In Marshall Islands, radiation threatens tradition of handing down stories by song

For centuries, the people of the Marshall Islands have told their history through song. They sang of unrequited love, sea voyages, marine life, faith, family legends.

Carlton Abon is perhaps the most famous of the islands’ young balladeers. With four studio and two remix albums, he was once a prolific recording artist on this central Pacific nation, which sits roughly 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii.

But over the last decade, Abon’s silvery baritone has transformed into a strained rasp. Friends made fun of his hoarse voice. By 2016, he could no longer perform even his own melodies, and so this singer-songwriter, who goes by the stage name Brother C, quit a promising career.

“There has been no music, no nothing in my life,” said Abon, who has taken a job doing clerical work in Majuro, the country’s largest city, and now leads a reclusive existence.

Abon, a stout man of 40 with a bristly beard and toothless smile, is one of at least a dozen prominent Marshallese musicians with voices damaged by thyroid disorders — a type of illness that increased in the Marshall Islands after residents were exposed to fallout from U.S. nuclear weapons testing. As these singers struggle to sing, it has compounded the challenges of keeping Marshallese folk traditions alive.

Between 1946 and 1958, nearly 20 years before Abon was born, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands that had a cumulative radioactive yield of more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Radioactive fallout from the tests devastated people’s health and was later documented to have caused an elevated incidence of thyroid disorders. First reported in the country in 1961, these disorders have afflicted at least 1,500 Marshallese who were alive during the testing period.

In Abon’s case, he developed a balloon-like nodule in his throat. Doctors surgically removed the cancerous growth, but his voice never fully came back.

Today, his music survives only on a few of Majuro’s radio stations and in stereos of taxis that putter along the city’s only road.

“He was, to me, one of the best contemporary artists that bridged the past to the future,” said Majuro-based music producer Daniel Kramer. “It affected him during the height of his creativity in music.”

Carlton Abon
Marshallese musician and composer Carlton Abon, 40, unwraps recording equipment at his home in Majuro. In 2011, he began experiencing problems with his voice, and in 2016, a nodule in his thyroid gland was removed. He now hopes to start making music again.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands consists of 29 atolls spread over 750,000 square miles, and in this once-remote part of the Pacific, radiation and cancer are hardly the only threats to the islands’ traditional arts. As is true elsewhere, a younger generation of Marshall Islanders has shunned the songs of their parents and embraced more modern sounds.

Historically, the Marshallese performed through chanting, stamping and body percussion. Sometimes the singing was accompanied by the playing of shell trumpets, hourglass drums and concussion sticks. Storytelling was crucial. Composers, it is said, wrote tunes with help from ancestors and supernatural beings.

Yet the nuclear tests helped unravel the cultural fabric of the Marshallese, which had already been frayed by centuries of Spanish and German colonial rule, Japanese annexation in 1914 and then the era of U.S. domination.

The traditional songwriting “has not only changed, but it is dying,” said Abacca Anjain-Maddison, a former senator of the Marshall Islands. “We don’t see composers anymore.”

Kramer, the music producer, said: “You have an older generation that was unable to pass down what it could if it was at its full potential. If even one or two of its talented artists are affected, it has a big impact on a small community.”

Justina Langidrik
Justina Langidrik leads the choir at the United Church of Christ in Majuro. Born on Kwajalein, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1984, soon after she gave birth to a son.

One of these artists is Tarines Abon, 75, who continues to write songs and train choirs despite past treatments for stomach cancer and a thyroid tumor his doctors are now watching. When a Times photographer visited him at his Majuro home in May, Abon, no relation to Carlton Abon, struggled to reach some of the higher notes he was singing. By way of explanation, he pointed to his throat.

Another artist is Justina Langidrik, 67, who sang as a soprano with the United Church of Christ choir in Majuro until doctors diagnosed her with thyroid cancer in 1984. The physicians removed Langidrik’s thyroid, taking away her singing voice, which she only partially regained a few years later. Today, when her health permits, she tries to teach her songs to young choristers.

“There was a time when I used to think that I am just someone who was affected,” she said. “But I am a survivor. I am a survivor.”

Langidrik’s speech is soft, and she keeps her graying hair tucked in a traditional floral headdress. A senior public servant, she has represented the Marshall Islands at various United Nations forums, trying to raise awareness of her country’s environmental challenges.

