Voice and Silence in the First Nuclear War:

“Hiroshima had a profound effect upon me. Still does. My first reaction was personal relief that the bomb had ended the war. Frankly, I never thought I would live to see that end, the casualty rate among war correspondents in that area being what it was. My anger with the US was not at first, that they had used that weapon — although that anger came later. Once I got to Hiroshima, my feeling was that for the first time a weapon of mass destruction of civilians had been used. Was it justified? Could anything justify the extermination of civilians on such a scale? But the real anger was generated when the US military tried to cover up the effects of atomic radiation on civilians — and tried to shut me up. My emotional and intellectual response to Hiroshima was that the question of the social responsibility of a journalist was posed with greater urgency than ever.”


— Wilfred Burchett 1980 [1]


Wilfred Burchett entered Hiroshima alone in the early hours of 3 September 1945, less than a month after the first nuclear war began with the bombing of the city. Burchett was the first Western journalist — and almost certainly the first Westerner other than prisoners of war — to reach Hiroshima after the bomb. The story which he typed out on his battered Baby Hermes typewriter, sitting among the ruins, remains one of the most important Western eyewitness accounts, and the first attempt to come to terms with the full human and moral consequences of the United States’ initiation of nuclear war.


For Burchett, that experience was a turning point, ‘a watershed in my life, decisively influencing my whole professional career and world outlook.’ Subsequently Burchett came to understand that his honest and accurate account of the radiological effects of nuclear weapons not only initiated an animus against him from the highest quarters of the US government, but also marked the beginning of the nuclear victor’s determination rigidly to control and censor the picture of Hiroshima and Nagasaki presented to the world.


The story of Burchett and Hiroshima ended only with his last book, Shadows of Hiroshima, completed shortly before his death in 1983. In that book, Burchett not only went back to the history of his own despatch, but more importantly showed the broad dimensions of the ‘coolly planned’ and manufactured cover-up which continued for decades. With his last book, completed in his final years in the context of President Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ speech of March 1983, Burchett felt “it has become urgent — virtually a matter of life or death — for people to understand what really did happen in Hiroshima nearly forty years ago . . . It is my clear duty, based on my own special experiences, to add this contribution to our collective knowledge and consciousness. With apologies that it has been so long delayed . . .” [2]


That one day in Hiroshima in September 1945 affected Burchett as a person, as a writer, and as a participant in politics for the next forty years. But Burchett’s story of that day, and his subsequent writing about Hiroshima, have a greater significance still, by giving a clue to the deliberate suppression of the truth about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the deeper, missing parts of our cultural comprehension of that holocaust.


One Day in Hiroshima: 3 September 1945 [3]


After covering the end of the bloody Okinawa campaign, from the moment that he heard reports of the atomic bombing on August 6, Burchett’s goal was to reach Hiroshima as soon as possible after the Japanese surrender on 15 August. He reached Japan in late August aboard the transport ship USS Millett and landed with the advance party of US Marines at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. With two journalist friends Burchett reached Tokyo by train, days ahead of MacArthur’s occupying forces.


Few among the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to Japan with the occupying forces contemplated the hazardous twenty-one-hour trip south to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Most accepted the claim that the months of aerial and naval bombardment of Japan prior to the surrender had reduced the railway system to rubble, and that it was impossible to travel beyond Tokyo. Even this official discouragement appears to have been almost unnecessary, at least at that stage. The prevailing (and still hardly changed) news values dictated the choice of the majority: 600 Allied journalists covered the official Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri: only one went to Hiroshima. [4]


Burchett spoke only phrasebook Japanese, but received enthusiastic help from the staff of the Japanese Domei news agency in Tokyo, who were greatly concerned for their Hiroshima correspondent, Nakamura. A US Navy press officer, tickled at the idea of ‘one of his boys’ reaching Hiroshima ahead of correspondents attached to the other services, provided provisions for Nakamura and for Burchett.


At 6 a.m. on the morning of 2 September, Burchett boarded an overcrowded train heading for Hiroshima. In his knapsack he carried an all-important letter of introduction to Nakamura, the navy-supplied provisions, a Baby Hermes portable typewriter and a most unjournalistic Colt .45, thoughtfully thrust into his hands by an Australian friend before Burchett left Yokosuka.


