“Radio Bikini” is aptly named. Much of the audio in this amazing 52-minute documentary comes from the Mutual and NBC Radio Networks’ coverage of “Operation Crossroads,” where the U.S. Army and Navy conducted two atomic bomb tests.
It’s galling to watch.
It was July, 1946. World War 2 had ended less than a year before, following the blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At this point, there had been three nuclear explosions–the Trinity test in New Mexico, plus the two bombs dropped used on Japan. The U.S. Military had seen ample success of the atomic bombs used over land. The new question was, how would nuclear blasts affect ships at sea?
The logical answer, of course, was to do tests. Logical.
I’m reasonably certain the various military commands were using sound logic based on their knowledge base. With what we know today, Operation Crossroads looks laughably inept.
The Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, was selected as the target. Dozens of decommissioned warships were placed around Bikini Atoll to measure the bombs’ effects. Naturally, the indigenous population was temporarily moved to another island.
The first bomb (“Able”) was dropped from a B-29 on July 1st, 1946. Amazingly, there were thousands of U.S. Navy personnel on boats as close as nine miles from Ground Zero. Their job was to go in after the smoke cleared, inspect the damage to the target ships, see how the various test animals aboard those ships fared (I’ll give you three guesses), and to do any clean-up that was required. Then–amazingly–the Naval forces remained in the area another 24 days, until the second bomb–“Baker”–was detonated 90 feet below the water.
The second blast was more damning than the first. The target ships were damaged, to be sure. The problem was that everything was covered with radioactive seawater. There are scenes of Geiger counters being run over a sailor’s shirt. It goes crazy. The sailor removes his shirt. The Geiger counter is run over his bare chest. It went crazy again.
The beauty of this documentary is that nearly all of the source footage came from U.S. Military sources, with the rest supplied by news agencies. There were two modern witnesses interviewed. One is John Smitherman, a sailor who witnessed these 1946 tests, and provides his reactions to the events.
The other modern interview was with Kilon Bauno. Mr Bauno is Chief of the Bikinians, and his only wish is to be repatriated to his home island to live out his old age. That “temporary” relocation from 1946? The Bikinians were still in exile when this film was released in 1988.
Another feature I loved about this documentary is the military leaders’ tone. The atomic bomb is being used to benefit mankind, like it eradicated diphtheria or something. It was propaganda, pure and simple.
I’m not judging, either. The prevailing sentiment was that the nuclear genie was out of the lamp, and all of our armies and navies would be replaced by throwing atomic baseballs at one another. That’s honestly how a U.S. Naval Officer described it!
As time passed, we learned the horrific effects of radiation. The arms race grew and grew, till we had Mutually Assured Destruction. Maybe that worked to end the Cold War. Maybe it was something else.
I hope that Operation Crossroads provided some valuable information that maybe did help mankind in some way, because it exacted a huge toll on American military personnel exposed to the radiation, as well as the Bikinians, who were relocated.
In subsequent years, the US performed further nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll. Those, I’m sure, are the subject of other documentaries. “Radio Bikini” deals only with Operation Crossroads, and it is a beautifully made, well-paced film, presenting events as they unfold, horrifying events during a time of greater innocence.
(Grade: A “Radio Bikini,” 1988 NR (probably PG-13) 56 minutes)