What Became of the Residents of Bikini Atoll

In 1946, when the 167 residents of Bikini Atoll agreed to leave their home, they never expected that their exile would be permanent.
Marcia Wendorf

In 1946, Bikini Atoll was a tropical paradise situated in the middle of nowhere, about halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippines. It was a part of the Marshall Islands, which included 33 other tiny dots in the Pacific Ocean.


Bikini's name derived not from the bathing suit, but from the Marshallese language, and translated to "surface of coconuts." Comprised of tiny islands and shaped like a skinny donut with a large hole in the middle, in 1946, Bikini had 167 inhabitants who eked out a living by growing native crops and fishing for shellfish and fish in the sea.

The natives were also skilled boat-builders and navigators, who sailed their two-hulled proa to and from the other islands. Theirs was a society based on close extended family and tradition.

Government and Islanders: Promises, Displacement and Starvation

Then, Navy Commodore Ben H. Wyatt, who was the military governor of the Marshall Islands, made an appeal to the Bikinians. He told them that their land was needed for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars."

Not understanding what was about to happen, the islanders thought that they would soon be able to return to their homes, and they agreed to be moved. The Bikinian king, Juda, said, "We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God."

U.S. Navy Seabees helped the islanders disassemble their church and community house, and transported them and the islanders 125 miles eastward to uninhabited Rongerik Atoll, which was one-sixth the size of Bikini Atoll.

The Navy left them with a few weeks of food and water, and the Bikinians set about planting new crops and fishing. But, on Rongerik, their crops produced far less food than they had on Bikini, and there were far fewer fish in the waters.

By early 1948, the islanders were on the verge of starvation. A team of U.S. investigators concluded that they must be moved immediately, and the syndicated columnist Harold Ickes wrote,"The natives are actually and literally starving to death."

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Again, the islanders were uprooted, this time to the island of Kwajalein, about 200 miles southeast of Bikini. But, Kwajalein was a less than a hospitable place. It had been the scene of the most concentrated bombardment of the Pacific War.

Starting on January 31, 1944, over 36,000 shells from American naval ships, ground artillery, and B-24 Liberator bombers had rained down on the island, killing many of the 8,000 Japanese troops stationed there.

When the Bikinians got to Kwajalein, they were housed in tents next to the concrete runway being used by the U.S. Navy. After six months, the Bikinians chose to move to Kili Island, 400 miles south of Bikini and one of the smallest islands in the Marshall Islands at one-sixth the size of Bikini. Kili lacked the calm, protected lagoon that Bikini had, and it did not provide enough food for the transplanted residents.

In 1968, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission began clearing radioactive debris from Bikini Island, and replanting coconut trees. The AEC determined that the coconut crabs on the island retained high levels of radioactivity and could not be eaten.

By 1970, the U.S. allowed 160 Bikini islanders to return to Bikini, but by 1978, tests revealed an 11-fold increase caesium-137 within their bodies, along with elevated levels of plutonium-239, plutonium-240, and strontium-90. Women were experiencing miscarriages, stillbirths, and genetic abnormalities in their children. This prompted the U.S. to evacuate them once again, this time to Majuro Atoll, 600 miles from Bikini.

In 1975, the Bikinians filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S., which resulted in a payment of $75 million in damages, and the creation of a $90 million trust fund to pay for medical expenses, cleanup, and to give each islander about $550 per year.

Bikini Island Recent Times

As of February 2013, there were 4,880 Bikini islanders: 1,250 living on Kili, 2,150 on Majuro, 280 on Ejit, 350 on the other Marshall Islands, and 850 in the United States and other countries. Today on Bikini, 4 to 6 people live there as caretakers, including Edward Maddison who has lived there since 1985. He is a descendant of one of the original residents who was relocated in 1946. Maddison does soil monitoring for the U.S. Department of Energy, and is the divemaster of Bikini Atoll Divers.

As for Bikini Atoll itself, three of its islands - Bokonijien, Aerokojlol, and Namu - were completely vaporized by the nuclear blasts and disappeared.

Three of the most powerful nuclear devices ever detonated by the U.S. were detonated at Bikini Atoll:

Castle Bravo - detonated on February 28, 1954, was the first of the Castle series of tests and is the largest U.S. nuclear blast of all time. It was anticipated to be a 6-megaton explosion, but instead produced a 15-megaton fission blast. Its mushroom cloud reached 114,000 feet in the air. 

The miscalculation of the test's strength caused the irradiation of 665 inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, and the radiation poisoning death of a Japanese fisherman who was 80 miles away from the detonation site.

Castle Yankee - the second-strongest of the Castle bombs, it was conducted on May 4, 1954 and had a yield of 13.5 megatons. Four days after its detonation, a fallout from it reached Mexico City, which was 7,100 miles away.

Castle Romeo - the second of the Castle series of tests which were conducted in 1954, it had a yield of 11 megatons. The blast would have incinerated everything within 1.91 square miles.