Outside Tokyo, news of the war’s end had come after the Emperor’s announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender two weeks earlier. There were as yet, however, no occupying forces. Burchett had landed with the vanguard of Marines, but MacArthur had barely enough troops to occupy central Tokyo and the ports, and at every point on his journey to Hiroshima and back, Burchett found himself actually leading the occupation.


Boarding the train, Burchett crammed in among ordinary soldiers, ‘very sullen at first, chattering — obviously about me — in a very hostile way.’ But a packet of cigarettes, displays of a scar from a wound inflicted by a Japanese plane in Burma, and the Baby Hermes as the sign of a journalist, and ‘from then on it was smiles and friendship, more cigarettes against bits of fish — and even a drop of sake.’


After a few hours’ travelling, the new friends dropped off the train, and Burchett managed to get into a compartment which turned out to be full of belligerent Imperial Army officers. As Burchett was later to appreciate, one of the main impediments to the desire of the Japanese Emperor and Prime Minister to surrender in July 1945 was their fear of mutiny by the most extreme of the militarists in the Imperial Army. Memories of the assassinations by zealous militarists of wavering Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers in the early 1930s, understandably disturbed ministers and the Emperor’s chamberlains as they searched for a form of words acceptable to the Allies after Potsdam. They feared that a small group of, army officers would react to news of an imperial rescript of surrender by seizing the Emperor himself, and quite possibly using the sacred hostage as the basis for all-out resistance to the death. [5]


On his slow twenty-one-hour trip south, Burchett sensed the depth of enmity towards the victors felt by officers nursing their humiliation.


“Here the hostility was total. Among the passengers was an American priest, accompanied by armed guards. He had been brought to Tokyo from internment to broadcast to American troops on how they should behave in Japan to avoid friction with the local population, he explained, warning me in veiled tones that the situation in the compartment was very tense and that a false move might cost us our lives. The officers were furious and humiliated at their defeat. Above all I was not to smile as this would be taken as gloating over what was happening aboard the Missouri. Watching those glowering officers toying with the hilts of their swords and the long samurai daggers that many of them wore, I felt no inclination to smile, especially as the train was in complete darkness as we passed through what seemed like endless tunnels.”


Eventually, at two the next morning, Burchett’s neighbour prodded him awake with the news of their arrival in Hiroshima. At what was left of the city station, Burchett was arrested by two sabre-carrying policemen, and placed in a makeshift cell for the night, where he promptly collapsed into sleep.


Next morning, Burchett showed the guards his letter of introduction from the Tokyo Domei office, and they made no attempt to stop him leaving.


“I followed a tramline which seemed to lead fairly directly towards the standing buildings, branching off at cross streets for a few hundred yards and then returning to the tramline. Walking those streets I had the feeling of having been translated to some death-stricken alien planet. There was devastation and desolation, and nothing else. Lead-grey clouds hung over the waste that had been a city of more than a quarter of a million people. Smoky vapours drifted from fissures in the soil and there was a dank, acrid, sulphurous smell. The few people in the streets hurried past each other without pausing or speaking, white masks covering their nostrils. Buildings had been pounded into grey and reddish dust, solidified into ridges and banks by the frequent rains . . . No one stopped to look at me. Everyone hurried, intent on whatever it was that brought them into this city of death.” [6]


At the police station where he went for help, Burchett was understandably ill-received. After he explained his purpose, the police found Nakamura, who in turn brought a Canadian-born woman as translator. At the headquarters of the surviving police force Nakamura explained Burchett’s purpose and his request for help. ‘The police were extremely hostile and the atmosphere was tense . . . The more Nakamura explained the more the tension increased. There was some shouting and the interpreter became pale.’


Nakamura later told Burchett that most of the policemen had wanted to have all three shot. Astonishingly, it was the local head of the Kempeitai, the Thought Control Police, who accepted Burchett’s explanation of his task, provided a police car, and set out with Burchett to ‘show him what his people have done to us.’


