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Today is Halloween, and I can’t think of a better way to put ourselves in a situation than telling the true story that originated as the Godzilla myth. As usual, reality is much worse than fiction, and what happened that day in the ocean will remain as one of the most terrible real stories of humanity.
But before explaining what happened to these 23 fishermen, we have to go back several months in time to understand what the hell was the gigantic glow they were about to observe.
Radioactive Atoll and Operation Crossroads
For a long time, the isolation that was lived in the Bikini Atoll, a necklace of 23 islands with sandy beaches and palm trees that surround a calm blue lagoon, was a blessing for its inhabitants. The small population of the Pacific Island chain, more than 2,000 kilometers from Papua New Guinea (the closest land mass), was free of the conflicts that occurred in the outside world.
Until the twentieth century.
Then, without anyone asking them, the enclave served as a Japanese outpost during World War II. And the worst was yet to come. After the war, the United States took over the administration of the atoll, and the quiet isolation became the biggest nightmare for its inhabitants.
The United States had realized that the isolation of the atoll made it the ideal area to carry out nuclear tests. This was how on a Sunday in February 1946, the US military governor of the island, Ben H. Wyatt, asked the locals if they would be willing to move temporarily for ” the good of humanity and to end all world wars. ” .
A few months earlier, in December 1945, the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, issued a directive for army and naval officers explaining that joint tests of nuclear weapons would be necessary “ to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships. ”
Because of its location away from regular air and sea routes, Bikini was chosen to be the new nuclear testing ground by the United States government. The only problem for Americans: the almost 200 Bikini Islanders. What to do with them?
Now, let’s go back to the scene where Wyatt appears. For the islanders it was a set date, as every Sunday, most were in the church, and on their way out Wyatt approached them and gathered them to ask if they would be willing to go for “the good of humanity.” The response of King Juda, then leader of the Bikinians, and after long deliberations with the people, was to communicate that ” we will go believing that everything is in the hands of God .”
This is how one of the darkest stages of humanity began, starting the one known as Operation Crossroads. In essence, a mission that was going to bring together 250 ships, 150 airplanes, 25,000 radiation recording devices, thousands of rats, goats and experimental pigs from the Navy and, of course, a nuclear arsenal ready to detonate as part of the tests .
Meanwhile, the islanders agreed that they could return to their homes after only a short period of time. Of course, then none of those involved thought that, thanks to nuclear tests, the atoll would remain uninhabited for more than 70 years.
So with everything prepared, or everything prepared that one can be for such a plan, that same year the tests began with Operation Crossroads. The Bikinians were sent about 200 kilometers eastward across the ocean in a US Navy landing craft, exactly to the Rongerik Atoll, uninhabited and with little vegetation.
The administration left the locals food for several weeks, but they soon discovered that coconut trees and other local crops produced very little fruit compared to the trees in Bikini. Also, the fish in the lagoon were not edible. As a result of all this, the islanders began to starve. Two months after their arrival, they begged US officials to transfer them back to Bikini.
Of course, that was impossible. Two months later everything was ready for the first major event: a devastating nuclear bomb on July 1, 1946 kicked off the nuclear tests to which the atoll would be subjected.
All test subjects consisted of old American ghost ships and Axis ships captured from the war, all full of animals sent to the bottom of the atoll lagoon. The reason? The idea was to see what happened to naval warships when a nuclear weapon exploded.
While this was happening, protected by special glasses but in the front row , hundreds of scientists, reporters and representatives of the United Nations attended. As for the live animals inside the ships, the objective was “to study the effects of the nuclear explosion and the radioactive consequences on the animals “.
Interestingly, the tests of Operation Crossroads were not eternalized and had an end after one of the detonations resulted in a 30-meter tsunami that covered everything in its path with radioactive water. But after this operation there were others. The next series began in 1954 and had devastating consequences for Bikini.
Under the name of Operation Castle, these detonations were intended to test the efficiency of a hydrogen bomb, one that was small enough to be transported by plane, but had the ability to annihilate an entire city. The result was the test of Castle Bravo, which used a bomb 1000 times more powerful than the one that annihilated Hiroshima.
This bomb was the largest nuclear device that the United States has detonated, and although the inhabitants of Bikini were controlled hundreds of kilometers away, no one told 23 Japanese fishermen what was going to happen that day at the bottom of the ocean, when a Ghostly white rain, thick and full of ashes, began to fall, covering them and their captures.
Yumenoshima Park is located on an artificial island made of debris and landfills along one of the drainage channels that flow into Tokyo Bay, in Koto, a neighborhood of the Japanese capital that does not usually appear on any visiting list forced.
