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The United States conducts the first airborne test of an improved hydrogen bomb, dropping it from a plane over the tiny island of Namu in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean on May 21, 1956. The successful test indicated that hydrogen bombs were viable airborne weapons and that the arms race had taken another giant leap forward.
READ MORE: Atomic Bomb History
The United States began testing nuclear weapons at Bikini Atoll in 1946. However, early bombs were large and unwieldy affairs that were exploded from the ground. The practical application of dropping the weapon over an enemy had been a mere theoretical possibility until a successful test in May 1956. The hydrogen bomb dropped over Bikini Atoll was carried by a B-52 bomber and released at an altitude of more than 50,000 feet. The device exploded at about 15,000 feet. This bomb was far more powerful than those previously tested and was estimated to be 15 megatons or larger (one megaton is roughly equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT). Observers said that the fireball caused by the explosion measured at least four miles in diameter and was brighter than the light from 500 suns.
The successful U.S. test meant that the ante in the nuclear arms race had been dramatically upped. The Soviets had tested their own hydrogen bomb in 1953, shortly after the first U.S. test in 1952. In November 1955, the Soviets had dropped a hydrogen bomb from an airplane in remote Siberia. Though much smaller and far less powerful (estimated at about 1.6 megatons) than the U.S. bomb dropped over Bikini, the Russian success spurred the Americans to rush ahead with the Bikini test.
The massive open-air blast in 1956 caused concerns among scientists and environmentalists about the effects of such testing on human and animal life. During the coming years, a growing movement in the United States and elsewhere began to push for a ban on open-air atomic testing. The Limited Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1963 by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, prohibited open-air and underwater nuclear testing.
READ MORE: “Father of the Atomic Bomb” Was Blacklisted for Opposing H-Bomb
On March 1, 1954, the United States carried out its largest nuclear detonation, “Castle Bravo,” at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Bravo shot was the first test of Operation Castle, a series of thermonuclear tests. The explosion was more than two and a half times greater than expected and caused far higher levels of fallout and damage than scientists had predicted.
The Bravo test used a device called “Shrimp,” which relied on lithium deuteride as its fuel. The explosion yielded 15 megatons of TNT and released large quantities of radioactive debris into the atmosphere that fell over 7,000 square miles. The explosion resulted in the radioactive contamination of the inhabitants of nearby atolls, U.S. servicemen, and the crew of a Japanese fishing trawler ("The Lucky Dragon"), which had gone unnoticed in the security zone around the blast. The incident was the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history and generated worldwide backlash against atmospheric nuclear testing.
Bikini Atoll History: Nuclear Test Site
While the Marshall Islands were officially under the purview of the U.S., the area became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds due to the nuclear testing conducted at various sites in the islands between the mid-1940s and early 1960s.
Bomb testing in the islands began in 1946, just after World War II ended and as the U.S. was on the cusp of what would later be dubbed the Cold War with the Soviet Union (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or U.S.S.R.). The use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did more than end World War II – it inspired the burgeoning nuclear arms race.
The U.S. tested more than 20 nuclear devices at Bikini Atoll and nearby Enewetak Atoll.
As a part of the Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, the U.S. government has agreed to resolve personal illness claims arising from its nuclear testing in the area. As a result of this, a federal program has been established by Congress that seeks to compensate veterans who participated in atmospheric nuclear testing conducted on Bikini Atoll or Enewetak Atoll between 1946 and 1958.
Slow Progress: 1946 - 1949
In the spring of 1946, the physicists who had remained at Los Alamos after the war had ended once again took up the study of how thermonuclear reactions might be produced on earth. The research soon branched out into two distinct lines. One such line explored the comparatively simple objective of igniting a relatively small mass of thermonuclear fuel by means of the energy produced in a relatively large fission explosion--what would later become known as "boosting" or the "booster principle". The other line of research had the much more difficult task of igniting a relatively large mass of thermonuclear fuel by means of a relatively small fission explosion.
A report on the status of physicists' understanding of the thermonuclear process as of spring 1946 was published in June of that year and was titled "Report of Conference on the Super". Among those who attended the conference were Manhattan Project scientists Edward Teller, John Von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam. Also in attendance was Dr. Emil Klaus Fuchs who, as it was later learned, was passing on what he knew about atomic research to the Soviet Union. The report judged that the theoretical design submitted to the conference was on the whole "workable" and that the development of a hydrogen bomb was in fact feasible. However, the report also concluded that considerable resources would be needed to develop the Super Bomb and there was no estimates of how much the project would cost or how long it would take to succeed.
Work on the "Super" progressed slowly from 1946 to 1949, mainly because scientists working on the project still could not determine how to investigate the thermonuclear reaction process in bulk in the laboratory. In fact, the only way to study and test the fusion process in even a small mass of fuel was to subject it to the extreme heat and enormous energy output of a full scale nuclear explosion. These types of experiments proved both difficult and expensive. As a result, most physicists at Los Alamos devoted their time to improving and increasing the efficiency and yield of fission bombs, which were much easier to test on a laboratory scale.
