Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist


By mid-August 1945 I was aboard the troop transport USS Millett with part of a vanguard unit of marines. They were headed for Yokosuka naval base and I was headed for Hiroshima, but I kept that detail to myself.

On arrival in Tokyo, with the aid of a little Japanese phrasebook I managed to get to the official news agency (Domei in those days) and there found that a train still went to the place where Hiroshima used to be. This was a great surprise because we had been briefed for months that the whole Japanese railway system had been brought to a halt by the bombing raids of General Lemay’s Superfortresses.    

The journey would be a long one – impossible to say how long because nobody went to Hiroshima. If I insisted on going, my English-speaking Domei contact said, he would buy me a return ticket and give me a letter to their local correspondent asking him to show me around and transmit my messages to their Tokyo office, from where it could be relayed to London. All this could be done if I would take some food to their man in Hiroshima.  

In the small hours of the morning of 2 September, while several hundred correspondents were on their way to the Missouri  for the surrender signing ceremony, I was boarding a train that would theoretically land me in Hiroshima within some 15 to 30 hours.  

The train was carrying officers and men of the Japanese Imperial Army away from their Tokyo barracks. The officers with their big swords dangling between their legs occupied the seating accommodation, so I squeezed in among a group of ordinary soldiers packed on a platform at the end of a compartment – standing room only.  

Obviously I was a sensation. Having stuffed my borrowed pistol, military cap and belt among my rations in a knapsack and having bought myself an umbrella to give an impression of civilian status, I was still clad in very military-looking jungle greens.

The soldiers were very sullen at first, chattering away obviously about me in what seemed a most hostile way. But they brightened up when I produced a pack of cigarettes and handed them around. Several of them offered me bits of fish or hardboiled egg in exchange.

A major breakthrough came when I showed them the impressive scars on my leg, managing to get across to them that the wounds came from a Japanese plane in Burma and that I was a journalist. I had a battered Hermes typewriter with me as evidence. From then on it was smiles and friendship as the train bumped and thumped its way along, crawling at a snail’s pace over bombed bridges but hurtling down slopes at fearsome speed.

My fellow travellers began dropping off one by one at the various stops, marching off with their huge bundles, tight puttees emphasising the bandied legs of many of them. After the first six hours I managed to get inside the compartment and find a seat among the officers. Here the hostility was total.

Among the passengers was an American priest, travelling with armed guards. He spoke and understood Japanese and warned me in veiled language that the situation in our compartment was very tense and a false move could cost us our lives. The officers were furious and humiliated at the defeat. Above all I must not smile, as this would be taken as gloating over what was happening at that very moment aboard the Missouri.

Watching those glowering officers toying with the hilts of their swords and the long Samurai daggers that many of them wore, I felt no inclination to smile, especially as the train was in complete darkness when we passed through what seemed endless tunnels.

I poked my head out of the window each time the train stopped and said ‘Kono eki-wa nanti i meska?’ which, according to my phrasebook, meant ‘What is the name of this station?’ This avoided pronouncing the name of Hiroshima for fear of the effect it might have on my sword and dagger-toting fellow passengers.

Eventually it was a civilian, who had accepted a cigarette or two and kindly shared some of his sake with me and who must have guessed my destination, who prodded me as the train ground to a stop and said ‘Kono eki-wa Hiroshima eki desu.’ As the compartment platform had become crammed again I climbed out of the window, the civilian throwing my knapsack after me.

The station, on the extreme outskirts of the city, was an empty shell with an exit of improvised wooden gates. There, two black-uniformed policemen – also with swords – grabbed me, probably assuming that I was a runaway POW. I tried to explain that I was a shimbun kisha (journalist), opening my typewriter as proof, but they quite firmly took me to a flimsy shelter of bags and galvanised iron and gave me to understand that I was ‘locked up’.

It was 2:00 in the morning and I had been 20 hours on the train, so was in no mood to argue. A woman prepared some hot water to drink and some peanut-like small beans, and I felt things were not going to be too bad. The policemen also accepted cigarettes, which gave me status. In the morning the guards read the letter addressed to the Domei correspondent. This also enhanced my status.

Putting on my war correspondent’s cap and strapping on my pistol – which I had no right to wear – I stepped outside and no attempt was made to detain me as I returned to the railway station to get my bearings.

It was on the fringe of the belt of heavy destruction. The impression was of having been transplanted to some death stricken alien planet. Devastation and desolation, nothing else. Lead grey clouds hung low over the city that had been home to a quarter of a million people. Vapours drifted from fissures in the soil and there was an acrid, sulphurous smell.

No one stopped to look at me; everyone was hurrying about whatever business had brought them to this city of death, white masks covering mouths and nostrils. Buildings had dissolved into grey and reddish dust, solidified into ridges and banks by the frequent rains and heavy winds, as was explained later.

It was just a month since the Bomb had exploded and there had been no time for greenery to cover the scars – if it ever would.

