First into Nagasaki
Whenever I see the word "Nagasaki," a vision arises of the city when I entered it on September 6, 1945, as the first free westerner to do so after the end of the war. No other correspondent had yet evaded the authorities to reach either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The effects of the atomic bombs were unknown except for the massive fact that they had terminated the war with two blows in three days. The world wanted to know what the bombs' work looked like from below.*
I had just escaped the surveillance of General MacArthur's censors, his public relations officers and his military police. MacArthur had placed all southern Japan off limits to the press. Slipping into forbidden Nagasaki, I felt like another Perry, entering a land where my presence itself was forbidden, a land that now had two Mikados, both omnipotent.
When I walked out of Nagasaki's roofless railroad station, I saw a city frizzled like a baked apple, crusted black at the open core where the searing sun born at Alamogordo had split open the blue sky of midday. I saw the long, crumpled skeleton of the Mitsubishi electrical motor and ship fitting plant, a framework blasted clean of its flesh by the lazy-falling missile floating under a parachute.
What irony, I thought, in a war of competing velocities, that this slowest-borne of all weapons, falling at a speed little greater than my own descent when I took training as a paratrooper, should in the end out-destroy all the fleetest of the winged killers. The bomb of Nagasaki reversed the rule of war, getting there last and slowest but with the most, a terminal blow riding under a silk handkerchief.
Even now I see the scorched hills ringing the bottleneck of the port. Along the blistered boulevards the shadows of fallen telegraph poles were branded upright on buildings, the signature of the ray stamped in huge ideograms. I can never forget the hospitals where I heard from X-ray specialists the devouring effects of the ray on the human bloodstream and viscera, analyzed as impassively by the little men in white coats as if it had happened to someone else, not themselves. In the battered corridors of these hospitals, already eroded by man's normal suffering, there was no sorrowful horde. The wards were filled. There was no private place left to die. Consequently the dying were sitting up crosslegged against the walls, holding sad little court with their families, answering their tender questions with the mild, consenting indifference of those whose future is cancelled.
I felt pity, but no remorse. The Japanese military had cured me of that. After years of unchallenged domination, they were bending a little under the first after-wind of the bombs, a national mistrust, almost contempt, for having led Japan into war. A few sought escape in hara-kiri. The majority blamed the enemy for using weapons that were "unfair."
Had Japan got these weapons first, would they have been unfair, I asked? Was Pearl Harbor an act of Japanese chivalry? The crafty eyes under the peaked brown caps turned unblinking and blank.
In the harbor, I remember, there still burned the last altar kindled by the fireball. A small freighter, crisped like dry bacon down to the waterline, still smoked, glowed and puffed. She was a floating lamp, untended, with all her mooring ropes burned outward till the ends fell in the water. But her hot pink hawsers still held. Bobbing there among the debris-littered dark waters, she spread a light that flickered in eerie unison with the candles and kerosene lamps and little flashlights ashore.
I felt I had a right to be in Nagasaki, closed or not. Four weeks after the two bombs, with no riots or resistance in Japan, it seemed reasonable that MacArthur should lift his snuffer from the two cities. There was a sort of reason for delay, but it had nothing to do with the public's right to know. As something to fall back upon in the event of the failure of the bombs, MacArthur's planners had arranged that the Japanese archipelago was to be invaded in one-two time, first the northern islands and the Tokyo-Yokohama area, and then the south, with the two atomic cities. Japan's surrender made little difference. An incredible six weeks was announced as the interval before the southern islands were to be occupied. MacArthur had fought a slow, cautious, methodical war, taking no chances with his postwar target, the presidency. His peacemaking was its twin, with censorship prolonged after victory long after the slightest pretext for it existed.
After submitting to the censors of the MacArthur command ever since I had escaped from Java in March, 1942, I felt I could not take much more. I remembered how his censors, perhaps eager not to offend or alarm the White House, killed a dispatch I wrote criticizing Roosevelt's defeat by Stalin at Yalta. With security no longer in question, I was not going to be stifled again. But I was not unaware that in planning to slip into an atomic city first, I was also risking repudiation by the conformists in my own profession. Four years earlier they had ceased bucking the communiqué-fed hamburger grinder, and they disliked-while perhaps secretly admiring-anybody who kept on trying to report the war, to make the public think as well as feel.
