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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (March 15, 2002 - The Marshall Islands Journal)---For many Marshall islanders who experienced firsthand the U.S. nuclear testing program -- or who are aware of their history -- the story of the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon No. 5 that experienced fallout from the 1954 Bravo test is just a footnote to history, often mentioned but little known.

The visit to the Marshall Islands earlier this month by Lucky Dragon fisherman Matashichi Oishi, possibly the first return visit by any of the 23 fallout-exposed fishermen, brought the story to life for people around the Marshall Islands, illuminating yet another aspect of the U.S. nuclear test program aftermath.

In the early morning hours of March 1, 1954 before the Bravo detonation, the Lucky Dragon crew spent about four hours setting out their fishing net in ocean waters about 60 miles from Bikini. They were fishing at Bikini because tuna caught in the Bikini area captured a higher price on the Japanese market than tuna caught elsewhere in the Pacific.

Unaware of the hydrogen bomb test plans and apparently missed by U.S. aircraft checking the area, the crew was taking a break on board prior to beginning their late morning routine of hauling in their fish catch. Bravo, the biggest U.S. test ever at 15 megatons, was detonated about 6:45 am and within minutes the vessel vibrated with the pulse of the blast’s shock wave. About 90 minutes after the test a snow-like ash began falling on them.

The captain ordered the crew to start pulling in the net, but it took about seven hours to get it back on board -- all the while the crew were being exposed to high-level nuclear fallout.

"Fallout was accumulating on the deck," Oishi recalled. "We could see our foot prints." The fishermen wore headbands and the fallout especially collected on their heads and around their belts, he said.

"Our eyes began burning but we couldn’t pay attention because we had to get the net into the ship," he said. After getting the net on board, they swept fallout ash off the deck and took salt-water showers to wash the fallout off their bodies.

Like Rongelap Islanders who were similarly exposed, the fishermen soon began experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

In two days, burns and blisters began appearing on their bodies. "We had severe burns around our waists where the fallout had accumulated," he said. It took weeks before they healed, he added.

About 10 days after the blast, their hair began falling out.

The Lucky Dragon’s return from Bikini together with other vessels that had been in the area sparked widespread media coverage and a tuna panic in Japan, which resulted in thousands of tons of tuna being dumped.

Oishi spent 14 months recovering in a hospital in Japan. At first, "I felt so fatigued I couldn’t eat," he said. "The nurses had to help me."

Born in 1934, Oishi was just 21 when he got out of the hospital. But his ordeal was only just beginning.

Oishi found that, like the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he became a pariah, subjected to discrimination as a "hibakusha" (nuclear test victim). "We were looked at by the community as ‘damaged’ by radiation," he said.

It was particularly acute for the 23 fishermen because they came from small fishing towns where everyone knew them and the stigma of radiation exposure caused them great hardship.

Oishi returned once to his hometown, Yaizu City, but then moved to Tokyo to get away from the discrimination. "I moved to Tokyo because it was a big city and I had no relatives," he said.

For the next 14 years, he told no one about his experience. "I didn’t tell anyone, not even my neighbors," he said. "I rejected all requests for interviews by the media."

The stillbirth of his first baby, and then seeing the Lucky Dragon crewmembers die one-by-one changed his mind about remaining silent.

Beginning in the late 1960s, "I felt the need to speak out about the situation," he said. "I couldn’t be patient any longer about the treatment by the government and our society."

He has continued speaking out since that time. He has found people and the media extremely supportive of his efforts to gain recognition for the fishermen’s plight.

Shortly after the Bravo test, the U.S. and Japanese governments quickly concluded a political settlement under which the U.S. provided $2 million to the Japanese government, most of which went as compensation to ship owners for loss of tuna revenues. The fishermen each received several thousand dollars.

The Japanese government, in accomplishing the political settlement with the U.S., "abandoned the right of the fishermen to compensation. The Japanese government didn’t do anything for the crew."

Since their initial year in the hospital after the 1954 exposure, they have received no special medical benefits or compensation. While they do get an annual check up, if they have health problems, they receive no special health care or benefits.

Although the Japanese government estimates that as many as 20,000 fisher men may have been exposed to nuclear test fallout from Marshall Islands tests, "we’re not regarded as victims. We get no compensation and no medical benefits."

He pointed out that other crewmembers have not spoken about their experiences largely, he believes, because they continue to live in small towns where the nuclear victim stigma remains.

Of the 23 crew exposed on the Lucky Dragon, 11 have died, nine from liver cancer, he said. A number of the surviving crewmembers have had skin and stomach cancer, he said. "Their deaths and illnesses are a result of their exposure," he said.

Oishi, now 68, also has liver cancer.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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