However, Keever says the Bravo test was only one of 67 nuclear tests conducted in and around the Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958. The combined explosive power of those tests is unparalleled, she says.

Keever maintains that to this day the fallout effects of those tests has never been fully reported.

Langinbelik said after the Bravo explosion, every man, woman and child on Rongelap Atoll was sickened by the yellowish "snow" that fell from the sky and blanketed her island. Both of her parents later died of cancer, as did other villagers, she said. Langinbelik suffered from thyroid cancer. Two of her nine children died of complications she believes are associated with the lingering affects of the fallout.

Almira Matayoshi, 67, was also on Rongelap that morning. She was pregnant at the time, and gave birth to what is known as a "jellyfish baby," meaning one that is so deformed it is not recognizable as being human. She said five more post-explosion pregnancies resulted in stillborn babies. Both of Matayoshi's parents died of cancer.

Johnny Johnson, 55, was on Killi Island, 400 miles southwest of Bikini, on March 1, 1954.

"I still am angry," said Johnson, who works for the local government on Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands, and suffers from numerous ailments he believes are the result of fallout from atomic and hydrogen bomb blasts.

"The United States is considering rebuilding Iraq after there is a war," he said. "And yet they still owe us for what they did to our islands. They are willing to help these people who are against them.

"But what about the people who have been sacrificed for their needs and their benefit after World War II?

"They should make our place habitable again so we can go home and live safely."