In fact, very few approach the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall, a small building hidden in a corner of the park. However, those who do understand the importance of the old tuna fishing boat that is displayed inside.
This ship was called Daigo Fukuryu Maru , or Lucky Dragon 5 , and was built in 1947 in Wakayama Prefecture. In those days, wooden boats were allowed to venture deep into the sea, and the Lucky Dragon came to make five ocean trips, the last of which began on January 22, 1954.
That morning, the Lucky Dragon left the port of origin, Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, led by a young and inexperienced 22-year-old named Hisakichi Tsutsui. The boat was small and of little power, and had a crew of 23 fishermen.
The first calamity occurred on February 9. To the south of Midway Island, almost half of the Lucky Dragon’s more than 300 fishing lines , each about 300 meters long, were lost when they got caught in coral reefs. Faced with the terrible possibility of returning home empty-handed, the captain decided to continue and seek luck heading south to other fishing areas, heading around the Marshall Islands.
None of them knew that five months earlier the United States had notified the Maritime Safety Agency of Japan that before the planned nuclear tests, the Bikini Atoll Exclusion Zone would expand eastward to a length of 166 ° 16 ‘.
This detail was going to be crucial. 18 months before, the US Department of State. UU. He had notified Japan to stay away from the Enewetak Atoll due to nuclear tests, and this fact was known by Captain Hisakichi before boarding, but the inclusion of Bikini as a danger zone was not. Therefore, the captain and the crew thought that as long as they stayed away from Enewetak they would be safe.
Thus we arrive until the fateful March 1. It was going to be the last day of fishing before returning to Yaizu. With little food and fuel, the team was tired and barely had the strength for another day’s work.
Just before dawn, most of the crew were asleep under the deck after having worked overnight on the arduous task of tuna fishing. Hisakichi, however, was on deck, and would be the first to record the terrifying scene he saw and heard:
Suddenly, the boat was surrounded by a bright light. An early dawn is impossible. That made me feel that there was something very dangerous.
Another crew member wrote:
Oh what is this !? Dammit! Suddenly, everything in the western area seemed as if it were inflamed, it became deep and bright as dawn. Terrible!
The 20-year-old crew member Matakichi Oishi wrote the following:
A yellow flash went through the window. Wondering what had happened, I jumped off the bunk near the door, ran off deck and was amazed. The bridge, the sky and the sea were visible, painted in bright colors of the sunset …
Hisakichi continued to narrate the event like this:
Nine minutes later comes a roar only comparable to a group of overlapping avalanches. Bang, bang, bang, bang: a horrible sound as if the Marshall Islands sank like furious waves against the sea.
Then the entire crew ran to the deck. Someone shouted ” atomic bomb! ” Fear settled in each of the men, mostly former fighters in World War II, guys who knew too much about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everyone searched the horizon for the ultimate test: the mushroom cloud they had seen in the images of the bombings. Trembling and observing what was happening at the dawn of the day, they looked at the sky in search of airplanes and the horizon in search of ships.
However, what they were witnessed was much more than an atomic bomb in the style of Hiroshima. The blaze and the shock wave came from the detonation of the test of a thermonuclear weapon, a new version of humanity’s most powerful war tool.
That test was Castle Bravo, and its 15 megatons became the largest nuclear test ever conducted by the United States, and the fifth largest nuclear explosion in history. And as we now know, it had gone terribly wrong.
The bomb proved to be more than twice as powerful as its designers predicted, and although the Lucky Dragon was about 120 kilometers from the test site and outside the officially declared warning zone, it was within the range of the impact of the bomb.
The crew returned to work dragging their catch, but as they watched, cloud circles began to arrive with strange layers that slowly extended from the direction of the explosion. Then it started to rain. A white and precipitous rain, driven by winds that dragged a kind of sound. This unnatural rain covered the ship and the crew with a sandy ash that stuck to the hands, neck, face and hair of the men, and subsequently got into their mouths and eyes. That cloud, clearly toxic, impregnated the tuna resulting in a dark blue on the now ghostly cover of the Lucky Dragon .
As one of the sailors wrote:
The top of the cloud spread over us. … Two hours passed. … white particles fell on us, like sleet. The particles penetrated mercilessly: eyes, nose, ears, mouth. We didn’t have the feeling that it was dangerous …
The rain and ashes did not stop falling for five hours, and when it began to subside, some of the crew were dizzy, vomiting or had a fever. They were fully covered, had swallowed and inhaled the highly radioactive remains of corals incinerated by the immense nuclear explosion, whose remains of dust ended up thrown into the sky to finally become a chilling rain over much of the ocean.
