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The atomic plague alerted the world

 Wilfred Burchett was a war correspondent with a relentless pursuit of the "scoop". In 1945 Burchett wrote his scoop of the century. He was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bombing. On September 11, 1945, Brisbane, Australia the postal express reported: "a small Australian journalist, Wilfred" chet, armed to the teeth, with a typewriter, seven military K level dry food, the colt revolver, and incredible hope, single-handedly into Japan, became the first woman to enter the Hiroshima."

Burchett's story ran on the front page of the Daily Express. "I write this report to warn the world..." he began. He describes an "atomic plague", the legacy of radiation. Allied authorities categorically denied this was the case. "No radiation remains in Hiroshima ruins," read a front-page story in the New York Times. Burchett's press credentials were revoked, he was threatened with expulsion from Japan, and hospitals he visited were placed on lockdown. Hospital films made by The Japanese themselves were also confiscated and were not allowed to be shown until 1968.

Shock: News from the radio

On Aug. 6, 1945, I was standing in line with 50 or so weary U.S. Marines for dinner at an army cafeteria in Okinawa. The radio was blaring away as usual, but nobody was listening. The announcer's voice suddenly became excited, and I asked the line cook what was on the news. "The announcer was talking about a big new bomb we dropped on little Japan," he said. Only by straining my ears could I barely catch a few words on the radio did I know that the world's first atomic bomb had been dropped on a place called Hiroshima. I thought to myself that if I ever went to Japan, Hiroshima would be my first destination.

After details of the new bomb's destructive power were revealed, I thought of a conversation I had had a few months earlier with the American playwright Robert Sherwood. During the attack on Iwo Jima, Chicago Daily News reporter Bill McGeffen and I covered the aircraft carrier Bennington and stayed in his suite cabin while the fleet commander was away, along with Sherwood, then a member of Roosevelt's brain trust. Sherwood is clever and witty, and no matter what he talks about, he manages to steer the conversation to one question: what would be the reaction if the United States were to use a dreaded lethal weapon in order to shorten a decisive victory over Japan?

It wasn't just McGeffen and I who were concerned about it. All the officers on the carrier, the pilots on board, and the rank-and-file sailors were talking about it. The consensus, of course, was that anything would do as long as there was a way to end the war sooner. In order to justify the use of any weapon, everyone talked about the subject in a very derogatory way. Most people think Sherwood's weapon of terror is poison gas.

There was a pessimistic view of how the war would end up in the US Navy. Admirals think in terms of their considerable areas of expertise, such as sea control, air control, a Marine corps that is well trained to make quick assaults, take beachheads and capture islands, and so on. But even if Japan were conquered (at the cost of the Allies, led by the United States), how could the Japanese be dislodged from their already entrenched positions in China? So the idea of using some new winning weapon is as welcome as a spring flower.

At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Joseph Stalin assured the Allies that the Red Army would wage war on Japan "within two or three months of the German surrender". His three-month deadline ended on August 8, 1945, when the Soviet Far Eastern Forces marched into northeastern China and attacked the powerful Japanese Kwantung Army, 48 hours after Hiroshima was bombed. In both cases, the Soviet Union had communicated to Washington that the Japanese government was ready to surrender, a fact that only later became public and raised questions about why the United States had persisted in dropping atomic bombs when the end of the war was in sight.

Anyway, Japan finally surrendered on August 14. A few days later I boarded the USS Millett with some of the leading Marines and landed at Yokosuka, but my destination was Hiroshima. My most prized possession was a small Japanese speaking manual with which TO ask yes-or-no questions and thus navigate Japan. After disembarking with the first marines, McGeffen and I headed straight to the Yokosuka station and jumped on the first train to Tokyo. We caused a commotion; the capitulation had not yet been formally signed, and though the carriage was quite crowded, the passengers avoided us with looks of fear and curiosity, but not hostility. An English-speaking Japanese passenger asked us where we were going. We could only say "Imperial Hotel" to Tokyo. He told us we were getting off in a few stops. The train passed through Yokohama, three or four miles of rubble on either side, a sight we thought was unprecedented in modern history, thanks in large part to American Air Force General Curtis Lemay, whose B-29 bombers had dropped firebombs on the area. Mile after mile, the train traverses what was once the most densely populated area in the world, mostly wooden houses and paper doors that have been burned to the ground. All that remained of the factory was pulverized concrete, twisted steel and rusted machinery. We began to fidget. The people around us were still nominally our enemies, as evidenced by the destruction our air force was causing in the area. The passengers looked coldly at the ruins and showed no hatred for us.

