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Japanese Fishermen and the Bikini Atoll H-bomb Blast

On March 1st, 1954, the U.S. conducted its largest hydrogen bomb test ever near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. An unexpected blast of 15 megatons — 1,000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb — affected Australia, India and Japan with widespread radioactive fallout. The Fortunate Dragon (Daigo Fukuryū Maru), a Japanese fishing boat, was about 150 kilometers from the blast and was gravely affected. At least one crew member died due to direct exposure. The U.S. initially tried to cover up the incident. The shock stemming from the tragedy helped further an anti-nuclear movement in Japan. It also inspired the 1954 movie Godzilla, in which the nuclear test awakens and mutates the monster, which then attacks Japan. Richard A. Ericson Jr. was an economic officer and G. Lewis Schmidt was USIS [U.S. Information Service] Executive Officer at Embassy Tokyo at the time of the blast.

The fishermen didn’t hear the warning about an imminent nuclear test

ERICSON: In the United States we weren’t paying all that much attention to things at the upper levels in Japan at the time. Both sides were sort of drifting through the ‘50s and we had some very nasty incidents, of course, that strained relations severely. I think of the case of the Fortunate Dragon.

SCHMIDT: In the late spring or early summer of 1954, the American government conducted the second of its atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. They gave prolonged radio notice to mariners that a very large area of the sea around Bikini Atoll, on which the test was to be conducted, would be forbidden to shipping. But Japanese fishing vessels operating in the area were in those days without any radio contact, so no one got word to them that they would be anywhere near where the atomic explosion was to be detonated.

ERICSON: Well, the Fortunate Dragon was a fishing boat, a deep sea tuna fishing boat from a small port — I think it was based in Island of Shikoku or else somewhere down in southwest Japan anyway, not a major port. It was fishing in the South Seas for tuna when we set off the first nuclear bomb at Bikini. The crew reported seeing this very weird sky and sometime later strange stuff kept falling out of the sky and they kept fishing.

SCHMIDT: The boat sailed directly through the radiologically contaminated zone. The first thing they knew, the ship began collecting a blanket of grey-white ash. They had no idea as to its source, and so they started picking it up and brushing it off the boat. Finally, there got to be such a mantle on the boat that they got out their brooms and swept it off. Still they kept picking it up and looking at it, trying to figure out what it was and where it was coming from.

At last, they sailed out of the fallout area. They had pretty well gotten their catch anyway, so they started back for Japan. Well, the trawler they were on was a rather slow moving ship, so it took them about a week or ten days to reach Japan. Before they did, they all became violently ill. None of them died, but they were all just deathly sick. Understandably, they couldn’t imagine what had happened to them. Of course, what had happened was that the ash from the atomic explosion had gone up into the stratosphere and then precipitated back out, landing on the Fortunate Dragon.

“The Japanese made terrible blunders of their own”

ERICSON: They went chugging on back to port with a sick crew and a hatch full of fish. When they got to port the fish were unloaded and distributed, put into the Japanese distribution system and then they began reporting to the hospital. Then it came out that this strange thing they had witnessed was the explosion of the thermonuclear weapon and what had come down out of the sky was probably highly radioactive material and what they were sick from was radiation sickness.

Of course, in Japan, which had been on the receiving of a couple of those things during the war, why we had this enormous explosion of feeling against the United States for having exploded the bomb and exposing the Japanese nationals to its effects, etc. The Japanese, of course, made terrible blunders of their own. They let that catch be distributed throughout the country and you could smell the fish markets in Japan for miles weeks afterward because nobody — they didn’t know where the fish had gone, they lost track of distribution. Even in Tokyo the enormous fish market sold very few fish for weeks. It was a serious economic disruption in addition to being a psychological body blow to Japan.

And then, of course they made a couple of other silly mistakes, some of which didn’t come to light until long afterwards. They started demanding compensation, of course. Two of the crewman died. One of them was brought up to Tokyo to be hospitalized where he was given blood transfusions which it later became clear gave him the hepatitis that killed him. He probably didn’t die of radiation sickness. We in the embassy were jumping up and down and the United States was jumping up and down because the Japanese refused to allow him to be examined by American physicians. They were demanding enormous compensation from us in various forms but were not allowing us to have any part in the treatment. Perhaps we had that coming, I don’t know, because all through the post-war period our policy on the nuclear weapons was in no way to acknowledge that nuclear weapons were anyway different from any other weapon of war.

One of the manifestations of this policy of ours was the fact that we established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, a group of medical researches financed by the United States who worked down in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to measure the effects to radiation among the population. People who got sick were brought in and given physical examinations and the progress of their illness was monitored and the effects were noted and scientific papers were written, etc., but they were not treated. We were not offering any treatment and they were more or less volunteers.

It must have been some time in 1956 that we had some PL 480 money available, and I can’t remember if it was a request initiated by us. I was in the economic section and since it was PL 480 money it was basically the economic section’s responsibility. We had an AID mission at the time, but the director of the AID mission was subordinate to the economic counselor in the embassy hierarchy. Anyway, Ambassador Allison asked me to write a justification for using this money to construct a hospital building and equipment at the University of Hiroshima Hospital, specifically to treat nuclear victims. I remember he said, ‘make it lurid.’ That money was eventually granted and the hospital was built. That to my knowledge was the first thing we ever did, 10 to 11 years after the war, we started to help with the treatment of these people. So, when the Fortunate Dragon incident burst upon us, in addition to the fact that we had dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki there was a lot of pent up feeling that we hadn’t really been properly charitable towards the victims of what the world would recognize of course, as a rather special use of weapons.

Anyway, there were incidents like that which were making U.S.-Japan relations a little bit difficult.