My plan of extrusion formed itself a few hours after we all sat on the gun turrets of the Missouri, watching Japan surrender to MacArthur and Nimitz. This measured rite over-almost wrecked by a Russian photographer in Lenin cap who was chased around like Harpo Marx-the correspondents were summoned ashore to a press conference. The war was ended, as we had reported, but the censorship was not. There was no chance, therefore, to ask from Tokyo why the Kurile Islands, regular patrol grounds of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, were to be handed to Russia. What the command wanted covered was the prison camps of northern Japan. The dam was to be opened to one last orgy of home town stories, more mindless and more alike than the slow molasses drippings of four years of sloppy, apolitical, dear-mom war. Everything had been arranged: destroyers and planes were to take the correspondents north. North, north, north, away from where the war had been decided a month before.
Once, in midwar, I had been able to escape the darkrooms of the four main theaters of war by going home and running off a book called Bases Overseas, claiming for the United States a worldwide network of small strong points where her men had died and her treasure been expended. I did not feel that the right way to end this war was to be herded north, away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to chew more fodder about what-beasts-the-Japs-are and Jimmy-looks-skinnier-today. Only a few days before, but after the Mikado's surrender, a Saturday Evening Post writer who wore colonel's leaves refused to pass my story about the 503rd Paratroops on Corregidor, my old outfit, that revealed there were still Japanese bodies unburied in the tunnels. "That's contrary to the Geneva Convention, and might make the Japs cancel their surrender," he said. . . . The American psychological grasp of the Japanese was shallow.
I listened as the chief conducting officer, rod in hand, pointed out on a map the prison camps where the newsmen were to be allowed to land and play savior. "Southern Japan remains closed. However, there is a little place down here"-he pointed to the southern end of Kyushu-"where their navy had a kamikaze base. Anybody interested in the divine wind?"
"Geisha schools next door?" asked a jaded voice.
"Nuh-uh. And the pilots are all in the stockade, I'm afraid." Ah, no interviews, then. Enemy personnel, minimize glorification of.
"What happened to their planes?" asked a hopeful photographer.
"Not much left after the flyboys worked 'em over. But we do have the strip working again. That's a story in itself." Nobody seemed to agree. For Stripes, perhaps. SUICIDE STRIP OPERATIVE-ENGINEERS IN OVERNIGHT MIRACLE. Full of bewildering unit numbers, and ten terse words from the colonel.
No hand was raised for the kamikaze junkpile. Everybody signed for a prison camp, or nothing, and walked out. At the door I turned back to have another look at the map. The kamikaze hole was named Kanoya. While the officer was sorting out his camps and correspondents, I cased Kanoya. A railroad came down to it. Kyushu, in fact, was covered with little railroads. But were any operating? Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a long way north, and it was partly mountain country, where bridges had been knocked out.
And then I felt rising in me, like a warm geyser, a jet of confidence. It is like the moment when a poem unties your mind.
"I might kill a couple of days with that Kanoya thing," I said. "Who's conducting?" He told me the name of a captain, new to me, not one of MacArthur's little foxes I had been dodging since Buna and Moresby.
"Okay, I'll take a chance."
The conducting officer, when I met him later, turned out to be a young, friendly captain who had earned a late overseas assignment by impeccable performance somewhere back home. He had already dutifully pulled together everything about Kanoya that could be wrung out of intelligence. Next morning,* as we got aboard the plane, I asked him: "What made the general take Kanoya and leave out all the rest of southern Japan?"
He knew, because he had asked. "He had to give back to Eisenhower and Marshall all the C-54s he borrowed to bring our headquarters in from Manila. So we're down mostly to C-47s. They need fuel between Atsugi and Okinawa."
I wanted to get some idea how hard this eager officer was going to press me to produce. "No pain for you, I hope, if I don't find a story in traffic safety," I said.
"It's a gamble," he said cheerfully. "No pain, no strain."
Neither of us mentioned the conspicuous nearness, in flying distance, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There had been just enough atomic ferment at the press conference to warn the command that the reporters could not much longer stall off the editors at home. The look-Mom, I'm-free stories couldn't last forever.
