National Geographic : 1946 Jul
Farewell to Bikini BY CARL MARKWITH * With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ABOUT the middle of February, 1946, modern civilization suddenly overtook the natives of Bikini Atoll in the Ralik Chain of the Marshall Islands.t These brown people had progressed to using kerosene lanterns and a few imported steel hand tools, introduced by missionaries. Thanks to the Japs and our own armed forces, they were familiar with many kinds of airplanes, but ships were something that passed far at sea, if at all. A few could read and write their simple language, and Juda, the local chief, could speak and understand a little English. The outside world they knew little about, and cared less. Then the U. S. Navy decided that Bikini was the place to test the atomic bomb, and almost overnight the natives found themselves in the Atomic Age. + The first inkling the Bikinians had of this was the arrival of Commodore Ben H. Wyatt and his staff to gain their consent to the test and to arrange for their evacuation to safety on another island in the Marshall group. After much discussion, Juda arose and spoke for his people. He signified that they would be happy to cooperate. The arrival of the Navy Hydrographic Of fice survey ships Sumner and Bowditch in Bikini lagoon a few days later inaugurated what is now known as Operation Crossroads. Their crews of scientists, naturalists, and en gineers began surveys of the lagoon, cata logued and classified animal and vegetable life, and started clearing a channel to the beach for landing and evacuation craft. Pioneers Sail for New Home LST 1108 arrived and took about twenty of the native men to Rongerik, their future home, about 125 miles to the east. This group was paid by the Navy to help a detach ment of Seabees under Lt. Comdr. Harold W. Grieve, of Commodore Wyatt's staff, erect tem porary tent housing and provide a water sup ply for the main body which was to follow. None of this had much effect upon the islanders remaining on Bikini until the ar rival, on March 2, of a Navy photographic team from Washington, D. C., under the di rection of Comdr. Frederick A. Spencer. I had the good fortune to be one of the motion picture sound men in that crew. Bikini, as I first saw it from the air, was something to remember. I'd been seeing South Sea islands as they looked after both we and the Japs had had our innings-hot, dirty heaps of coral overrun with military installa tions, roaring with gasoline engines, reeking of Diesel oil, and almost completely treeless. Bikini Island was a long, narrow crescent of gleaming sand, well grown with palms and other vegetation and framing one side of a lagoon of incredibly blue and green water. As our PBM taxied across the lagoon to its mooring, a small outrigger canoe dashed past toward the beach, where sailing outriggers were drawn up and boys played in the water. When I commented that the setting might have come out of Nordhoff and Hall's stories about the South Seas, one of the sailors in the whaleboat alongside said, "Naw, you mean the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC." Whaleboat Transfers Supplies We and almost 3,000 pounds of gear were finally transferred by whaleboat to the deck of the Sumner, which was to be our base of operations for a week. The rest of that day was spent in getting settled in quarters and checking over the mass of equipment necessary for making sound motion pictures. Officers and crew of the already overcrowded Sumner gladly made room for us. Early the next morning, Sunday, March 3, some of the crew gave us our first taste of what they called "duckin'." With their as sistance, we loaded ourselves and the inevi table boxes and cases into one of those wonder ful seagoing trucks known as a DUKW, or Duck, which was bobbing at the foot of the quarter-deck sea ladder. The coxswain or should I say driver-cast off and literally set us on the beach (pages 98, 100). * The author, now on leave from the National Geo graphic Society, is a Photographer's Mate, 3d class, U. S. N . R. He visited Bikini and Rongerik as a member of a Navy photographic team. t See Map of the Pacific Ocean with 73 Island In sets, supplement to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1936. D See "Our New Military Wards, the Marshalls," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1945, especially map on page 329; "Hidden Key to the Pacific," by Willard Price, June, 1942; "American Pathfinders in the Pacific," by William H. Nicholas, May, 1946; and "Your Navy as Peace Insur ance," by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, June, 1946.