Just before dawn on March 1, 1954, John Anjain was enjoying coffee on the beach in the South Pacific when he heard a thunderous blast, and saw something in the sky that he said “looked like a second sun was rising in the west.”
Later that day, “something began falling upon our island,” said Anjain, who at the time was 32 and chief magistrate of the Rongelap atoll, part of the Marshall Islands. “It looked like ash from a fire. It fell on me, it fell on my wife, it fell on our infant son.”
It wasn’t a paranormal experience. Anjain and his five young sons, along with the 82 other inhabitants of Rongelap, were collateral damage from a “deadly radioactive fallout from a hydrogen bomb test… detonated by American scientists and military personnel,” writes Walter Pincus in his new book, “Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders” (Diversion Books), out now.
In 1946, the US started testing atomic weapons began in Bikini Atoll, 125 miles west of Rongelap. Known as Operation Crossroads, the tests were moved to the islands from the US because officials feared “radioactive fallout could not be safely contained at
any site in the United States,” writes Pincus.
During those early tests, the Rongelapians were relocated to another island a safe distance away.
But the 1954 test was different. Not only were there no evacuations, but “Castle
Bravo,” as it was dubbed, was also the largest of the thermonuclear devices detonated during the military’s 67 tests, “a thousand times as large as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima,” writes Pincus.
It took just hours for fallout to reach the shores of Rongelap, where it blanketed the island with radioactive material, covering houses and coconut palm trees. On some parts of the isle, the white radioactive ash was “an inch and a half deep on the ground,” writes Pincus.
The natives, who often went barefoot and shirtless, were covered in the toxic debris. It stuck to their hair and bodies and even between their toes.
“Some people put it in their mouths and tasted it,” Anjain recalled at a Washington DC hearing run by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to investigate the incident in 1977. “One man rubbed it into his eye to see if it would cure an old ailment. People walked in it, and children played with it.”
Rain followed, which dissolved the ash and carried it “down drains and into the barrels that provided water for each household,” writes Pincus.
It took three days before American officials finally evacuated the island, taking the natives to nearby Kwajalein for medical tests. Many Rongelapians were already suffering health effects, like vomiting, hair loss, and all-over body burns and blisters. Tests showed their white blood cell counts plummeting, and high levels of radioactive strontium in their systems. No one died, at least not immediately. That would come later.
After three years, the Rongelapians were allowed to return home, assured by officials that conditions were safe. But by 1957, the rate of miscarriages and stillbirths on the island doubled, and by 1963 the first residents began to develop thyroid tumors.
Though they continued to conduct annual medical tests, the US military admitted no culpability, other than awarding each islander $10,800 in 1964 as compensation for the inconvenience.
In fact, some — including the islanders — have speculated that the US government had used the Rongelapians as “convenient guinea pigs” to study the effects of high-level radiation.
For Anjain and his family, the effects were devastating. His wife and four of his children developed cancer. A sixth child, born after the fallout, developed poliomyelitis and had to use a crutch after one of his legs became paralyzed.
But the biggest tragedy befell his fifth child Lekoj, who was just one year old when Castle Bravo covered their island in nuclear dust. As a child, he was mostly healthy, other than the occasional mysterious bruise. Soon after his 18th birthday, Lekoj was flown to an American hospital, where doctors discovered he had acute myelogenous leukemia.
Anjain stayed at his son’s bedside for weeks as he underwent chemo, holding his dying son’s hand and watching him disappear.
He recounted Lekoj’s final days in a letter to the Friends of Micronesia newsletter in 1973. “Bleeding started in his ears, mouth and nose and he seemed to be losing his mind,” Anjain wrote of his son. “When I would ask him questions he gave me no
answer except ‘Bad Luck.’”
Lekoj passed away on November 15, 1972, at just 19. Newsweek called him “the first, and so far only leukemia victim of an H-bomb,” and said his death was proof that nuclear fallout “could be even more lethal to human life than the great fireball itself.”
After burying his son at a spot overlooking Rongelap Lagoon, Anjain continued to battle for financial restitution for his family and other Rongelapian survivors. In 2004, just months before his death (of undisclosed causes) at 81, he marched with 2,000 people in Japan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1954 hydrogen bomb test that slowly killed his son.
In 2007, a Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded Rongelap more than $1 billion in damages, but not a penny of it has yet been paid. And according to a 2019 Columbia University study, radiation levels on Rongelap are still higher than Chernobyl or Fukushima.
For Anjain, it was never really about the money. “I know that money cannot bring back my son,” he once said. “It cannot give me back 23 years of my life. It cannot take the poison from the coconut crabs. It cannot make us stop being afraid.”