We found some of our fellow journalists already at the Imperial Hotel, where they had arrived for a few hours with the airborne troops of General MacArthur, the American allied commander in Japan. Instead, McGeffen and I went to Hotel Number one, the only open hotel in the neighborhood, where the manager stared at us as if we had just fallen off the moon. He explained that the restaurant was full and "not very comfortable". When we insisted, he had to explain the real reason: we were the only two foreigners in the hotel. The other guests were Japanese, many of them "fanatics". After a while, he produced two forms for us to fill out, as if we had just arrived with a tour group. He didn't know what to do when he found we had neither passports nor visas.

Tokyo at the beginning of the surrender is a perfect example of how the Japanese obeyed the emperor, even when they were asked to surrender. Only a few days ago, all able-bodied men in Japan were expected to fight against "invaders" armed to the teeth, even with bamboo spears and ancient swords. Later, however, the emperor ordered people to behave carefully when foreigners came and not "cause trouble." Now, a few journalists from enemy countries can roam around without the protection of an occupying army, registering their hotels without any trouble.

Rush: Silence in the carriage

This is where McGeffen and my interests diverge. He had flown from Chicago to cover the signing ceremony of the surrender on September 2 aboard the USS Missouri. I still wanted to go to Hiroshima. With the help of a Japanese speaking manual, I found Japan's official news agency (then known as "Mineshoku"). I know there's another train heading for Hiroshima. This was surprising, for for months journalists had been told that Japan's railway system had collapsed under general Mei's bombardment. The trip to Hiroshima will be quite lengthy and it's hard to estimate exactly how long it will take. I was warned that no one had ever been to Hiroshima again. The union news was transmitted in Morse code by a local correspondent, who could not receive a message from Tokyo.


What I found was an English-speaking Union worker who said that if I insisted on going to Hiroshima, he would write a letter to their local correspondent for me to take with me, to show me around and to relay my story back to the Tokyo office. He could arrange that, as long as I brought them some food for the reporter. When I returned to Yokosuka, an American Navy public relations officer was happy to distribute a week's supply of military rations to me and two weeks' supply to the Allied Press correspondent in Hiroshima, because he thought the Navy could beat the army correspondent to Hiroshima. From there I went to Yokohama, where another Daily Express reporter, Henry Keys, had arrived with a telegram from the paper urging one of us to come to Hiroshima. Keith agreed to stay in touch with the Alliance office in Tokyo if my crazy plan took off. He gave me his.45 the night before I left and wished me good luck. Early on September 2, as more than 600 journalists headed to the Missouri to cover the Japanese surrender, I was on my way to Tokyo for the 6 o 'clock train. In theory, the train would take me to Hiroshima in another 15 to 30 hours.

The train was carrying a group of Japanese soldiers home from their barracks in Tokyo. Officers with long knives swinging between their legs took up seats in the carriage, and I squeezed into the carriage and took standing room only on the back platform with a group of soldiers. I stuffed my cap, pistol, belt and dry food together and bought an umbrella to look more like an ordinary person. But I was still wearing a green army uniform. At first the soldiers were sullen and hostile, and evidently talking about me. After I took out a pack of cigarettes and passed them around, their attitude improved. Several soldiers offered me dried fish slices and hard-boiled eggs in return. Things took an even bigger turn when I showed them the conspicuous scar on my leg, which I managed to convince them was the result of a Japanese plane bombing in Burma. I was a journalist, with my old Hermes portable typewriter to prove it.

As the hours passed, my fellow travelers began to alight at the stations. Six hours later, I managed to squeeze into the carriage and find a seat among Japanese officers. There is palpable hostility here. Among the passengers was an American missionary, escorted by armed guards. He was rescued from a prisoner-of-war camp by occupying forces and brought to Tokyo, where he taught American troops on a radio show how to avoid friction with Japanese locals. In a hushed voice, he warned me that the atmosphere in our carriage was tense and that any move could cost us our lives. Japan's defeat made the officers angry. First of all, I must not laugh, because that would be seen as gloating over the surrender ceremony on the Missouri. I couldn't laugh at the glowering officers playing with their hilts and samurai swords, not to mention the occasional plunge into darkness as the train sped through the tunnels in what seemed an eternity.

