Rongelap, 17 May 1985, Friday
We arrive in the lagoon of the Rongelap Atoll at 14:15 o’clock after a two day
transit from Majuro. We are met by a bum bum (local term for small motorboat),
which carries a group of singing women and children. On a sign, held up by an
elderly woman, it says:
“WE LOVE THE FUTURE OF OUR KIDS”
After dropping RAINBOW WARRIOR’s anchor, the inflatable boat is prepared and
launched to transfer the crew ashore, where they are greeted by the Rongelap Islanders.
Chanting women stand under an arch with the inscription:
“WELCOME TO RONGELAP – WE LOVE THE FUTURE OF OUR KIDS”
Every crew member is welcomed with a lei and, as a welcome drink, a fresh, green
coconut is served to us.
Rongelap, 18 May 1985, Saturday
It’s Saturday and therefore a day to relax a bit. I take the offer to have a ride on one of
the outrigger sailing canoes.
In the afternoon we have another meeting with a selected group to discuss details of the loading procedures.
Rongelap, 19 May 1985, Sunday
All three RAINBOW WARRIOR engineers spend the morning to do engine repair work on all local bum bums.
I take the opportunity to a walk around the island and to take photographs. In the village I witness as
one house after the next one is taken apart (that means: plywood sheets, 2 by 4s and corrugated roof
material), bundled up and labeled with the name of the house owner.
Outside the village I find only very few additional houses, which are located at either end of the
island. The rest of the island is covered with coconut trees as well as breadfruit and pandanus trees.
On the way back to the village I find cover for one of the regular, short but intense showers at
a vacant hut near the airfield, a grass strip covered with rocks.
In the afternoon the first load of building material arrives at the RAINBOW WARRIOR, carried
by one of the bum bums. This load of plywood sheets, 2 x 4s and roofing sheets are stored
on the main deck of the RAINBOW WARRIOR.
Rongelap, 20 May 1985, Monday
Until 16:00 o’clock the flow of boatloads of building material as well as big boxes filled with personal items does not stop and is stored on deck. Approximately 15 tons of cargo is loaded for this trip. Between 16 and 18:00 o’clock 75 Islanders come on board, bringing an additional load of “carry-on” luggage and food supplies with them. Shortly after 18:00 o’clock we heave the anchor and leave the lagoon of Rongelap by sunset for the first trip south to Mejato.
The group of passengers consists of 70% children (newborns to teenagers), their parents and grandparents. To give them shelter for wind and rain, the upper poop deck is covered with tarps. Fortunately, the wind stays calm during the transit, and only a very few of them have to fight seasickness.
Mejato, 21 May 1985, Tuesday
Mejato Island, the new home of the Rongelap people, is first seen around 7:00 o’clock. But it takes another two hours until the RAINBOW WARRIOR reaches the anchorage in Kwajalein lagoon and can drop the anchor. Mejato is located at the North-West corner of Kwajalein Atoll. A short while later two motorboats, coming from Ebeye with representatives of the Mejato Island landowners, circle the RAINBOW WARRIOR. Together with about 60 Ebadon islanders (Ebadon is the nearest island to Mejato in the large Kwajalein Atoll) they stage the welcome ceremony on the beach under the banner:
“EBADON WELCOMES RONGELAP”
Since the reef off Mejato stretches for more than a nautical mile, it is quite a long way the RAINBOW WARRIOR’s inflatables have to cover each way in and out. One of the Rongelap bum bums is still in transit and is expected to arrive in Mejato around 14:00 o’clock. That’s one of the reasons why unloading is not finished before sunset. It is not safe to leave the lagoon at nighttime due to the lack of any buoys and lighthouses. And reefs are pretty hard when hit.
Mejato, 22 May 1985, Wednesday
Both inflatables and the bum bums move, almost without a break, between RAINBOW WARRIOR and the Mejato beach. The heavy swell at the anchorage does not make it easy to load the building material onto the bouncing small boats. But at 16:00 o'clock the RAINBOW WARRIOR is ready to leave Mejato for the trip back to Rongelap.
Rongelap, 23 May 1985, Thursday
Back again in the Rongelap lagoon in the early morning hours. Campaigner Steve Sawyer likes to speed up things a bit and puts a deadline at 14:00 o’clock for loading goods. And indeed, the flow of building material from the beach to the RAINBOW WARRIOR works out really well. At the set time, that main as well as the poop deck are packed with cargo. Between 16:30 and 18:00 o’clock the passengers board. But instead of the expected 85 passengers we get 120 of them – this is something we only notice the next morning when they disembark off Mejato and we do a headcount.
With 150 people (crew plus media plus passengers) on board and, compared with the first crossing, more wind and a bit more swell on this 2nd trip, it feels quite crowded and uncomfortable due to the many seasick passengers. Folks sleep everywhere: on deck, in the hold, in the engine room, in the workshop, in the mess room, in the alleyways and in some crew cabins, which were made available to the elderly passengers and women in their late pregnancy.
I take a nap in the rope locker after my 20 to 24 o’clock wheelhouse watch.
Mejato, 24 May 1985, Friday
Like we did after the first trip, we ferry the passengers first to Mejato beach, followed by all the building material and personal belongings. Around Noon the bum bum runs aground at low tide on a shallow spot on the reef and damages the shaft bearing. This makes it impossible to carry those extra large building parts since they won’t fit on the inflatables. The decision is made to spend the night at anchor; it gives the engineers a chance to repair the bearing and finish unloading the remaining cargo the next morning.
