The Marshall Islands is a republic of 29 atolls and 5 coral islands. The islands are one of the four main groups that make up Micronesia. The nearest neighbor to the Marshalls are the Federated States of Micronesia. They’re only 26 populated islands in the Marshalls because a lot of the islands are too small to support many people.

The very early people of the Marshalls had no written language so it is very hard to predict what went on. The only early history has been handed down from generation to generation in the form of songs, and we can also get some facts from the folklore and legends.

One thing that they do know is that powerful chiefs ruled these large civilizations able to move such large stones to build temples and cities. They must have been somewhat advanced because they were able to build huge walls that were probably there to enclose a city.

These walls weighed many tons and were 20 ft. long, and even some walls they have found to be 40 ft. high. Archaeologists are still puzzled about what kind of machinery they had to move such large stones. The real knowledge we know about the Marshall Islands history began in the early sixteenth century.

The sea going Europeans were trying to find sources of the Spice Islands that were in very large demand in Europe. English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese sea captains were all sailing around on their hunt for riches. One of the first people we know of to definitely land on the Marshall Islands during this time is Ferdinand Magellan.

He landed in Micronesia on his journey to circumnavigate the world. Forty years later in the 1560’s after Magellan’s voyage Spain claimed almost all of the islands in Micronesia. Spain wasn’t really concerned about Micronesia because they were busy building empires in South America, Central America, and Mexico.

For the most part, Micronesia was under loose Spanish control for 300 years. During those 300 years in 1788, Captain John Marshall named the Marshall Islands. He was sailing between Australia and China on the boat the Scarborough and sailed through the islands. Even though many Europeans had been in the Marshalls previously he has been said to be one of the first people to “discover” the islands.

In the nineteenth century, the dried meat of the coconut called copra became an important trade items for European powers. Since there was much money in the copra trade Germany, Spain, and Great Britain started to argue over the control of Micronesia.

In 1885 Germany gained control of the Marshalls while Spain kept control of the Carolines and the Marianas. In 1886 the English and the Spanish were unhappy with Germany’s claims, but the dispute was settled by Pope Leo XIII in Rome. The Pope gave all right to trade with these islands to Germany.

Then shortly after that in 1898, the Spanish- American war caused Spain to give the rest of Micronesia to Germany. This all changed though during W.W.I. In 1914 Japan which was allied with the U.S. and its European Allies took control of the Marshalls and all of Micronesia with naval ships. Then in 1920, the League of Nations gave Micronesia to Japan. In 1935 against the agreement with the League of Nations Japan began to fortify the islands.

Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and secretly began to build airfields and naval bases on the islands. Japan closed the Marshalls and Micronesia from the rest of the world. To show just how secret Japan was in 1937 Amelia Earhart was on her famous trip around the world in the air.

She disappeared somewhere in the Japan held Micronesia and has never been seen since. Many people think that she was short of gas and made a forced landing on one of the islands. Japan was then upset over what she may have seen and executed her.   After the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941 the Marshall Islands became a very important strategic location in W.W.II. The Japanese used the islands on their push southward toward Australia, and the U.S. wanted the islands on their push northward.

The Marshall Islands were the next step for the Allied march toward the Japanese home islands. The Kwajalein and Majuro atolls were picked as the two main places to invade. This operation was code named Flintlock. D-Day was set for January 31, 1944.  

On that day Marines at Kwajalein atoll planned to seize five islands around Roi- Namur where a major Japanese airbase was. While other Kwajalein Marines were to capture four islets near Kwajalein where the Japanese major naval base was. There was some confusion at both attacks which led to many more deaths than were needed. The two battles turned out to be very bloody and in all 486 Allied casualties resulted while 1,295 soldiers were wounded. 

At the Majuro atoll came much an easier battle. The Japanese had both a major naval and air base on the island. When the Allied troops landed there they found no Japanese troops. Almost all of the Japanese troops had escaped. So no lives were spared and the Allies turned the two bases into their own. The speed at which Kwajalein Atoll fell allowed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to speed up his attack on Enewetok.

This mission was called Catchpole. The forces moved in on February 18, 1944. They first went to small Engebi supported by gunfire and by shore based artillery placed the day before on small islets. It took them two days to secure the island in the Allies favor with a death count of 349 and 555 wounded.

The results of the capturing of the Marshall Islands were a big success. Having the Marshall’s helped in moving the U.S. a lot closer to Japanese and also it gave them a good place to attack other Japanese held islands. It really cut down the air and naval power the Japanese had in the Central Pacific.