The train reached Kyoto and the missionary was escorted off. Before we got off, he told me that this was about halfway between Tokyo and Hiroshima in time, and it was getting dark. Many hours passed, and when the train stopped, I stuck my head out the window and asked, in Japanese I had learned from my Japanese manual, "What station is this?" So I wouldn't have to pronounce "Hiroshima" in the carriage for fear of angering my fellow sword-wielding travelers. I tried to repeat the question while nodding off between stops. In the meantime, a few Japanese civilians got on the bus, and one of them took the cigarette I offered him and gave me a good gulp of sake. He must have guessed my destination. "This station is Hiroshima," he said to me in Japanese as the train slowed for its next stop. By this time the train was full again, so I had to climb out the window and he helped me throw my backpack out the window.

Hiroshima: Desolation after destruction

Hiroshima Station, on the outskirts of the city, is now an empty shell, its entrance a makeshift wooden door. Two guards in black uniforms with knives grabbed me. They probably thought I was an escaped prisoner of war. I tried to explain in Japanese that I was a journalist and turned on my typewriter to prove it, but they took me to a broken room and let me know THAT I was "locked up". Since it was 2 a.m., AND I had been on the bus for 20 hours and had been out of Yokohama for 24 hours, I was in no mood to argue. At daybreak, the guards read the letter I had brought to Mr. Nakamura, the Union correspondent, and my treatment improved immediately. I went out of the room and back to the station to get a better view of the way. No one was stopping me. The train station is on the edge of the wreckage. There was little damage to the station concourse, but the roof and Windows were badly damaged. The rest -- the office, the waiting room, the ticket barrier -- had long since been swept away. Nakamura had arrived at the station with a canadian-born girl who spoke good English. We followed a streetcar track to some buildings a mile or two away.

There's nothing left here but destruction and desolation. A leaden cloud hangs over the city, steam rises from cracks in the ground, and there is a pungent smell of sulfur everywhere. I saw only a handful of people in a city of half a million, hurrying past each other without speaking or stopping, their noses and mouths covered by white masks. Only later did I realize that the buildings in Hiroshima had turned into gray and reddish dust, and solidified into furrows and banks after being washed by the storm.

Less than a month after the atomic bomb, vegetation had not yet grown to cover the wounds of the earth. The trees had fallen, their roots reaching skywards like the limbs of dead cows, and huge holes had opened in the ground where they had been. Nakamura recounted the story to me:

We heard the alarm early that morning, but only two planes showed up. We thought it was a spy plane, and no one cared much. Then the all-clear was given and most people went out to work. At 8:20, a plane came back, and everyone thought it was a reconnaissance camera plane. There was no alarm. I was pushing my bike, ready to ride to the office, when there was a blinding flash of light, like lightning. At the same time I felt a burning sensation in my face, and a strong wind like a tornado tossed me to the ground. All the houses around me collapsed. As I fell to the ground I heard a loud explosion, like a powerful bomb going off next to me. I looked up and saw a huge black column of smoke, shaped like a parachute, rising, with a dark red line in the middle. As I watched the column of smoke, the red line began to expand and seep into the smoke until it glowed red. Hiroshima was gone, and I knew something had happened that we had never experienced before. I tried calling the police and fire brigade to find out what was going on, but even the phone was cut off.

In the centre of the city I found only the skeletons of the buildings I had seen in the distance. Much of the city was first reduced to ashes in a swirl of flames and smoke before the fire swept through, engulfing the remaining buildings. A temporary police headquarters was set up in the burned fukuya department store. Our being there explained who I was and why I was there. The police station was tense, and the officers looked at me with cold hostility. (Thirty-five years later I went to Tokyo and Hiroshima again and met Nakamura, who had miraculously survived the effects of atomic radiation. Nakamura recalls that at the police station, several policemen even tried to shoot us both). My explanation was later accepted by Hiroba Taizai, the more senior propaganda officer, who, like Nakamura, believed that I wanted to report what was happening in Hiroshima to the world. It was Hirobon Otasai who arranged for a police car to take me back and forward through the ruins of Hiroshima and to visit the only functioning hospital.