Bombs and the Bikini Atoll
The haute beachwear known as the bikini was named after a string of islands turned into a nuclear wasteland by atomic bomb testing.
The Bikini Atoll—a series of limestone formations in the Pacific Ocean that comprise part of the Marshall Islands—is, or rather was, a tropical paradise. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States military detonated several nuclear bombs in the area, wiping out plants and wildlife, and leaving behind a toxic wasteland. That tumultuous history is now preserved in haunting photos, diaries, papers and studies, assembled by the University of Washington into the Lauren L. Donaldson Collection of Northern Pacific Ocean Radiological Surveys. These photos and documents are now free to browse on JSTOR.
The colonial history of the Bikini Atoll and the Marshall Islands is somewhat shorter than many other tropical nations. The first Christian missionaries arrived on the islands in 1857, the German traders in the 1860s, and the Japanese in 1914. Yet, up until the 1940s, the Bikinians remained relatively isolated. That changed in 1945, when the USA took over and designated the Marshall Islands for nuclear testing. The atoll inhabitants were forced to move.
On March 7, 1946, the 167 Bikinians living on the atoll placed flowers on their ancestors’ graves, bade them farewell, and left their homeland for good. They were initially relocated to the Rongerik Atoll, which they believed to be inhabited by evil spirits after much hardship they were relocated once again to the Kwajalein Atoll and later to the Kili Island. On 1 July 1946, over 42,000 US military personnel and civilians on 242 naval ships, 156 planes and with 25,000 radiation recording devices watched the first Bikini Atoll nuclear test. Back then it was grandiosely described as a “terrifying pillar of water topped by an unfolding blossom of mist and radioactive debris.” About 5,400 experimental rats, goats, and pigs were brought along to study as part of the test program.
Ralph F. Palumbo collecting algae specimens from the bottom of Bikini Lagoon, summer 1964 via JSTOR
Four days after the initial test, Micheline Bernardini, a dancer from the Casino de Paris sported le bikini at the city’s public pool—a G-string with newspaper print. The name quickly made it into the fashion lexicon, despite the damage done to its namesake island chain.
More explosions followed the first ones in 1946. Exploding bombs chewed out huge craters in the coral reefs—craters more than a mile in diameter. Eventually, in March 1954 the US military dropped the world’s first hydrogen bomb from a plane, which decimated three of the Bikini islands, creating a crater that measured two kilometers wide and 80 meters deep. Built over millions of years by living coral organisms that grew around the basalt core, the islands comprised a complex ecosystem that took a very long time to form. As soon as the islands emerged and became habitable—around 3,500 years ago—humans began settling them. The explosions took minutes to destroy them.
Coconut crab being monitored by geiger counter, Bikini Island, August 18, 1964 via JSTOR
While the physical devastation was easy to see, the long-lasting radioactive damage would take decades to observe. Years after the explosions, scientists continued studying the radiation effects on the atoll’s flora and fauna. They combed the atoll’s beaches for rats, crabs, and birds. They noticed that the giant Tridacna clams were gone from the area they inhabited before. They documented a variety of findings over time—a possibly mutated arrowroot plant and abnormally growing morning glory flowers, which they compared to the typically growing ones. The team also took surveys and documented radioactivity levels around the islands and in the marine wildlife, with a number of photographs in the University of Washington collection depicting scientists taking radiation readings from coconut crabs, and holding Geiger devices to the creatures fished out from the sea. The images of this collection are absurd—in one shot it looks like a scientist is interviewing a crab—and tragic.
Native women and children with guitar, Likiep Atoll, August 20, 1949 via JSTOR
Reclamation and clean-up procedures followed, and in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson promised 540 Bikinians living on Kili and other islands that they would be able to return to their ancestral home. But 10 years later, 139 repatriated Bikinians had to be evacuated from the atoll when tests showed that they had high radiation levels in their bodies. In 2016, a group of Columbia University researchers still deemed the Bikini Atoll’s radiation levels too high above the safety standards for residents to return.
While the rest of the Marshall Islands involved in nuclear testing have been finally deemed habitable, the Bikini Atoll alone was not. And that perhaps is the biggest irony in the islands’ colonial history. The word Bikini translates from its original Marshallese “Pikinni” as “the lands of many coconuts” where Pik means “surface” and Ni stands for “coconut.” The image of the endless palm trees rising against the backdrop of the tropical sun setting into the azure waters is a perfect picture of pristine nature and utmost peace—the very antithesis of what the Bikini Atoll became.
The Real Origin of the Bikini Wasn't a Nuclear Explosion
55 years ago today, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb over Namu island, in the Bikini Atoll, Pacific Ocean. The 15 megaton bomb exploded at 15,000 feet, causing a four-mile fireball, 500 times brighter than the Sun.
