Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Bikini Atoll

Here is an article I recently wrote- just in case anyone finds it interesting.

In May of 2007 I had the profound honor of diving off the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands with my husband, my brother and eight other divers. The airplane trip to Bikini was not smooth. We touched down on seven islands and the trip took 48 hours. The plane was overcrowded; people had live chickens and coolers of fish and oysters sitting in their laps. We were in a third-world culture and sometimes felt uncomfortable, but the people were beautiful and friendly. The culture contained hidden layers of history that we couldn’t even begin to discover, but our aim was to touch a tiny piece of history that few get to experience.

The island of Bikini has had an interesting story of its own. In 1946 the US military arrived at the local church and asked the Bikinians to temporarily vacate the island “for the good of mankind.” The Bikinians were told they could end all wars by allowing the US government to test nuclear bombs on their island. They were promised a quick return that has yet to take place because the atoll is still radioactive and no food can be grown there. The Bikinians accepted the challenge and left their home to try and save humanity. Forty-two thousand military personnel descended on the island with 73 World War II ships, submarines, and aircraft. They filled the ships with goats, rats, pigs, and hundreds of Coke bottles. A series of 23 nuclear tests were carried out over the islands.

Divers go to Bikini Atoll to dive in the graveyard of naval vessels destroyed during Operation Crossroads, which consisted of two impressive nuclear detonations: the Able and the Baker. Only eleven technical divers are allowed to visit the island at a time.

At first glance the Island appears to be an untouched oasis. The beach is still covered in shells and a cafeteria and a tiny strip of rooms stand at the edge of the jungle. On further inspection there is something so unnatural about the whole island. Everything grows in perfect rows. The palm trees are all evenly spaced three feet apart--a little too aligned, a little too perfect. The whole lot has been planted to cover up the devastation that took place there. Everything on the island is irrevocably marked. The nuclear blasts have left footprints that cannot be erased.
Our group consisted of technical divers trained to dive with double steel tanks. Our main objective of the trip was to dive and hopefully penetrate the shipwrecks created by the detonations. An average dive comprised 30 minutes of bottom time to a depth of between 130-180 feet and a decompression time of 50 minutes. Decompression (to eliminate excess nitrogen from deep dives on air) was done on a series of hang bars and dangling regulators that supplied us varying percentages of oxygen. Every dive was a wreck dive and all of the ships, etc., had been active during World War II. We did two dives a day for a total of 12 dives.
Each day started with a history lesson and a dive briefing. I heard the stories of naval battles and war much as I had in previous history classes but none of these stories quite prepared me for seeing the ethereal remains. Nothing could have prepared me for the flood of emotions that accompanied the visits to each of these ships. The connection I felt to each of them was the greatest history lesson I have ever received.

The most majestic ship, the USS Saratoga CV-3, was the first aircraft carrier ever built in the US. Her decorated and impressive history made for incredible diving. I couldn’t help but feel the pride of the American people while staring up at her masterful bow from below. Her hangar had recently collapsed but three of her aircraft still lie around the ship and could be explored. As I swam across her deck at 150 feet I could see wisps of oil signaling yet another collapse inside. The ship was literally disintegrating before my eyes. I did multiple penetrations through her living corridors maneuvering through skeletal rows of bunks and sinks.

Little pieces of history still reside inside the Saratoga. Carefully protected treasures were everywhere. Dishes, dive helmets, torpedoes, a bugle, and artillery shells of every kind surrounded her. These artifacts are usually pillaged, but here they have been left undisturbed out of respect to the Bikinians (the guardians of these ships). Hundreds of Coke bottles still littered every ship, completely intact. We can all rest easy that in the event of a nuclear war, our Coke will be safe.

On day two our group parked above the notorious flagship of the Japanese Imperial Navy, the HIJMS Nagato. The series of dives I made here were truly amazing. Each dive began with a descent down a rope into complete darkness for the first 125 feet. The cold water closed in on me in total silence until I saw the looming giant suddenly appear below me. The ship had an eerie presence. It made me shudder--as if it had a personality. I was “waking a sleeping giant”--a piece of history that has lain untouched and hidden for so long. I could almost hear Admiral Yamamoto launching the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The enormous guns and propellers of the ship defied imagination. I could have swum up the barrels of the guns. As I stared down the barrel of one of the cannons I felt my skin crawl and I started to lose control of my limbs. My fingers would no longer do as I directed them and I kept causing myself to sink. A lack of air due to equipment malfunction and a paranoid case of Nitrogen Narcosis caused me to lose control a bit as I drifted closer and closer to the barrel. I tried to alert my dive team through hand signals that I was feeling loopy but nobody seemed to notice. Luckily as I felt myself blacking out, I caught the attention of the dive master and was able to ascend to a more agreeable depth and do my required decompression. Making some equipment adjustments allowed me to do two more dives on the Nagato, but it never lost its ominous, shiver-inducing presence. World War II seems to have left ghosts and echoes on all of the ships. I felt myself absorbing the vestiges of fear, triumph, anger, and pride that still haunt the ships. Every gaunt corridor or corral covered tank seemed to cry out with a long forgotten tale. As I swam through the remains of the Nagato bridge I could almost hear the infamous call sign “Tora, Tora, Tora.” I was able to penetrate the seaplane hangar, living quarters, and other sections of the ship in a series of three dives.

On the Anderson DD-411 we saw the tiny ladder leading up the side of the ship where over a thousand sailors found their salvation from drowning during every major World War II battle. Each diver took a moment to climb the rungs and take in the emotions that those war-torn young men must have felt as they climbed to safety. The emotional impact of seeing these ships is hard to capture. The awe and respect they command is truly humbling. It was life altering.
Besides the Saratoga, Anderson and Nagato we dove the Lambson, Carlisle, Arkansas, Anderson ships, and the Apagon submarine.

On our return trip we stopped in Hawaii and visited the Pearl Harbor memorial. We stood aboard the US Missouri pondering the war and everything we had seen under Bikini. We had seen the ship that called the US into action and now we stood at the spot where the truce had been signed. Even though I wasn’t alive during World War II, it has touched my life. I now carry a piece of it with me. History came alive for me on a small island in the middle of Pacific.


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