Majuro—In the 1980s when I lived and worked on Kili Island, the tiny, single home island of the nuclear-exiled people of Bikini, I became enchanted by the firsthand stories of the early days of the Bikinian exodus that began in 1946. Imagine the honor and the educational joy of being in your 20s, knowing the Marshallese language well after having already lived for three years on outer islands, then finding yourself among people who had become nuclear nomads at the hands of the most powerful country on earth, the United States. When spending time with these elders, I knew enough to just sit and listen.
“Extraordinary” is the only word I could think of to describe elder Lore Kessibuki. In his 30s at the end of WWII, he had been included in the huddle of Bikinian elders who had to decide what to do after U.S. Commodore Ben Wyatt “asked” them to leave their cherished homeland, the islands they considered to be their Gift from God, “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” Commodore Wyatt later told King Juda, the islanders’ leader, that if your islands didn’t “turn to glass” after testing these new and powerful weapons, the Bikinians could move back after some time had passed. Imagine having that on your plate.
These were a small group of 167 islanders with little education of the outside world, their lives before this consisted of living off the land and taking care of their families, then came the Japanese and American militaries during WWII. And now they were being “asked” to help end all world wars forever. They never felt like they had a “choice.”
My friendship with Lore quickly grew because, being a storyteller myself, I gravitated toward old men who could weave a tale. Storytelling was pretty much the extent of our entertainment on that island during that era. Well, there were two VCR players on the island at the time with a selection of only two videos that would cost you 50 cents each to watch: "Romeo and Juliet" (Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version) and "Easy Rider."
What I loved about being with and talking to Lore in the cool of the island evenings was how his grandchildren would just climb all over him howling with laughter and demanding his full attention. This exhibited a hallmark of Lore’s personality: tolerance. Lore knew the children didn’t bother me at all, so that was how we conversed. Typically, as the evening wore on, his grandkids would eventually tire, lie down on a sleeping mat and then watch and listen to us as if we were Shakespearian lovers or hippies on Harleys.
Lore became the magistrate for the people of Bikini after King Juda died in the late 1960s. He traveled with a small delegation of Bikini islanders to Washington, D.C. in the early 1970s for the first time to discuss their horrible living conditions on Kili with U.S. officials. The long journey, the cold weather and the American culture and English language completely overwhelmed and bewildered Lore. Upon his return, he decided to give up his role as leader to a younger man, Tomaki Juda, who had just returned from Guam and Hawaii, where he studied.
Not too many politicians ever concluded that their days of leadership were over and voluntarily stepped down for the greater good of their own people. But that was Lore, and that is why we all treasured him. He cared and had the ability to genuinely convey warmth and value to those around him. Lore had a larger view of life. While many elder Bikinians were understandably bitter and angry when asked about what had happened to their people, Lore often proudly declared to journalists that the Bikinians’ painful sacrifice of their islands, and in many cases their health, was, indeed, for the good of all mankind.
From an early age Lore became known in the community for being a songwriter/poet. He composed an enduring, haunting song about their exodus in 1946 while they were in the throes of starvation on Rongerik Atoll. During one of our evening sessions on Kili, he told me about the afternoon he had collapsed under a tree because he had been so weak. His family had been complaining that they had no food. The younger children wouldn’t stop crying. As a man and as their provider, he felt hopeless.
He believed the world was close to ending for all of them. He said the song came to him all at once, in the island's oral tradition, he did not write it down. The lyrics and melody simply etched themselves in his mind as he remained crumpled on the ground. His song became the Bikinian Anthem and has been sung in front of audiences all over the world for over 75 years, and today is sung with tears at every funeral of a Bikinian elder (translated):
No longer can I stay; it's true. No longer can I live in peace and harmony. No longer can I rest on my sleeping mat and pillow Because of my island and the life I once knew there.
The thought is overwhelming Rendering me helpless and in great despair.
My spirit leaves, drifting around and far away Where it becomes caught in a current of immense power - And only then do I find tranquility
In the late 1980s, I remember being back on Bikini for the first time in many years, with a large group of Bikinian men, to attempt to redraw their ancient land boundaries. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the NY Times, John Noble Wilford, accompanied us. One evening I set up an interview for him with Lore. When you translate, your mind is never at rest. You are either listening carefully or expressing the interpretation of what was being said, back and forth.
I sat between them on the beach in the glow of the sunset and translated the telling of Lore’s story. When he got to the part of the exodus when they were starving on Rongerik, I became wound up in the ebb-and-flow of Lore’s graphic recollection and the journalist’s queries making sure I was delivering the story and questions with the intensity they deserved. Then came a silence. Mr. Wilford wasn’t asking questions anymore. The exchange had stopped, so I turned to look at the writer. He was sobbing into his shirtsleeves.
Lore passed away in 1994 at the age of about 80. His songs and his stories live on.
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