Nagasaki: Wasteland of war, by the first Western reporter to witness it

The American journalist George Weller was the first Allied observer to see the devastation wreaked by the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. But his account was censored at the command of General MacArthur, and only now, three years after his death, have his astonishing reports finally been published. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent Online

The scenes that confronted the reporter George Weller would fill his dispatches with horror and stay with him for life. The first Western reporter into the bombed and off-limits city of Nagasaki in September 1945, Weller encountered sickness and suffering of a kind never seen before. He described the cityscape though which he passed as a "wasteland of war".

The scenes that confronted the reporter George Weller would fill his dispatches with horror and stay with him for life. The first Western reporter into the bombed and off-limits city of Nagasaki in September 1945, Weller encountered sickness and suffering of a kind never seen before. He described the cityscape though which he passed as a "wasteland of war".

But his unflinching reports written a month after the atomic bomb had dropped caught the eye of General Douglas MacArthur's US military censors. Concerned at the effect Weller's reporting would have on worldwide opinion as well as his subsequent political ambitions, the general ensured that none of the reportage he filed from Nagasaki would be published.

Until now. Three years after Weller's death at the age of 95, and 60 years after the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing more than 200,000 people and ushering the world into the nuclear era, some of those first-hand dispatches have been published in a Japanese newspaper.

They provide a raw and unique insight into the bomb's devastation and the horrifying effect of radiation poisoning, known to the author of the reports and the bewildered doctors he spoke to simply as "Disease X".

In a report filed from Nagasaki on 8 September 1945, Weller wrote: "In swaybacked or flattened skeletons of the Mitsubishi arms plants is revealed what the atomic bomb can do to steel and stone, but what the riven atom can do against human flesh and bone lies hidden in two hospitals of downtown Nagasaki. Look at the pushed-in façade of the American consulate, three miles from the blast's centre, or the face of the Catholic cathedral, one mile in the other direction, torn down like gingerbread, and you can tell that the liberated atom spares nothing in the way." Weller's remarkable dispatches might not have been discovered but for his son Anthony, also a writer and journalist, who was dealing with his father's belongings after his death in 2002. At his father's home in San Felice Circeo, Italy, Mr Weller was working his way through a box of papers when he came across 75 typed pages of carbon-paper copies containing reports from the war in the Pacific, which his father had believed lost. The reports ran to about 25,000 words.

Speaking yesterday by telephone from his father's home, Mr Weller, 47, told The Independent: "My father had spoken of these reports many times over the years and it was a source of great frustration to him [to be censored]. It was one of the biggest stories of his life.

"It was very poignant to find his carbons no more than 20ft from where he was sitting. One of the rooms in his house was overflowing with papers from his more than 65 years as a foreign correspondent. There were boxes and crates with these papers jammed into them. I spent some time going through a crate full of mildewed papers from the Pacific war and there they were. The crate was a few feet from the chair in which he used to sit. He did not know they were there."

The story of Weller's suppressed dispatches from the southern coastal city of Nagasaki - devastated by the 4.5-ton "Fatman" nuclear device that was exploded at a height of 1,500ft at 11.02am on 9 August - are made all the more remarkable for the effort it took him to get into the city. With the city and much of southern Japan placed off-limits by MacArthur, commander of the US forces, Weller, already a Pulitzer Prize winner with the now defunct Chicago Daily News, made his way to the distant island of Kyushu. There, with official permission, he visited what had been a Japanese kamikaze base. But he also noticed that the town on the mainland - just a few hundred yards from the island - was connected to Nagasaki by railroad. Using a combination of boat, train and a bravura performance in which he impersonated a senior US officer and commandeered two military cars, he was able to get into Nagasaki several days before any other Western reporters. Weller, who had earlier been among the very last journalists to leave Singapore and then Indonesia in the face of the Japanese advance, was not at the time particularly opposed to the atomic bomb. "I think the Japanese military had cleared any sense of remorse out of him," said his son, who usually lives in Annisquam, Massachusetts. And his initial reports from Nagasaki suggested that he believed the atomic weapon, while clearly deadly, had worked with a rare degree of precision.

