For centuries, the people of the Marshall Islands have told their history through song. They sang of unrequited love, sea voyages, marine life, faith, family legends.
Carlton Abon is perhaps the most famous of the islands’ young balladeers. With four studio and two remix albums, he was once a prolific recording artist on this central Pacific nation, which sits roughly 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii.
But over the last decade, Abon’s silvery baritone has transformed into a strained rasp. Friends made fun of his hoarse voice. By 2016, he could no longer perform even his own melodies, and so this singer-songwriter, who goes by the stage name Brother C, quit a promising career.
“There has been no music, no nothing in my life,” said Abon, who has taken a job doing clerical work in Majuro, the country’s largest city, and now leads a reclusive existence.
Abon, a stout man of 40 with a bristly beard and toothless smile, is one of at least a dozen prominent Marshallese musicians with voices damaged by thyroid disorders — a type of illness that increased in the Marshall Islands after residents were exposed to fallout from U.S. nuclear weapons testing. As these singers struggle to sing, it has compounded the challenges of keeping Marshallese folk traditions alive.
Between 1946 and 1958, nearly 20 years before Abon was born, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands that had a cumulative radioactive yield of more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs.
Radioactive fallout from the tests devastated people’s health and was later documented to have caused an elevated incidence of thyroid disorders. First reported in the country in 1961, these disorders have afflicted at least 1,500 Marshallese who were alive during the testing period.
In Abon’s case, he developed a balloon-like nodule in his throat. Doctors surgically removed the cancerous growth, but his voice never fully came back.
Today, his music survives only on a few of Majuro’s radio stations and in stereos of taxis that putter along the city’s only road.
“He was, to me, one of the best contemporary artists that bridged the past to the future,” said Majuro-based music producer Daniel Kramer. “It affected him during the height of his creativity in music.”
In recent decades, several researchers have documented how Project 4.1 scientists intentionally exposed Marshallese to radiation, then studied them for research purposes.
“The project was initiated with mixed motives,” said Barton Hacker, the author of the 1994 book “Elements of Controversy,” which chronicles the intentional exposure of islanders. “It was primarily to help but also for political and military purposes.”
In 1957, just three years after the detonation, American scientists declared Rongelap safe and allowed its residents to return to their homes. This is when more and more Marshall Islanders became sick from radiation poisoning and young children were stricken with thyroid cancers, an affliction they had rarely experienced.
In 1964, three teenage girls living in the atoll were diagnosed with thyroid nodules. The North Carolina radiobiologist Ulrich Behling, in his 2007 report to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote that by 1974, 17 of 19 children exposed before age 10 on Rongelap were diagnosed with thyroid lesions. Behling, like many other scholars, believes American scientists were fully aware of the risks if Rongelapese were allowed to return, but they let it happen for future research purposes. “There was plenty of evidence to suggest that people were intentionally exposed,” he said.
Along with letting Marshallese come in contact with radiation, U.S. scientists and doctors conducted experiments on island residents.
During Project 4.1’s first three decades, American doctors operated on as many as 117 Marshallese thyroid patients, paying them a total of $3 million in exchange for consenting to the surgeries. Nearly one-fourth of these people were previously considered unexposed, and many did not need the destructive surgeries.
One consequence: hypothyroidism, in which the gland cannot produce enough thyroid hormone, slowing people’s metabolisms.
“A lot of people got hypothyroidism from these surgeries,” said Dr. Neal Palafox, a former head of the Department of Energy’s health program in the Marshall Islands. Even though thyroid cancer is among the most successfully treated of the cancers, those stricken received aggressive surgeries and little to no post-surgery rehabilitation and therapy, leaving many with permanent vocal disabilities.
In 1988, the Marshallese government formed a nuclear claims tribunal with American funding to pay damages to radiation victims and those who continued to suffer post-treatment. But the United States never adequately financed the tribunal, and by 2006, its funding had started to dry up. By then, the tribunal had paid $91.4 million to 1,999 of those injured, nearly two-thirds of whom had thyroid diseases.
Eknilang was 8 when Castle Bravo went off in Bikini. She was staying at her grandmother’s on the nearby Ailinginae Atoll. She later wrote a song that recalled that morning: “I was scared and woke up crying / I couldn’t see because of the tears in my eyes.”
U.S. government doctors, who referred to their human subjects by serial numbers and not names, removed Eknilang’s thyroid gland. Eknilang was called No. 53. The surgery left her with a permanent vocal injury. Throughout her career, she wrote songs about American apathy and the horrors of radiation.
Matayoshi was also in nearby Rongelap when the bomb went off. She later gave birth to six stillborn, deformed babies and also received thyroid surgery, but she continued to perform.
As an activist and performer, she would recount how people would bully her and other singers for being unable to harmonize. They were called ri-baam — people of the bomb.
“She had a brave heart and stood up for her community,” Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi said of his mother, who died of bladder cancer in 2005.
Despite the report, Congress turned down the Marshallese request because it did not deem the new revelations to be “extraordinary circumstances,” as stated in the Compact of Free Association between the two countries. The cancer institute continued the study and published it in 2010, this time significantly reducing the number of excess cancers to 170.
Experts agree: If there was ever a time to conduct an independent and comprehensive cancer assessment in the Marshall Islands, it is now, because most cancers attributable to the nuclear testing would have shown up by now.
But until that happens, questions about cancer will linger. Early last year, Carlton Abon was flown to the Philippines for emergency treatment. He barely survived cardiac arrest.
As the rain poured down last autumn, he sat on the veranda of his house in Majuro, with a ukulele in his lap, dogs at his feet and a cup of kava — a traditional drink made from a native shrub — on a nearby table. Two close friends listened in silence. Abon was trying to recall the chord progression for one of his most popular tunes, “Ilju Ne Am” (Your Future).
The song is a bittersweet elegy that urges the youth of his land to seek answers. He hummed it in a breathy, gravelly voice, stopping to translate a key line:
“Between the musician and the politician, will there be a solution?”
He didn’t have an answer.