After the bomb: Telling my father's war stories 50 years later
by Anthony Weller
Every great war correspondent has an important story that got away—that was banned by someone in authority, censored into silence and never appeared. For my father, it was linked to one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century.
As the first outsider to reach Nagasaki, in September 1945, four weeks after the Japanese city was torched by the atomic bomb and still under a news blackout, he defied the orders of Gen. MacArthur forbidding reporters from entering either of the nuclear cities. After sneaking in by boat and train and brazenly telling the Japanese military he was not a newspaperman but a U.S. colonel, he wrote dispatch after dispatch of the greatest scoop of his career indeed, one of the great scoops of the century only to see it all killed by MacArthur's censors. His stories never reached his editors at the Chicago Daily News, and until recently, were believed lost.
When I was growing up, dreaming of becoming a writer myself, this was one of his life's adventures I most loved hearing about. He told me, as a wide-eyed boy, of daring to make his way into a bomb-shattered city before our own soldiers or doctors reached it, of how he'd impersonated an officer and defied a censorious general, and finally the tragedy of seeing his most important stories erased by his own government. He left out the horror of all he'd experienced, naturally, but for safe-keeping he did give me the War Correspondent badge he'd kept hidden in his back pocket in Nagasaki. (It's on the cover of the book, alongside photos he took, also censored.)My father, George Weller (1907-2002), was among the eminent American reporters of his era, winner of a 1954 George Polk Award and a 1943 Pulitzer Prize for a story about an emergency appendectomy performed in a submarine caught in enemy waters. He made his name as a courageous foreign correspondent during World War II, and was one of the few to cover every principal theater of war Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Having begun as a novelist during the Depression, much of his life was spent overseas, and across six decades he reported from all the continents. During the 1930s he wrote on the Balkans for the New York Times, and in 1940 joined the rival foreign staff of the Chicago Daily News, then syndicated in over 60 papers. From the 1950s on, he covered principally the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union and Africa. In 1975 he retired, but continued to write from his house on the Italian coast, south of Rome.
After a week in Nagasaki, touring the ruins and makeshift hospitals, and interviewing the doomed and the Japanese doctors who had already catalogued the effects of radiation, my father left to visit Allied POW camps 30 miles away most of whose prisoners still didn't know the war was over, though they'd seen the mushroom clouds. He wrote story after story from the camps, taking down each tortured man's saga, detailing years of slave labor in coal mines. The POW dispatches were suppressed, too.
As a result of those interviews, he was able to write The Death Cruise, a narrative about the most deadly Japanese hellship, which carried 1,600 American prisoners from the Philippines to prison camps near Nagasaki. After weeks of dehydration, starvation, murder, bombings by our own planes, and even cannibalism, only 300 survived.
Thwarted by the censors, my father finally gave up on Nagasaki and moved on. His own copy of the dispatches (MacArthur destroyed the originals) soon went astray in a life of covering wars around the world. It was one of the frustrations of his later years that these stories, among the most important of his career, were lost not only to posterity but to him.
Six months after his death, in his house by the Mediterranean, I discovered the typescripts in a mildewed crate crumbling, moldy, but still afire with all they had to say. They had been waiting, one room over from where he sat, ever more faintly remembering; and my triumph was tempered by a sadness that he had died believing them vanished.
Hundreds of newspapers worldwide carried the story. I was interviewed by CNN, ABC, NPR, the BBC. My father would've been gratified. As it turned out, in several weeks he had inadvertently written a book which raises many questions not just about the atomic bomb and the prison camps, but about censorship and the responsibilities of a reporter. In First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, Walter Cronkite has contributed a foreword, and I've added a historical essay. Now, 60 years late, the world can see what he saw. Anthony Weller is the author of three novels (most recently, The Siege of Salt Cove) and a memoir of India and Pakistan. He has traveled widely for numerous magazines and is also well known as a musician. His website is www.anthonyweller.com.