It was the first airborne test of the hydrogen bomb—created in 1951 by Edward Teller and Stanisław Ulam—and yet another nuclear test of the long Bikini Atoll series. By then, another kind of atomic weapon was already being tested in beaches all around the world, one of the most fascinating pieces of garment ever devised by humankind: The bikini.
The origin of the bikini
It was in May 1946 when Louis Réard—a French car engineer who at the time was running his mom's lingerie shop in Paris—introduced two small pieces of clothing, advertising them as "the smallest bathing suit in the world." Simultaneously and unknowingly, fashion designer Jacques Heim was working on a similar design.
Réard named his invention the bikini because of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests. He thought that everyone would be shocked by the risqué display of curves and belly buttons. He was right. During many years, the bikini caused more surprise than any of the nuclear tests conducted by the United States and the Soviet Union. The joke at the time was that that the "bikini" split the "atom", because it was introduced right after a tiny single-piece bathing suit called the Atome.
The bikini was so explosive that even American bathing suit queens disapproved, as the Los Angeles Times writes in 1949:
The bathing beauty queen-blond Bebe Shopp, 18, of Hopkins, Minn.-got an enthusiastic welcome in Paris, but she said she hasn't changed her mind about French swim suits. . 'I don't approve of Bikini suits for American girls,' Bebe told her French interviewers. 'The French girls can wear them if they want to, but I still don't approve of them on American girls.
By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Navy Times Daily News Roundup./>Animals exposed to the bikini atomic bomb blasts arrive at Washington Navy Yard on board the animal laboratory ship Burleson on Sept. 30, 1946. Seaman Apprentice Dale Lipps is holding Pig311. Goat B.O. Plenty is held by Seaman Apprentice R.M. Williamson. (National Archives)
The big plan for tiny Bikini
According to the testing schedule, the U.S. plan was to demolish a 95-vessel fleet of obsolete warships on June 30, 1946 with an airdropped atomic bomb. Reporters, U.S. politicians, and representatives from the major governments of the world would witness events from distant observation ships.
On July 24, a second bomb, this time detonated underwater, would destroy any surviving naval vessels.
These two sequential tests were intended to allow comparison of air-detonated versus underwater-detonated atomic bombs in terms of destructive power to warships. The very future of naval warfare in the advent of the atomic bomb was in the balance.
Many assumed the tests would clearly show that naval ships were now obsolete, and that air forces represented the future of global warfare.
But when June 30 arrived, the airdrop bombing didn’t go as planned. The bomber missed his target by more than a third of a mile, so the bomb caused much less ship damage than anticipated.
The subsequent underwater bomb detonation didn’t go so well either.
It unexpectedly produced a spray of highly radioactive water that extensively contaminated everything it landed on. Naval inspectors couldn’t even return to the area to assess ship damage because of the threat of deadly radiation doses from the bomb’s “fallout” – the radioactivity produced by the explosion.
All future bomb testing was canceled until the military could evaluate what had gone wrong and come up with another testing strategy.
/>Atomic cloud formation from the Baker Day explosion over Bikini Lagoon. (National Archives)
And even more bombings to follow
The United States did not, however, abandon little Bikini. It had even bigger plans with bigger bombs in mind. Ultimately, there would be 23 Bikini test bombings, spread over 12 years, comparing different bomb sizes, before the United States finally moved nuclear bomb testing to other locations, leaving Bikini to recover as best it could.
The most dramatic change in the testing at Bikini occurred in 1954, when the bomb designs switched from fission to fusion mechanisms.
Fission bombs – the type dropped on Japan – explode when heavy elements like uranium split apart. Fusion bombs, in contrast, explode when light atoms like deuterium join together.
Fusion bombs, often called “hydrogen” or “thermonuclear” bombs, can produce much larger explosions.
The United States military learned about the power of fusion energy the hard way, when they first tested a fusion bomb on Bikini. Based on the expected size of the explosion, a swath of the Pacific Ocean the size of Wisconsin was blockaded to protect ships from entering the fallout zone.
On March 1, 1954, the bomb detonated just as planned – but still there were a couple of problems.
The bomb turned out to be 1,100 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb, rather than the expected 450 times. And the prevailing westerly winds turned out to be stronger than meteorologists had predicted.
The result? Widespread fallout contamination to islands hundreds of miles downwind from the test site and, consequently, high radiation exposures to the Marshall Islanders who lived on them.
/>The cruiser Pensacola's afterdeck, looking forward, showing damage inflicted during the Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests at Bikini, in July of 1946. Men in the foreground are examining the remains of equipment placed on her deck to test the effects of the bomb explosion. Note the caution signs painted on the Grey Ghost's after eight-inch gun turret, presumably to reduce fire risks and prevent the taking of radioactive items as souvenirs. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Dealing with the fallout, for decades
Three days after the detonation of the bomb, radioactive dust had settled on the ground of downwind islands to depths up to half an inch.
