In the early hours on this date, Wilfred Graham Burchett entered Hiroshima alone, less than a month after the atomic bombing of the city. He was the first Western journalist — and almost certainly the first Westerner other than prisoners of war — to reach Hiroshima after the bomb and was the only person to get an uncensored story out of Japan. 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. It was published in the London Daily Express on September 5 and appears below in its entirety:
30th Day in Hiroshima: Those who escaped begin to die, victims of
THE ATOMIC PLAGUE
I write this as a Warning to the World
DOCTORS FALL AS THEY WORK
Poison gas fear: All wear masks
In Hiroshima, 30 days after the 1st 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 has 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 for twenty-five and perhaps thirty square miles and you can see hardly a building. It gives you an empty feeling in the stomach to see such man-made destruction.
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.
STILL THEY FAIL
There is just nothing standing except about twenty factory chimneys — chimneys with no factories. 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, the 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. For no apparent reason their health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And then bleeding began from the ears, nose, and mouth. At first, the doctors told me, they thought these were the symptoms of general debility. They gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting away from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died. That is one of the after-effects of the first atomic bomb man ever dropped and I do not want to see any more examples of it.
THE SULPHUR SMELL
My nose detected a peculiar odor 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 smoldering, 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 the earth soaked with radioactivity 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.
‘ALL CLEAR’ WENT
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 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 by 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 center of the explosion, there was no trace. The theory in Hiroshima is that the atomic heat was so great that they burned instantly to ashes — except that there were no ashes.
If you could see what is left of Hiroshima, you would think that London had not been touched by bombs.
HEAP OF RUBBLE
The Imperial Palace [Hiroshima Castle], once an imposing building, is a heap of rubble three feet high, and there is one piece of the 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.
Burchett’s firsthand account was censored throughout the United States but had been wired around the world. On the morning of September 7th at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, senior U.S. officials called a press conference to refute his story, which Burchett attended. Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, deputy head of the super-secret Manhattan Project, explained that the atomic bomb had been exploded at a sufficient height over Hiroshima to avoid any risk of “residual radiation.” Burchett’s first question to the briefing officer was, “Have you been to Hiroshima?”
“No,” he replied, but then added, “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 allegations that those who had not been in the city at the time of the blast were later affected.
Burchett asked, “Why were fish still dying a month after the blast?”
Giving a pained expression, the spokesman replied, “I’m afraid you’ve fallen victim to Japanese propaganda.”
Burchett later recounted that he was then “whisked to a U.S. Army hospital where doctors told me my low white-corpuscle count was caused by antibiotics I had been given for a knee infection.” Years later he found out this condition was related to radiation sickness.
Shortly before he died of cancer in 1983, Burchett’s book entitled Shadows of Hiroshima was published.
- Richard Tanter, “Voice and Silence in the First Nuclear War: Wilfred Burchett and Hiroshima,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Posted online 11 August 2005.