As we buzzed south at a safe five thousand feet, keeping offshore as if Japan would strike again, I asked myself how I could shake off this earnest, able officer without souring the end of his war, late and little as it was. What gave me trouble was that I liked him. He really wanted to help me, not throttle me.
When we landed at Kanoya the strip was stiff with Japanese soldiers, drawn up in honorific array. Perhaps they were expecting MacArthur himself. They were ready, if need be, to surrender their ancestral swords. What they got, instead, was a natty, cheerful captain leading a rumpled laundry bag of a correspondent. It was obviously a letdown.
Politely we inspected the smashed hangars, the bomb racks, the dormitories where the pilots slept for the last time before taking off for Iwo and Okinawa. We got almost too much attention. It bonded us together, preventing me from looking around to find a way to escape. . . . Had I had enough of Kanoya? my guide wanted to know. "Because I've made arrangements for us to fly back tomorrow." This was alarming. Unable to think of a reason to stay longer, I began to fear that the trip was all a sterile gamble.
Working around the edge of the base that afternoon, I found that the least conspicuous way to get to the mainland was to hire a motorboat. It was only a few hundred yards. I managed to dig up a railroad schedule. All I could read was the numbers. Kanoya was stiff with ambitious Nisei who could have read it at a glance. But I feared that these loyal patriots would turn me in for an extra stripe.
The help I needed appeared suddenly in a tall thirty-year-old sergeant in Army Airways Communications intelligence named Gilbert Harrison, later the organizer of the American Veterans' Committee, and later still the editor of The New Republic. By his easy irony and barbed distaste for military authority, I guessed he might be the outrigger I needed. After some wary soundings to make sure he would not turn me in, I spilled my plan to him. "Can I come?" he said instantly. . . . We arranged for me to get away by motorboat under cover of night and pointed for a rendezvous over on the mainland.
I shook off my captain early, tapped away at my typewriter until he went to bed in a nearby room, and then went to bed myself, fully dressed. In case he ran a bed check, I left my shoes outside the door. Not long before dawn, I slipped past his door, out under the stars. I felt faint pangs. What punishment might MacArthur's dutiful colonels wreak on a trustful, gentlemanly, dewy-fresh captain who was given only one, repeat one, correspondent to watch and lost him? To avoid generating alarm and despondency, I put aside my guilt as I stepped into the boat to cross the stream.
When I landed on the opposite shore, the village lights were just winking out. Nobody was awake but a few fishermen, coiling their nets on the beach after the night's catch. I don't remember Harrison being with me, and I think he spent the night in camp, to avoid causing any alarm. As I remember we formed up at the railroad station in Koyama, the end of the line. The gentle captain seems to have assumed that I went out for an early morning walk and got lost, delayed or shacked up.
Harrison protected his disappearance by sending a dutiful service story about Kanoya's redemption to his commanding officer in Manila. Actually the sergeant was in better legal shape than I was. He had orders allowing him five days to reach Tokyo, means unstated. The orders didn't say that he couldn't visit southern Japan any more than a powder room says "Ladies, No Men." So he chose to imagine that his superiors didn't care how he went. Nothing happened to him, indeed, until ten days later when his colonel found him in the officers' mess in Tokyo and asked: "Are you enjoying yourself here, sergeant?"
The first train north did not leave until four in the afternoon. We kept worrying that the Americans on Kanoya might be willing to smudge their image as liberators by asking the Japanese police to pick us up. These police were ubiquitous, the only government Japan had. By train time I felt confident enough to order the soldiers around the station to carry our bags.
For the conquerors to choose to travel in third class, which was crowded as a cage of monkeys, seemed puzzling to the soldiers, passengers and train crew. But we had no Japanese money and it seemed to me that there, where a fuss would cause maximum trouble, we had the best chance of brazening our way through. We also were protected, by this eccentric self-abasement, from the prying questions of passengers of rank who might have the brains and mischief to turn us in.
Excerpted from First Into Nagasaki by George Weller, legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter; edited and with an essay by Anthony Weller. Copyright © 2007 by George Weller. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.