“Sometimes I wonder why all the people in the U.S. are not aware,” she said, “of what their government has done to these tiny islands.”

girl plays ukelele
Rosalina Bantol, 9, sits for a portrait in Majuro. She learned music from her grandmother Justina Langidrik.

On the morning of March 1, 1954, the U.S. tested a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in the north of the Marshall Islands. Called the Castle Bravo test, it was the largest detonation the United States has ever carried out.

The explosion kicked up a mushroom cloud of fire more than 13 times as high as Mt. Baldy. Winds carried the fallout to neighboring atolls, including Rongelap, where people thought the ash falling from the sky was snow. As they came in contact with the debris, many started vomiting and experienced skin burns and other symptoms of radiation sickness. They were evacuated two days later. Within a week, U.S. officials initiated a top-secret program called Project 4.1, designed to study radiation exposure among the Marshallese.

The 1954 thermonuclear test called Castle Bravo, detonated at Bikini Atoll, was far more powerful and environmentally damaging than anyone had expected. The yield of the blast was 15 megatons, more than twice as powerful as predicted. At the time, it was the largest, most powerful bomb ever detonated by the United States.

In recent decades, several researchers have documented how Project 4.1 scientists intentionally exposed Marshallese to radiation, then studied them for research purposes.

“The project was initiated with mixed motives,” said Barton Hacker, the author of the 1994 book “Elements of Controversy,” which chronicles the intentional exposure of islanders. “It was primarily to help but also for political and military purposes.”

In 1957, just three years after the detonation, American scientists declared Rongelap safe and allowed its residents to return to their homes. This is when more and more Marshall Islanders became sick from radiation poisoning and young children were stricken with thyroid cancers, an affliction they had rarely experienced.

In 1964, three teenage girls living in the atoll were diagnosed with thyroid nodules. The North Carolina radiobiologist Ulrich Behling, in his 2007 report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote that by 1974, 17 of 19 children exposed before age 10 on Rongelap were diagnosed with thyroid lesions. Behling, like many other scholars, believes American scientists were fully aware of the risks if Rongelapese were allowed to return, but they let it happen for future research purposes. “There was plenty of evidence to suggest that people were intentionally exposed,” he said.

Along with letting Marshallese come in contact with radiation, U.S. scientists and doctors conducted experiments on island residents.

During Project 4.1’s first three decades, American doctors operated on as many as 117 Marshallese thyroid patients, paying them a total of $3 million in exchange for consenting to the surgeries. Nearly one-fourth of these people were previously considered unexposed, and many did not need the destructive surgeries.

One consequence: hypothyroidism, in which the gland cannot produce enough thyroid hormone, slowing people’s metabolisms.

“A lot of people got hypothyroidism from these surgeries,” said Dr. Neal Palafox, a former head of the Department of Energy’s health program in the Marshall Islands. Even though thyroid cancer is among the most successfully treated of the cancers, those stricken received aggressive surgeries and little to no post-surgery rehabilitation and therapy, leaving many with permanent vocal disabilities.

In 1988, the Marshallese government formed a nuclear claims tribunal with American funding to pay damages to radiation victims and those who continued to suffer post-treatment. But the United States never adequately financed the tribunal, and by 2006, its funding had started to dry up. By then, the tribunal had paid $91.4 million to 1,999 of those injured, nearly two-thirds of whom had thyroid diseases.

Christian deBrum
Christian deBrum, 11, was born with hypothyroidism. His mother, Adele Pinho, has repeatedly approached the Marshallese government for help.

Today, cancer patients approach the tribunal, on average, every other day. Its two remaining employees, Cathy Wakefield and Emma Gulibert, are tasked with explaining to their distressed compatriots why they cannot help anymore. “They ask why are you still here? Who pays your salary?” Wakefield said.

Among their distressed compatriots is Adele Pinho, mother of 11-year-old Christian deBrum, a patient with hypothyroidism in Majuro. Christian needs a $3 pill every day and a trip to Hawaii for a checkup every year. Pinho, a single mother of two, works at the Air Marshall Islands airline during the day and in the evening tends bar at Robert Reimers, one of only two hotels in the city, to ensure the treatment happens without fail.

Christian was born with the condition 13 years after American scientists had declared that thyroid cancers were no longer a problem in the Marshall Islands. “If we were guinea pigs then, why can’t we be guinea pigs now?” she asks sarcastically.