Guided by Nakamura and the police chief, Burchett went to the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, 1.3 kilometres from the hypocentre. One of the city’s six hospitals, it was, like the others, very heavily damaged, most of the staff having become nuclear casualties. At that time it held about 2,300 in-patients. Of the 300 doctors in the city, 270 were either killed or seriously injured in the atomic attack, as were 93 per cent of the city’s nurses. [7]


Relief medical teams from outside the city had been quickly organized. By the end of September some 2,000 medical workers at makeshift relief stations had treated 105,861 in-patients and another 210,048 had received out-patient treatment. [8] Japanese scientists and doctors had already made considerable progress in developing procedures for aiding the suffering survivors with limited resources and an almost complete lack of prior knowledge of the effects of whole-body radiation. The day that Burchett arrived in Hiroshima, a medical meeting was held on what were to become known as A-bomb diseases, with lectures given on treatment of victims by the Japanese relief medical workers and researchers who had been studying and treating the victims’ illnesses for almost a month.


The appalling sights Burchett witnessed in ward after ward were to affect him far more than the physical devastation he had already seen. Patients — and their families — on filthy tatami mats among the rubble were being ravaged by the effects of massive blast and primary and secondary burn trauma combined with advanced stages of radiation illnesses, resulting in fever, nausea, haemorrahagic stools and diathesis (spontaneous bleeding, from mouth, rectum, urethra and lungs), epilation (loss of hair), livid purpura on the skin, and gingivitis and tonsillitis leading to swelling, and eventually haemorrhaging of gums and soft membranes. [9] In many cases, without effective drugs, large burns and the haemorrhaging parts of the body had turned gangrenous. Recovery was inhibited by the effects of widespread malnutrition, resulting from the cumulative effects of long-term wartime shortages and the Allied blockade of the past year.


After the party passed through the wards, the doctor in charge asked Burchett to leave:


“I can no longer guarantee your safety. These people are all marked down to die. 1 will also die. I was trained in America. 1 believed in Western civilization. I’m a Christian. But how can you Christians do what you have done here? Send some of your scientists at least. They know what this is — they must know how we can stop this terrible sickness. Do that at least. Send your scientists down quickly!”


Burchett left to write the unique despatch to the Daily Express, sitting on a piece of rubble not far from the hypocentre, sometime in the early afternoon. What Burchett felt and saw that day is best conveyed as it appeared in the Daily Express three days later. [10]


30th Day in Hiroshima: Those who escaped begin to die, victims of


‘I Write this as a Warning to the World’


Poison gas fear: All wear masks


Express Staff Reporter Peter Burchett was the first Allied Reporter to enter the atom-bomb city. He travelled 400 miles from Tokyo alone and unarmed, carrying rations for seven meals — food is almost unobtainable in Japan — a black umbrella, and a typewriter. Here is his story from –




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 atomic plague.


Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world.


In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war. It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden. The damage is far greater than photographs can show.


When you arrive in Hiroshima you can look around and for 25 and perhaps 30 square miles you can see hardly a building. It gives you an empty feeling in the stomach to see such man-made devastation.


I picked my way to a shack used as a temporary police headquarters in the middle of the vanished city. Looking south from there I could see about three miles of reddish rubble. That is all the atomic bomb left of dozens of blocks of city streets, of buildings, homes, factories, and human beings.




There is just nothing standing except about 20 factory chimneys, ¬chimneys with no factories. I looked west. A group of half a dozen gutted buildings. And then again nothing.


The police chief of Hiroshima welcomed me eagerly as the first Allied correspondent to reach the city. With the local manager of Domei, leading Japanese news agency, he drove me through or, perhaps, I should say over, the city. And he took me to hospitals where the victims of the bomb are still being treated.


In these hospitals I found people who when the bomb fell, suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effects . . .




My nose detected a peculiar odour unlike anything I have ever smelled before. It is something like Sulphur, but not quite. I could smell it when I passed a fire that was still smouldering, or at a spot where they were still recovering bodies from the wreckage. But I could also smell it where everything was still deserted.


They believe it is given off by the poisonous gas still issuing from earth soaked with radioactivity released by the split uranium atom.


And so the people of Hiroshima today are walking through the forlorn desolation of their once proud city with gauze masks over their mouths and noses. It probably does not help them physically.


But it helps them mentally. .


From the moment that this devastation was loosed upon Hiroshima the people who survived have hated the white man. It is a hate the intensity of which is almost as frightening as the bomb itself.




The counted dead number 53,000. Another 30,000 are missing, which means ‘certainly dead.’ In the day I have stayed in Hiroshima — and this is nearly a month after the bombing — 100 people have died from its effects.


They were some of the 13,000 seriously injured by the explosion. They have been dying at the rate of 100 a day. And they will probably all die. Another 40,000 were slightly injured.