Natives from badly contaminated islands were evacuated to Kwajalein – an upwind, uncontaminated atoll that was home to a large U.S. military base – where their health status was assessed.
Residents of the Rongelap Atoll – Bikini’s downwind neighbor – received particularly high radiation doses. They had burns on their skin and depressed blood counts.
Islanders from other atolls did not receive doses high enough to induce such symptoms. However, as I explain in my book “Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation,” even those who didn’t have any radiation sickness at the time received doses high enough to put them at increased cancer risk, particularly for thyroid cancers and leukemia.
What happened to the Marshall Islanders next is a sad story of their constant relocation from island to island, trying to avoid the radioactivity that lingered for decades.
Over the years following the testing, the Marshall Islanders living on the fallout-contaminated islands ended up breathing, absorbing, drinking and eating considerable amounts of radioactivity.
In the 1960s, cancers started to appear among the islanders.
For almost 50 years, the United States government studied their health and provided medical care. But the government study ended in 1998, and the islanders were then expected to find their own medical care and submit their radiation-related health bills to a Nuclear Claims Tribunal, in order to collect compensation.
/>"Baker Day" atomic bomb underwater explosion, seen from shore of Bikini Atoll, on July 25, 1946. (National Archives)
Marshall Islanders still waiting for justice
By 2009, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshall Islands judges to pay compensation for radiation-related health and property claims, exhausted its allocated funds with $45.8 million in personal injury claims still owed the victims.
At present, about half of the valid claimants have died waiting for their compensation.
Congress shows no inclination to replenish the empty fund, so it’s unlikely the remaining survivors will ever see their money.
But if the Marshall Islanders cannot get financial compensation, perhaps they can still win a moral victory. They hope to force the United States and eight other nuclear weapons states into keeping another broken promise, this one made via the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
This international agreement between 191 sovereign nations entered into force in 1970 and was renewed indefinitely in 1995. It aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and work toward disarmament.
In 2014, the Marshall Islands claimed that the nine nuclear-armed nations – China, Britain, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States – have not fulfilled their treaty obligations.
The Marshall Islanders are seeking legal action in the United Nations International Court of Justice in The Hague. They’ve asked the court to require these countries to take substantive action toward nuclear disarmament.
Despite the fact that India, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan are not among the 191 nations that are signatories of the treaty, the Marshall Islands’ suit still contends that these four nations “have the obligation under customary international law to pursue [disarmament] negotiations in good faith.”
The process is currently stalled due to jurisdictional squabbling. Regardless, experts in international law say the prospects for success through this David versus Goliath approach are slim.
But even if they don’t win in the courtroom, the Marshall Islands might shame these nations in the court of public opinion and draw new attention to the dire human consequences of nuclear weapons.
That in itself can be counted as a small victory, for a people who have seldom been on the winning side of anything. Time will tell how this all turns out, but more than 70 years since the first bomb test, the Marshall Islanders are well accustomed to waiting.
/>In this March 14, 1946, file photo, people wave farewell to their Bikini Atoll home from a Navy LST transporting them to a new home on Rongerik Atoll 109 miles away. (Clarence Hamm/AP)
Timothy J. Jorgensen is associate professor of Radiation Medicine, and Director of the Health Physics and Radiation Protection Graduate Program, at Georgetown University. His scientific expertise is in radiation biology, cancer epidemiology, and public health.
He is board certified in public health by the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE). He serves on the National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP), he chairs the Georgetown University Radiation Safety Committee, and he is an associate in the Epidemiology Department at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University. His scientific interests include the genetic determinants of cellular radiation resistance, and the genes that modify the risk of cancer.
Bikini Atoll: History Unfolds from the Depths of the Ocean
Nineteen fifty seven gave rise to the original Japanese Kaiju, Godzilla: the creature who rose from the depths of the ocean. When the Japanese freighter Eiko-maru is destroyed near Odo Island, another ship, the Bingo-maruis sent to investigate and meets the same fate as the first. Fishing boats are destroyed, fishing catches mysteriously drop, and suddenly folklore concerning a giant sea monster emerges. Japanese scientists speculate this deep-sea monster may have awoken from his deep sleep from the hydrogen bomb testing. The research team determined a weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, capable of disintegrating oxygen atoms and killing organisms by asphyxiation, would destroy the monster. Although the plan to destroy Godzilla was successful, the researchers left us with a dire warning: further nuclear weapons testing may give rise to another Godzilla in the future.
The Bikini Atoll, birthplace of Godzilla, is a place where hazmat suits were once donned, and bikinis cast aside. While the name evokes tropical scenery, endless sandy beaches, and beautiful women dressed in tiny swimsuits, this is not the case.