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that uses iodine to produce hormones that convert food to energy. When radioactive iodine enters the body, it concentrates in the thyroid gland and begins to destroy it. An altered voice is an early symptom.

In the summer of 2000, the British rock icon Rod Stewart lost his voice altogether after receiving surgery for thyroid cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. After nine months of medical care and vocal rehabilitation, he could sing once again, albeit in a lower octave. Four years later, he won his first Grammy.

Artists in the Marshall Islands have not been as lucky.

How radiation affects the thyroid

The thyroid, when it is functioning well, uses iodine to produce hormones, which regulate the conversion of food to energy. When radioactive iodine enters the body, it destroys normal hormone production, resulting in cancerous tumors and disorders that affect the vocal cords.

graphic showing radiation affects the thyroid graphic showing radiation affects the thyroid

Hear the difference

Carlton Abon, 40, had a promising singing career until he developed a cancerous nodule in his thyroid. By 2016, his singing voice was transformed into a strained rasp. It can be heard in a recent recording of the folk song “Ilju Ne Am” (Your Future).

Cases of Marshallese musicians losing their voices first came to light with the illnesses of composer Lijon Eknilang and artist-activist Almira Matayoshi, both now deceased.

Eknilang was 8 when Castle Bravo went off in Bikini. She was staying at her grandmother’s on the nearby Ailinginae Atoll. She later wrote a song that recalled that morning: “I was scared and woke up crying / I couldn’t see because of the tears in my eyes.”

U.S. government doctors, who referred to their human subjects by serial numbers and not names, removed Eknilang’s thyroid gland. Eknilang was called No. 53. The surgery left her with a permanent vocal injury. Throughout her career, she wrote songs about American apathy and the horrors of radiation.

“Will I ever stop taking pills? Aspirin, calcium, gout medicine, medicine for thyroid / Will these pills damage my kidneys, my brain, my heart?” she asked in a song, years before she died in 2012.

Matayoshi was also in nearby Rongelap when the bomb went off. She later gave birth to six stillborn, deformed babies and also received thyroid surgery, but she continued to perform.

As an activist and performer, she would recount how people would bully her and other singers for being unable to harmonize. They were called ri-baam — people of the bomb.

“She had a brave heart and stood up for her community,” Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said of his mother, who died of bladder cancer in 2005.

Justina Langidrik plays music with some children
Justina Langidrik, 67, teaches Marshallese music to her children, grandchildren and other youths on the island of Majuro. She underwent a thyroidectomy in 1987 and said she regained her voice partially a few years later, during a Christmas performance.

Thousands of miles separate the United States from the Marshall Islands, yet the two nations remain bound by legacies of the Atomic Age. For many Marshallese, the United States is home to a government that betrayed them but also a country that beckons with opportunity. About 30,000 Marshallese now live in the United States, many of them migrating to states such as Arkansas and Hawaii after Congress approved a 1986 compact that allows them to live and work here without a U.S. visa.

At the same time, the U.S. military continues to use the Marshall Islands as a remote testing location. The U.S. Army operates rocket launches on Kwajalein Atoll — part of the secretive Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which covers 750,000 square miles, an area nearly five times larger than California.

The Kwajalein base is home to 2,500 permanent residents, most of whom are government contractors and their dependents. The base is an oasis of manicured lawns and swaying palm trees and is far different from the sandbar island that connects to it by ferry. That island, Ebeye, is a slum occupied by more people than it can shelter.

Rudh Johnson, 59, lives among this labyrinth of abandoned concrete structures and mounds of rubble. Once a respected member of the United Church of Christ choir in Ebeye, Johnson was treated for thyroid cancer long ago.

“Before the surgery I was a good singer, but not anymore,” she said. Three of Johnson’s fellow singers live on the densely populated island and have similar stories to tell. All three have scars on their necks.

A short walk from Johnson’s tiny cabin lives perhaps the most popular couple of Ebeye — Telphina Jelke and Claudeo Jeadrik. Jelke used to sing in school, and that’s where Jeadrik, also a singer, heard her for the first time and courted her. They fell in love and married in 1973.

Doctors diagnosed both of them with thyroid complications — Jelke received surgery in Hawaii, but Jeadrik couldn’t. Their voices are damaged, but they still sing biblical hymns together, unconcerned about how they sound.