These casualties might not have been as high except for a tragic mistake. The authorities thought this was just another routine Super-Fort raid. The plane flew over the target and dropped the parachute which carried the bomb to its explosion point.


The American plane passed out of sight. The all-clear was sounded and the people of Hiroshima came out from their shelters. Almost a minute later the bomb reached the 2,000-foot altitude at which it was timed to explode — at the moment when nearly everyone in Hiroshima was in the streets.


Hundreds and hundreds of the dead were so badly burned in the terrific heat generated by the bomb that it was not even possible to tell whether they were men or women, old or young.


Of thousands of others, nearer the centre of the explosion, there was no trace. They vanished. The theory in Hiroshima is that the atomic heat was so great that they burned instantly to ashes — except that there were no ashes.




The Imperial Palace, once an imposing building, is a heap of rubble three feet high, and there is one piece of wall. Roof, floors and everything else is dust.


Hiroshima has one intact building — the Bank of Japan. This in a city which at the start of the war had a population of 310,000.


Almost every Japanese scientist has visited Hiroshima in the past three weeks to try to find a way of relieving the people’s suffering. Now they themselves have become sufferers.


For the first fortnight after the bomb dropped they found they could not stay long in the fallen city. They had dizzy spells and headaches. Then minor insect bites developed into great swellings which would not heal. Their health steadily deteriorated.


Then they found another extraordinary effect of the new terror from the skies.


Many people had suffered only a slight cut from a falling splinter of brick or steel. They should have recovered quickly. But they did not.


They developed an acute sickness. Their gums began to bleed and then they vomited blood. And finally they died.


All these phenomena, they told me, were due to the radioactivity released by the atomic bomb’s explosion of the uranium atom.




They found that the water had been poisoned by chemical reaction. Even today every drop of water consumed in Hiroshima comes from other cities. The people of Hiroshima are still afraid.


The scientists told me they have noted a great difference between the effect of the bombs in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki.


Hiroshima is in perfectly flat delta country. Nagasaki is hilly. When the bomb dropped on Hiroshima the weather was bad, and a big rain-storm developed soon afterwards.


And so they believe that the uranium radiation was driven into the earth and that, because so many are still falling sick and dying, it is still the cause of this man-made plague.


At Nagasaki on the other hand the weather was perfect, and scientists believe that this allowed the radioactivity to dissipate into the atmosphere more rapidly. In addition, the force of the bomb explosion was, to a large extent, expended in the sea, where only fish were killed.


To support this theory, the scientists point to the fact that, in Nagasaki, death came swiftly and suddenly, and that there have been no after-effects such as those that Hiroshima is still suffering.


Return to Tokyo


If reaching Hiroshima had been difficult, transmitting the story to London was also fraught. Nakamura undertook to tap the story out on a hand-set in Morse code to the Tokyo Domei office. But while Burchett was in Hiroshima, MacArthur declared Tokyo off-limits to journalists. This frustrated the plan for his friend Henry Keys to wait in the Tokyo Domei office for the story to be tapped through from Burchett. Twice turned off the train from Yokohama to Tokyo by American Military Police, Keys hired a Japanese journalist to wait for Burchett’s story in Tokyo and bring it to Yokohama immediately. Late on the evening of 3 September the story arrived and Keys bullied the reluctant wartime censors to allow the unprecedented story through unchanged.


Burchett was not the only foreign journalist to arrive in Hiroshima on 3 September. A Pentagon press ‘Investigatory Group’ arrived by plane from Tokyo just as Burchett was finishing his piece. According to Burchett, having been guaranteed an ‘exclusive,’ the journalists in the official party were surprised to see him there. While the journalists felt piqued and threatened by Burchett’s scoop the officials accompanying them as press handlers were hostile and suspicious.


In Burchett’s eyes, most of the Pentagon press team were headquarters hacks specially flown in from the US, except for a few who had shared his path on the dangerous island-hopping campaigns. According to Burchett, none seriously attempted to survey the human consequences of the atomic bombing, although he advised one whom he knew that ‘the real story is in the hospitals.’ [11]


“. . . the moment they heard a rival had got to Hiroshima before them they demanded to get back to their plane and on to Tokyo as soon as possible to file their despatches. They had no contact with the local population, as they were a solid ‘all-American’ body with perhaps a Japanese-speaking interpreter attached. They saw physical wreckage only.” [12]


The reporters toured the wreckage, and later held a press conference at the Hiroshima Prefectural Office. [13] After the press conference, and with fog threatening to close in, the reporters prepared to get back to Tokyo as soon as possible.


