December 17, 2015

1945. American Reporters Enter Hiroshima Weeks After the Bombing

The Haunting Devastation in Hiroshima
The ruins of Hiroshima in September 1945. Photo by Bernard Hoffman, who was part of a group of war correspondents who entered Hiroshima nearly a month after the atomic bomb blast (source)
Following the German surrender in 1945, journalist Tex McCrary led a group of war correspondents across the world as they covered the final days of the Pacific War. They made stops in the Middle East, Japan, China, French Indochina, Guam, and more.

The reporters included: Clark Lee (International News Service), Bernard Hoffman (Life), Vern Haugland (Associated Press), Bill Lawrence (The New York Times), Homer Bigart (The New York Herald Tribune), Charles Murphy (Fortune), George Silk (Life), Frank Fulton (NBC), Bill Downs (CBS), Jim McGlincy (United Press), and several others.

In 1945, the correspondents entered Hiroshima. They were among the first foreigners to do so after the atomic bombing on August 6. The visit was unauthorized, and in fact was in direct violation of General MacArthur's orders. In the excerpt below, Times correspondent Bill Lawrence recounts the group's difficulties in dealing with MacArthur's command and the horrors they saw in the city.

From Six Presidents, Too Many Wars by Bill Lawrence, Chapter 12, pp. 136-140:

On Okinawa, we were worried that we might not get a quick clearance to go to Japan from MacArthur's command, which had been given full authority to handle the surrender.

Our group was accredited to the Strategic Air Force, and we sought help from General James Doolittle, who had just arrived on Okinawa from the European theater and who would have led his Eighth Air Force heavy bombers against Japan if the war had continued.

Over a drink one night, in one of those Okinawa burial grounds found on nearly every hill, we asked General Doolittle to help plead our case with MacArthur's top commanders.

Doolittle explained that newcomers to the Pacific war weren't particularly influential with MacArthur's people. But he would try to help us.

Our misgivings proved to be exaggerated. Our two converted B-17 transports were among the first two dozen aircraft to touch down on Atsugi airfield near Yokohama when the American troop landings began. We were lucky because we not only had our own transport, but one of the planes had radio facilities with which we could transmit directly to the United States. We even had our own censor, Colonel Schneider, and we were able to make our own way from place to place without worrying about MacArthur's public relations office.

On August 28, 1945, at Atsugi airfield, General MacArthur arrived. He came down the ramp from his four-engined air transport The Bataan, puffing on his old corncob pipe. Meeting MacArthur was General Robert Eichelberger. MacArthur said it had been a long road from Melbourne in Australia to Tokyo "but this seems to be the end of the road."

That night, we commandeered a few dilapidated wood-burning cars and drove into Tokyo itself, walking around the Emperor's palace grounds and stopping for a drink at the Imperial Hotel before visiting Radio Tokyo. As Air Force correspondents, our interests primarily were in the war that had been waged from the air. No story was of more importance than a visit to Hiroshima. But, correspondents were supposed to remain within the area occupied by American troops, and this was a small area indeed. However, we were determined to get to Hiroshima ahead of other correspondents, and we made our move by air on September 2, the day MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender in formal ceremonies aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

With Captain Magnan at the controls, we took off in one of the B-17s from Atsugi about the time that the official party was heading for the surrender ceremonies.

In the Hiroshima area, we spotted one usable airfield at the Japanese naval base of Kure. Japanese personnel crowded around the plane as it rolled to a stop, and fortunately we met some English-speaking American-born Japanese who had returned to the land of their ancestors just before the war had begun. We told them we wanted to go to Hiroshima, and they managed to find us automobiles that would carry us twelve miles into the city.

Our Japanese guides had been in Kure the day before the bomb had been dropped and they remembered a great flash of light turning to a purple mushrooming cloud followed by a great whoosh of wind. One said the trees bent almost to the ground in Kure.