Bikini Atoll is one of the 29 atolls and five islands that comprise the Marshall Islands. These atolls of the Marshalls are scattered over 357,000 square miles located north of the equator in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This lonely part of the world is defined as Micronesia, first discovered by the Spanish in the 1600s and then later by the Germans. The Bikini Islanders maintained little to no contact with the outsiders because of the Bikini Atoll’s remote location in the northern Marshalls. The southern atolls were more attractive to the early visitors because of the fertile, lush topography. In the early 1900s, the Japanese began to administer the Marshall Islands and after a bloody and gruesome war in 1944, the Bikini Islanders’ life of harmony drew to a close as the American forces crushed the Japanese forces, taking control of the islands.
After the war ended in December of 1945, President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to Army and Navy officials to begin testing atomic weapons to determine the effects of airborne and underwater nuclear explosions on ships, equipment, and materials. A fleet of 95 surplus and captured ships were used as targets, including the Saratoga, the Arkansas, and the Japanese battleship Nagato. In March of 1946, the residents of Bikini Atoll were forcibly relocated in preparation for Operation Crossroads, and over the next 12 years, the United States delivered and detonated a total of 23 atomic and hydrogen bombs on this tiny slice of paradise, rendering it uninhabitable to this date.
The Bikini Atoll, a chain of 23 islands with inviting sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and a turquoise lagoon, present an idyllic beach paradise and a startling paradox for the nuclear age. It is an incredible feat of nature that this natural wonder in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, once rocked violently by nuclear bomb blasts, appears so beautiful and abundant almost 70 years later. From the air, Bikini is an inviting paradise with lush green grasses and unchecked vegetation, the coral reef has regrown, and the lagoon is crystalline. Few homes remain in standing condition, providing the unsuspecting traveler a glimpse of what was once civilization on this now deserted island. From the air, her secrets are intact.
Much like radiation, the impacts of World War II, the Cold War, and the continued nuclear arms race linger. When the United States government persuaded the residents to leave their homes they were promised they would be able to return as soon as the testing ended. It has been more than half a centurysince Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, the military governor of the Marshalls asked the Bikinians to leave their atoll for the “good of mankind and to end all world wars”.
From the time of their exile in 1946 to present, the Bikinians struggled to cope with their new existence. They were transported from atoll to atoll, likened to the Biblical exodus of the Israelites struggling for survival. While they hoped for relief from their struggles, their once beautiful paradise was in the process of being destroyed. Operation Castle began in January of 1954: a series of tests that would include the first air-deliverable and the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever detonated by the United States – its code name was Bravo. As the sun rose across the horizon on March 1, 1954, Bravo was detonated on the surface of the reef in the northwestern corner of Bikini Atoll. Coral, sand, plant, and marine life were obliterated. A fireball of intense heat shot toward the sky at 300 miles per hour. Within minutes a grotesque plume of ash filled with nuclear debris, shot upwards toward the sky generating winds hundreds of miles an hour. The gusts stripped the island of life – peeling each branch and vegetation from the soil. Shortly thereafter, a white snow-like ash fell on everything including the Rongelap and Ailinginae Atolls, located 125 miles east of Bikini. A total of 84 people living on the islands, including children who played in the fallout, became the casualties for this massive explosion. That night the children fell ill to radiation poisoning and were moved to Kwajalein Atoll.
Bravo was a thousand times more powerful than the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the end of World War II. One and a half hours after the 15-megaton blast, 23 members of a Japanese fishing boat, the Fukuryu-maru (Lucky Dragon), were also contaminated as they watched in awe the white ash fall on them. These men had no idea they would become part of a scandal that rocked their nation. This explosion eventually became the inspiration for the original movie Godzilla.
After 23 detonations, the nuclear testing on Bikini ended in 1958, although it wasn’t until the early 1970s the residents would be able to return to their once fertile home. This homecoming celebration was cut short, however, after the Trust Territory officials discovered the radioactive element most prevalent on Bikini, cesium 137, had travelled through the food chain and into the bodies of the islanders. Evidence of radiation persists, though neighboring atolls present less risk. Today the people of Bikini remain scattered throughout the Marshall Islands as they await to return to their homeland once again. Bikini remains uninhabited yet it is not abandoned. In the early 1990s, divers and tourism agencies began to show a keen interest in Bikini’s alluring scenery, and after much consideration the government opened the atoll to visitors in June of 1996. The hope is to expand the economic base for possible future resettlement of the Bikinians.
Today the Bikini Atoll presents an exciting adventure for enthusiastic underwater explorers who want to experience her lush green topography topside and dive into the mysterious remains of the ships who were also casualties of the nuclear testing. As divers descend upon these shipwrecks, now laying in their watery graves, they can gain an incredible appreciation for their incredible and violent history.
