This post is coauthored with Pang Xiong, Senior Archives Specialist in the Manuscript Division.
When the United States Navy detonated two 23 kiloton atomic bombs over Bikini Atoll in July 1946, it wasn’t a secret. It was a spectacle.
During the Second World War, details of the Manhattan Project and the bomb’s first test on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert were closely guarded. Operation Crossroads, the code name for a pair of atomic tests in the Marshall Islands the following year, was a theater open to the world. The tests were highly publicized, extensively filmed and photographed, and witnessed by thousands of soldiers and sailors, American and foreign dignitaries, and the press. The U.S. military used the tests to demonstrate the strength of its atomic arsenal to the world while investigating whether those weapons made traditional naval power obsolete.
A new collection in the Manuscript Division, the Charles Carroll Ijams Papers, reveals what one of those witnesses saw. But it also raises questions about what those who viewed the tests were unable to see, and how researchers might try to fill the gaps.
The Bomb, and the Bikini Ijams Saw
Bikini is part of the Marshall Islands, a double chain of coral atolls about 2,500 miles southwest of Honolulu. The U.S. military had taken the islands from Japan during the Second World War, and by 1946 they were under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy. A Navy-Army venture called Joint Task Force One, headed by Rear Admiral William H. P. Blandy, saw in Bikini a place that could be emptied of its human presence, made into a watery proving ground filled with decommissioned naval ships, and then destroyed for all the world to see.
The removal of the Bikinians wasn’t a secret either. As geographer Sasha Davis notes, it instead became “one long staged photo opportunity.” American moviegoers watched dramatic newsreels of the Bikinians’ last church service and their concession to requests that they temporarily relocate for “the good of all mankind and to end world wars,” both events performed multiple times for the camera. The Bikinians were replaced with 242 ships, 156 airplanes, 4 television transmitters, 750 cameras, 5,000 pressure gauges, 25,000 radiation recorders, 204 goats, 200 pigs, 60 guinea pigs, 5,000 rats, 200 mice, nearly 42,000 men, 20 women, and Charles Carroll Ijams.
Ijams was a chemist from Tennessee and was commissioned into the Navy in 1943. He was in the Marshall Islands with Admiral Blandy’s staff to do electronics work and technical writing. His papers primarily consist of letters to his parents back home. Two letters in particular provide his eyewitness accounts of the atomic bomb’s destructive power.
During Test Able on July 1, 1946, Ijams was in the wheelhouse of the USS Avery Island (AG-76) when a bomb nicknamed Gilda detonated in the air twelve miles away. He described a “…billowy flash—on deck it was very bright and quite intense. We didn’t feel heat but did feel a sort of pop in our ears when the sound reached us.”
After the detonation, Ijams dashed out to see the effect. He observed a blast that “sort of billowed up in a beautiful white column, miles across and billowing upward to a height of several miles.” The mushroom cloud looked like “a gorgeous cauliflower, white and clean, with splotches of pink interspersed throughout. The beauty of it masked its horribleness. It was simply gorgeous. Against a sky of beautiful azure, with little drone planes scooting in and out, the billowy mass slowly going upward, increasing in dimension, hanging like a tremendous fluff of cotton, fringed in color — I, with all others, were simply speechless and spellbound.”
During Test Baker a few weeks later, Ijams witnessed a second atomic blast, this one detonated underwater thirteen miles away. The following day he wrote, “it was really some sight. You can’t imagine how it looked. A column of water, with a fiery center, spouting about five miles high, with a fringe extending about a mile in diameter, millions of tons of water, it looked something like this at its maximum.” He punctuated the description with a drawing, and continued.
“It was not as spectacular, no beautiful column of clouds extending miles above and slowly drifting away. This time it just blew up and fell back down. However, this time we were definitely impressed by the force and power of the bomb. Not the awesome nature as shot Able, which we later realized was powerful and tremendous beyond description, but this time, it was its sheer force, its destructive power, its unimaginable, indefinable, simply inconceivable sheer potency.”
When the tests were over, the crowds dispersed. Ijams left the Navy in 1946 and returned to Tennessee to teach. The Navy continued to conduct nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, though with less fanfare: 66 atomic and hydrogen bombs in all, between 1946 and 1958. Military personnel exposed to radiation during the tests raised health concerns, and organized into groups of “Atomic Veterans.” Marshallese organized as well, but Ijams wasn’t around to hear them.
