History in the making
Anniversary of first airborne hydrogen bomb test (1 March 1954)
by James Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To explore the sixtieth anniversary of the first airborne hydrogen bomb test (1 March 1954).
Preparation and materials
- Gather images of this event and have the means to display them during the assembly, including a map of where Bikini Atoll is situated (check copyright).
- Have available the song ‘Russians’ by Sting and the means to play it at the end of the assembly (check copyright).
- On 1 March 1954, the USA ran the first airborne hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. This was the first test of Operation Castle – an attempt to create a useable hydrogen bomb capable of being dropped by an aircraft on Russia and her allies.
- In the aftermath of the Second World War, tensions between the USA and the then Soviet Union were increasing. The USA was, until 1949, the world’s only nuclear power and was keen to develop its new technology. While some were interested in the military advantage of these powerful new weapons, others believed that the massive deterrent offered by the atomic bomb would prevent future wars. Whatever side of the debate you are on, the story of the tests of atomic bombs in the Bikini Atoll has elements of real cruelty and sadness.
- The isolated location of the Bikini Atoll made it an ideal site for ocean-based nuclear tests and, in February 1946, the small population who lived on the Atoll was relocated to the uninhabited Rongerik Atoll, 125 miles away. The Rongerik Atoll had been left deserted by the islanders because it had poor food and water supplies.
- Once the Bikini Atoll had been cleared of people, the US military began to test atomic weapons on the site. A series of nuclear detonations, testing different weapons under different conditions, led to the island’s water becoming contaminated. Farming and fishing on the Atoll are still impossible today. Attempts were made to protect the test staff from radiation sickness, but their average life expectancy was reduced by about three months.
- By 1948, living conditions on the Rongerik Atoll had collapsed. What few fish remained were contaminated by the nuclear tests. Eventually, the population was moved again to Kili Island, one of the smallest of the Marshall Islands. Yet Kili also did not have enough food to provide for the islanders.
- The 1954 Operation Castle detonation – named Castle Bravo – caused a much larger explosion than was planned. This was because of a design error that was compounded by strong winds and other factors. A vast crater was created by the blast, which was 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The radioactive fallout from Castle Bravo contaminated many other islands in the area. The people living there were therefore also forced to leave their islands.
- In 1972, a group of people attempted to return to and live on the Bikini Atoll, but suffered the terrible effects of radiation sickness. Mothers-to-be either suffered miscarriages or their babies were born with severe abnormalities. Large amounts of the island’s food supply were inedible. In 1978, the islanders were evacuated a second time, back to Kili.
Time for reflection
Today, there are 600 residents on Kili. The islanders are supported by a trust, but much of their traditional way of life has been destroyed. They can no longer fish and their traditional houses have been replaced with concrete buildings. In 2001, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded the islanders over $500 million in compensation, but this is yet to be paid.
The tragic story of the Bikini Atoll shows the destructive power of modern warfare. The islanders did not declare war on anyone, yet they lost their homes and traditions. They are innocent victims of a struggle between two more powerful nations.
Today, as we remember this story of disaster, we reflect on the wars going on as we sit here – (name some wars). While these are not as devastating as the Castle Bravo experiment, millions of refugees are struggling to live with a backdrop of war that they do not want and have nothing to do with.
Let’s think of all those who are suffering as a result of the actions of others who have created wars today and pray quietly for peace in our time and justice for the victims of war.
‘Russians’ by Sting