Majuro-- Radio Bikini, an hour-long documentary that was years in the making, depicts an incredibly sordid tale from our region. Produced and directed by Robert Stone and released in 1988, the film starred Bikinian elder and iroij (traditional leader) Kilon Bauno. There was a reason Kilon was chosen by the Bikinian leaders of that time to represent them in the film.
Kilon always spoke publicly with an enormous amount of intensity, I’m talking veins-popping-passion-and-teeth-grit-force. He had been denied a life lived on his homeland, Bikini Atoll, considered his gift from God, so he never muffled his emotions when asked by anyone about how this unfortunate series of events had caused him and his family and many others to suffer.
He was much different than the mild-mannered Lore Kessibuki, the elder who had composed the Bikinian’s anthem and truly believed that his people had done a great deed “for the good of mankind.”
When Kilon articulated his thoughts about his loss of dignity, his rage became so palpable and infectious that it felt as if he were ramming his finger into the eyes of everyone in the audience, especially the Americans.
His storytelling evolved into a mind-leveling diatribe about how the U.S. military had treated his people with such callous disregard after they had removed them from Bikini to make way for the U.S. nuclear weapons testing program. Whenever he finished speaking, regardless of how large the audience was and as predictable as the sun rising, you could hear a pin drop.
In 1946, the United States used the islands of Bikini as a nuclear-proving ground. While Bikini eventually became the site of 23 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons tests for the first two blasts code-named ABLE and BAKER, the U.S. government produced a propaganda film. These two initial tests, the world's 4th and 5th nuclear detonations, were part of a highly visible military exercise dubbed "Operation Crossroads."
Accompanying the 42,000 military personnel (as many people as there are living in the Marshall Islands today) were 242 ships, 156 airplanes, 25,000 radiation recording devices, 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs, and half of the world's supply of motion picture film. The U.S. military used 750 cameras and 18 tons of cinematography equipment. There was a supply of film on hand large enough to complete an estimated 11 major motion pictures. At this first stage of their exodus, Kilon and most of the Bikinians didn’t even know what a movie camera was.
For reasons unknown, most of the films shot during Crossroads were never released by the U.S. government. The reels were placed in archival vaults, locked away and forgotten about for over 35 years. Filmmaker Robert Stone, who was originally interested in making a movie solely about the Bikinian people, used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the footage.
After tediously reviewing the archival footage, Stone produced a documentary collage about two separate groups of victims. One focus of his project concerned the plight of the U.S. atomic veterans who were involved in Crossroads and subsequently exposed to highly radioactive fallout. He conducted extensive interviews with John Smitherman, who was a young, naive Navy man at the time of the testing. (He died in 1983 of horrifying radiation-related cancers shortly after speaking with Stone.)
The other half of the story describes the misfortunes of the people of Bikini, referred to in the film by the U.S. military as “nuclear nomads” even though they had lived on their beloved islands for centuries. Through a wide-ranging interview, Kilon conveyed in detail how his people had been abruptly uprooted from their homes and then abandoned to starve on uninhabitable atolls and islands within the Marshalls. Stone masterfully integrated the two interviews with black-and-white clips of the heavily propagandized military footage.
The film made it to international film festivals, including the prestigious Sundance.
In 1988, "Radio Bikini" was nominated for an Oscar. The Bikini Council sent Kilon to the 60th Academy Awards. They also selected Council members Minus Samuel and Uraia Jibas, and our attorney, Jonathan Weisgall, who had also been involved in the production of the film, and myself as Kilon’s caretaker and interpreter.
The delegation arrived in Los Angeles on a Sunday. The next morning, just hours before the Academy Awards ceremony was to begin, we rushed to the tuxedo rental store. Though I had never worn a tuxedo before, my elderly roommate Kilon relied on me to get us dressed properly. I’ll just say that it went well except for a few issues like the cummerbunds that we wound up wearing upside down to the ceremony.
While the film did not win, the Hollywood experience was exciting for us. The awards ceremony was not the only thrilling aspect of that trip. The old man just loved riding the hotel elevators, which he considered a marvelous experience. So we spent a lot of time going up and down before going anywhere. I realized later that I should have taken more time teaching him which buttons to push to get to our floor.
The night before we were to leave LA, I groggily woke up at about 3 a.m. only to discover that Kilon wasn't in the room. I dressed hurriedly and conducted a frantic search of the hallway outside our room. Then I went down and rushed through the hotel lobby (the front desk staff had not seen the old man) and even went outside looking for him on the street.
As I paced around back in the lobby trying to figure out what I should do next, the elevator doors opened and there in all his glory stood Kilon complete with his yellow and blue flowered Aloha shirt, black trousers, dark sunglasses, zoris and cane. He recognized me and then smiled that charming, wizened grin of his.
As we rode the elevator back up to our floor, I told him that I was still sweating bullets because he had scared the bejesus out of me. I ranted about what could have happened to him had I not found him. When I calmed down, I noticed that he still had that “smile” going on while eyeing me like I was a TV set. He started chuckling under his breath with his hand covering his mouth island-style, like he was kind of trying to be polite, but I didn’t mind because it was kind of funny. Kind of.
Kilon, our courageous advocate, passed away from natural causes in 1992. He was in his 80s.
Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of Health Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 42 years. He is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini,” and president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to email@example.com