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Sue Lani Madsen: Nuclear legacy lives on in Spokane’s growing Marshallese community

Sue Lani Madsen writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The growing Marshallese community in Spokane is the legacy of a decade that should live in infamy but has mostly been forgotten. But flipping through Dad’s old photo albums and Wednesday’s article in the Serendipity section from Los Angeles Times reporter Suzanne Rust (“How the US Betrayed the Marshall Islands, Kindling the Next Nuclear Disaster”) brought it back.

Some turning points are shared by the world or by a nation. The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, broke through American isolation and launched us into global war. The current Marshallese migration is a continuation of the old War in the Pacific.

The recently released movie “Midway” is lauded as getting the history mostly right, starting with Pearl Harbor and culminating in the critical 1942 naval battle near Midway Island. After Midway, the U.S. strategy switched to offense and the Marshall Islands were seen as critical to retaking the Philippines.

The seven-day Battle of Kwajalein was the second stop in the U.S. island-hopping strategy for controlling the Pacific. An amphibious assault on Jan. 30, 1944, followed two months of bombardment with conventional weapons. Cleaning up the unexploded shells from the harbor and the islands started in 1946 and was still underway in 1961.

At the end of World War II, the Marshall Islands not only looked “small, remote and unimportant,” according to a researcher quoted in the Times article, but parts of the island nation already looked like a bombing range. Why not keep on bombing? The Cold War was fought with an iron curtain in Europe. It was fought with nuclear warhead and conventional intercontinental ballistic missile testing in the Pacific.

March 1, 1954, was another turning point, deeply affecting communities and families but barely registering in memories today. Operation Castle Bravo at Bikini Atoll was the largest thermonuclear explosion. Here’s hoping that record is never broken.

The bomb yield was badly miscalculated, as was the danger zone for evacuation. The detonation crew on a nearby island, unwarned Marshallese islanders and standby crews at sea were all exposed to nuclear fallout. The detonation crew took cover indoors for a few hours before being airlifted out. Almost an inch of snowlike irradiated calcium debris and ash coated the entire islands of Rongelap and Rongerik atolls over 100 miles away. The affected Marshallese weren’t evacuated for treatment for several days.

My father was watching from a Coast Guard tender tasked with putting out warning buoys after the blast. It was something he mentioned occasionally, giving no details, leaving that bit of history buried.

He was later stationed at USCG Loran Station Kwajalein on Ebeye Island. It was one of his favorite duty posts, an island paradise to a kid from urban New Jersey. Photos from the time show a smiling young man fishing with native teenagers and hanging out on empty beaches under coconut trees.

He nostalgically returned in 1990 and was appalled at the overcrowding on Kwajalein and Majuro. Nobody seemed to be fishing anymore, and the tuna came from cans in the local store. He cut his trip short and flew home to Spokane.

Marshallese began leaving home after a 1986 treaty granted them special legal nonimmigrant status in the U.S. It was the least we could do in recognition of our bombing nuclear hell into parts of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

In 2016, radiation levels at Bikini Atoll were still too high for former residents to return. Contaminated soil and water make the old subsistence farming and fishing too dangerous, and globalization has rendered that once idyllic lifestyle less attractive to younger generations of Marshallese.

In 2012, The Spokesman-Review reported Marshallese as the second-largest language group in the Spokane Public Schools, with Russian in first place. Now Marshallese is the largest. Twenty-seven percent of the students in the 2018 English Language Learner survey data are among the atomic refugees from the Marshall Islands. Spanish accounts for 13.4%, and Russian has dropped to third at 11.4%.

It’s much easier for history to bury the personal impacts of turning-point moments than to bury the radioactive waste of a decade of nuclear testing. The Marshallese can’t cut their migration short and fly home.