Fifty years later, 'Bravo' still impacts Marshallese

Fifty years later, 'Bravo' still impacts Marshallese

Rev. Joe A. Malayang
The Marjuro Atoll, Marshall Islands—I'm here with an interfaith U.S. delegation that includes Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, among many others. We're here for the 50th anniversary of "Operation Bravo," the detonation of a hydrogen bomb that was 1,000 times more powerful, with 7,000 times the radiation fallout, than the one dropped in Hiroshima.

6:45 a.m., March 1, 2004: The early sunrise offers a spectacular view of the lagoon framed by coconut trees, branches dancing to the gentle wind. The small waves playfully race to the white sandy beach. Beyond the anchored ships, small islands complete the encirclement of the ocean pond. It is quiet, peaceful, so tenderly beautiful. The Genesis creation story comes to mind: "And God saw that it was good."

I'm thinking of the day-long activities ahead of my group, which will be joined by a Japanese delegation that includes a Hiroshima survivor. We're to march with Marshallese survivors/ victims to the government house for observance activities of a literally earth-shaking event which occurred exactly at 6:45 a.m., March 1, 1954: 50 years ago to the moment, when the U.S. detonated the "Bravo" bomb, one of 67 atmospheric tests between 1946 and 1958. Film footage shows islanders about to be evacuated and a U.S. official telling them that Bravo was for "the benefit of mankind."

At the 2004 observance, the U.S. ambassador echoes the company theme, thanking the Marshallese for their sacrifice in ending the cold war. But, a couple of Marshallese speakers cite recently declassified records that U.S. officials had underestimated the power of the bomb, while knowing that a deadly wind shift would rain nuclear fallout on inhabited atolls downwind. As it turns out, eight U.S. weather station personnel were immediately evacuated, but not the islanders. No radio announcement was made to warn ships, and the crew of the Japanese fishing boat, "Lucky Dragon," became unlucky victims, too.

The "benefit of mankind" has caused death and untold suffering from many forms of cancer among the gentle, unsuspecting islanders. We met them, and we heard their stories. Following Bravo, American universities and agencies spent huge sums researching radiation's effects on human victims. Yet, 50 years later, compensatory awards promised by the U.S. Nuclear Claims Tribunal have not been paid. Health care dollars are virtually gone, and four atolls are still contaminated and unsafe.

They're told the U.S. government does not have money for them. Meanwhile, they know that billions are spent for new wars, futilely looking for weapons of mass destruction, while threatening more wars on sovereign nations suspected of having them. This from a nation that has deliberately used nuclear WMDs on real people.

Even though the United States expresses "deep regrets" but not an "apology"—because the latter could involve reparations—the Marshallese know the difference between the U.S. government and its people. They appreciate the UCC's support, driven by the words in Micah: "What God is looking for is quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor."

The Rev. José A. Malayang is executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries and a member of the five-person Collegium of Officers.

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