Sisan Suda of Honolulu, by way of Micronesia, called to say he had something to give me. But he wanted to do it in person.
Could I meet him at Jack in the Box, he asked, the one at the corner of North School Street and Kamehameha IV Road?
Sure. I had interviewed Suda, 74 and a native of Chuuk, for Civil Beat stories on the struggles of Micronesians living in Hawaii. He’s a man not afraid to say what he thinks, and he knows his subject.
Since writing the stories, every once in a while I’d get a call from him. And so, just last week, there was Suda walking into a Kalihi burger joint, wearing a Lion King hat and aided by a cane and the help of his son.
“What did you want to give me?” I asked, happy to see him again.
“This,” he said, handing me a copy of his self-published My Oral History of Micronesia. “I want you to have this because I’m dying.”
Sisan Suda in his early 20s, Saipan, circa early 1960s.
Whoa. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
“Dying of what?” I asked, aghast. Suda pointed to below his chest and looked to his son to explain. Renal cell carcinoma — kidney cancer.
“The hospital says I’m the walking dead,” Suda said with a smile.
Last time I saw Suda, about two years ago, he seemed fine. But he was clearly looking frail at Jack in the Box, and he said he had been diagnosed within the last year.
How did he get sick?
Two reasons, he thinks: the nuclear testing by the United States in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s, and exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, when he was working for the federal government in the 1960s.
“I want to give you my story,” he said. “I want people to know.”
Nukes and PCBs
This story is not about whether the U.S. government is responsible for a man’s cancer. Suda himself is not sure — he has no evidence — though he says many of his friends died of cancer and many children were born with birth defects. His first wife died of cancer 30 years ago.
There are plenty of reports of cancer and other ills, however, arising from both the testing and the use of PCBs, which the U.S. outlawed in the late 1970s.
Cover of My Oral History of Micronesia.
A 2009 report from the University of Hawaii that assessed the needs of Micronesian health care in Hawaii notes that the U.S. performed 67 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Marshalls with a total explosive yield of 108,496 tons. The nuclear bombs dropped on Japan yielded 36 tons.
The UH report cites a number of studies that note, among other things, that the testing rendered the land and the food it produced dangerous to Marshall Islanders; that a preliminary analysis determined there are 26 cancers associated with the tests; that the testing and secondary outcomes of the U.S. military presence (read: colonization) in the Marshalls have been associated with increased prevalence of diseases in Marshall Islanders; and that there are high rates of cancer, reproductive abnormalities and diabetes in Micronesia.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports in Health Effects of PCBs that PCBs — which were used for coolant fluids and other industrial purposes — have been shown to cause cancer in animals as well as a number of serious health effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. The EPA’s peer reviewed cancer reassessment concluded that PCBs “are probable human carcinogens,” and that other groups have reached similar conclusions.
And, PCBs may have been used on Saipan. A 2001 report from the East-West Center states, “The United States Department of Defence is alleged to have used PCBs in a radar station facility in the area in the 1960s when Saipan was part of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.”
A 2000 report from Radio Australia said, “The United States army has awarded a three million dollar contract to a Hawaii-based company to remove and treat thousands of tonnes of PCB-contaminated soil, at a cemetery in Tanapag village, Saipan.”
Suda, born in 1939, grew up in Chuuk during the time of the testing and worked for the Trust Territory in Saipan. He believes he and his friends were used as experiments.
But Suda says is not trying to get the U.S. government — or anyone else, for that matter — to compensate him and others for the nuclear testing and the PCB use. He just wants people to know of his story. Which brings me to the oral history.
360 Years of ‘Unpleasant Things’
There is not a whole lot said about the testing and PCBs in My Oral History of Micronesia. As he explains in the introduction to the book, which is in English and Chuukese, it focuses on “some of the unpleasant things done within Micronesia for the Micronesians for the past 360 years.”
The quarter-plus millennium of “unpleasant things” starts with the Spanish, German and Japanese colonizations, continues under the United Nations trusteeship and through the Compact of Free Association. (COFA allows Micronesians to live and work in the United States — and receive health care, something that has burdened Hawaii government services.)
Sisan Suda and his first wife, Susanna Camacho Suda.
Suda’s oral history is not a diatribe, though he is very critical, especially of foreigners meddling in Micronesia.
Rather, it’s a sometimes personal journey told by a man who is by turns modest (“the work is not well written in the English Language”), proud (“The Micronesians had a very advanced structure of government that kept their islands in solidarity and held their islands against outsiders like the Christians”), historical (“Besides eradicating human beings, the Spanish also eradicated almost all the coconut trees on Saipan”), prophetic (“When all resources are depleted from the continents, all nations will run to the oceans for their survivals”), shaming (“The CIA did bug the telephones of the members of the Congress of Micronesia”) and, perhaps unintentionally, damning with faint praise (when the United States was doing its atomic bomb experiments in the Marshalls, “it successfully got rid of two atolls without any trace of these atolls”).
The last five pages of My Oral History tease to a second history Suda promises to publish a year from now, one that will chronicle Micronesia’s contributions to mankind.
I could tell you more, but then you may not want to buy Suda’s 100-plus page book — and he very much wants people to buy it. If you have $23, he will send you a copy. There’s no profit to be made; $20 covers the printing and $3 the shipping. His phone number and a mailing address are printed below.1
“Get the message out,” he asks me.
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