Atomic Testing at Bikini Island


The island of Bikini was, in 1946, a true tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Island chain. Eleven families lived peacefully on the island, headed by their chief Juda. They fished, ate coconuts, pandanas and breadfruit, collected turtle eggs, and sailed to nearby islands to visit friends.

But, that year, American military planners concluded that the Bikini Atoll, a collection of fragile islands surrounding a lagoon, was the ideal target for testing the power of atomic bombs. An advance team came to Bikini and talked to the islanders about turning "this great destructive force to something good for mankind." Soon the 161 islanders were moved from their island to the Rongerik Atoll, hundreds of miles away. They were told that they would only be away from home temporarily.

Next, 42,000 American soldiers moved out to Bikini. They installed a "ghost fleet" of tens of ships in the lagoon and set up a radio station from which they could broadcast their impressions and observations. In July, two bombs were set off: the first was dropped by the plane "Dave's Dream" on July 1; the second was detonated under the sea on July 22. Americans back home heard the commander of "Operation Crossroads," Vice Admiral William Blandy, say that the undersea bomb "will not start a chain reaction in the water, converting it all to gas, and letting all the ships on all the oceans drop down to the bottom. It will not blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole. It will not destroy gravity."
American soldiers watched the explosions from the ship Mt. McKinley, which was nine miles offshore. They protected their eyes with tinted goggles as the mushroom-shaped clouds rose from the lagoon. Within minutes of the bombings, the soldiers and other observers were turning their backs on the scene, removing their goggles, and nonchalantly going about "business as usual." Within hours of each blast, soldiers were exploring "ground zero" to record the bombs' effects. Some ships sank; others floated on their sides; all were riddled with holes, black, charred, and stripped of surface paint. Gun barrels and other structures on the ships had melted. Many lambs and pigs that had been placed on the ships had burns and lesions on their bodies; others were dead. When the soldiers stepped onto the ships, their geiger counters ticked rapidly from the radioactive fallout.
That summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees at Bikini. The soldiers stripped down to shorts and tee shirts whenever possible, slept on the ship's deck, and swam in the lagoon to try to stay cool. They washed their clothes in lagoon water and cooked their food in it.
Over the next 11 years, American soldiers participated in 23 tests at Bikini during which hundreds of bombs were detonated.

Meanwhile, far from home, the Bikini islanders found that they could not construct a life on Rongerik. The island was not like Bikini, not luscious, not inviting, not productive, not home. Within two years, the islanders were starving and had to be relocated. The American military moved the islanders twice. In exile, the islanders had nothing to do; they sat waiting to return home and ate Spam.
The largest bomb ever dropped anywhere was dropped on Bikini on March 1, 1954. Called Bravo, it was a hydrogen bomb 1000 times more powerful than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The day Bravo was tested, the winds changed once again. Radioactive fallout rained down on the Rongelap and Utrik atolls and on the island of Rongerik. Islanders and American soldiers were drenched with white ash. To the children, the ash looked like snow, and many played with it throughout the day. A Japanese fishing vessel, The Lucky Dragon , carrying 23 fishermen, was also hit hard.
The fallout made people violently ill; many were burned, lost hair, and vomited. Later, their blood counts were low, and some developed thyroid nodules and leukemia and other classic signs and symptoms of radiation poisoning. Much later, the Defense Nuclear Agency called this blast "the worst single incident of fallout exposures in all the U.S. testing program" (cited in Operation Crossroads, p. 304).
In 1968, a few islanders moved back to Bikini, but by 1978 they were evacuated again, because the radioactive cesium (137Cs) and strontium (90Sr) levels in the water and in the soil were too high. More than half a century later, the island is still too radioactive for habitation. The islanders and the U.S. government continue to negotiate, searching for a means for restoring the island's soil so that it will be safe to live on.


Bikini Macabre
As France recovered from the reeling effects of ww2 on its home soil, Jacques Heim, a fashion designer from
the popular beach resort of Cannes, was busily working on his latest style invention, a two-piece swimsuit of a very revealing nature. Heim debuted his creation in a local beach shop in the early summer of 1946. He named the swimsuit the “Atome” in honor of the recently discovered atom, the smallest particle of matter yet detected. He then sent skywriters over Cannes’ beaches, announcing that the Atome, “the world’s smallest bathing suit,” was now available for purchase (Lencek & Bosker 1989).
Heim may have become more than just a small footnote in the bikini’s history if it were not for the timely invention and superior christening skills of a French mechanical engineer turned swimsuit designer, Louis Reard. Just three weeks after Heim unveiled his Atome creation, Reard brought out a remarkably similar swimsuit to be sold along the French Riviera. His swimsuit also contained just two scant pieces of cloth that revealed a woman’s back and navel for the first time in the modern era. Reard named his swimsuit the “bikini,” taking the name from the Bikini Reef, one of a series of islands in the South Pacific where testing on the new atomic bomb was occurring that summer (Lencek & Bosker 1989).  Historians assume Reard termed his swimsuit the “bikini” because he believed its revealing style would create reactions among people similar to those created by America’s atomic bomb in Japan just one summer earlier. Whether this was his true reason or not, the bikini name stuck, and Reard went down in history as the inventor of the popular two-piece swimsuit.

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