I stood on the third floor of the Fukuya Department store and looked around. Everything was razed to the ground. All I could see were a few small trees and a few factory chimneys. There was no sign of broken walls or debris, as is common in other bombed cities. There were no large pieces of rubble, stone or concrete, not even craters. The destruction was pulverized, followed by skyward fires. According to the police, some of the buildings in the center of the city survived because they were right in the center of the explosion, right under the bomb when it fell, and because the force of the explosion spread from the center to all directions, the vicinity of the center was a relative safety zone.

Hospital: terrifying hell on earth

A small group of us trundled across town in an old car driven by a police officer to the telecom Hospital on the outskirts. This is the only hospital that survived the explosion. If the physical destruction of the city was horrifying, the physical damage I saw in hospital wards was a thousand times more horrifying.

I walked into the first room and saw about a dozen patients lying on dirty MATS on the floor, their bodies in varying degrees of disunity from what I later learned was nuclear radiation. The hospital's director, Dr. Michiko Hoitani, told me with absolute certainty that they would all die unless American scientists delivered an antidote. The deadly disease has struck down thousands of people since the atomic bombing. It was the same story in every ward. The patient was gaunt and repulsive and almost stopped me at the first door. Some had lilac burns on their faces and bodies, while others had bluish-black, blistered scars on their necks. Dr. Humitani said he had no idea how to treat it:

At first we treated it like a normal burn, but the patients were wasting away and dying. Later, people who were not burned, and even people who were not in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing, fell ill and died. They all fell ill for no apparent reason, with a loss of appetite, hair falling out, pale blue blotches all over their bodies, and bleeding from their nostrils, mouths and eyes.

The symptoms are similar to severe general weakness and vitamin deficiency. We started giving them vitamins, but their flesh and blood rotted after a needle went through it. Each case resulted in death. Now we know that there's something that kills all the white blood cells in the body, but there's nothing we can do about it. As far as we know, there is no way to replenish white blood cells. Every patient that comes in, goes out as a corpse.

I asked him why everyone was wearing masks. He said it was because of steam and a sulfurous stench from the ground, and because many people who were not in the city at the time of the explosion were sick, everyone thought poison gas had been used and remained on the ground after the explosion. So authorities are advising people to wear simple gauze masks. "Now we know it wasn't gas, but masks probably give people a little bit of psychological comfort, so they just wear them."

Around each patient squatted several women, some with children, all of whom stared at me with hatred in their eyes. The patients, mainly women and children, were bleeding from their nostrils, mouths and eyes; Dark hair fell in rings on rough pillows; Third-degree burns have festered in some patients. I asked Dr. Honeyvalley what he could do to improve conditions at the hospital. "We don't have any nurses," he replied. "Most of them were killed, some died while tending to the sick, others ran away and went home. Now we're afraid to admit patients if their families don't show up. The best we can do is to keep the wounds clean and give them vitamin-rich food."

The deputy director of the city's health department, who was visiting the hospital, told us that most of those who fell ill after the explosion had been digging through the rubble for the bodies of their loved ones or their belongings. Some kind of radiation may have been released into the soil, so excavations are now banned. "We estimate that 30,000 bodies are still buried under the rubble and mud," he said. Before we can bury these bodies, we need to figure out how to treat this serious disease. There may be other infectious diseases, but at least we need to know how to treat them."

At one point, a somber Dr. Humitani told me to leave the hospital, telling me in perfect English: "I can't keep you safe any longer. These people are bound to die. Me, too. I can't understand it. I was educated in America and I believe in Western civilization. I'm also a Christian. But how could christians do such a thing? Please send at least a few informed scientists to help us stop this terrible disease." I could only tell him that as a journalist I would faithfully report what I saw, and that although I was not An American, I was an allied correspondent, and that I would do my best to get the military to send "informed" scientists to Hiroshima as soon as possible. Several Japanese scientists, who are dissecting corpses in the basement of the hospital, say they have found no clue as yet as to the cause of the strange disease, and they are at a loss as to how to treat it. Back in the center of Hiroshima, SITTING on a concrete block that had survived the pulverized atomic explosion, I wrote my story on a typewriter. Although some of the gory details were omitted from my original version, the story appeared in the Daily Express on September 6, 1945, in its basic form. Here is the headline and lead:

Atomic plague

I write this report to alert the world

The doctor collapsed while attending to the patient

Fear of poison gas: People wearing masks

Arthur Christiansen, the daily Express's celebrated managing editor at the time, wrote in his memoir, "Service", that "poor Peter" (mistaking Burchett's name for Peter) was so gripped by fear that he had to edit the story himself. Kristiansen deserves credit for using the phrase "warning the world" in the title, even though he made some corrections. That was the main message I was trying to convey, but because the Western world was still ecstatic about its monopoly on such a winning weapon, and there was a healthy backlash against Japanese methods of war and the mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war, I'm not sure my message got through to them.

