AMBASSADORS MEET AMBASSADOR – The Skagway delegation meets with the U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands.

Skagway girls’ performances impress Marshallese

By ANDREW CREMATA

On July 1, 1946, 2,000 miles from Hawaii, the United States exploded the first in a series of nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands while attempting to research the most powerful weapon man has ever conceived. Eight years later on Bikini Atoll the U.S. tested a hydrogen bomb codenamed “Castle Bravo,” the largest nuclear device ever tested by the U.S. government. The yield of 15 megatons, 1000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II, was double what scientists expected due to a laboratory error. A massive amount of unanticipated radioactive fallout caused an international incident, and forced the evacuation of Marshallese citizens on Rongelap and Rongerik Atolls.
Fallout from the blast traveled as far as Australia, the US, and parts of Europe, but no group of people were more affected than those in the Marshall Islands who not only lost their homes, but have suffered from birth defects and increased cancer rates up to the present day.
Today, few Americans are familiar with the horrible details of the U.S.’s testing of its nuclear arsenal on the Marshallese people, or their struggle to receive some sort of compensation from the U.S. government. However, local Skagway High School students Erica Harris and Shelby Surdyk tackled the complex issue in a piece for their Drama, Debate, and Forensics team entitled “For the Good of Mankind.”
The 12-minute performance is a moving exploration of the many controversies surrounding US nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, the effects on its populace, and the flippant attitude of those who pursued scientific data at the expense of a nationís health and sovereignty.
Surdyk and Harris’ piece received international attention and praise, and from Oct. 14 to Nov. 2, they traveled to the Marshall Islands to perform for a variety of Marshallese people, including President Kessai Note.
Five months of fundraising in Skagway provided the opportunity for Harris and Surdyk to make the journey along with DDF Coach Kent Fielding. The trio made a stop in Hawaii and interviewed people who provided inspiration for the piece.
In Honolulu, they met with Daniel Kelin, author of the book Marshall Islands Legends and Stories, and University of Hawaii Professor Beverly Keever. For their piece, Harris and Surdyk utilized information from Keever’s book News Zero concerning the failure of the New York Times to accurately report on the after-effects of the tests, due to reporter William L. Lawrence’s government payroll position.
Upon arriving in the Marshall Islands at the U.S. military base on Kwajalein Island, Surdyk and Harris were greeted by Julian Ricklon and four Marshallese students.
Harris explained Ricklon was a survivor of Project 4.1, in which the government monitored and studied the after-effects of those who suffered large doses of radiation after the Castle Bravo detonation.

APPRECIATIVE AUDIENCE – Students at a Marshallese high school enjoy the Skagway presentation. Photos courtesy Skagway School DDF

Harris and Surdyk performed their piece for students at a high school on Majuro Island. Surdyk said she was struck by a sign on the wall while at the school which read, “Always speak in English.” Surdyk explained the students were encouraged to speak English as many of them pursue higher education in the U.S. and other English speaking countries.
The Skagway girls also performed at the Marshallese Cultural center, a Micronesian Trade Fair, and a museum. Surdyk explained they expected to hold six performances, but ended up doing 16.
“This was a really productive trip,” said Surdyk. “Many saw it as a tool to make their voice heard.”
Harris said the region is currently undergoing a population explosion with teen pregnancy on the rise. She said during one outing at a youth center, part of their message was designed to “try to help youths learn about social problems in the Marshall Islands and how to solve them.”
During their performance at the youth center a hard and driving rain on the tin rooftop of the structure made the performance difficult. Harris said the equatorial heat was sometimes close to unbearable, but no matter where they went the girls were greeted as friends.
Harris and Surdyk had little time for recreation, but did get to do some snorkeling on Bikini Atoll, the site of more than 20 nuclear tests. The dangers of radioactivity in the area means visitors must limit their time exploring and abstain from eating local food. Surdyk explained the area could remain contaminated for anywhere from 24,000 to 80 million years depending on the uranium isotope prevalent in the area.
The Skagway girls’ Marshall Islands experience culminated at the home of President Kessai Note. The added shows during the trip caused Surdyk to partially lose her voice. That, combined with high winds during the outdoor performance, presented a challenge, but overall the experience left an indelible impression on the two girls.
Surdyk said on different occasions people from the audience shared their own personal experiences of the nuclear detonations, and one man told them about his mother’s illness stemming from nuclear fallout.
Surdyk said even though the customs and culture of the Marshallese people were different than what they were used to, “I feel like we really have family in the Marshall Islands.”
After returning home, Harris and Surdyk said they will continue their research and are planning to create two compact disks of data including interviews, scripts of accompanying pieces, and their award-winning performance.
“It can be used as a teaching aid for schools we can’t attend,” said Harris. A website could also be in the works.
Surdyk said she hopes the project will live on, and was hopeful a professional recording of the piece could be made sometime in the near future.
The team also is planning to take part in a Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Juneau this spring to promote world nuclear awareness. They will be preparing posters and video for the memorial and hope to combine a performance, debate, and poetry readings with the event.
Surdyk said Alaskans would have a special interest in the issue as nuclear testing had been done in the Aleutian Islands forcing the relocation of Aleuts, and native Alaskan populations were given doses of iodine 131 to test the body’s reaction to radiation.
Surdyk and Harris brought back souvenirs for the other members of their DDF team whose next meet is scheduled for Nov. 30 in Ketchikan. They also wished to express thanks to everyone in Skagway who donated time, energy, and money to make their trip possible.
When asked what their overall impression was of the Marshall Islands Surdyk said, “It was beautiful,” to which Harris added, “It was wonderful.”