The ship arrived in Yaizu on March 14, two weeks later. A Geiger counter detected radiation at a distance of 30 meters, which is why the vessel was towed to a remote section of the port and placed under police surveillance. Most of the crew suffered headaches, bleeding gums, skin burns and hair that fell everywhere. All were hospitalized and quarantined. They shaved their heads and buried their clothes and radiated possessions.
Subsequent tests found a toxic cocktail of radioactive isotopes, including strontium 90, cesium 137, selenium 141 and uranium 237. By then it was already known that high levels of radiation had caused what was known as “disease of atomic bomb ”among the survivors of the weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a disease associated with the radiation generated at the time the bombs exploded.
But Japanese medical researchers discovered that in this case, Lucky Dragon’s men suffered from something else, a disease that experts described as “acute radiation sickness” that was not caused by the bomb but by the radioactive rain it produced. The Japanese began to call this rain shi no hai , ashes of death, and the media and the whole world began calling it with a new name that in a few weeks was on everyone’s lips to invoke fear: fallout.
Six months later, Aikichi Kuboyama, the main radio operator of Lucky Dragon and the oldest member of the crew, developed liver complications and went into a coma. On September 23, he died in a hospital in Tokyo. That was the first death of Castle Bravo.
The United States government initially denied that the crew had been exposed to such radioactive consequences. In fact, they refused to reveal the composition of the fallout because they feared they could give key information about the composition and design of the nuclear device to the Soviet Union.
When the United States finally recognized that the test of Castle Bravo had gone terribly wrong in a much larger area, it was revealed that, in addition to Lucky Dragon , more than a hundred other fishing boats were contaminated by the consequences.
All of this resulted in a serious crisis in Japan, where the price of tuna collapsed due to fear of radiation, and where the FDA itself imposed huge restrictions on tuna imports into the United States.
Both Castle Bravo and the Lucky Dragon tragedy resulted in an important anti-nuclear movement in Japan. Even a national campaign against nuclear tests gathered more than 30 million signatures, one third of the population. Finally, the US government He agreed to pay compensation to the victims of the Castle Bravo test, transferring 15 million dollars to the Japanese. The crew that survived the Lucky Dragon (then half of the group) received about 2 million yen each.
The truth is that Daigo Fukuryu Maru also helped eradicate the layer of secrecy surrounding the US nuclear weapons tests that had been going on in the Pacific for eight years.
First, with a film of the Americans themselves. The army had made an hour-long movie, Operation Ivy , focused on the 1952 test of a nuclear bomb dubbed “Mike.” Although the film was made only for internal use, among other things because when Eisenhower saw it he was so shocked that he ordered that he be kept secret fearing the reaction of the public, two weeks after Lucky Dragon’s return to the port, with the planet aware of the tests and pressuring the US government, the film was released to the public:
That film was a before and after for public opinion. Yes, people already knew about atomic weapons, but the film made them realize that thermonuclear weapons represented an existential threat to life on earth.
And finally, the Lucky Dragon incident helped spread widespread fear of nuclear radiation through popular culture. In the fall of 1954, Japanese movie screens premiered a movie that featured a radioactive monster known as Gojira .
The film began on a Japanese fishing boat, where sailors are amazed by a bright light in the water just before their boat catches fire and is completely destroyed and charred (does it sound like something?).
But here there are no bombs, but a monster revived by an immense explosion caused by man who then goes on destroying the planet leaving radioactive footprints. The beast has an electric glow that illuminates along its spine just before blowing something like a smoking radioactive breath that burns anything in its path.
Of course, now that we know the real story, we recognize Daigo Fukuryu Maru as the story that inspired Gojira , better known in the West as Godzilla . Godzilla became an allegory of nuclear weapons, a monster that embodied human corruption of the natural world through this type of weaponry.
Screenwriter Ishiro Honda, who shortly before had begun to make a more conventional monster movie, later wrote that he was inspired to change the film by the incident of Daigo Fukuryu Maru and that “he took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla . “
The version shown in the United States two years later (adapted to be less anti-American) featured a radio journalist watching the radioactive monster destroy Tokyo and telling his audience: ” I am praying a prayer, a prayer all over the planet .”
If from the United States there was no longer any repair, the movement was serious with a clear message; The risk of nuclear weapons and radioactive consequences was not a matter of a single nation, it was a global problem. [ Smithsonian , New Yorker , The Guardian , ANU , Wikipedia , The Day the Sun Rose in the West ]