The Spoiled Coconuts of Bikini Atoll

07.18.2005 | George Zucker | Interviews & First Person | 2 Comments

Moses Lowry hefted a coconut in his left hand. The machete in his right hand poised as if waiting for the coconut to settle down. The blade flashed twice in the tropical sun. The coconut opened in four equal pieces against the palm of his left hand. “You eat?” Moses Lowry asked, offering the split coconut to the astonished reporters with him. We looked down, half-expecting to see a severed finger or two in the sand. Moses Lowry laughed and began to eat.
Lowry, 48, was a major Bikini Atoll landholder and village leader when we shared that midday snack in 1969 on the island of Airukiraru – a smiling nuclear nomad who thought he had come home at last. The tiny island was across the channel from Eneu, where 13 test atomic bombs were blasted from barges and air drops, the last just 11 years earlier. Between 1946 and 1958, the pleasant atoll 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii was scrubbed of vegetation and badly scarred by nuclear firestorms. But by 1969, lush tropical growth had reappeared and the lagoons were again clear and bountiful. The first no-man’s land of the Nuclear Age seemed ready to welcome back its people.

In August 1969, just two weeks after the Apollo 11 moonwalkers left Hawaii, a small group of Japanese, Australian and British newsmen, plus two U.S. reporters (myself and Web Nolan, my UPI competitor in Honolulu), joined scientists from the Atomic Energy Commission on a final inspection tour of Bikini Atoll. Warren Roll, the chief photographer for The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, was assigned to work with me. A $3.3 million cleanup was making room to restore the vaporized coconut palms and the pandanus and breadfruit trees. The 550 returning Bikinians would inherit the massive concrete bunkers and miles of copper cable – the only visible reminder that the tiny atoll had known the fury of the atom. No relic of Bikinian culture remained, save a few scarred tombstones in the village graveyard.

We climbed aboard a two-engine Army transport plane at Hickam Air Force Base for the 12-hour flight from Honolulu. The flight included a top-secret, midnight refueling stop at Johnston Island where we ate a nervous meal in the officers club under the steely watch of armed guards. Johnston Island was so secret, no one could tell us why it was so secret and we were warned not to ask. Reporters figured it had something to do with the storage of nuclear bombs, but years later we would learn Johnston Island in 1969 was actually a storage dump for chemical and biological weapons.

We arrived at Bikini at daybreak. The military pilot circled the atoll for the photographers. We could see the tents below for the Army men and the dozen Marshallese who had been working on the six-month cleanup. Truckloads of rusting, radioactive junk had been dumped into the sea, or buried hundreds of miles away. When the government taskforce arrived on the island of Eneu, second largest in the atoll, they had to bulldoze their way in from the beach.

That first day, we toured the atoll aboard a large “Mike” boat, a World War II military landing craft once used to deliver U.S. Marines to the nearby beaches of Kwajalein, Truk and Wake islands. As we trudged through numerous islands in the atoll, AEC scientists smiled at the low readings they were recording on their Geiger counters. The clear blue lagoon teemed with yellowfin tuna, bonito, sea bass and mullet. Crabs, langostura lobster and other shellfish, deemed free of radiation, were plucked by the bushel from the shallow reefs. “It’s a good sign that it’s safe here,” AEC physicist Tommy McGraw said after he checked some lobsters with his Baird Atomic Counter. “Strontium 90 tends to stay around longer in shellfish. We can’t say there is absolutely no radiation danger, but if there is we can’t find it. There’s hardly any radiation left.”

Over the next three days, we had our fill of boiled lobster and beer. “I never thought I’d get sick of eating lobster,” an Aussie TV cameraman complained. The comment would take on an eerie twist a decade later when we all would worry about that lobster making us sick.

McGraw, 41, said he was recording levels of radiation lower than naturally occur in Denver, Colorado. Moses Lowry cheered the good news. Since 1948, Lowry and his family had lived with other refugees on the island of Kili, 425 miles away in the southern Marshalls. The safe readings meant his family could return to Bikini and a relatively affluent life. The returning villagers would inherit the fully equipped tent city, plus the airstrip, harbor, two barges and three landing craft. The government also promised them a community house, school and a few dozen cinderblock homes. “They asked that the houses be cinderblock,” McGraw said. “They want the permanence, something solid.”

But even cinderblock dreams can crumble. Ten years later, Bikini Atoll would be ruled still too dangerous for human habitation. Moses Lowry didn’t know the work he and his villagers put into the new coconut nursery would yield contaminated crops. The Bikinians hoped the 100,000 coconut palms planted on the two largest islands of Eneu and Bikini would produce 30 tons of copra each month. But when the palms began bearing fruit, the coconuts were laced with radioactive cesium-137, a lethal leftover from America’s most powerful hydrogen bomb in 1954. Again the Bikinians packed their bags for Kili, the hated refuge just one-sixth the size of their homeland. In 1978, scientists said that food grown in Bikini would not be safe to eat until well into the 21st century. We didn’t know that in 1969, when lobsters pulled from the reefs were boiled and eaten with worry-free gusto. Yellowfin tuna caught in the channel was wolfed down raw with soy sauce each evening in the mess tent. News that these seafood feasts were seasoned with cesium-137 was yet a decade away.

Our only worry on leaving Bikini was the short runway. It was too short to take off with a full tank of gas, so we left with just enough fuel to reach nearby Kwajalein where we could top the tanks. The long flight to Honolulu included a second refueling stop at Wake Island. Back in Honolulu, I ran with the lead about radiation in Bikini being lower than in Denver. New York flagged it on the world circuits as an AP Special Report. Hundreds of newspapers played it on page 1, including The Washington Post and the Washington Star. It would not be the last time that front-page news was wrong.

Now more than 30 years later, the descendants of Moses Lowry and other homesick Bikinians remain scattered throughout the Marshall Islands, living largely on government help under a $99 million resettlement trust fund. Since their beloved atoll was found still unsafe in the 1970s, the twice-exiled people have insisted that the entire island of Bikini be excavated and the toxic topsoil gouged out to a depth of 15 inches. But scientists say this costly dig would simply turn Bikini into a desert island. Meanwhile, Bikini Atoll has become a popular destination for sport fishermen and scuba divers.

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