Published: A story that was almost blocked

It is a wonder that the story came out so quickly and completely. Just after I left Tokyo for Hiroshima, MacArthur made Tokyo off-limits. Allied personnel are not allowed to leave the Yokohama perimeter. Henry Keith was pulled off the train twice on his way to The Tokyo Alliance. Instead, he hired a Japanese Courier to sit in the office of Minosha and send the message from Tokyo to Yokohama as soon as I sent it. But the greatest miracle of all was Mr. Nakamura in Hiroshima, who faithfully and accurately typed my long story into Morse code and sent it to the Tokyo office.

When I got back to Tokyo, on the way from the station to The First Hotel, I ran into a fellow American who dragged me to a press conference at the Imperial Hotel where senior American military officers were to speak about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nagasaki was also bombed on August 9. I was scruffy, unshaven and ragged, but I went with him. The press conference was drawing to a close, but it was clear that the purpose of the conference was to deny the truth of my Hiroshima story.


The Daily Express has let the world's press know that people are still dying there from the aftermath of the atomic bomb. A scientist in a general's uniform explained that there was no problem of radiation, and therefore no symptoms of the kind I described in my report, because the bomb was detonated at a high altitude that had been controlled to avoid "residual radiation."

At that point I stood up to ask questions, and the press conference became dramatic. When I stood up, I felt my scruffy image lower before the officers with their stiff uniforms and glittering MEDALS. My first question is, has the press officer doing the briefing ever been to Hiroshima?

He hasn't. I got off to a good start.

I described what I had seen and asked him to explain. At first he was polite, the tone of a scientist preaching to a layman. 'The patients I saw at the hospital were victims of the shock wave and the burning, which is normal after a big explosion,' he said. The Japanese doctors were clearly unable to treat them, or lacked appropriate drugs. He also does not believe that someone who was not in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing fell ill afterwards.

My round with him ended up focusing on one issue. I asked him how to explain the fact that some fish still die when they swim into the river that runs through the center of Hiroshima.

"They were obviously killed by the shock wave or the very high water temperature."

"Will the water temperature still be too high with the shock wave a month after the explosion?"

"The river is affected by the tides and the fish are washed about."

"But SOMEONE took me to a place on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and I saw live fish swim into a section of the river and turn white inside out and die within seconds."

The army spokesman looked distressed. "I'm afraid you've been deceived by the Japanese propaganda." "He said and sat down. As usual, the press conference ended with a "Thank you". Although my radiation reports were denied by the authorities, Hiroshima was immediately declared a restricted area and I was taken to a British Army hospital for tests. Then I was notified that my white blood cell count was low. I was also informed that General MacArthur had ordered me expelled for "crossing the boundaries" of his "military occupation." My low white blood cell count, though probably due to radiation, was eventually attributed to antibiotics I'd been taking for a knee infection. And then my deportation order was lifted. Interestingly enough, the Navy helped me prove that I landed as a reporter with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, and they didn't limit the scope of the reporter.

Diligent journalists often encounter unusual coincidences, and I did.

It was only as I revised this chapter that I realized how lucky I had been to get the Hiroshima report to London. George Weller, the famous war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, called me in 1978 from Paris, where he had gone after the Chicago National News closed. Our journalistic paths crossed many times, but we never met.

To my surprise, 33 years after Hiroshima, he called to congratulate me on the story. Why is that? He also did a more in-depth investigative report in Nagasaki that year, but a series of articles never saw the light of day. To sum up, when he is alone in Nagasaki, stayed there for three days, look over everything, doctors and other medical workers interviewed witness, he said: "I have written 25000 words, I am a loyal good journalist, so I put the manuscript back to the headquarters of the MacArthur, let them forward -- news censorship officer immediately to draft shot."

When I met Henry Keys again in Washington in December 1979, he told me that the censors had tried to kill my stories, too. With the toughness of a professional journalist, Henry Keys insisted that the war was over, and so should censorship. He also refused to allow the press service to relay stories in "special codes" and stood by the telegraph operator himself, watching him finish the story.



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