He started one early dispatch by writing: "The atomic bomb may be classified as a weapon capable of being used indiscriminately, but its use in Nagasaki was selective and proper and as merciful as such a gigantic force could be expected to be. The following conclusions were made by the writer - as the first visitor to inspect the ruins - after an exhaustive, though still incomplete study of this wasteland of war." He suggested that the death toll stood at no more than 24,000 and that this number (later shown to be more than 75,000, with another 75,000 injured and countless more left to die later from radiation sickness) was largely the result of poorly designed civilian air shelters and a refusal by the local authorities to take air-raid warnings seriously. He later added in his report: "Nobody here in Nagasaki has yet been able to show that the bomb is different than any other, except in a broader extent flash and a more powerful knock-out." But as he travelled more around Nagasaki, visiting hospitals filled with sick and dying people, witnessing the flattened city and talking to the baffled Japanese doctors unable to help so many of the sick, Weller became aware that something was terribly wrong. Many of those brought into the hospitals were not responding to treatment.

He witnessed children with red blotches on their skin, people who had lost their hair, patients with blackened tongues, patients with lock-jaw. Doctors at one hospital told him that a month after the explosion, people were dying at a rate of 10 a day.

He noted that the doctors had performed precise assessments of the patients brought to them. Their hair had fallen out, they had skin haemorrhages, lip sores, diarrhoea, swelling of the throat. There had been a fall in the number of their red blood cells and there was an almost absence of white blood cells.

He wrote in another dispatch: "The atomic bomb's peculiar 'disease', uncured because it is untreated and untreated because it is not diagnosed, is still snatching away lives here. Men, women and children with no outward marks of injury are dying daily in hospitals, some after having walked around for three or four weeks thinking they have escaped. The doctors here have every modern medicament, but candidly confessed in talking to the writer - the first Allied observer to Nagasaki since the surrender - that the answer to the malady is beyond them. Their patients, though their skin is whole, are all passing away under their eyes."

After his achievement of entering Nagasaki and acting as an eye-witness to the destruction, Weller's mistake was to send his reports back to Tokyo by hand, to be approved by the military censor. Concerned about their potential effect on public opinion, MacArthur ordered that that they be destroyed.

Weller's son said his father later believed he had lost the carbon copies and would go to his grave summarising his experience with the censors simply as "They won." Indeed, at the same time as it was suppressing Weller's reports and denying similar reports filed from Hiroshima by the Australian reporter Wilfred Burchett and published by the Daily Express in London, the Pentagon was actively going to great lengths to persuade its own citizens that there was no danger of radiation poisoning from the atomic bombs.

William Laurance, a science reporter with The New York Times and - it later emerged - someone also paid by the White House as a "consultant", was among a group of reporters taken to the atomic testing site in New Mexico to demonstrate there was no lingering radiation. Laurance's subsequent story said: "This historic ground in New Mexico, scene of the first atomic explosion on earth and a cradle of a new era in civilisation, gave the most effective answer today to Japanese propaganda that [radiation was] responsible for deaths even after the day of the explosion."

Laurance was so liked by the military that he was even taken in the squadron of planes accompanying the B-29 bomber from Tinian Island near Guam, which dropped the Nagasaki bomb. In contrast to Weller's reports of suffering and sickness, Laurance described the bomb's explosion thus: "Awestruck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds ... It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes." Ironically, such reporting won Laurance himself a Pulitzer prize.

Gregg Mitchell, co-author of Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial and editor of the magazine Editor and Publisher, said the story of Weller's suppressed and then lost dispatches was one of journalism's more considerable mysteries.

"It's different to Deep Throat, but in nuclear history and journalism history, [it is important]," said Mr Mitchell, whose book details the official suppression of the effect of the atomic weapons and the controversy surrounding America's decision to use them when many in the West believed Japan was already ready to surrender. "It is one of the great mysteries. People have always wondered what was in those reports. For them to emerge intact solves it."

Weller's son, who has also discovered a cache of his father's photographs, said his father had believed his reports from Nagasaki would not be censored. He believed that during the three weeks he spent in Nagasaki he was there "as a witness".

"He had been fighting the censors for four years," he said. "[The censors] did not want the US people to get a bad impression of the bombs, and that it was not MacArthur who had won the war but a bunch of scientists in New Mexico."

Indeed, the conclusion to one of his father's most moving dispatches relates to some of those very scientists, the effect of whose labours he had just witnessed, and who were about to arrive in the city to measure the radiation. "Twenty-five Americans are due to arrive September 11 to study the Nagasaki bombsite. Japanese hope they will bring a solution for Disease X."

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