Under the turquoise lagoon, the bones of Navy vessels, a Japanese cruiser, and a Japanese battleship. The main drivers for the nuclear testing was the United States Navy who were concerned with nuclear weapons obliterating their fleets. Brushing aside any opposition to the testing, the military loaded up an estimated $450 million dollars’ worth of target ships with livestock, including cows, goats, and guinea pigs. Operation Crossroads left behind a sunken fleet of some of the most historic war vessels once in commission. The testing resulted in serious radioactivity and environmental damage and yet despite a low-level of persisting radioactivity, the 13 wrecks that quietly sit on the bottom of the lagoon have proved to be a draw for recreational diving and tourism.
Bikini’s “nuclear fleet” mainstay is the USS Saratoga(CV-3), built for the United States Navy in the 1920s and measuring 900ft in length is the world’s only diveable aircraft carrier. Originally designed as a battlecruiser, she was converted into one of the Navy’s first aircraft carriers in 1928. USS Saratogawas one of the three prewar US fleet aircraft carriers to serve throughout World War II. She served in the Guadalcanal Campaign, Battle of the eastern Solomons, New Georgia Campaign, invasion of Bougainville, and provided air support during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands Campaign. After a short career as a training vessel she was thrust into service in 1945 into the Battle of Iwo Jima as a dedicated night fighter carrier. In 1946 her illustrious career culminated in being designated as a target ship for nuclear testing during Operation Crossroads. She survived the first test with little damage then sunk during the next test.
Alongside the USS Saratoga lays the USS Arkansas(BB-33), designated as a dreadnought battleship. Dreadnought’s design had two revolutionary features: an “all-big-gun” armament scheme, with heavy caliber guns, and steam turbine propulsion. These vessels became the symbol of national power of the early 20th century. Commissioned in September 1912, USS Arkansasserved in both World Wars. During World War I she served as part of Battleship Division Nine, attached to the British Grand fleet, but saw no action. Following the beginning of World War II she was assigned to conduct neutrality patrols in the Atlantic. Upon America’s entry into the war she supported the invasion of Normandy and then provided gunfire support to the invasion of southern France. In 1945, she transferred to the Pacific Ocean and bombarded Japanese fleets during both invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In 1946 her service ended as an expended target during Operation Crossroads.
Another interesting ship with its own unique history is the YO-160, built in 1943 by the Concrete Ship Constructors of National City, California for the Maritime Commission. This concrete ship was in active service as a fuel barge in the Pacific Ocean before she was expended as part of the nuclear testing program with Operation Crossroads. She survived the first test performed on July 1, 1946 although upon inspection was deemed radioactive limiting personnel access of up to five hours at a time. On July 24, she was then used for a secondary test and sank immediately after the blast, primarily due to damage caused prior to the secondary blast.
The USS Gilliam(APA-57), launched in March of 1944 and named after Gilliam County in Oregon, was the lead ship her class as an attack transport during World War II. Gilliam served in the United States Navy for a short two years before she was prepared to participate in in the atomic bomb testing in 1946. USS Gilliamwas expended as a target ship on July 1, 1946 and the first ship struck by the blast. She sunk to the bottom of the lagoon.
USS Anderson(DD-411) was the first of the Sims class destroyers to be delivered to the United States Navy in 1939. She served in the Joint Task Force 1 in Pearl harbor after which she was slated to be utilized in Operation Crossroads. USS Andersonsank on July 1, 1946.
Also gracing the bottom of Bikini’s lagoon is Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s 708-foot flagship, the battleship Nagato. She was a super-dreadnought battleship built for the Imperial Japanese Navy during 1910. She was designated the lead ship of her class serving as a supply carrier for the survivors of the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. Between 1934 and 1936 she was provided improvements in her armor and machinery. Nagato briefly participated in the Second Sino-Japanese War on 1937 then later served as the flagship of Admiral Yamamoto during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The USS Apogon (SS-308) was a Balao-class submarine named after the apogon saltwater fish found in tropical and subtropical waters. She was sunk at Bikini during the atomic bomb test “Baker” on July 25, 1946.
The USS Carlisle (APA-69), acquired by the Navy in 1944, was a Gilliam-class attack transport vessel serving in World War II. She never served in active combat and after working as a transport vessel she was reassigned as a target vessel for Operation Crossroads. She was sunk on July 1, 1946.
Launched in July of 1944, USS LSM-60 was a World War II landing ship, medium (LSM) amphibious assault ship of the United States Navy. She was most notable for being the first naval vessel to deploy a nuclear weapon. Her cargo deck and hull were modified to lower and suspend a fission bomb used in underwater testing. The bomb was suspended 90 feet below the vessel in the lagoon and on July 25, 1946 sank along with eight other target ships as the bomb detonated. She was sunk along with the USS Saratoga. Seamen onsite claimed that “there were no identifiable pieces” of her remaining after the detonation.
The USS Lamson (DD-367) was a Mahan-class destroyer in the United States Navy. She served in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, participated in the Battle of Tassafaronga, and remained undamaged until being hit by a kamikaze during the recapture of the Philippines. USS Lamsonwas reassigned to serve s a test vessel for Operation Crossroads in 1946, where she sank.