As we headed for Hiroshima we did not know whether the residents would be friendly or hostile. Even worse, in our ignorance we did not have any real conception of the dangers there might be in the lingering radioactivity of the uranium bomb. It seemed a little silly even at the time, but all of the correspondents wore holstered .45-caliber automatic pistols, though we could have offered little resistance if the Japanese had decided to take revenge against us. Happily they did not. Equally happily, none of us ever showed any aftereffects from the radiation.

We were among the first few foreigners to walk in the ruins of Hiroshima and to talk with survivors on the city streets and in the hospitals, where it was estimated that approximately 100 persons were still dying daily. By that time, the Japanese said the death toll had passed 53,000 and it was predicted then that the final death toll would exceed 80,000.

Japanese doctors told us that they were helpless to treat burns caused by the intense heat of the exploding bomb and that some who had been considered only slightly injured on the day the bomb dropped later lost up to 86 percent of their white blood corpuscles, began to lose their hair, became nauseated, and finally died.

Viewed from the epicenter of the bomb blast, Hiroshima was a shocking, staggering sight, one that still haunts me. I'd seen a lot of bomb damage in Europe and more recently in Tokyo, but nothing had prepared me for this.

Much of Hiroshima had simply vanished, disintegrated from blast and heat. In the ruins from normal bombing, I was accustomed to seeing rubble, but here in the central city there was no rubble, except for a few concrete walls. And this was true of fully four square miles in a radius around the point of greatest impact. The ground had just been wiped clean, almost as if it had been gone over with a great vacuum cleaner. There were no identifying marks even for streets, except in a few places streetcar tracks remained. The trolleys were operating and the Japanese aboard them looked out at these strange Americans, the handful of correspondents, with more curiosity than hostility.

A twenty-three-year-old American-born Japanese naval lieutenant was my guide as I walked through the streets, occasionally stopping a resident to question him. One old man who was deaf recognized us as Americans and came over formally to shake hands with each of us. He then made the sign of the cross to show us that he was a Christian, and, through the interpreter, told us that all other members of his family had been killed.

It was a chilly, drizzly day. Most of the bodies had been removed, but a few remained on the outskirts, giving off the awful, sickening odor of death.

Even trees had been killed by the bomb. Birds that looked like buzzards were perched on the torn, twisted, leafless limbs.

Nobody I saw was smiling, for there was nothing here to smile about nearly a month after the Atomic Age began.

We talked with dying Japanese in the hospitals. We interviewed the doctors who were trying to cope with problems for which their medical education had not prepared them. Most of their patients were doomed to death, and they knew it.

In the later afternoon, we made our way by automobile back to Kure but it was too late by then to fly back to Tokyo that night. The correspondents, including my rival [Homer] Bigart of the Herald Tribune, went to work on the stories we would transmit from Tokyo the next day.

When work was over, we assembled a meal from the emergency K rations we carried aboard the airplane, and invited our Japanese hosts to join us. The Japanese provided sake, beer, and a Scotch-type Japanese-made whiskey to drink with the food. They were friendly, and one of them kept singing "Old Black Joe." It was his favorite and the only American song we knew. We joined in discordantly.

Early the next morning, Captain Magnan crowded all of us into the nose of the B-17 so that it would lift off the short runway. We just barely made it into the air, cranking up the wheels of the plane just before they would have met the seawall at the far end of the runway.

When we got back to Tokyo, MacArthur's men were hopping mad. There was some talk we might be court-martialed for traveling outside the occupation zone and thus risking an incident with the Japanese. But to court-martial us would have meant taking action simultaneously against the most powerful news organizations—the Associated Press, the United Press, International News Service, National Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System, American Broadcasting Company, the Times, and the Herald Tribune.

So MacArthur's men fell back on other ways to punish us. They simply cut off the supplies of gasoline that we needed to fly our planes. We countered that by getting a three-star lieutenant general, Barney Giles, flown in from Guam to requisition gasoline for us, which he did. Our job of reporting on bomb damage was considered that important by the Air Force commander, General Arnold.