Robyn and I were headed from Pohnpei to Kosrae, but Continental, being the large landmass landing that it was, missed it, and we ended up in the Marshall Islands instead. Our entry point was the Kwajalein Atoll, or ‘Kwaj,’ as the American military missile expert sitting next to me referred to it, just before he deplaned. And that was the second reason we weren’t supposed to be there. Because Kwaj, at 2174 square kilometers, was the planet’s largest lagoon, and the site of the Reagan Test Site, the biggest missile catcher’s mitt on Earth.
“All nonmilitary personnel must remain on the aircraft.” Said the stewardess. I hadn’t realized we were personnel. It felt more like we were impersonnelators.
There were some nonmilitary personnel that were getting off the plane, however. These were local Marshallese, who lived outside the Reagan Test Site area, in the adjacent Slum of the Pacific island-city of Ebeye. Over 13,000 residents lived in abject poverty, on 78 acres of semi-permanent project housing, in one of the most densely populated places in the world. It had been like flying over Soweto.
Every flimsy shack had up to forty inhabitants. Whatever Marlon Brando had said about privacy entitlement on Tetiaroha, hadn’t sailed over on any stick and shell charts to these people. The gutters were full of aluminum cans, and the storm drains clogged with rainy season dirt.
Natives and migrant workers went from undersized children to supersized hypertensive diabetic adults, from the ramen noodle and American potato chip and candy bar and cola junk food downtown diet. Some of it had paradoxically saved some lives, four years before Robyn and I arrived.
Ebeye’s drinking water came over from the US military instillation in trucks, already chlorinated, but apparently not enough. The citric acidified sugar bomb powdered drink mixes, which some residents added to the liquid, had killed the cholera that had killed their neighbors.
The other lethal liquid that was killing them was alcohol, which accounted for most of the criminal acts, and practically all of the suicides. Ebeyites killed themselves at a rate of ten times that of the suicide rate in the States. A third of the population tested positive for syphilis, and AIDS was on its way.
For 1800 years before the Spaniards decided they owned them, the Marshallese had lived a tranquil existence in the sun and waves, on a diet of fish and coconut meat, in thatched huts to keep out the rain and wind. But then the worlds of the third and the first collided. In 1788 a British convict transport captain named John Marshall cruised through, on his way to China, and named the islands ‘Lord Musgrave’s Range,’ before his own name was attached. Spain sold them to Germany in 1885, which ceded them to Japan in 1914, until the Americans overran everyone in 1944.
And paradise went from free, to commoditized, to lost- mournful, monotonous, and superficial. Ebeye is less than a mile long and about 200 yards wide. Trees and plants are scarce. Children swim off the crumbling pier, in water polluted by human waste and ‘pampered’ by disposable diapers. Sores on faces and bodies are common. They seldom return to school after lunch, if there is any. Instead, they play on run-down basketball courts, or bicycle aimlessly. Their older brothers kill time in a similar manner, circling the island in already rusted new vehicles, air conditioner and boom-box hip-hop cranked, all day every day, headed for no specific destination and less purpose. There is only one gas station and no service station. The minimum wage was a flat two dollars, and cash was king.
From the serenity and symbiosis of breadfruit trees and coconut trees pandanus trees and flame trees with brilliant red blossoms where, on the Eastern ‘towards dawn’ Ralik chain, the island of Kuwakleen had actually been named Ri-ruk-jan-leen for ‘the people who harvested the flowers,’ with an uncrowded way of life that included raising pigs and chickens and fishing and collecting snails, had become a prison.
After more than 40 years of American control, the metal and plastic and glass ‘benign neglect’ garbage was dumped where it fell, forming ugly rings around the Marshall Islands.
It’s not as if the Americans were deliberately trying to kill them. It was simply that they were measuring how they would die, in the lethal environment they had decided to create for them. Some of the outer island migrants that had been relocated to Ebeye had come from the place that had given Diana the name of her swimsuit- the group of atolls that had originally been named in 1529 ‘Los Jardines,’ The Gardens, by Spanish explorer Alonso de Salazar, arriving on his ship Florida, to the first place in the Marshalls he had been received with gifts, rather than stones, from amazing 30-foot outrigger canoes that could hit over 20 miles per hour. Bikini.
Between 1946 and 1958, the Americans did what any civilized liberating force would have done. They detonated 67 nuclear weapons in the ‘Pacific Proving Grounds.’ In August of 1945 what Harry Truman was trying to prove was that he could sink a warship at sea with an atomic bomb. He sent 42,000 military personnel, 242 ships, 156 aircraft, 300 cameras with 18 tons of film, and 1.3 billion dollars to sink 95 ships (including the Nagato flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy, from whose bridge Admiral Yamamoto had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor), 3,350 rats, goats and pigs, sheared and smeared with suntan lotion, to the ground zero waters of Bikini lagoon, in the most spectacular and expensive science experiment in history. He called it Operation Crossroads. The local US military governor had persuaded the 167 dutifully Christian Bikini Islanders to leave their remote idyllic paradise temporarily, ‘for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.’ They were shipped 125 miles east to Rongerik Atoll and given a few weeks’ worth of food, with cheerful assurances that they could return as soon as the tests were over. No one could imagine that they would never come back.