The ARDC-13, built in December of 1945, was a 2800-ton dry dock built and used during the Able and Baker nuclear weapons testing of Operations Crossroads. She was specifically commissioned to determine the effects of a nuclear explosion on land-based concrete structures. The ARDC-13’s design was important for better understanding in determining the need to build structures that could withstand severe waves and flooding especially for ports considered as targets for bombs. She structurally survived the first test although she did have some repairs made in preparation for the second. She was repositioned from her initial location in preparation for test B and sank in 1946.
The USS Pilotfish (SS-386) was a Balao-class submarine named after the pilot fish often found in the company of sharks. There is some controversy surrounding her final disposal during the Bikini testing. In July of 1946 she was selected for disposal in Operation Crossroads. Moored 363 yards (332 meters) from “surface zero” and sunk by the test Baker underwater explosion. The explosion’s pressure waves compressed her hull, forcing her hatches open, and flooding her entirely. Some sources claim however, that the wreck was resurfaced and used again during Operation Sandstone in 1948. This general narrative has been disclaimed as a false narrative by the US National Park Service.
The Japanese cruiser, Sakawa, an Agano-class cruiser which served with the Imperial Japanese Navy and served during World War II, was best known for her role in the atomic testing during Operation Crossroads on July 2, 1946. Sakawa, along with Nagatowere the primary target ships in the atomic bomb air burst test Able. She was moored off the portside of the Nevada where the bomb was to be dropped, she was carrying various cages with live animals used as test subjects for radiation effects. The intense blast caused her to burn, crushing her superstructure, damaging her hull and breaching her stern. After failed attempts to tow her from the detonation site in hopes to salvage her, she sank.
These 13 vessels, now resting on the bottom of the lagoon in the Bikini Atoll, bear witness to the beginning of the Cold War – the race to develop weapons capable of mass destruction to balance the political and geographic structure of world powers. The United States resumed their nuclear testing program in the Pacific Ocean after deploying and successfully detonating atomic bombs during the final stage of World War II on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively. As a result of the massive destruction, the realization that these weapons could be used in further assaults became apparent to not only the United States but other countries who were also developing their own weapons programs.
The Bikini Atoll has conserved the tangible evidence of the power of nuclear testing. The violence witnessed on the landscape and living elements on the islands demonstrate the consequences on the environment and health of those who have been exposed to the blasts and radiation. These tests gave rise to images and symbols of the developing nuclear age, and led to the development of national and international movements advocating disarmament. The Cold War and its events have left a significant legacy. Bikini Atoll, now an image of idyllic peace and tranquility, symbolizes the dawn of a nuclear age that helped shape the foundation of the United States, Russia, China, and the British Empire.
While Godzilla is fictional, the circumstances that led to his creation were very real and more than anyone, the Japanese fully understood the impacts of a nuclear war.
Learn about the devastating health effects of the people on the Likiep Atoll as a result of the U.S. nuclear tests at Bikini atoll, Marshall Islands
NARRATOR: Likiep is a little atoll in the Marshall Islands, right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Joseph de Bruhm was born and raised here. He was just under 25 years old when it happened. There was no warning. On the 28th of February, 1954, the sky that had always been so peaceful was transformed into a towering inferno.
JOSEPH DE BRUHM: "We didn't know about it. The next thing we know a bright light comes up, it makes you blind for a few seconds and you cannot even move. And then you can hear the rumbling and you think the world is cracking or falling apart."
NARRATOR: Five hundred kilometers away at Bikini Atoll, the USA had been planning Operation Castle for months, one of a string of top-secret nuclear arms tests. The Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb detonated that day had an explosive yield of 15 megatons, making it the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated by the United States. The explosion's mushroom cloud stretched 40 kilometers into the sky, dispersing nuclear fallout across thousands of square kilometers in the Pacific.
BONNY DE BRUHM: "I saw them right in front of me while I was carrying my daughter. She was eight months old at that time. Then I tried to catch what I saw coming down, like so many kinds of color. So many colors - blue, yellow, red. And I tried to catch - I thought I might catch some of it. But when I tried to catch, I didn't see anything in my hand. But I saw them falling down, coming down. I didn't know that it was a poison."
NARRATOR: Bonny de Bruhm developed thyroid cancer. She was lucky and survived. However, many people on the island did die of cancer-related illnesses. And still today, over 50 years after the incident, cancer is one of the leading causes of death on Likiep Atoll.
May 21, 1956: Bikini Is Da Bomb
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1956: The United States proves it can deliver a hydrogen bomb from the air -- by dropping one on the small island group known as the Bikini Atoll. The B-52 bomber crew misses its target by a mile (well, 4 miles, actually) but the point is made: Nobody is safe from the most fearsome weapon ever designed by humans.
