Inside the Capitol

Monday, June 06, 2005

6-13 Marshall Islands

MON, 6-13-05

MARSHALL ISLANDS � The Marshalls were important to the United States during World War II as an assembly area for taking the many islands to the south. And Majuro, the capital of the Marshalls, had a huge, secure harbor where the fleet could assemble.
It also had airfields so it was used as a fleet supply center. It was from the Marshalls that Japan had attacked Wake Island to the north in December 1941. It was in February 1944 that the United States made its move.
The Marshall Islands are a scattering of more than 1,000 narrow, flat atolls, with no rivers and very few crops. So the Marshallese had to turn to the sea for resources and they became skilled at fishing, sailing and navigation.
The debate about whether the people of the South Pacific were able to negotiate the vast distances of their ocean now is over. Enough anthropologists have built native canoes and sailed all the suspected paths of human migration to prove that point.
The major mystery was how they managed to navigate over such long distances to tiny specks of land. Gradually we�ve learned how they watched the stars, winds, flight paths of birds and the colors of the ocean. They also developed stick charts out of light, flexible wood to use as maps, with seashells indicating islands.
The Marshalls fell comparatively easily. Most of them were bypassed and isolated. The Japanese soldiers were left to starve to death on the barren islands. Many blew themselves up trying to dynamite fish out of the ocean. They forced the natives to bring them food, which created a hardship for the Marshallese, but they were accustomed to leading Spartan lives.
It was after World War II that the islands experienced their horrors of war � the Cold War. Our military figured the tiny, lightly populated atolls would make perfect locations for testing the most awful nuclear weapons the world has known.
Names like Bikini and Enewetok exploded into our vocabulary. But what happened to the people on those islands?
It�s the same as the sad story of the White Sands ranchers in New Mexico? The military decided it needed a place to test its missiles, once Germany taught us the bitter lesson that rockets are effective for killing people. So the ranchers were chased off their land in the name of patriotism, national defense and world peace.
The government gave them a token amount of money, but their lives and way of life had been completely disrupted. And they have remained that way ever since despite frequent pleas to the Defense Department and Congress for adequate compensation.
The Marshallese suffered the same fate, and worse. There are even fewer of them. They are far, far away. The world news doesn�t cover their plight. And they have no members of Congress to champion their cause.
The Marshallese are a friendly, gentle, polite people. But is it any wonder they don�t particularly trust the U.S. government? They thought the Japanese were cruel masters. But life was much more normal then than it is now for many of their people.
Some of their islands still are radioactive. Divers love to go to Bikini and swim among the sunken ships used in the tests. But the island�s former inhabitants still can�t return.
Guess where the Bikini Town Hall is located? On the main street of Majuro. There also is a Nuclear Reparations Office on Majuro�s main street. That effort is still continuing. But the office door was locked the day I knocked.
The Marshallese were delighted to see us. In the past year, they have had four cruise ship visits. That�s more than double the usual number. We bought many stick charts, beautiful mats made of weeds and shells and, of course, T-shirts.
They understand we�re a good nation and that it takes patience. But they�d be better off if their now independent country declared war on us.



Post a Comment

<< Home