Inside the Kili Bag
When the Bikinians were removed from their home, an atoll that bears evidence of human habitation going back 2,800 years, they became unwilling nomads. U.S. officials first relocated them to the barren Rongerik Atoll without adequate food supplies, then to a tent city on Kwajalein Atoll, and in 1948 to Kili: a single island without the protected fishing a lagoon affords, which many described as a “prison.” They were out of the spotlight. Today, 76 years later, radiological contamination on Bikini still prevents their return.
So how do researchers then learn about this part of the story? Certainly there are archival records, kept in repositories from Washington to the Marshalls. And there are materials prepared by Bikinians and their advocates, including articles, books, oral histories, and films. But there are more unconventional sources as well.
Historian Tiya Miles writes that things can “become bearers of memory and information, especially when enhanced by stories that expand their capacity to carry meaning.” When those items are textiles, she suggests, stories about women’s lives “adhere with special tenacity.” And a bag held by the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum, just down the road from the Library, is woven tightly with Bikinian history.
It’s a Kili bag, an object rooted in the early history of the Bikinian exile, when the community found itself on Kili, stranded and nearly without resources to support itself. Relying on the island’s meager natural resources and their own ingenuity, in the 1950s a group of seven Bikinian women produced a design for an elegant new handbag – brilliant white coconut fibers on the outside, woven pandanus inside, and a fitted rectangular top.
The bags were simple, stylish, and practical. Soon, they were a hit throughout the region and beyond. They also gained a diplomatic function, presented to foreign visitors and dignitaries like Queen Elizabeth II. They have been called “product[s] of beauty that arose out of necessity,” and have come to symbolize the Bikinian community, its exile, its resilience, and its continued struggle to return home. As Bikinian elder Rosbi Kilon notes, the women of Bikini “are still very proud of [the bag] today.”
The Kili bags have a material, symbolic power that bear witness to the history of Bikini Atoll in a way that both complements and enlarges Ijams’s vivid testimony. Researchers can now find both in Washington, D.C.
For more Manuscript Division collections related to Operation Crossroads, see the papers of Joint Task Force One Commander William H. P. Blandy, Deputy Commander William Sterling Parsons, naval observer John Lansing Callan, engineer Ernest W. Peterkin, electronics technician John Dougall Metcalfe, and journalist Bryson B. Rash.
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 Sasha Davis, The Empire’s Edge: Militarization, Resistance, and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2015), 61.
 Davis, The Empire’s Edge, 60, 64.
 W. A. Shurcliff, Bombs at Bikini: The Official Report of Operation Crossroads (New York: W. H. Wise & Co., 1947), 2; Teresia K. Teaiwa, “Bikinis and Other s/Pacific n/Oceans,” The Contemporary Pacific 6, no. 1 (Spring 1994), 89.
 Charles Carroll Ijams to Charles and Edna Ijams, July 1, 1946, Box 2, Charles Carroll Ijams Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
 Charles Carroll Ijams to Charles and Edna Ijams, July 26, 1946, Box 2, Charles Carroll Ijams Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
 Francis X. Hezel, Strangers in Their Own Land: A Century of Colonial Rule in the Caroline and Marshall Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995), 273.
 Greg Dvorak, Coral and Concrete: Remembering Kwajalein Atoll between Japan, America, and the Marshall Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018), 4.
 Hezel, Strangers, 328.
 See, for instance, Robert C. Kiste, The Bikinians: A Study in Forced Migration (Menlo Park, CA: Cummings Pub. Co), 1974; Jack Niedenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and Their Islands (Majuro, Marshall Islands: Bravo Publishers), 2001; Ainikien Jidjid ilo Boñ (The Sound of Crickets at Night), directed by Jack Niedenthal and Suzanne Chutaro (Microwave Films, 2012), 1:20; Jessica Schwartz, Radiation Sounds: Marshallese Music and Nuclear Silences (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 2021.
 Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack: A Black Family Keepsake (New York: Random House, 2021), 13.
 Floyd K. Takeuchi, “Woven Artistry,” Pacific Daily News, July 11, 2010.
 Holly M Barker, “Unsettling SpongeBob and the Legacies of Violence on Bikini Bottom,” The Contemporary Pacific 31, no. 2 (2019), 368.