“I asked if I could fly back with them to Tokyo, the train journey being rather risky.


“‘Our plane’s overloaded as it is,’ replied the colonel.


“‘You’ve used up more petrol getting here than I weigh,’ I argued.


“‘Yes. But this airstrip’s a very short one and we can’t take on any extra weight.’


“‘Will you take a copy of my story back to Tokyo at least, and give it to the Daily Express correspondent?’


“‘We’re not going back to Tokyo,’ was the colonel’s brusque reply. He called the journalists together and they piled into their minibus and headed back for the airport.” [14]


As it happened, Nakamura had slowly but successfully transmitted the long story. But Burchett could not be sure, and he must have been deeply angered at the refusal to help him back to Tokyo.


That night, as the story was wired through to London, Burchett began an eventful trip back to Tokyo by train. In the middle of the next day, as the train passed through Kyoto, Burchett saw two unmistakable Australians — prisoners of war from a local camp left in less than benign confusion as the war ended, with no effective arrangements to feed the starving POWs. Word had filtered in to the camp about the end of the war, and the soldiers had volunteered to leave to look for food in Kyoto. The emaciated pair begged Burchett to come back to the camp to meet their fellow inmates to convince them (and the confused guards) that the war was indeed over.


In the next two days Burchett visited six POW camps, speaking to the prisoners, telling them of the Allied victory and the coming of the occupation forces.


“It was necessary to bluff the Japanese camp commanders, with whatever authority I could muster, that I had come officially to ensure that the surrender terms were being complied with and that living conditions for the POWs were being immediately improved. I have addressed various types of audiences in my time, but never such eager listeners as these. These men were famished. They bore on their faces and bodies all the evidence of physical hunger, but above all their eyes told that they were famished for news. Hesitating for a moment, at that first encounter, while I tried to formulate the most economic way of telling them what they yearned to hear, I felt the compulsion in scores of pairs of eyes glittering with the intensity of their appeal to begin, to tell them it was all over and they would soon be on their way home again, with a few details of how it came to be over so suddenly.” [15]


Confronting the Manhattan Project


Back in Tokyo, ‘the American nuclear big-shots were furious.’ Burchett’s article had raised a storm. Not only had the Daily Express headlined the story ‘THE ATOMIC PLAGUE — I Write this as a Warning to the World,’ and put it on the front page, but they had released it gratis to the world’s press. On the surface, US officials were mainly angry about Burchett’s claim that residual radiation was still hazardous and that, a month after the bombing, people were still dying from radiation illness — what he had referred to as ‘the atomic plague.’


On the morning of 7 September Burchett stumbled off the train in Tokyo to discover that senior US officials had called a press conference at the Imperial Hotel to refute his article. He reached the press conference just in time to hear Brigadier-General Thomas Farrell, the deputy head of the Manhattan atomic bomb project, explain that the bomb had been exploded at a sufficient height over Hiroshima to avoid any risk of ‘residual radiation.’


There was a dramatic moment as I rose to my feet, feeling that my scruffiness put me at a disadvantage with the elegantly uniformed and bemedalled officers. My first question was whether the briefing officer had been to Hiroshima. He had not. I then described what I had seen and asked for explanations. He was very polite at first, a scientist explaining things to a layman. Those I had seen in the hospital were victims of blast and burn, normal after any big explosion. Apparently the Japanese doctors were incompetent to handle them, or lacked the right medication. He discounted the allegation that any who had not been in the city at the time of the blast were later affected. Eventually the exchanges narrowed to my asking how he explained the fish still dying when they entered a stream running through the centre of the city.


“‘Obviously they were killed by the blast or overheated water.’


“‘Still there a month later?’


“‘It’s a tidal river, so they could be washed back and forth.’


“‘But I was taken to a spot in the city outskirts and watched live fish turning on their stomachs upwards as they entered a certain patch of the river. After that they were dead within seconds.’


“The spokesman looked pained. ‘I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to Japanese propaganda.’ he said, and sat down. The customary ‘Thank you’ was pronounced and the conference ended. Although my radiation story was denied, Hiroshima was immediately put out of bou

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