The skimpily populated Bikini Atoll was an early victim of the US v USSR Cold War being battled half the world away.
Determined to flex military muscle, the US usurped the lonely western Pacific atoll, evacuated the people and carried out 23 atom bomb tests between 1946 and 1958.
The Bikini populace were bundled into warships and taken 201km east to Rongelap Atoll – not far enough.
In March 1954, the world's first dry fuel thermonuclear device was triggered in what was the largest atom bomb test ever. Codenamed Castle Bravo, the device yielded 15 megatons, 2½ times the predicted yield, and 1000 times the size that devastated Hiroshima during World War II.
"I remember as a boy," a Bikini islander told me, "all these white flakes fell from the sky – we thought it was snow, like in America, so we ran outside to play in it."
The inhabitants of Rongelap, and a Japanese fishing boat crew – were all irradiated by fallout. Almost all the people developed thyroid cancers or radiation sickness.
With Rongelap as well as their home atoll uninhabitable, the islanders petitioned the US Government to be relocated, but were ignored.
In the 1980s they approached Greenpeace. The Rainbow Warrior, fresh from a refit and sailing rig fit in Jacksonville, Florida, was despatched in 1985 to help.
The 40m vessel had begun life as the trawler Sir William Hardy , before being bought by Greenpeace founder David McTaggart in 1977 as a flagship for the peace movement.
Crewed by self-confessed "hippies", many of them volunteers, the ship uplifted the 300 islanders in three trips, along with 100 tonnes of building materials and gear, sailing to Kwajalein Atoll about 180km away.
The Rainbow Warrior then headed for Auckland to replenish its crew and supplies, ahead of leading a protest flotilla against French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago, south of Tahiti.
Three days after her arrival in Auckland, a bomb tore a car-sized hole in her hull near the engine room. Another bomb buckled the propeller shaft. Next morning police divers located the body of Fernando Pereira, a 35-year-old Dutch/Portuguese photographer in his cabin below decks.
The ship of peace was dead – along with a popular man of peace who had crewed on her.
Police investigations quickly discovered a French state terrorist squad had perpetrated the atrocity, codenamed "Operation Satanique".
About 13 operatives from the "action" division of the French security service, DGSE, had entered New Zealand.
The explosives had been smuggled in by charter yacht from New Caledonia, and Greenpeace's Auckland office infiltrated by a French agent, posing as a friendly conservationist.
New Zealand was stunned that an act as devious as this could be carried out in our little piece of paradise, so far from the warmongers of the northern hemisphere. Every pair of eyes in the country was peeled for suspicious Frenchmen.
No sympathy came from traditional allies and nuclear-armed nations such as the UK and US. Under then-prime minister, David Lange, New Zealand was viewed as a leader of the global anti-nuclear movement and many considered we had received a fair comeuppance for Lange's orations.
It was also alleged that our own intelligence community knew about the operation but had kept quiet because of agreements with world powers.
It had taken courage to stand up to the Western World's major powers and established New Zealand as an independent nation – Rainbow Warrior's sabotage was the baptism by fire.
With a few weeks, two DGSE saboteurs - Alain Lafarque and Dominique Prieur - were taken into custody. "In this damn county, every corner has eyes," Prieur was quoted as saying.
The pair were charged with arson, murder and wilful damage and sentenced to 10 years in prison but, in a deal over access to the European market for agricultural products, their sentences were commuted to three years at Hao Atoll, a "military Club Med" in French Polynesia.
Within a year, Mafarque returned to France under an assumed identity and a pregnant Prieur followed.
Both wrote books and when the bumbling execution of Operation Satanique became known, French Defence Minister Charles Hernu resigned. The French Government paid compensation to Greenpeace and the New Zealand Government.
France had been involved in brutal repression of independence movements throughout its territories. Previously it had tested bombs in the Sahara Desert but a civil war in Algeria shifted testing to the South Pacific.
"Why don't they test the bombs in their own backyard?" Lange asked, "inflicting their weapon-testing on others is nothing but arrogance….it's an affront to the whole region."
"It's a miracle only one person lost their life," Rainbow Warrior skipper Peter Willcox said. "How could a bunch of hippies on an old steel trawler scare a superpower so much that they would want to murder us?"
Greenpeace now campaigns with Rainbow Warrior III. But an era had ended – we would never be so naïve again.
• Former Rainbow Warrior II chief mate Lindsay Wright was a journalism cadet before going to sea and gaining a masters licence. He specialises in boating and environmental coverage.