Ailuk islander Tempo Alfred, 77, died in Majuro earlier this month. One of a dwindling number of elder Marshallese survivors of the US nuclear weapons testing program, Tempo was born on Ailuk. As a 13-year-old boy, he was an eyewitness to the March 1, 1954 Bravo hydrogen bomb test.
He remembered a flash light and heard the big explosion in the lagoon. “It was not only one time,” he said. “Every few minutes I heard the sound and it continued around three to four more times.” He was fishing at the moment of the Bravo blast.
Radioactive debris actually reached Ailuk. US Joint Task Force Seven found Ailuk Atoll “received fallout of some consequence” in the days following the Bravo nuclear test. However, for survivors, it is quite difficult to recognize the fallout because the local people cannot sense the radiation and had no idea how to detect fallout in their surroundings.
The record shows that the United States planned to evacuate the Ailuk people and sent a navy destroyer to Ailuk after the nuclear test. However, they did not take any action to evacuate after all. It was quite different from neighboring Rongelap and Utrik, which were evacuated by the US. Consequently, 401 Ailuk people were left on the contaminated island.
Tempo remembers: “I also saw the coconut tree that spread by three branches. I found the strange tree in a remote island on Ailuk. We had not seen this before.” After the nuclear weapons testing, people started to notice something unusual happening on this atoll.
In 2001, Tempo and I cooperated to survey the overlooked nuclear legacy in Ailuk.
“I am exposed, but Ailuk has been neglected for the past 50 years,” Tempo said. “The United States — why do you ignore me?” Tempo publicly decried the fact of the forgotten Ailuk people and traveled to tell his story.
Tempo came from Ailuk to participate in the March 1, 2004 50th commemoration ceremony of the ‘Bravo’ nuclear test held in Majuro.
In 2015, Tempo spoke about the Bravo test and the Ailuk experience in Japan with Rosania Bennett and myself to share nuclear legacy issues beyond national borders.
On March 1 this year, just one day before he passed away, Tempo attended the rally and the national ceremony on Nuclear Victims Remembrance Day in Majuro.
Tempo and Ailuk people’s experience tell us that it is time for us to pay greater attention to not only the four atolls but also to other islands to remind ourselves of the real nuclear legacy of the Marshall Islands.
Dr. Seiichiro Takemine is an Associate Professor at Meisei University in Tokyo, Japan. He has been engaged in researching and writing about the nuclear weapons test legacy in the Marshall Islands for two decades and maintained a close association with Tempo Alfred since first meeting him in 2001.
Read more about this in the March 23, 2018 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.