As Hallowe’en approaches, I bring you a true horror story from the cold war. Daigo Fukuryu Maru was a humble Japanese fishing vessel that set out from Yaizu to catch tuna in January of 1954. Its name translates roughly as “Number Five Lucky Dragon,” a cruel irony in light of the ship’s fate. Daigo Fukuryu Maru ran into engine trouble almost immediately. Near Midway Island, it snagged its lines on a coral reef and lost nearly half of them. The young captain, Hisakichi Tsutsui, refused to return to port without something to show for it. He headed south, toward the Marshall Islands.
By the end of February, 1954, Daigo Fukuryu Maru was fishing near Bikini Atoll. Yes, THAT Bikini Atoll. Supplies were running low, and they planned to fish one more day before heading back to port. None of the crew had any idea that the US Government had established an exclusion zone around Bikini Atoll because they were planning a Hydrogen bomb test. The hapless vessel was outside the exclusion zone, but that was little consolation after the fact.
At 6:45 a.m., a tremendous flash drew the crew up to the deck. It looked like the sun was rising in the west. “Bridge, sky and sea burst into view, painted in flaming sunset colors,” recalled crewman Matakichi Oishi. What the stunned crew witnessed was the detonation of Castle Bravo, a new type of nuclear weapon that worked a little too well. The blast had been expected to yield 6 kilotons; the actual yield was closer to 15. It was the greatest human-caused explosion to date, and the consequences were devastating.
Daigo Fukuryu Maru rode out the waves and the fishermen went to work just as always. Even when a cloud of mysterious white particles began to rain softly down, the men pulled in their lines and stored their catch, then weighed anchor and set off for Yaizu. As Oishi told it, “White particles were falling on us, just like sleet. The white particles penetrated mercilessly – eyes, nose, ears, mouth. We had no sense that it was dangerous.” Some of the men even tasted the stuff, trying to figure out what it was. Later testing determined this “death ash” was actually powdered coral blasted off the atoll by the explosion.
By that evening, all the 23 crewmen felt nauseated — the first symptom of radiation sickness. When they reached Yaizu, on March 14th, all the men were deathly ill, covered in burns and bleeding from their gums. The crew was quarantined, all their possessions buried. Unfortunately, the cargo of tuna had already been unloaded. When the diagnosis of radiation sickness became known, the government mounted a desperate search to locate and destroy the toxic seafood. At least some of it was likely consumed by unwitting customers.
Even this was only the beginning. Fallout from the Castle Bravo detonation rendered much of the fish in the Pacific toxic. Everything brought in to any Japanese port had to be tested for radioactivity. Even some crops in the fields were poisoned by fallout. The same must have been true in many neighboring countries, and so the full economic consequences took years to unfold.
For the crewmen personally, their lives were changed forever. Since the nuclear explosions at the end of World War II, nine years before, radiation sickness occupied a special place of horror in the Japanese mind. Anyone so afflicted was shunned, because radiation sickness was thought to be contagious. Although only one crewman died in the short term, most of the survivors had to move to new towns and start over, hiding the shameful secret of their former illness.
And they were not alone. In all, around 100 fishing boats of various nations were in the vicinity of Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. Many crew were exposed to contaminated material. Fallout was heavy on the Marshallese Islands of Utirik and Rongelap. Residents weren’t evacuated for 2 days, also suffering from radiation sickness. Infants born in the aftermath suffered birth defects. Much of the scientific knowledge about radiation sickness itself comes from studies carried out after Castle Bravo. Yet, even today, some parts of the Marshall Islands remain unsafe for habitation.
Adding insult to injury, the US Government was not forthcoming about what had occurred. Secrecy in nuclear testing was paramount, as was staying ahead of the USSR. Confronted by Japan’s government, US military sources claimed that Daigo Fukuryu Maru had been at Biniki Atoll on a spying mission. Only years later, and begrudgingly, did the US pay a miserly reparation to surviving crew members of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru.
The detonation of Castle Bravo, and its unanticipated levels of fallout, led to world-wide protest and re-evaluation of nuclear testing methods. This continued to build into the No Nukes Movement of the Seventies and Eighties. Matakichi Oishi, who tasted the “death ash,” frequently spoke at demonstrations. As for the ship itself, Daigo Fukuryu Maru was renamed and kept fishing for several years. In 1976, the trawler was permanently preserved in the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Memorial Hall at Toyko’s Metropolitan Museum.
And there was one other consequence. A very, very big consequence. An “Oh no, there goes Tokyo!” consequence. I’ll tell you about that on Saturday.