Claudeo and Justina Jeadrik
Claudeo Jeadrik and Telphina Jelke at their home in Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll. Both have voices damaged by thyroid problems, but they continue to sing biblical hymns together. (Ali Raj / For The Times)

Some of the couple’s children, and nearly half of the Marshallese in the United States, have put down roots in Springdale, Ark., where many work in the local meat-processing industry. It’s a working-class town where island immigrants have found jobs and homes and put their kids through school.

One tie that binds is KMRW-FM, the Springdale radio station that keeps alive the traditional music and language of the islands. “The station brings the entire community together through music they grew up listening to,” said Larry Muller, a retired seaman who started KMRW in 2015.

But along with bringing their culture to Arkansas, some old-timers have brought radiation sicknesses.

Neisen Laukon, 66, grew up in Rongelap when exposures to radioactivity were at their peak. Her father, Rongelap’s paramount chief, helped his people evacuate the atoll in 1985. She has had recurring health issues all her life, including problems with her thyroid.

It’s also possible she passed on her condition to her offspring.

Her daughter Faith Laukon, 43, was born and raised in Missouri and never lived on the affected atolls. Yet she has hypothyroidism.

A group of young musicians
From left to right, Laen Arelong, 18, Jinna Lavin, 23, Aeto Bantol, 19, Vincent Inok, 17, and Danny Lafita, 17, gather at the home of singer and songwriter Justina Langidrik in Majuro.

In 2000, the Marshall Islands asked the United States for additional funding to pay damages to victims and continue treatment and assessment. Congress directed the National Cancer Institute to share its expertise. On deadline, officials presented a brief report in 2004 that stated that 56% of the 530 expected excess cancers had not yet shown up in the Marshallese population.

Alarmingly, the report said 40% of thyroid cancers were also yet to manifest, going against previous claims of American scientists that thyroid cancers were no longer a worry. Most important, it admitted for the first time that the entirety of the Marshall Islands was affected by the testing, not just a few atolls. “The 2004 report embarrassed the U.S. government,” said Palafox, the former head of the Department of Energy health program, who also testified before Congress.

Snapshot of thyroid cancers in the Marshall Islands

Starting 61 years ago, hundreds of Marshallese were exposed to radioactive fallout from U.S. nuclear weapons testing. Many developed cancers. The majority were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, often resulting in damage to their vocal cords and other medical problems.

Below is a snapshot of Marshallese stricken by cancers who agreed to participate in an informal survey conducted by the Marshall Islands health department. It is unknown precisely how many Marshallese developed cancers.

chart showing lifespan and deaths of Marshallese chart showing lifespan and deaths of Marshallese

*Diagnosed with cancer, but died of other causes

These records were collected by local health authorities in the Marshall Islands and reflect a subset of islanders who developed cancers during and after U.S. nuclear weapons testing. These results have not been peer-reviewed or published in an academic journal. They represent an attempt by Marshallese to document illnesses absent sustained epidemiological surveys by U.S. authorities or other international researchers.

Marshall Islands Ministry of Health

Despite the report, Congress turned down the Marshallese request because it did not deem the new revelations to be “extraordinary circumstances,” as stated in the Compact of Free Association between the two countries. The cancer institute continued the study and published it in 2010, this time significantly reducing the number of excess cancers to 170.

Experts agree: If there was ever a time to conduct an independent and comprehensive cancer assessment in the Marshall Islands, it is now, because most cancers attributable to the nuclear testing would have shown up by now.

But until that happens, questions about cancer will linger. Early last year, Carlton Abon was flown to the Philippines for emergency treatment. He barely survived cardiac arrest.

Carlton Abon
Carlton Abon at his home in Majuro, where he hopes to build a recording studio so he can carry on his Marshallese music and help record artists of the community. Over the years, he mentored numerous Marshallese musicians.

As the rain poured down last autumn, he sat on the veranda of his house in Majuro, with a ukulele in his lap, dogs at his feet and a cup of kava — a traditional drink made from a native shrub — on a nearby table. Two close friends listened in silence. Abon was trying to recall the chord progression for one of his most popular tunes, “Ilju Ne Am” (Your Future).

The song is a bittersweet elegy that urges the youth of his land to seek answers. He hummed it in a breathy, gravelly voice, stopping to translate a key line:

“Between the musician and the politician, will there be a solution?”

He didn’t have an answer.