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Source material from an eyewitness

First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War - George Weller, Anthony Weller, Walter Cronkite

I thought this might be a little bit like John Hersey's Hiroshima, but it wasn't. Well, not much. Immediately after the Japanese surrender to US forces in September 1945, General Douglas MacArthur became the local governing official. He immediately placed a ban on journalists going south to report on conditions in the bombed cities. The thinking at the time was apparently that US forces needed to guard secrets about exactly how devistating the atomic weapons had been, and this information was still a state secret- at least until the US shaped sensible and coherent state policies and military strategies around the reality of these new super-powerful weapons. Military detachments were sent to observe conditions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but journalists were forbidden.


George Weller was an Army reporter who managed to sneak around the bureaucratic obstructions and safeguards to become the first American into Nagasaki, post-war... nearly a week before the sanitized and highly-chaperoned cadre of state-approved American journalists were flown in.


The first chapter details his experiences. If you have read Hersey's Hiroshima, or Masuji Ibuse's Black Rain, you have already read far more stirring works on atomic bomb survival. Weller describes destruction, but his lack of Japanese language or interpreter prevent him from in-depth interviews. He describes a city in ruin, and a society suddenly deprived of basic infrastructure.


It is a morbid to compare the destructive effects of nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as if it were some sort of contest in grotesquery, but if you can detach yourself sufficiently to do so, there are some cold scientific points of interest here. In fact, I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but having never heard the two cities experiences compared before, I actually found this to be one of the most interesting things this book has to offer.  It turns out that the atomic destruction of Hiroshima was far more devastating.  For one thing, Hiroshima was a much more populous city than Nagasaki, at the time of attack. Nagasaki was a target because it was one of the few remaining industrial areas in Japan, by war's end, and it was the less-populated industrial area at the periphery of Nagasaki which was targeted. A munitions factory, a coal mine, and a functioning shipyard were all within the blast range of the Nagasaki "ground zero". In contrast, Hiroshima was a target because it was a population center, and its "ground zero" was the city center. That is probably the single largest factor between the two cities.


The second major factor is topography:  Hiroshima is located on a plain which offers few obstructions to the spread of shock waves, heat, or the burst of deadly gamma rays released at the moment of detonation. Nagasaki, on the other hand, is a city spread out over several hills and valleys... similar to San Francisco in this respect, which provided pockets of shelter in the path of the blast.


Minor factors have to do with the types of bomb dropped (Hiroshima was destroyed with a uranium bomb; Nagasaki with a plutonium), the differing altitudes at detonation, the weather conditions on the respective days of attack, and the state of alert of the local population (Hiroshima had sounded an "all clear" when it saw there was only a single enemy airplane in the sky... supposing that it couldn't do much damage;  Nagasaki- which was attacked three days later- had no such misconceptions.)


This is probably only stuff that nuclear tacticians in some Pentagon war room need to think about, but it does shed light on the kind of analysis and assessments that were made back when the scientific and military communities were still unsure what it was they had on their hands, and what its full potential and limitations were. 


All of this only represents the first 1/3 of the book or so. George Weller's experience in Nagasaki changed when he happened upon the American prisoner of war camps. The newly-liberated Americans reported to him- for the first time it became known- the full extent of abuses they suffered in Japanese POW camps. To be sure, this part is the most affecting. Cold statistics show that an American captured by the Imperial Japanese forces in WW2 was seven times more likely to die than an American captured in the European theater. Most of the prisoners died of starvation and exhaustion, as they were worked to death in the Mitsui coal mines on the island of Kyushu. (Most POW camps were on the island of Kyushu.) There are also several instances where hundreds died at a time of suffocation and/or heat stroke, when they were (extremely) overcrowded and sealed into compartments of transport ships, during mass movements of prisoners, when the Japanese were forced to abandon its positions in the Philippines.  In the winter, many (already malnourished) also died of exposure, as prisoners were not allotted sufficient blankets or clothing. Then there are many individual accounts of prisoners being beat to death by prison guards for minor infractions, or for sport. Sometimes guards would stage fights between prisoners, so they could bet on the outcome... summarily executing anybody who refused to take part.


The reporting here is not jingoistic, as some wartime reporting can be (e.g. "them dirty Japs"), I think because the war was already over at the time of writing, and Weller knew that his missives were not going to be filtered by his editors for their propaganda value. I would characterize the reporting here as evenhanded and appropriately solemn to the subject matter. I am aware of a certain unfairness here which might give the reader the impression that the suffering of Japanese atomic survivors is being minimized here. I don't think it is intentional. I think it is the natural consequence of Weller's inability to speak Japanese, to hear their stories.


If you have kids who don't understand how easy they have it, or what hardships past generations have endured, I would recommend this book as an eye-opener. On my first draft of this review, I softened that sentiment a bit, but I don't want to soften it. 


The final chapter is by the author's son (also a journalist), written sixty years later, and sharing some followup information of how these stories were initially officially suppressed, and were later re-discovered.