by Michael Lujan Bevacqua
The Marianas Variety
August 18, 2010
We on Guam should all know about the US testing of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands and its deadly and tragic legacy. It is something that this entire region should take seriously, and teach to students of all levels, alongside Columbus sailing blue oceans, Americans and their independence or Chamorros suffering in Manengon waiting for liberation. It is critical because that history of nuclear testing speaks volumes to the relationship Micronesia has to the United States, by making clear this region’s strategic value.
But, one thing that we should always keep in mind is that the Marshall Island weren’t the only place where nuclear weapons were tested in the Pacific. There were US tests in the Aleutians, French tests in French Polynesia and British tests in Kiribati and Australia.
At the 2010 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs that I attended last week in Japan, I got the chance to hear the story of Paul Ahpoy who is a member of an association for veterans from Fiji who were adversely affected by the testing at Christmas Island in Kiribati. Paul, who was a sailor in the British Navy and witnessed 7 tests, during his speech described a typical test day as follows:
…we would line up on the beach and were told to obey orders from a loud speaker on poles nearby. With our groups of about 400 servicemen, none of us wore any special protective clothing or monitoring devices. An airburst weapon would be dropped over the ocean about 12 miles away…, we would follow the drills, sit down, close your eyes, this would be followed by a searing heat flash, then sound waves enough to bust your eardrums. We would be ordered to stand up and turn around to see the huge moonlike object in the sky which then turned into a huge mushroom, blotting out the sun. We would then be yelled at to run for cover as strong winds blew in from the seas and black rain would pour down from the sky.A British veteran of those tests, Ken McGinley wrote in his book No Risks Involved, that when the bomb exploded “…there was a flash. At that instant I was able to see straight through my hands. I could see the veins. I could see the blood, I could see all the skin tissue, I could see the bones, and worst of all, I could see the flash itself. It was like looking into a white-hot diamond, a second sun.”
Paul and other sailors were not warned about the radioactive materials they were transporting, nor the dangerous effects of the testing and were in fact being fed fish from the very waters which were being poisoned by the testing. For the past 50 years, these sailors and their families have struggled with unknown, horrible diseases, which have claimed the lives of their children in mysterious shocking ways or made them and their children sterile. It was common for them to kiss their children goodnight and find them dead in the morning having choked to death on their own blood. Paul summed up his own tragedies as follows: “Personally I have had 59 lumps removed from my body. I lost my daughter when she was 3 ½ years old. My son is sterile and I fully understand that I will never have a grandchild. “
Through their organization, the Fiji veterans won the right to sue the British Government for compensation last year. Despite this victory, they recently had to close their office, and as in all cases such as this, the more time passes, the more pass on and the heavier the burden is for those who remain.
Paul concluded his speech by recounting what these veterans were told prior to these tests; namely that what they were doing with these bombs was a great service to humanity so that all their children could live in peace. Prior to the US conducting their testing in the Marshall Islands, they told the people of Bikini a similar thing, that because of the tests their islands, there would be no more wars.
This is why, these tragic stories are so crucial for all of us in the Pacific. These tests were not conducted on the mall in Washington D.C., in Piccadilly Square in London or Les Champs Elysees in Paris. They were conducted in faraway, isolated islands where even if things went horribly wrong, who would really be affected? A few thousand people which as Henry Kissinger noted, no one gives a damn about anyways? Some sea turtles and some coral and coconut trees? In other words, these were places which matter precisely because they do not matter. The lesson here is that while geography is strategically important in today’s globalized world, so is smallness and invisibility.
While Paul was giving his speech, I had a copy of his prepared remarks in front of me. After remembering those words about the great service for humanity those tests meant, he choked up and he quickly ended his speech. I looked down at the text to see what he had left to say. It was just a single sentence, but perhaps the most important one considering his tragic tale. The last line of his speech was: “I now thank you all for sharing with me and hope that our combined efforts to remove forever all nuclear weapons from our planet becomes a reality, so our children may live in peace.”