In the evening, Davey Edward (Chief Engineer) tries fishing in the lagoon and is lucky to catch his first fish, a red snapper, since trying it for the past two months without any success. Davey hits a streak of luck until midnight – all together 5 red snappers, two reef fish and two small sharks.
Mejato, 25 May 1985, Saturday
The repair of the shaft bearing works out fine and in a joined venture, the RAINBOW WARRIOR crew and the islanders succeed to get all remaining cargo and goods ashore.
By 14:00 o’clock the RAINBOW WARRIOR leaves Kwajalein Atoll again for her trip back to Rongelap. Due to the early departure and plenty of hours left until sunrise the next morning (can’t enter Rongelap lagoon at nighttime either due to lack of navigational aides), the crew decides to set sails and turn off the main engine for the open water part of the transit. This relaxed trip is quite a difference to the last voyage.
Rongelap, 26 May 1985, Sunday
This nice day takes a turn to the bad for me: a small cut under my right foot, which happened when I was pushing an inflatable ashore in Mejato yesterday, got infected due to contact with corrals. RAINBOW WARRIOR doctor Andy Biedermann has to cut open and treat the wound. On doctor’s advice I have to keep the foot dry and therefore can’t move cargo around with the small boats for a few days.
On the other hand, a routine develops moving and loading all this cargo and we don’t struggle to leave Rongelap, this time with ‘only’ 45 passengers, before sunset for this 120 nautical mile long 3rd trip to Mejato.
Mejato, 27 May 1985, Monday
As we enter the lagoon, the Field Trip Ship MILITOBI follows right behind us and drops anchor close to the RAINBOW WARRIOR. The MILITOBI is one of four island supply ships owned by the Marshall Islands’ government. More than six weeks the Rongelap Islanders had to wait for this vessel, which supplies the islanders with much needed food supply, to arrive. Due to a long dry period, which had just ended, and the very limited possibilities to gather food on Rongelap Atoll (the north half of Rongelap Atoll is off-limit for food due to the high grade of radiation – issued by Brookhaven Lab. Institute, USA), the food supply was very low. Despite the ban, some of the islanders made it to the northern islands of Rongelap Atoll to search for much need food supplies. The reason for the delay of the MILITOBI was the lack of funds of the Marshall Island government to supply fuel to the ship. The goods discharged by the MILITOBI consist of rice and flour in large bags as well as canned sweet potatoes, beef meat, pears, fruit juices and condensed milk. All these items are from USDA (US Dept. of Agriculture) stock.
With the help of an additional bum bum from Ebeye we manage to unload pretty fast.
For the last trip to Rongelap, Glenn Alcalay from the National Committee for Radiation Victims, Washington, D.C., joins us. He is a scientific advisor of the Rongelap Islanders and is presently working on a legal action for a compensation claim against the US Government.
Rongelap, 28 May 1985, Tuesday
For the 4th and last trip from Rongelap to Mejato the RW is loaded to the maximum of available space.
Besides the usual cargo of building material and personal items in big boxes we also load two outrigger canoes (one complete, one taken apart).
I take another walk through the village to take some more photos. What a difference: a week and a half ago this village was still a living community with kids greeting me with “YOKWE” or “HELLO” and houses looked like houses. Now I only see some of the remaining 40 islanders, who pack the rest of their belongings and bring them to the beach. What is left of the houses is only the foundation set on stilts. The only intact buildings staying behind are the church and the hospital.
At our last departure from Rongelap we leave behind Jeton Anjain and 10 men. They will use the next few days to count all the trees on the atoll. With these numbers they want to strengthen their demand for their monetary compensation claim. They will then use the remaining bum bum to follow us to Mejato.
Mejato, 29 May 1985, Wednesday
Unload passengers and cargo. Followed by cleaning the ship.
Mejato, 30 May 1985, Thursday
The crew gets a day off. Several of us take the inflatable to a reef off Ebadon, where the wreck of a cargo ship is rusting away. This excursion takes a very sudden turn when Steve Sawyer falls into the open cargo hold, with the rusty part of a handrail still in his hand, while he was trying to climb up on board the wreck. He suffers multiple injuries on both his arms.
While this mishap was occurring, I was taking a tour around Mejato Island. Surrounding a community gathering house, which was built already two months prior this relocation, a number of tents are set up (using tarps from the RAINBOW WARRIOR supply). There are also some plywood sheds and a few small huts built the traditional way with a frame work of tree logs and branches, covered by woven mats of Pandanus leaves. And everywhere piles and piles of plywood and roofing material, boxes and bags and all the food supplies delivered by the MILITOBI just three days ago. There is still plenty to do for the Rongelap Islanders.
In the evening the RAINBOW WARRIOR crew is invited to a farewell party by the islanders. Together with the Chief of Kwajalein Atoll, Michael Kabua, the crew gathers and then sits down in the middle of the gathering house. While a group of women sing traditional local songs, the meal is served to us. Each individual meal is served in a woven baskets and consist of rice/coconut-rolls, pancakes, beef and a coconut dessert. Several speeches follow and they are connected by more songs sung by the women. The islanders repeat their Thank You to the RAINBOW WARRIOR crew for their help during this difficult time. As a thank-you and good-bye present, every crew member gets a choice of either shells, woven baskets or woven fans and for all of us a huge bag full of coconuts.
Saying good-bye tonight to all the Rongelap Islanders is very emotional to me.
Mejato, 31 May 1985, Friday
At 10:00 o’clock the RAINBOW WARRIOR leaves the Mejato anchorage and sets sails for Ebeye.
© Copyright Benedikt Hoffmann 2015