And we don't mean the itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny two-piece bathing suit first worn by the native women of this Pacific Islands paradise, albeit a deadly weapon in its own right.
It seems inconceivable now, but there was a time when hydrogen bombs were routinely tested right out in the open -- monstrously menacing mushroom clouds, radioactive shroud and all. After a while tests were driven underground and, under a series of treaties which began in 1963, testing was banned almost entirely.
But in 1946, when U.S. nuclear bomb testing began in what was called Operation Crossroads in this remote Pacific location, memories were still fresh of the atomic bomb attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which effectively ended World War II. The end of the war also ended the convenient alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's only superpowers, whose faceoff in the Cold War would define geopolitics for the next half century.
The peace was kept largely by the unthinkable prospect of global thermonuclear war. The visceral fear everyone should have of these apocalyptic weapons was flamed by public tests which left no doubt that a nation who had them possessed unspeakable power. And, indeed, no H-bomb has ever been launched in anger.
So in a tense world which was toying with technology designed to destroy the world, testing nukes was in part about advancing an agenda of peace. Transparency let the world (read: Soviet Union) see just what they were up against, serving as sufficient reminders of mutual assured destruction, or MAD.
In 1949 the Soviet Union tested its first nuke, and then it really was game on.
The U.S. test on this day (west of the international date line it was still May 20 in North America) in 1956 was not the biggest payload ever dumped on Bikini, but it was arguably the biggest deal. If you couldn't deliver an H-bomb with your long-range bombers, then possessing one wasn't really much of a threat at all.
Showboating aside, there was always an (ostensibly) solid scientific reason for testing. One of the ironies of this test was that human error pretty much scuttled the science, which an account on nuclearweaponarchive.org says was to "gather weapon-effects data for high-yield air bursts."
"The B-52 was flown from Fred Island at Eniwetak. The intended ground zero was directly over Namu Island, but the flight crew mistook an observation facility on a different island for its targeting beacon, with the result that the weapon delivery was grossly in error," nuclearweaponarchive.org says. "The bomb detonated some 4 miles off target over the ocean northeast of Namu. As a result essentially all of the weapons-effects data was lost."
Testing on the island group ended in 1958, but not before three of them were completely obliterated. "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," comedian Bob Hope joked at the time.
And what of the Bikini islanders? They were moved to a series of other islands where they suffered hardships, repeatedly faced starvation and never lost the desire to return home. The United States repatriated them in 1968, but radiation levels were worse than anticipated, and they were removed again in 1978.
Evolution of the B-52, From Top-Secret Marvel to Flying Fossil
The B-52 bomber is the longest-serving United States military aircraft. In its 60 years of service as a nuclear bomber, it became a symbol of both dread and assurance — it was the thing that could end civilization and would prevent the end from occurring. Although it never fought in the nuclear war it was designed for, it has fought in nearly every other war since its creation.
After the Air Force announces that it wants its next bomber to be a jet, Boeing engineers quickly redesign its latest propeller bomber over a weekend in a hotel room, producing a 33-page proposal and a sweptwing balsa wood model that becomes the United States Air Force’s most enduring plane. After testing, the first B-52 enters service in 1955.
A B-52 drops the first hydrogen bomb from a plane in a test over the Bikini Islands. Though the bomb misses the target by four miles, the plane gets away safely and the 4-megaton explosion is hailed a success.
B-52s begin 24-hour nuclear deterrent flights across the globe, with several nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times. In the next year, two B-52s crash carrying nuclear bombs, one in California and one in North Carolina. Safety systems keep the bombs from detonating, though later investigations suggest that most of the safeguards failed.
B-52s begin bombing enemy positions in South Vietnam, trading their nuclear mission for carpet bombing runs over the jungle. They dropped mile-long walls of explosions so powerful that they were felt in Saigon.
After two more nuclear-armed B-52s crash, scattering radioactive debris over sites in Spain and Greenland, the Air Force ends continuous flights of nuclear-armed B-52s. Crews are instead put on 24-hour ground alert.
More than 100 B-52s bomb North Vietnam during the so-called Christmas bombing in December. The attacks, which level swaths of Hanoi and kill hundreds of residents, are meant to push the North Vietnamese into peace negotiations. North Vietnamese troops shoot down 15 B-52s during the 12-day campaign. A peace accord is signed a month later.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, B-52s are taken off nuclear alert for the first time in decades. As part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, the Air Force publicly cuts the wings off 365 bombers. Most of the remaining B-52s are switched to a conventional mission and begin completing bomb runs over Iraq during the Persian Gulf war.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, B-52s fly over Afghanistan, dropping laser-guided bombs and long strands of gravity bombs on Taliban forces. The planes stay in the region, providing close air support, until 2006. The big bombers also destroy enemy positions during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
B-52s regularly fly what the Air Force calls “assurance and deterrence” missions near Russian and Chinese airspace, acting as a loud and visible reminder of the United States’ military might.