‘A Warning to the World’

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By: Greg Mitchell

The end of a 60-year mystery — the censorship, and then disappearance, of the first newspaper accounts from Nagasaki after the atomic attack on that city — gained wide attention this week, after the story was broken in this country by E&P last Thursday.

Famed reporter George Weller of the Chicago Daily News filed vivid accounts of the then-unknown radiation effects of the bomb on humans, but they were spiked by General Douglas MacArthur’s censorship office in Tokyo, and never published, until after Weller’s son miraculously located them. Some finally appeared on June 16 in the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun (my story is at: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000963439).

But what of the first reporter to reach Hiroshima, a few days earlier?

Of several hundred Western reporters in Japan in early September 1945, only two chose to defy travel restrictions and censorship instituted by General MacArthur’s office in Tokyo. One was Weller. The other was Australian war correspondent Wilfred Burchett.

Burchett set out from Tokyo for Hiroshima by train on the morning of Sept. 2, simply looking for a scoop (only later did he become known for his pro-Soviet views). The following morning he encountered in Hiroshima what he later described as a “death-stricken alien planet,” with a dank, sulfurous smell.

He was taken directly to one of the few hospitals left standing (although badly damaged) in the city. Its director felt certain that what he called “radiation sickness” was real. Patients were developing purple skin; some were also losing their hair. Many had white-cell counts about one-tenth the normal number. The death rate was rising with each day.

Burchett pulled out his typewriter and, sitting on a chunk of rubble near ground zero, composed his historic article, which began: “In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly — people who were uninjured in the cataclysm — from an unknown something which I can only describe as the plague … I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world.”

Just as he was finishing his story, a group of journalists on an Air Force charter landed just outside Hiroshima. Included in this small group were two giants: Bill Lawrence of The New York Times and Homer Bigart of the New York Herald-Tribune. The reporters were not happy to see Burchett there before them. He told them, “The real story is in the hospitals.”

After a few hours, they were ready to leave, and Burchett asked one to carry a copy of his article to Tokyo. The request was denied.

That evening he managed to transmit his story to a colleague in Tokyo, who eased it through MacArthur’s censorship office mainly intact, perhaps because it was “only” for a British publication. Two days later, on Sept. 5, it ran on the front page of the London Daily Express under the headline, “The Atomic Plague.” Burchett credited his editor with displaying extraordinary courage in publishing the article. Great Britain, after all, had helped build the bomb.

Later that day, Lawrence’s article in The New York Times appeared, marked “delayed,” obviously by the censorship office. Others on that trip filed stories. Some mentioned a mysterious ailment, but not a single article described conditions in hospitals or indicated that the reporters had seen any of the gravely ill patients. Yet in his memoir, published in 1972, Lawrence would reveal that on that day, “We talked with dying Japanese in the hospitals.”

Were the reporters disinclined to cover this angle, or prevented from doing so?

Whatever else can be said about these articles, they would remain the only accounts by American reporters from Hiroshima for many months. According to Lawrence’s memoir, “General MacArthur’s men were hopping mad” about the junket to Hiroshima. To prevent a re-occurrence, they cut off supplies of gasoline to planes that might make another such mission possible.

At the same time, the censorship office would spike George Weller’s stories from Nagasaki, which did feature eyewitness accounts from hospitals. The full story of the special radiation effects of the bomb on its victims was kept hidden for years, as the U.S., and then the Soviets, developed more bombs. As Weller later wrote, referring to the censorship officials: “They won.”

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