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Marshall Islands

The Marshall Islands form a ring of land only a few feet above sea level, way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They're located near the Equator and the International Date Line.

They take their name from the British captain William Marshall, who sailed through the region transporting convicts to Australia. Archaeological evidence puts the first human activity earlier than 2000 B.C. The first European contact came in the sixteenth century, when a Spanish explorer landed here while looking for an alternate route to the "spice islands." In 1857 an American missionary created an outpost here and soon after that, a German trading company took up residence.

The German government annexed the islands in 1885, purchasing them from Spain. They established a protectorate over the islands which lasted until 1914 when they were captured by Japan. Japan retained control of them until the Allied invasion of 1943, after which they became American territory. After WWII the United States military used the Marshall Islands for testing nuclear weapons. In 1954 they ignited the largest hydrogen bomb they'd ever built, doing it at a place called Bikini Atoll.

This is where the Bikini swimsuit comes from. Only a few days after the test, when the name "Bikini Atoll" was all over the news, the bikini swimsuit was announced on the market in what appears to be a clever public opinion maneuver.

Besides the bikini, there's another pop icon that came from the Marshall Islands. In response to the radioactive fallout created by the nuclear tests, Japanese film-makers made a movie about a terrible monster awakened by nuclear explosions. The monster tries to destroy the world and nearly gets away with it except for the life-saving ingenuity of the Japanese scientists. That's right, Godzilla.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands became a sovereign self-governing nation in 1979. It's one of the most intriguing places in the world for scuba divers, due to its coral reefs and graveyard of sunken naval warships. Like the Polynesian islands, it's also a natural treasure-trove of stunning beauty.

Text by Steve Smith.