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Journey To The Nuclear Lagoon

Nuclear Weapons
Marshall Islands

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Journey to the nuclear lagoon
Chris Sheppard sets out for the Marshall Islands in the Pacific to see how the testing of the new MX missile looks from the point of view of the islanders it is aimed at.

The ferry that takes workers to Kwajaleain from Ebeye
Photo: Chris Sheppard.

Friday 11 March London
Final meeting at the BBC today. Agreed that the story for the TV programme still looks good. Basically about Kwajalein, an atoll in the Pacific that’s used as target practice for the new MX missile. Looking at it from the islanders’ point of view should give a novel angle to the weapons story.

The MX is important because it is so accurate that it can knock out enemy missiles in their silos - and so give the US a ‘first strike’ capability.

The dispossessed islanders are now living in slum conditions but are fighting back. ‘We cannot,’ they say, ‘prevent a super-power from developing nuclear weapons. But we can ensure that our islands will not be used for such a purpose.’ Last year they re-occupied some of their territory.

A second look

Editor Ambassador Zeder has ‘day-glo green trousers’ while an opponent has a ‘well-loosened tie’. What are you trying to tell us about the two sides?

Chris Sheppard Standing up to an official war machine is hard work. The important thing about Stan’s outfit is his establishment base - he has a tie to loosen, the peace protesters at Vandenberg do not. As for Ambassador Zeder’s garish slacks - more a comment on the style of Reagan political appointees than on the military. His aides all had grey suits, blue shirts and striped ties - none of them loosened.

Editor The first quote makes the islanders seem anti-nuke while Johnson says they are not. Are they?

Chris Sheppard Only a handful are anti-nuke in the Greenham Common sense. The shift in my view of the Kwajalein people’s position is intentional. Most reports on their protests in London came through peace movement publications and majored on anti-nuke feeling. Hence the superficial attaction of the story: ‘peace-loving islanders confront the mighty US war machine!

But the closer you get to Kwajelein the more you realise that what motivates the islanders is what motivates people everywhere: immediate threats to their basic needs. Most islanders are more concerned about being ripped off than yviped out.

Editor Jellyfish babies are a powerful image. But what really do they have to do with the MX?

Chris Sheppard A tricky one this. You’d be right to guess that almost every visiting journalist in the past thirty years has recounted this and other horror stories. It’s sensational stuff and poor Almira must have told the story a hundred times to strangers with microphones. But if I was not blinded by sentimentality then I did see her eyes begin to gloss when she spoke. My first encounter with a survivor of a nuclear holocaust and a reminder that the MX is more than a piece of hardware.

Editor Did this trip actually change any of your views?

Chris Sheppard Yes and no. I’m still anti-nuke, anti-Reagan, anti-imperialism and always will be. But the issues were all so damned complicated. Who drives the arms race: scientists, generals, politicians or businessmen? I don’t know. Is Almira better off living in a slum with a husband who has a job at the base - or should she return penniless to her home island? I don’t know. So what do I know after my journey to the nuclear lagoon? People, the vast majority of people, who protest against the bomb are compassionate and brave. I support them.

Tuesday 14 March Washington
This is my first stopover en route to the Pacific to pick up more information. I start with one of the critics. Stan Norris’s office at the Center for Defense Information is in a fancy new block a stone’s throw from the White House. He has his ashtray full and his tie well loosened by our 10.00 a.m. meeting. ‘Under Reagan,’ he says, ‘war fighting talk has now come out of the closet.’ But who is making the weapons decisions - the politicians, the military, or the businessmen? He reckons they are all too finely interwoven.

Bill Kincade has more clear-cut views on what drives the arms race. The Arms Control Association of which he is Director is on top of a modest black skyscraper on the fashionable side of town. Bill sees fear and technology as the heart of the issue. Deterrence he says is ‘psychopolitical - based on the need to keep up with all new developments’. The way to stop the arms race is to reduce fear.


Wednesday 15th March Washington
Now to the source of the problems.

Washington’s subway is bright, fast and noiseless and delivers you to the very bowels of the Pentagon. An escalator climbs up to the military activity with the atmosphere getting seedier as you rise. Shocking, really, that the nerve centre of the world’s greatest military power looks so much like the concrete innards of a football stadium.

In Media Relations first names appear as quickly as possible. ‘Let me tell you, Chris’ regularly punctuates the discussion. Lots of talk about ‘concept definition’ and ‘validation of technology’. In this version it is the President who takes the decisions and asks for a ‘time-urgent, hard-target-kill capability’ and the Air Force and the aerospace industry which dutifully oblige. I’m not convinced.

Thursday 17th March Washington
St Patrick’s day and Ambassador Fred Zeder, who is responsible for Marshall Islands affairs at the Department of the Interior, is sporting a pair of dayglo green trousers. He has a reputation for not being able to keep his mouth shut so three aides are sitting in at our meeting and insisting that it all remains off the record.

He cannot understand why the Kwajalein people will not settle for nine million dollars a year on a 30-year lease for their islands to be used as a target range. He blames ‘ambulance-chasing lawyers’ on a fat percentage and seems genuinely perplexed that the people from this tiny island nation (do they still climb coconut palms?) will not just take the money and shut up.

