Bikini Atoll An Iconic Dive Destination

Aron Arngrimsson, founder of The Dirty Dozen Expeditions, waxes lyrical about Operation Crossroads and how it made Bikini Atoll an iconic dive destination, as well as exploring the most-famous wreck – the USS Saratoga.

For most divers, Bikini is almost like an urban legend. A remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific where 21 nuclear tests were performed, where the Able and Baker blasts famously destroyed some of the most-significant warships of our time, and the local Bikini Islanders were left nuclear refugees to this day. It is a place where, after 40 hours of travel and a brief stop at a secret army base, you are still only halfway there. Historic wrecks, shark-filled waters, and exploration define it. Welcome to Bikini Atoll.

Operation Crossroads

After World War One, and following a mandate from the League of Nations, Japan took over the administration of the Marshall Islands. In anticipation of World War Two, military presence in the islands intensified. Bikini, Truk Lagoon, and other low-lying coral atolls became strategic points of interest.

Photographs by Aron Arngrimsson
Jesper Kjoller 2018 BikiniGIVE JK PHOTOCREDIT

Life for the Islanders wasn’t peaceful anymore as the Japanese began building watchtowers to keep an eye out for an American invasion. Kwajalein, in particular, became a key headquarters for the Japanese. American forces took Kwajalein and the Marshalls by force in February 1944. Japanese control was lost.

There were five Japanese soldiers left on Bikini Atoll. Instead of allowing themselves to be captured, they blew themselves up with a grenade while hiding out in a foxhole.

Post-World War Two, in December 1945, then-US President Harry Truman informed the US Forces the testing of nuclear weapons would be undertaken ‘to determine the effect of atomic bombs on American warships’. Unluckily for Bikini, its isolation from the sea and air routes meant it was chosen as a nuclear testing point – these tests came to be named Operation Crossroads.

Commodore Wyatt, then-military governor of the Marshall Islands, went to Bikini in February 1946. After church on a Sunday, he gathered the native Bikini Islanders and asked them to leave their homes so the US could test bombs. He stated it was for ‘the good of mankind and to end all world wars’. King Juda, the Bikini monarch, was understandably confused but entered into discussions with his people. They decided to leave: ‘We will go believing that everything is in the hands of God’.

While the Islanders were preparing for their enforced exodus, the US testing programme advanced swiftly. A total of 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation recording tools, and 5,400 animals arrived. The latter were to serve as test subjects. More than 42,000 US personnel played a part in the testing programme.

The Crossroads tests were the first of other nuclear tests in the Marshalls. They were also the first to be announced in public beforehand and were observed by a large audience, including press from around the world. Operation Crossroads was led by a joint Army and Navy Task Force. The target ships were placed in Bikini’s lagoon. They were hit with two rounds of Fat Man plutonium implosion weapons, the same type of nuclear bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. Each implosion yielded 23 kilotons of TNT.

A total of 95 vessels – the equivalent of the sixth-largest navy in the world – were caught in the crossfire of the Able and Baker bombs. Among the sunken ships were four US battleships, two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, 11 destroyers, eight submarines, and three surrendered German and Japanese warships. These vessels had been bunkered and were filled with ammunition. Some even carried sheep and other animals acting as stand-in soldiers so that the effects of radiation could be observed.

The first blast, Able, was dropped from a B-29 and detonated at an altitude of 158 metres at 9am on 1 July, 1946. Designed to replicate the Hiroshima bomb over water, it didn’t go as planned as the bomb missed its target, the USS Nevada battleship. It did, however, sink the USS Gilham, USS Carlisle, USS Anderson, USS Lamson, and IJN Sakawa.AdvertisementsAdvertisements