When the atomic bomb exploded over the port city of Nagasaki, Japan in the late morning of August 9th, 1945, tens of thousands of civilian Japanese died immediately. By October, many thousands more were dying of a mysterious disease, but journalists were barred from the affected areas so few accounts of the suffering would reach readers here at home. Brooke talks with Editor& Publisher's Greg Mitchell about the very first reporter on the scene, George Weller, who wrote a series of articles that were never published, until this year.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In the late morning of August 9th, 1945 United States Air Force Major Charles Sweeney flew a B-29 bomber into the overcast sky above southern Japan. He climbed to an altitude of 28,900 feet, and during a break in the cloud cover, released his payload, a 10,000-pound atomic bomb code named Fat Man, which fell for more than a minute before exploding over the port city of Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of civilian Japanese died immediately.
MAN: The atomic bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki must be made a signal, not for the old process of falling apart but for a new era, an era of ever-closer unity and ever-closer friendship among peaceful nations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: President Truman spoke at the Navy Day celebration in New York City in October, 1945. By that time, many thousands more Japanese were dying of a mysterious disease. But journalists were barred from the affected areas, so few accounts of the suffering would reach readers here at home. In fact, the very first reporter on the scene, George Weller, wrote a series of articles that were never published, until this year, when his son found old carbon copies in his home after he died. Greg Mitchell has followed the story for Editor and Publisher. Greg, welcome back to the show.
GREG MITCHELL: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who was George Weller, and how did he manage to get into Nagasaki and get the story?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, Weller was a celebrated war correspondent for the old Chicago Daily News. He was in Tokyo with other reporters who came in early September. And they were told by General MacArthur's headquarters not to go anywhere near Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most of the reporters went along with that. But Weller, you know, wanted the scoop. And so, by hook or by crook, he made his way to the southern island of Kyushu where Nagasaki is located. He got in the area, pretending he was covering an old kamikaze camp, and somehow wandered into Nagasaki almost exactly a month after the atomic bombing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Though he was the first reporter on the ground, the articles never made it to print. So what happened to them?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, he made the mistake of filing them through General MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo, more than a dozen, certainly, over the course of two or three weeks. And he thought that because they were not sensationalistic they would get out. And they never did. He lost track of the carbons. It was an almost 60-year mystery of what was in them, what happened to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the carbons were found in his home in Italy after he died. And they were published for the first time last month in a Japanese newspaper. Let me read the first sentence of the first of the four articles. It's datelined September 8th, 1945. Quote, "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." Does this strike you as something of an odd tone for a news account from a war zone?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, of course, you have to remember this was at the end of World War II and Weller and other correspondents had seen a great deal of death in the preceding years. And the atomic bomb seemed to be just a bigger blast, just a bigger bomb because not much was known about radiation. And, in fact, that's why MacArthur did not want people to go to these cities. That's why U.S. officials, starting then and going on for years and decades, did not want people to focus on the properties of the bomb that made it different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because they knew, and no one else did.
GREG MITCHELL: That's right. So Weller's initial reaction changed when he actually went into the hospitals. And literally, the same day he wrote that, later in that day he wrote a quite different account after seeing the patients in the hospitals dying a month after the blast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe what he wrote about when he went to those hospitals and saw the impact of the bomb?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, he saw women and children and other civilians who were lying on the floor or lying on beds with their hair falling out, with strange red spots all over them, in terrible shape. He called this Disease X because the doctors didn't quite know what it was. There were rumors about radiation. The little that people knew about radiation disease, this seemed to be it. And so he wrote about these people. And his second and third accounts that came out of Nagasaki were quite different.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that last piece he wrote ends with a statement that Americans are due to arrive in Nagasaki to study the bomb site. And he then writes, quote, "Japanese hope that they will bring a solution for Disease X." Do you think if Weller hadn't discussed Disease X in that piece that maybe it wouldn't have been censored?
GREG MITCHELL: It's hard to say because there was a clamp down on virtually everything going on surrounding these two cities. A day or two after he got there, the military brought in a small group of other war correspondents for a short tour, and their stories were then held up and were censored. And the accounts that they gave focused on the blast and focused on what had happened in the cities, with no mention of dying people in the hospital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg, you co-wrote a book titled, Hiroshima in America, Fifty Years of Denial. What was most remarkable for you when you read these accounts for the first time?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, I think it was how Weller himself symbolized or represented the whole American and world experience with the bomb. There was his initial elation, in a way, seeing the effects of the bomb and how it may have produced the end of the war. And it was almost triumphal. But then when he learned, and then later the world learned, of the very special properties of this bomb, and the fact that its poisons could be spread for many miles, and even threaten the end of the world eventually, he had a very different outlook. He never became a real anti-nuker but his whole experience, just in a little nutshell there in a few days, really captured a lot of what the American experience was in responding to the bomb.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg, thank you very much.
GREG MITCHELL: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Mitchell is editor of the newspaper industry journal Editor and Publisher.