Monday 21st March California
Vandenberg Air Force base is the place from which the MX missiles are fired at the Marshall Islands. Today there is the promise of a demonstration. At 4.30 a.m. it is dark with the rain sluicing down and the only other people in sight are a network TV news crew as keen as me not to miss anything. In the press room there are doughnuts and coffee and a closed circuit TV view of the front gates with the guarantee of an action-replay if anything happens when you’re in the toilet.

Demonstrators start to arrive around 6.00 a.m. At 8.00 a.m. everything is happening Arrests are well under way, baton-carrying soldiers are drafted in and helicopters swing overhead. A passive trio of Buddhist monks chant and drum. TV crews scamper around as one group after another lies down in front of the incoming traffic to be arrested.

Most of the slogans are anti-MX and anti-Reagan but a few have focussed on the Marshall Islands connection: ‘There are people on the end of this missile test’.

Tuesday 22 March Los Angeles
My first view of the MX is in the Rocketdyne Corporation factory where they build the guidance and warhead delivery system. This is a huge steel ring, maybe ten feet across. In the centre there is a two foot diameter steel ball (the ‘inertial reference sphere’) with the cone-shaped warheads arranged around it. It doesn’t look much like a weapon of any kind.

Wednesday 23 March Honolulu
My staging post for the Pacific. Giff Johnson at the Pacific Concerns Resource Center explains how the people of Kwajalein Island were moved to make way for the military base and the equipment which would be used to track the incoming missiles. They were packed off to the nearby island of Ebeye where the resulting overcrowding has turned it into the ‘slum of the Pacific’.

In July 1982 the Kwajalein people took their own unofficial action and re-occupied their island for four months. ‘Operation Homecoming’, says Giff was an important step towards re-kindling their aspirations. Very few of the islanders are anti-nuke, however; money and land are still the big issues for them.

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Saturday 26 March Marshall Islands
I land at Majuro the capital on a runway that joins four or five islands together with concrete to gain its length.

The Marshall Islands is made up of dozens of atolls and it is these which are the attraction as targets. An atoll is a sunken volcano that leaves a string of low islands enclosing a shallow lagoon. The missiles are actually aimed for a splashdown in the lagoon from which they can easily be retrieved by divers. All the sensitive tracking equipment can be conveniently mounted on the islands around the lagoon.

The international airport atMajuro has the informal atmosphere of a Greyhound bus terminal in a mid-west town and as I come in I bump into Tony de Brum the Minister of Foreign Affairs on his way out. Majuro is a small town with a few official buildings, a couple of hotels and a restaurant where Senators play the poker machines and to which the British contract workers running the new power station bring their wives.

The town is livelier at the moment because of a court case between different Kwajalein islanders. They are arguing about how the payments from the US for the use of their island should be shared out. One group wants the split to be based on numbers of people and sizes of land-holding while the other favours the traditional method of chiefs and big landowners getting all the money and then making informal cash handouts to dependents. Two expensive US lawyers and a retired judge are working on the dispute.

Monday 28 March Kwajalein
Majuro to Kwajalein takes an hour in a 50-seat plane. Kwajalein is the largest island in this atoll and from above you can see the tight-knit complex of aiffield, radar domes, administrative buildings and houses. Alongside the airstrip is an eight-hole golf course. Some 3,000 people work on the base.

I was expected, it seems, but no clearance yet from the Department of Defense. Onto the plane comes a short, tubby, acne-scarred security man with pistol and reflective sunglasses. Politely he escorts me off, says no-one will speak to me and after an hour in the waiting room puts me back on the plane to Majuro.

Ebeye - the 'slum of the Pacific'.
Photo: Chris Sheppard.

Wednesday 30 March Kwajalein/Ebeye
Back again - though this time I have an official permit to visit nearby Ebeye Island. The same reception party escorts me to the harbour for the ferry to Ebeye. This island was originally just a convenient relocation sight for those displaced from Kwajalein as well as a dormitory for non-US workers on the base.

But the concentration of US dollars and a phenomenal birth rate have pushed the population from one thousand to ten thousand in just twenty years - a recipe for overcrowding, squalor and decay.

Julian Riklon, my guide to the island, is a quiet and serious young man who for many years worked on a Marshallese translation of the Bible. Now he is secretary of one of the Kwajalein action groups.

‘You know when the missiles are coming,’ he tells me, ‘They put a red flag on the quay which means that you mustn’t sail into the lagoon. If they cQme at night you can see them like shooting stars right overhead.’

Julian introduces me to Almira, a woman exposed to radio-active fall-out in Rongelap atoll during one of the atomic tests in 1954. She has had a number of miscarriages and once gave birth to a living, breathing, shapeless mass - ‘jellyfish babies’ the women call them.

Almira originally moved to Kwajalein because of the hospital. Her husband is a US citizen from Hawaii and a contract worker on the base for the past 18 years. They can only live together on Ebeye, however, as she needs a permit to visit Kwajalein and cannot stay there. Now he fears that his contract will not be renewed as one of the ‘reprisals’ for Operation Homecoming.

Almira is afraid of more accidents; she thinks there is a connection between the previous tests and those today. So she would. like to see the Americans leave - but not if that meant no more jobs on Kwajalein.

Thursday 31 March Majuro
Three weeks on this story and still don’t have it straight. There is not much more time for thought. Tomorrow the film crew arrives and we start shooting.

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