Magazine Feature

Popcorn From the Sky

The story of people whose lives are forever changed by a test bomb gets lost in seas of misunderstanding, political posturing and classified paperwork.

A test bomb drops on a remote island. Monstrous waves reduce the former "paradise" to a barren sand heap. But the waves get lost in the great Pacific Ocean. And the story of the people whose lives are forever changed by the event gets lost in seas of misunderstanding, political posturing and classified paperwork.

In the early 1990s, when France conducted nuclear bomb testing in French Polynesia against a nearly worldwide tide of opposition, I wanted to find a way to put this human rights issue into perspective for Hawaii schoolchildren. As a drama education specialist, my primary tool is process drama -- guiding students through an active, hands-on reconstruction of an event, placing them "in character" and providing them with just enough information at each step of the story in order to elicit accurate -- and emotional -- responses to the situation as it unfolds.

Our focal point for this unit was America's nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll (Marshall Islands) in the 1940s and '50s (see In Focus). The model could also be applied to other events of mass dislocation, such as the Trail of Tears, the African slave trade or the Holocaust.

My goal for the Pacific exploration was to elicit from the students a genuine frustration at the human and environmental abuses that the dramatic narrative would reveal. But to leave them with that frustration seemed inappropriate.

To answer this dilemma, I drew upon a traditional art form that remains a vital element of Pacific culture -- storytelling. This universal means of relating information about culture and history can also be a way of reshaping seemingly uncontrollable events to create a sense of stability, or even triumph.

In many traditional societies, the trickster figure serves this transformative function. By creating an "original" folktale in response to the drama, my students would come to understand the disturbing event through re-enactment and then reshape it through metaphor.

I conducted the workshop at Wahiawa Elementary School, with a mix of 4th, 5th and 6th graders. Wahiawa town, located in a valley that runs straight to Pearl Harbor, bears strong cultural memories of the World War II bombing and its aftermath, and the teachers are very interested in bringing history closer to their students. The town is home to descendants of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Hawaiian plantation workers and, more recently, military families and immigrants from other Pacific Islands.


An Inside View

We began the workshop by turning the classroom into the Bikini Island of 60 years ago. The students and I assumed the role of islanders -- gathering food, fishing, learning a Marshallese song and listening to a tale of the Marshallese trickster Letao -- in other words, attempting to invest ourselves in the island lifestyle, viewing it from within.

In the next scenario, students role-played a "cabinet meeting" of American officials, with me as President Roosevelt. I related the latest research concerning tiny Bikini Island, pointing it out on a map of the Pacific and describing its perfect placement for the nuclear testing the U.S. wanted to pursue.

"Isn't it better to move one tiny group of people from their island," I urged, "than to ignore the nuclear threat coming from other countries?"

As President, I then invited the student "cabinet members" to react to the proposal. I was unprepared for the onslaught of questions and challenges. The cabinet members reacted emotionally to their leader's rationale and voiced objections such as "They're real people. We can't just do what we want" and "You can't take someone's home away from them." At the end of the debate, the cabinet members voted to reject the measure -- an imaginary step that might have averted the tragedy.

To steer our drama back toward reality, I issued an "executive order" directing them to proceed with the plan. Cabinet members were expected to defend the decision to reporters.

In the reflection period that day, the students shared strong frustrations at the unfairness they perceived and how terrible it felt to carry out an order they deeply opposed. They also wanted to know how the real debate had unfolded. I explained that, although the decision was much more complicated than our role-play could demonstrate, U.S. officials had reached it without consulting the rest of the world and certainly not the Bikini Islanders.

The next class session focused on the presentation of the proposal to island residents. Students role-played islanders, a U.S. military official and his interpreter. I became the island chief.

After a formal greeting, the official laid out the President's order (in gibberish) as the interpreter "translated" it (into English). The gibberish figuratively established a "cultural" distance between the official and the islanders. It also added tension, as even a simple conversation became prolonged by the necessity of waiting for translations.

The islanders then met in small family units to discuss the proposal. Each family unit chose a clan leader to present its questions to the U.S. representative. In accordance with island protocol, no other family members were allowed to speak. The leaders then voted -- in favor of the evacuation and bomb testing!

I had been fully prepared to step in as chief to offer "our" island, but the leaders surprised me. Although not all the islanders agreed, the leaders explained that the proposal sounded important. "We can help the whole world," they said. Amazingly enough, that's very much the way the real event happened. In reflection, several of the (student) islanders were outraged that their leaders had gone against their wishes.

To end the drama, I introduced the real Bikini story. As we read about and discussed the unfolding series of relocations, health crises and environmental disasters, a palpable sense of frustration developed in the classroom. The students needed something to reverse their feelings of helplessness. In our "condensed" experience, we turned to a process that communities and cultures commonly use to grapple with challenging realities over time.


