The Island That America Forgot
By Melane Waller
In the heart of the South Pacific, 2,100 miles southwest of Hawaii, is a small atoll that houses one of the U.S. Military’s most strategic outposts. The island’s name is Kwajalein (K-wa-dj-u-lan) or Kwaj for short. All of the people who live on Kwaj are U.S. military. If it wasn’t for the mind-numbing heat index and 100% humidity, you would think you were on the Mainland in any other small town U.S.A. The lawns are perfectly manicured, the streets are clean, houses are maintained just as in any other suburban oasis. Just like Suburbia, U.S.A., all of this maintenance is performed by imported help. Oh, come on, you don’t really think the Military statesiders were going to do the work, did you? Please! They are inside, placed firmly in front of the air-conditioning, watching re-runs of “Desperate Housewives”! (Did I mention it’s like a million degrees out there?) No, just like on the Mainland, manual labor is imported. But from where? you might ask. That’s a valid question considering this is an island in the middle of nowhere. However, where there is a will there is a way. Never doubt American ingenuity!
Ebeye: ‘Trash Island’
Just 25 miles (56.9 km) away is a teeny tiny island called Ebeye (Ee-by). Ebeye is considered the ghetto of the Pacific (I’m not making that up; see Wikipedia). Ebeye is the most populated island on the Kwajalein atoll with more than 15,000 residents and land area of only 1/8th of a square mile (about 80 acres). Yes, take a moment to process those numbers! Of the 15,000 residents, over half are under 18. It is a real life “Lord of The Flies.” Sadly, you can actually make that reference on the island; no one will be offended since no one knows the book. There is a school, but very few attend. Why go to school when you can play in the streets from dawn until dusk? The next logical question is, How did so many people come to be on such a small island?
In 1950, the American military decided it needed a far-off place where it could safely (and unobtrusively) test nuclear weapons. Someone happened upon the little atoll dubbed Bikini — ‘Cute name, beautiful island, let’s bomb it and see what happens!’ Before they could start testing their nukes, though, they had to obtain permission. So a group of what I imagine to be very intimidating, high-ranking military generals marched out to this little island that had little to no contact with the outside world. They announced to the island chief that, for the good of all humanity and the world, they needed to borrow their island for just a little while. Since it was matter of world wide security, the chief consented, having no idea what is about to actually happen (welcome to western civilization).
All the citizens of Bikini Atoll are promptly moved to Ebeye so that testing could commence. And boy did they test! They were so thorough that 63 years later the atoll that was Bikini is still so radioactive it is uninhabitable. The cataclysmic 15-megaton Castle Bravo nuclear test at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954 unexpectedly rained nuclear fallout and two inches of radioactive snow on nearby Rongelap Atoll, which had not been evacuated as had Bikini. The 1954 American authorities then evacuated Rongelap and were returned in 1957 with extensive medical surveillance. It wasn’t until 1985 and the biological damage was done that Greenpeace evacuated the inhabitants of Rongelap to Mejato island, approximately 110 miles away. Ebeye was the final destination for many of them in ‘Operation Exodus.’ Because Ebeye is significantly smaller than the islands of Rongelap, joblessness, suicide, and overcrowding are ongoing problems. Read more about the fallout on nearby Rongelap Atoll on the Greenpeace website and in this book.
The Lost Kids
Now, I can’t say the residents of Bikini didn’t get anything in return; the islands were leased so they did get some monetary support. The U.S. government also pays for most the former resident’s health care, at least those that can show that their conditions stem from radiation, and that just happens to be most of the residents. Cancer is rampant on the island. Children are born with extra digits and missing limbs, they are called “Octopus Kids” (Don’t believe me? Google it!). The waters surrounding the islands are some of the most radioactive, as well as polluted in the world (at least, prior to the Japanese nuclear meltdown).
For a more detailed history that will absolutely turn your stomach, watch the video Rocket Island.
The point of this post isn’t to try to affect change — I wouldn’t even know where to begin. There is no happy ending, no warm and fuzzies to make us feel better about the world. It is simply to bring awareness to something that most people, Americans in particular, seem to be blissfully unaware of. Consider the bubble burst!
I have talked extensively with friends who have visited and lived in Ebeye — both as teachers and construction volunteers. Many remark at how surprisingly happy, friendly, and appreciative the islanders seem. They are some of the most humble people in the world.