Remembering Forgotten Victims of Nuclear Age

An "anniversary" is probably not an appropriate word to use in reference to a grim and tragic event that took place in the Central Pacific Ocean 50 years ago this past March 1.

Outside of Japan the tragedy received scant remembrance. Thanks, however, to the Associated Press's Mari Yamaguchi the events of that day in 1954 have been recalled.

"The No. 5 Fukuryu-maru was trolling for tuna off the Bikini atoll in the Pacific.

"Suddenly, fisherman Matashichi Oishi saw the sky flash orange and felt a rumbling shake the trawler. As he and 22 other crew members rushed to the deck, tiny white flakes began to fall on them like snow. The crew thought an underwater volcano had erupted. But what they saw that night was something far more destructive: an American hydrogen bomb.

"The No. 5 Fukuryu-maru, or Lucky Dragon, was about 100 miles off Bikini island in the central Pacific when the United States tested a bomb there, engulfing the fishermen with high levels of radiation."

Yamaguchi goes on to report that when the events of that morning were learned by the Japanese people it "gave impetus to the country's anti-nuclear movement and reinforced the image of Japan -- the site of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks -- - as a unique witness to the atomic age.

"We were the victims of the nuclear arms race," said Oishi, 70, who runs a laundry in Tokyo and recently published a book on the bombing. "The Bikini incident is not a problem of the past. It's an issue of nuclear weapons that affects all of us today."

When the trawler returned home two weeks later, some crew members had lost hair, developed skin burns or had discolored faces. They suffered from diarrhea and jaundice. Their white blood counts dropped dangerously low. The boat's radio telegraph operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died in September 1954.

Yamaguchi recounts also that the boat's survivors have suffered from liver and blood disorders. In addition to Kuboyama, 11 crew members have died since the exposure, at least six of them from liver cancer. Oishi has had surgery for liver cancer.

It is believed that nearly 900 other Japanese fishing boats were also in the affected area. While Japanese officials were aware of the testing program, Oishi claims that the fishermen were not well-informed about the timing of the tests or what areas were dangerous.

No follow-up studies have been conducted on those other boats, Kazuya Yasuda, curator of Tokyo's No. 5 Fukuryu-maru Exhibition Hall, where the boat is now on display, so nobody knows how many fishermen might have been affected.

Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted 66 nuclear tests at Bikini as part of "Operation Crossroads." The atoll is part of the Marshall Islands, 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Likewise, dozens of atomic bomb tests were conducted in the Nevada desert in the late 1940s and throughout the1950s, many in which US military personnel were involved. Many of these tests participants were put in harm's way from these tests due to the US government's gross miscalculations as to the destructive power of the weapons used in the tests. Small communities throughout the region also became "downwinders" as did numerous men and women who helped manufacture the destructive weapons.

Yet to this day not only has the government remained silent concerning the true affects of these weapons of mass destruction, but it has only begrudgingly made any compensation to their victims.

As one farmer downwind from Washington State's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where many of the weapons were manufactured, remarked after the Soviet Union's Chernobyl disaster, "the US government and world community condemned the Russians for waiting two weeks before officially informing us of what happened. Hell, it has been some 35-45 years and the US government still has not told us all what happened here."

It was in 1982 that a long-time Berkeley, Calif., educator, activist and mother of nine Dorothy Legarreta helped co-found the National Association of Radiation Survivors (NARS). In 1944-45 she had worked on the Manhattan Project at the Crocker Radiation Laboratory at UC Berkeley. Thyroid problems she received as a result of working with radioactive substances and the fatal leukemia of one of her sons led her to help found NARS. In 1987 she became president of the group and also won the Berkeley Peace Prize.

Tragically Legarretta, 62, who also authored the University of Nevada Press book, The Guernica Generation, a study of Basque refugee children of the Spanish Civil War, died on California's Highway 101 in 1988 near Healdsburg, Calif., when her car crashed into a tree.

Prior to her death she had worked tirelessly to force Congress into passing legislation that would enable the victims of radiation sickness and their families into receiving some form of compensation from the Veterans Administration, an issue still left unresolved.

Like the No. 5 Fukuryu-maru victims both the US government and their Japanese counterparts have been reluctant to compensate these forgotten victims of the nuclear age.

In 1955, the US government paid $2 million in compensation to Japan, one-third of what the Japanese government had requested. The package included condolence money for Kuboyama, medical costs for the rest of the crew and damages to Japan's fishing industry, according to Foreign Ministry documents. In 1983, the US government paid the Marshall Islands $183.7 million in compensation. The payments settled the issue between the governments, but not for the victims.

But, as AP's Yamaguchi notes, Oishi, like the other crew members, received only about $5,600 in compensation since the Japanese government has not recognized the 23 as victims of a nuclear bomb, excluding them from relief funds set up for survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203. He publishes a free email newsletter, The Agribusiness Examiner; email; web site

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