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U.S.: 60 Years Later, Nagasaki Bomb Witness Is Finally Heard

  • Jeffrey Donovan

George Weller When George Weller dodged U.S. military surveillance to sneak into Nagasaki on 6 September 1945, he became the first foreign reporter to see the Japanese city after its devastation four weeks previously by an American nuclear bomb. Working for the now defunct "Chicago Daily News," Weller spent several days touring overflowing hospitals, chronicling the then unknown effects of radiation. But his reports -- totaling 25,000 words -- never saw print. U.S. military censors suppressed them in what some say was a bid to cover up the real consequences of nuclear warfare. Weller later believed he had lost the copies of what he regarded as his greatest scoop. Sixty years later, shortly after his death, carbon copies of the historic dispatches surfaced. And this week, four of them were published in the Tokyo daily "Mainichi Shimbun." RFE/RL reports that while the discovery puts an end to one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Nuclear Age, Weller's story remains a cautionary tale for all journalists who face censorship.

Prague, 24 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For George Weller, one of the great foreign reporters of the pre-television era, Nagasaki was "the one that got away."

In a career that spanned six decades, Weller won a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting in 1942, and authored a dozen books and novels. He had famous quarrels with U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, and traveled the globe to interview such figures as American philosopher George Santayana, French General Charles De Gaulle, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and Russian author Maksim Gorkii.

He danced in Vienna with Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, swam the Bosporus with legendary distance swimmer Florence Chadwick, and enjoyed forced "holidays" under both the Nazis in Greece and Nasser in late 1960s Cairo.

But in Nagasaki, Weller failed to deliver the story. And he was convinced -- as he told Swedish journalist Bertil Wedin in 1990 -- that the reason for his defeat, besides his own sheer stubbornness, was General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme allied commander.

"MacArthur didn't want anybody to go [to Nagasaki] because this would lead to a lot of very compassionate stories about what had happened to the people," Weller said. "I wanted to get those stories."

Hours after presiding over Japan's surrender aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945, MacArthur -- through his officers -- told Weller and the other reporters present to stay out of southern Japan. Four weeks previously, the United States had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to the end of the war.

But Weller was determined. He accepted a military press trip to an abandoned kamikaze base on an islet off southern Japan. Once there, he snuck away in the night on a motorboat to the mainland, and eventually made his way to Nagasaki.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Anthony Weller describes his father's arrival in the still-smoldering city:

"He knew that he was not going to get anywhere just asking to be shown around. So he immediately demanded to be taken to the commanding officer, who was a Japanese general. He removed his epaulet tabs that said 'war correspondent' on them, tucked them in his back pocket, and presented himself to the general as Colonel Weller, and that he'd been ordered to look around Nagasaki and get all the facts about what was going on and send reports to Tokyo. And the Japanese general, via his English-speaking lieutenant, asked to see George's orders from MacArthur. And George said: 'I suggest if you question my authority here, you call General MacArthur yourself and ask him. But before you make that call, I suggest that you consider the seriousness of your position.'"

The commander gave free rein to "Colonel Weller," who spent five days interviewing scores of survivors, doctors, and foreign prisoners of war.

He churned out thousands of words on the effects of radiation on the victims of the atom bomb. But Weller himself would spend the rest of his life trying to explain, often unsuccessfully, why he chose to have his daily reports hand-delivered to MacArthur's Tokyo censors, who killed every line.

In "Back in Nagasaki," a 1967 piece that appeared in "How I Got That Story," a compilation of work by foreign correspondents, Weller said he had rejected the idea of smuggling his stories out. "I wanted to give the MacArthur command the least possible excuse to hold up my research," he wrote. "I eschewed all horror angles. I intended within five days to be in Tokyo myself. I wanted to be prepared to defend every line."

Weller, constantly traveling for the "Chicago Daily News," later lost track of his carbon copies. They were only uncovered in 2003, after Weller's death, by his son. He found them in a trunk in the writer's chaotic, paper-strewn study in his villa on the Italian coast, south of Rome.

In the four published pieces this week in the Tokyo daily "Mainichi Shimbun," Weller at first praises the atom bomb, saying that "its use in Nagasaki was selective and proper and as merciful as such a gigantic force could be expected to be." But in later stories, his perspective shifts as he chronicles the effects of radiation, calling it a mysterious "Disease X."

Anthony Weller explains: "You can see this gradual horror dawning in him, which troubled him much later in life, that MacArthur still, now four weeks after the bomb, and as it turned out even six and seven weeks after the bomb, still had not sent any doctors and nurses to help out people. And my father was witnessing the kind of horrors, the mysteries of radiation, that the Japanese doctors had done a meticulous job of classifying the effects on all the individual organs. But for mysterious reasons, people who appeared fine were suddenly dying, and people who had all kinds of burn marks and rashes on them were somehow surviving."

Weller later wrote that what fascinated him was the "constant revision" of his preconceived ideas that the city had been totally destroyed in a fire storm. The reality, he said, was that Nagasaki had not been razed and the bomb's effects were subtler, even invisible.

Speaking to Swedish journalist Bertil Wedin in North Cyprus, Weller said doctors in Nagasaki had discovered that the radiation had wiped out people's platelets, which makes the blood coagulate. So people were bleeding to death by the dozens from things as simple as a finger prick.

"That was a central fact that I wanted to get out -- that the effect of the bomb was not fire, not frying of the whole body, except in the cases of those who had the misfortune to be directly under it," Weller said. "It was the death of the platelets. And it was a slow death. The people -- there I was, the first man into Nagasaki among reporters -- they were still dying. They were sitting in pathetic circles, with all their families loyal to them, sitting around with them, trying to comfort them in their last hours."

Weller believed the main reason his stories were killed was because MacArthur wanted all the credit for winning the war, and not the nuclear scientists who had developed the atom bomb.

But Greg Mitchell, author of "Hiroshima in America," goes further. Mitchell's book chronicles what he calls an official cover-up in the weeks, months, and years after the use of the atom bomb to hide the truth of its morally troubling effects. He says the campaign was seen as vital because it influenced public opinion just as the U.S. government was embarking on widescale nuclear arms development.

"The George Weller case was one of the great mysteries, one of the most blatant examples, and certainly both in journalistic and in terms of the nuclear age, an extremely important story," Mitchell said. "And it's sort of amazing that after 60 years, it's finally come out what happened there."

After about five days in Nagasaki, a group of war reporters touring the region arrived by U.S. Air Force plane with the authority and ability to file mostly free of censorship directly to America. The reporters stayed just one day, but offered to transmit Weller's stories.

In his 1967 piece, Weller concluded: "In my stubbornness I refused.... I threw away my one good chance to communicate, trying for a fuller, more perfect story."
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