In 1946, several ships with distinguished wartime records during World War II headed west from the Puget Sound Shipyard in Bremerton to an island in the Marshall Islands.
The United States was embarking on a 12-year operation to test the effects of nuclear weapons on naval ships.
The first test recorded the impacts of a 23-kiloton atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll, a small island ringing a lagoon. Many of the ships sank or where scuttled because of contamination, mostly forgotten for the last 60 years.
Port Orchard diver, amateur filmmaker and WWII Pacific history buff Adrian Smith wants to be the first in many years to document these deteriorating vessels, what he calls the Atomic Armada of Bikini Atoll.
“These are the first atomic artifacts that we have,” Smith said. “The first peacetime atomic bomb, the first artifacts of the dawn of the atomic age. And nobody knows a thing about them.”
Smith is crowd-sourcing the funding he needs for this project through the public fundraising website Kickstarter. Anyone who wants to contribute is able to make a donation, while the project’s creator offers gifts at different donation levels. The project is only funded if the total amount is met. Smith is seven days from the end of his fundraising, and is optimistic he'll be fully funded.
As of April 3, Smith raised $11,458 of his $27,000 goal. The money will go toward transportation to Bikini Atoll — about 2,800 miles southwest of Hawaii — as well as upgrading his equipment and special dive training. He hopes to be at Bikini Atoll by August 2014, and to premiere the documentary in November.
Smith has been diving for almost 25 years and came across this project when he was diving at Chuuk Lagoon, which he referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor.” He made his first documentary about the ships that sank in Chuuk Lagoon in 1944 after an air strike by U.S. forces. The lagoon is now a national park.
“I’ve been doing research for about five months,” he said. “There’s a great deal of research out there, it’s just a matter of pulling it all together.”
As a part of the documentary, Smith has also interviewed local veterans involved in the testing. One man was on one of the observation ships and another was a captain in the air patrol that flew over the bomb sites for observation.
“There’s not many [veterans] left. I’m pleased and honored to speak to the ones that are,” he said. Smith asks that any other veterans with a connection to the Bikini Atoll contact him and share their information.
A total of 73 vessels were used as testing subjects between 1946-58. The ships now at the bottom of the ocean represent the major combatants of WWII — the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier; the submarine USS Apogon; the Japanese battleship Nagato, Admiral Yamamoto’s ship during the Pearl Harbor attack; and the German battleship Prinz Eugen.
“They haven’t been placed properly in historical context,” Smith said. “I just think it behooves us to remember our history …It’s an important chapter when we first started to experiment with atomic history.”
Part of that history is prevalent today — a French designer named his risque swim suit after the island, the bikini. The nuclear testing also inspired the Japanese classic, “Godzilla.”
Sponsors will receive gifts for their donation, including a copy of the documentary or tickets to the premiere, which Smith hopes to hold at the Dragonfly Theater in Port Orchard.
Get more information on the project and how to contribute at www.kickstarter.com/projects/atomicarmada/the-atomic-armada-the-forgotten-wrecks-of-bikini-a.