Lucky Dragon 5 and the Hydrogen Bomb

David KalatOn March 1st, 1954 eight months to the day before the Japanese premiere of Godzilla, the United States set off its first hydrogen bomb. It happened in the Marshall Islands — tiny islands that have been passed back and forth between sundry European powers for hundreds of years — until the Japanese took them over after Word War I. During World War II, they changed hands once again when relentless American bombing raids decimated the population, ravished the countryside, and forced the Japanese to relinquish control. From that point on, the US military took to using the Marshall Islands as a nuclear proving ground. All told, 67 nuclear devices were detonated there — including the first H-bomb. In 1956, the year that Godzilla was exported to American movie screens, the atomic energy commission declared the place by far the most contaminated place in the world. And it was practically at Japan’s backdoor.

The scientists responsible for the world’s first H-bomb weren’t 100% certain that it would explode correctly. Best case scenario, it would explode with a force a thousand times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Worst case scenario, nothing at all. Setting aside the irony of what constituted “best case” and “worst case” in this situation, the upshot was that the Japanese public was told to stay away from the island in question, but weren’t given an explanation why.

The crew of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru — that’s “Lucky Dragon Number Five” to you — figured that they were being extra clever by heading out to troll for tuna. “There’s no competition!” they congratulated each other. Then there was a flash in the sky, like a second sun. The light was so bright, it could be seen as far away as Okinawa. The Lucky Dragon was so far from the blast, they didn’t hear its accompanying thunder for another eight minutes. It was clear to them that they’d made a mistake. But the consequences were now impossible to outrun. They pulled in their nets, stowed their catch, and returned to the mainland as quickly as possible. They were sick. The radio operator, a fellow named Aikichi Kuboyama, would die from radiation sickness. And let’s be clear: Kuboyama received a lethal dose of radiation on March 1st, then spent nearly seven months slowly dying — eventually passing from this world on September 23rd. With his dying breath, he begged, “Please make sure that I am the last victim of the nuclear bomb.”

The Japanese press noted that as the first person killed by the H-bomb, he was Japanese — just like the only humans killed by A-bombs.

—David Kalat
From Commentary on Godzilla

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