This Day In History: September 15

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On September 15, 1971, a group of activists sets sail from Vancouver aboard a repurposed fishing boat that they have named the Greenpeace. Their mission is to stop the United States from testing a nuclear bomb beneath the Alaskan island of Amchitka. Though they will eventually lose the fight, the environmentalist organization Greenpeace will emerge from this action.

News of the planned nuclear test caused concern among residents of North America's Pacific coastline, who feared that testing such a powerful bomb underground, close to a fault line, could have disastrous consequences. Many feared a tidal wave, leading to the formation of a group called the Don't Make a Wave Committee. Inspired by Albert Bigelow, a former U.S. Navy Commander who attempted to disrupt a 1958 nuclear test by sailing into the waters where the weapon was to be deployed, Don't Make a Wave decided to send a ship full of people into harm's way as a way of forcing the U.S. to abandon the test.

The Greenpeace, which one crew member described as a "media war ship," reached Amchitka a week before the scheduled test date, but the U.S. government foiled the plan. The test was delayed, purportedly by President Richard Nixon himself, forcing the Greenpeace to return to port, where its crew was arrested on a technicality.

The bomb was detonated 4,000 feet beneath the surface of the island on November 2, 1971. The 5-megaton blast, 250 times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, caused a shockwave that radiated from the mile-wide crater created by the explosion. This test and others conducted at Amchitka resulted in radioactive particles seeping into the island's groundwater, which in turn found its way into the Pacific Ocean.

Though they failed to stop the nuclear test, Don't Make a Wave generated a flurry of media coverage. The negative press may have been the reason that nuclear testing at Amchitka was abandoned just five months later. The organizers of the Greenpeace voyage adopted the ship's name as they planned their next projects, and Greenpeace went on to become a global leader in environmental activism.