A Legend Is Born

Pacific oral tradition often mirrors themes found in contemporary events. Good examples include tales of trickster-heroes such as Letao, Maui, Olofat and Qat, characters who not only play pranks but also overcome malevolent gods and brutal chiefs. Tricksters represent the "common" person, and their tales are a people's way of gaining power over seemingly uncontrollable events. The trickster also allows us to laugh at things out of our control, giving us the chance, in our imaginations, to overcome grand obstacles. He/she opens our eyes to the ridiculousness of the world, giving us the gift of humor at seemingly inappropriate times. Letao, then, became our central character.

We started by creating a list of the important images from the Bikini story. Our list included bombs, boats and airplanes. We then created a list of metaphors drawn from natural elements to represent those images. The students chose huge birds, bats and mosquitoes to signify the bomb-dropping airplane; whales and sharks became battleships; large rocks and coconuts symbolized the bomb. The most frightening metaphor the students devised was popcorn that the islanders could eat as it floated out of the sky. It represented the bomb's fallout.

Together we brainstormed a basic scenario and refined the specific elements in small groups. (In our story, a big, malicious bird attacks Letao and his people with rocks and coconuts, trying to steal the island.) Next, we brought the metaphors and story ideas into action through physical gestures inspired by the Pacific Island dance style familiar to the students. Each group taught the others its movements, and we strung them together to create our dance.

Finally, by verbalizing the dance, we developed the narrative line: Through a sequence of tricks, Letao lures the bird into a hole and buries it. The ground becomes "hot" from the bird's presence, and people have to avoid the spot to this day. But, thanks to Letao's cleverness, the island is saved -- a "dream" outcome that expressed the students' vision of a hopeful alternative to the historical catastrophe.

The classroom combination of drama and folklore proved a powerful mix. Because most of the students didn't know any particulars of the Bikini story before we played it out, the drama drew them forward. The story became more interesting to dramatize, under the belief that they could influence its course. The fallacy of that belief led directly to the frustration I hoped they would experience, which, in turn, laid the perfect groundwork for the folklore exploration.

Through the entire process, the students immersed themselves in this story of real islanders like themselves, facing a challenge of enormous complexity. The emotional connection fueled their desire to talk about the event, research it and discuss the implications. I've found that, when a classroom activity hinges on a human rights issue, students experience the power of moral curiosity. And that can be the beginning of lifelong work for change.

"All Were Reported Well"

The U.S. Navy evacuates 167 Bikini Islanders to Rongerik Atoll, 125 miles to the east, to make way for the first post-World War II nuclear weapons tests.


As a safety measure, islanders from [nearby] atolls are relocated for the duration of Operation Crossroads.


Operation Crossroads is launched with [two] nuclear tests at Bikini. Both are Hiroshima-size atomic tests.


The Marshall Islands and the rest of Micronesia become a United Nations Strategic Trust Territory administered by the U.S. Among other obligations, the U.S. undertakes to "protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources."


Enewetak Atoll is selected for the second series of U.S. nuclear tests, and the Enewetak people are quickly moved to Ujelang Atoll.


On the verge of starvation, the Bikinians are taken off Rongerik Atoll and moved to Kwajalein, where they stay … while a new home is found for them.


Operation Sandstone begins at Enewetak and includes three atomic tests. The Bikini community moves to southern Kili, a single island with no protected lagoon or anchorage.


Operation Greenhouse starts at Enewetak. Four atomic tests are conducted.


Operation Ivy opens at Enewetak and includes the first test of a hydrogen device. The … test vaporizes one island and is estimated at 10.4 megatons, or some 750 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb.


March 1
Despite weather reports showing that winds are blowing in the direction of inhabited islands, the Bravo hydrogen bomb test is detonated at Bikini. At 15 megatons, it is 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. Within hours a gritty, white ash is enveloping islanders on Rongelap and Ailinginae atolls. A few hours later, American weathermen are exposed to the snowstorm of fallout on Rongerik, and still later, the people of other islands experience the fallout "mist." Those exposed experience nausea, vomiting and itching skin and eyes.


March 3
Rongelap islanders are evacuated 48 hours later, and Utrik is evacuated 72 hours after Bravo. Both groups are taken to Kwajalein for observation. Skin burns on the heavily exposed people begin to develop, and later their hair falls out. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission issues a statement to the press calling Bravo a "routine atomic test" and stating that some Americans and Marshallese were "unexpectedly exposed to some radioactivity. There were no burns. All were reported well."


March 7
Project 4.1 … establishes a secret medical group to monitor and evaluate the Rongelap and Utrik people.


A Project 4.1 memo recommends that the exposed Rongelap people should have "no exposure for [the] rest of [their] lives."


Editor's note: Bomb testing in the islands would continue for four more years. Over the next four decades, the lasting effects of contamination and relocation would result in a class action lawsuit and monetary compensation for Marshall Islanders. According to the Bikini Atoll Web site, "The Nuclear Claims Tribunal … was underfunded and does not have the money to pay for [the final, March 2001] claim. It is now up to the people of Bikini to petition the U.S. Congress for the money to fulfill this award. This is expected to take many years and it is uncertain if the United States will honor their claim."


For more on-line information about nuclear testing on Bikini, visit