Most buildings had been gutted by the fire which had swept through after most of the city had disappeared in a great swirling pillar of dust and flame, but I came across a police headquarters, and it was there that I showed my letter and managed to explain my situation: a shimbun kisha who wanted to explain to the world what had really happened in Hiroshima.

The police located the Domei journalist, and he turned up with a Canadian-born Japanese girl who spoke fluent English. That enabled more exact explanations to the police as to my status, my feelings, and my intentions. But the atmosphere was extremely tense.

Visiting Hiroshima 28 years later I met Matsuoka-san, the Domei correspondent, and he explained that several of the policemen had insisted that we both be summarily executed. In the end the police agreed to co-operate and we started by having the Domei correspondent relate his own experience:

I was just wheeling out my bicycle to ride to the office when there was a blinding light as if from a giant flash of lightning. At the same time I felt a scorching heat on my face and, in a great tornado-like blast of wind I was knocked to the ground and the house collapsed. When I peered out there was a tremendous pillar of black smoke, shaped like a parachute, drifting upwards, with a scarlet thread in the middle of it. As I watched, the scarlet thread expanded and diffused through the billowing pillar of smoke until the whole thing was glowing red. Hiroshima had disappeared.

It was the head of the Thought Control police, Kuniharo Dazai, who outranked the others, who arranged a police car to drive through the debris to the only hospital which was still standing. Our small group drove slowly across the city. Two waxen corpses were being carried down the wooden entrance steps as we walked up them.

Stretched out on filthy mats on the floor of the first ward I entered were a dozen or so people in various stages of mortal disintegration, from what I later learned to be atomic radiation. In ward after ward it was the same. All the victims were terribly emaciated and gave off an odour that almost halted me at the first door. Some had purplish burns on the face and body, others had bunched, blue-black marks on their necks.

The doctor in charge told me he was completely at a loss how to treat the victims: ‘We know now that something is killing off the white corpuscles and there is nothing we can do about it. Every person carried in here as a patient is carried out a corpse,’ he said.

The assistant city health officer, on a visit to the hospital, explained that they had found that those who sickened after the raid were, in almost every case, those who had been digging in the ruins for bodies of relatives or for buried belongings. ‘We estimate there are still 30,000 bodies in the dirt and rubble’ he said. ‘They must remain unburied until we know how to deal with the disease. This may result in other diseases, but at least they will be of a kind we know how to treat.’

At one point the chief doctor, who was under great strain, asked me to leave. He spoke to me in good English: ‘I can no longer guarantee your safety’ he said. His voice shook and he said bitterly:

These people are all marked to die. I will also die. I can’t understand it. I was trained in the United States. I believed in Western civilisation. I’m a Christian. But how can Christians do what you have done here? Send some of your scientists at least. They know what it is – they must know how we can stop this terrible sickness. Do that at least. Send your scientists down quickly!

Back in the centre of Hiroshima, with the stench and images of total destruction all around, the horrors of the hospital scenes dominating everything else, I sat on a block of concrete and typed out my story. Some of the more blood-chilling details were deleted from my original text, but it appeared in the 6 September, 1945 edition of the Daily Express, substantially as written.

To his credit Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express in those days, used my phrase ‘I write this as a warning to the world’ in the headlines. This was the main message I wanted to get across but, given the euphoria in the West about the monopoly possession of such a war-winning weapon, plus the naturally strong feelings against the Japanese for their methods of conducting the war and their treatment of Allied prisoners, it was not certain that I would succeed.

No sooner had I entrusted my message to Domei correspondent Matsuoka and his dubious Morse handset than a small bus rolled up to the spot where I sat, and out stepped two impeccably dressed US Air Force colonels and a few correspondents. ‘Who the hell are you?’ one of them asked with hostility. I explained who I was. ‘How the hell did you get here? How long have you been here?’ I explained as they continued to glower at me.

To my request for a lift back to Tokyo, the train journey being rather risky, one of the colonels snapped ‘Our plane’s overloaded as it is’. He called the journalists and they piled into the bus and headed back to the airport.

Meanwhile my story was coming into Domei’s Tokyo office word by word, as tapped out by Matsuoko on his handset. A minor disaster had, however, befallen. General MacArthur had put Tokyo out of bounds to all troops and correspondents. My colleague from the Daily Express, Henry Keys, who was in Yokohama, tried several times to get through but all trains were stopped a few stations further on and he was pulled off by MPs at their station checkpoint. He hired a Japanese journalist from Yokohama to go and sit in the Domei office ‘just in case’ something arrived – which it miraculously did!

(I did not know until a Washington reunion with Henry Keys in December 1979 that the censors had tried to kill my story. Henry, who is as tough as any in the profession, had insisted that as the war was over, censorship was too. He refused a plea of ‘special case’ and actually stood over the telex operator while it was transmitted.)

This is an edited extract from Wilfred Burchett’s autobiography Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist, edited by George Burchett and Nick Shimmin (UNSW Press, 2005)

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.