Reminder of Home : Marshallese Think Back to Bomb Testing

Times Staff Writer

Shortly before the United States in 1948 began its testing of atomic bombs on Eniwetok atoll in the central Pacific, Ketty Boktok's mother was among the 800 people evacuated to other parts of the Marshall Islands. Over the next decade 43 atomic devices were exploded on Eniwetok.

The radioactive fallout from these tests on Eniwetok--and another 23 on Bikini atoll--made parts of the Marshall Islands uninhabitable, forced the relocation of nearly 2,000 people and disrupted traditional life in the Marshall Islands, a chain of 29 coral atolls and five mountaintop islands scattered over half a million square miles in the Central Pacific, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Today, the atomic testing and other Western intrusions--such as reliance on U.S. financial subsidies and imported canned and processed foods--are blamed by medical authorities for a host of health problems afflicting the 35,000 people of the Marshall Islands, who occupy a total land mass of only 70 square miles--an area equivalent to Santa Catalina Island.

Medical Problems

In the Marshall Islands, tuberculosis, diabetes, hypertension, venereal disease, alcoholism, suicide and infant mortality are rampant, according to medical authorities.

To combat these health problems, a 150-foot, steel-hulled sailing hospital ship is being built by Merimed, a nonprofit foundation in Hawaii. Merimed--which takes its name from combining maritime and medicine--has already raised $1 million of the $2.6 million that will be needed to build and staff the ship.

The ship is named Tole Mour --"To Give Life" in Marshallese. Beginning in late 1987, the Tole Mour will sail between remote islands, including Ketty Boktok's mother's native Eniwetok atoll, which was partly resettled in 1980 after radioactive soil and debris were removed.

The ship was named by Boktok, who won a contest sponsored by Merimed. Her prize was a round trip for two to Disneyland.

Saturday, a luau to celebrate the visit of Ketty Boktok and her grandfather, Jekkene Boktok, was held by the Marshallese community in Orange County. The 200 Marshallese living here, who originally came here for college educations, are believed to be the largest concentration of Marshallese in the continental United States, says Bue Gartang, president of the Marshall Islands Assn. of Orange County. About 100 Marshallese attended the luau, which was held at Newport Dunes Aquatic Park in Newport Beach.

"My mother never talks about their dropping the atomic bombs on Eniwetok," said Boktok, 19, a hospital nurse's aide who lives with her parents and six younger brothers on Majuro atoll, which is the Marshallese capital and whose population of 15,000 is the largest in the islands. "I think it's too painful for her to talk about. She's just trying to forget what happened."

Gartang, when asked how Marshallese felt about the effects the atomic testing has had on their homeland, thought for a while and chose his words carefully before responding: "The Marshall Islands have contributed a lot to the world because of the nuclear experiments that took place there. The world has learned a lot about the effects of nuclear energy because of the tests. America is such a big country that it's never realized this contribution by the Marshall Islands."

More critical was Nick Beio, 40, of Costa Mesa, who stood looking at Newport Bay as he talked with Bedrik Ledbetter, 32, of Garden Grove. "I don't like it that they had nuclear testing in the islands. And most Marshallese don't like it," said Beio, a delivery truck driver who's lived in the county for eight years. "They're scared because they think that because of the nuclear testing they think they won't live as long."

New Information

Added Ledbetter, an assembly-line worker who's lived here for 13 years, "When I lived in the islands, the government authorities kept telling us the atomic tests were safe. But since I've come here I've learned more about it because a lot of information was kept from us on the islands. Now, I don't like it even more."

The United States has administered the islands since capturing them from the Japanese during World War II. However, the United States is conducting negotiations to grant independence to the Marshall Islands later this year. The new Republic of the Marshall Islands would control all policies except defense, which would remain a U.S. responsibility.

The islands would get $2.3 billion in U.S. economic aid over 15 years to pay for damage caused by nuclear weapons tests and to assist the islands in becoming economically self-sufficient.

At 6 p.m. during Saturday's festivities a 220-pound hog, which for five hours had been baking underground in two 50-gallon drums, was dug from the sand and hoisted to level ground by eight men.

The revelers then feasted on the baked hog and such traditional Marshallese dishes as rice balls, pumpkins with rice, banana bread, and bananas cooked in coconut milk. Also served were barbecued steak and chicken, potato salad, fried rice and watermelon.

The meal was followed by entertainment provided by eight teen-aged girls dressed in traditional calf-length, hibiscus-flowered blue dresses. They performed Marshallese dance routines and sang native songs with such bittersweet titles as "Even Though Our Islands Are Small and Far Away, Our Spirits Are Still There."

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