There are other good things that came out of the war too. One is all of the sunken ships and landing barges, airplane crashes, tanks, and big guns are still found in the Marshall’s. So in result scrap metal turned into the second leading exporter to copra. What is kind of interesting is that Japan was the main place that bought the metals from their own battles with the U.S.

As a result of the U.S. taking over the Marshall Islands the United Nations granted the U.S. authority to administer them as a strategic trust. Even though with the U.S. in charge that led to improvements in public health, education, and was obligated to “protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources” the Marshallese people were very unhappy. The removal and evacuation of the Bikini and Enewetak atolls for nuclear testing was what made them angry with the new U.S. system.

See the Marshall Islands land had no alarming value to the U.S. , but what the U.S. wanted was the great military location and also a small secluded place to test nuclear weapons. So pretty much from the late 1940’s to the present a lot of the history has been the nuclear testing on the island.  The first test came in 1946. The U.S. had the Navy evacuate 167 Bikini Islanders to Rongerik, 125 miles away to the east.

They were going to test atomic-bombs the same size of Hiroshima’s. They were named “Able” and “Baker”. Since everyone was evacuated there were no apparent problems with and Marshallese people.

The people weren’t having trouble with the tests but many Bikinians were on the verge of starvation on the Rongerik atoll. They had to be moved to Kwajalein where the U.S. provided them with resources.   

Then in the1950’s the U.S. discovered the H-bomb or a hydrogen device that is hundreds or thousands times more destructive than the U.S.’s first atomic-bombs. The first to be tested was in 1952 at Enewetak island. The force of this hydrogen device was estimated at 10.4 megatons or 750 times greater force than the Hiroshima one.

This bomb vaporized pretty much the whole island, but again the people didn’t know so weren’t that upset. The people were upset though after the testing of the next H-bomb the U.S. decides to drop. This test was in 1954 at the Bikini Atoll. It was set to be dropped on February 28 and the high winds weren’t going to stop them. At just seven hours before drop time there were high winds at 10,000 to 25,000-foot levels with the winds blowing toward some inhabited islands.

The U.S. though decided to drop the bomb. It was reported at 15 megatons which is 1,000 times greater than the Hiroshima bomb. Within hours people on surrounding islands were enveloped with white ash or kind of a mist. People that were exposed experienced naseau, vomiting, and itching of the skin and eyes.

The people were taken Kwajalein for observation. Skin burns developed and hair of those people began to fall out. Secret medical groups were established to observe the exposed Marshallese people. The group decided that the people had been exposed to so much harmful material that they should never be exposed again because fear of what could happen.

The U.S. continues to detonate nuclear weapons on the small islands through the 1950’s and the last one was set off in 1958. Bringing the total number of nuclear weapons tested on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls up to 66. The damage had been done and many Marshallese people were very mad.

One of the reasons people were mad was that they couldn’t return to their homelands. Thousands of people had been evacuated due to the radioactive materials spread to their islands. Although almost all of the islands were declared safe but maybe slight lingering radiation people were scared and in effect were very mad at the U.S.  

Another one of the reasons was all of the health problems people were having; such as very bad skin and eye irritations and their hair was falling out. In 1963 the first signs of thyroid cancer starting showing up, and people were just sick and literally “sick” of all of the nuclear testing results. Marshall Islands officials started demanded billions and billions of dollars in compensation for all of the people and the land.

They also started going to the U.S. government demanding they were purposely exposed to the radiation just so the U.S. could study the long term effects of radiation. In 1986 the Marshall Islands became self-governing because they thought they could manage their country a lot better than the U.S. thousands of miles away. They established a compact of free association and it was finalized.

Even though official recognition of the Marshall’s did not come until 1991 when the United Nations removed them from the trusteeship.  The Marshall Islands is definitely on its way to being a lot happier. They are still getting billions of dollars a year for compensation and the islands are getting more radioactive-free every year.


  1. You forgot to mention that the quarterly check for Bikinians is in the $100 range. Marshallese people have every right to be sad about the loss of their homeland, which PIs hold dear to our hearts, and demand a clean up. The clean-up only lasted 8 days and only 3 out of 40 atolls affected were fixed. Not to mention that you don’t mention anything of COFA or the details.

    • I read all this with great interest and horror. Captain John Marshall was my ancestor. The name Marshall has been carried down every generation given to the firstborn of the eldest. We have family stories of the early years. Mixed stories. One was about sewing machines given to the people who traded in made up clothing and articles to the West. Another internet article had him as a slave trader. We have in the family no stories of this but that he loved the islands and the people. I was told that bombs had been experimented on in the area but had no IDEA of the consequences. I am ashamed. I am English by the way. With dual German nationality.

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