Monday, December 18, 2006

On "First into Nagasaki"

2006 INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY WELLER about FIRST INTO NAGASAKI: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War by George Weller / edited and with an essay by Anthony Weller / foreword by Walter Cronkite

Q: Your father, George Weller (1907-2002), was a legendary war correspondent, winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The odyssey of what he went through for these atomic bomb dispatches sounds absolutely heroic.

A: Yes, it seems almost unbelievable. Once the bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki and concluded World War II, General MacArthur threw a news blackout over both cities. No reporters were even allowed in southern Japan. My father, who’d been bucking censorship for the entire war, felt the world had a right to learn what had happened. So he made his way by boat and train, and sneaked into Nagasaki four weeks after the bomb, ahead of the U.S. Army and Navy. Since correspondents wore military khaki, he told the Japanese general in charge of the pulverized city that he was an American colonel, and expected full cooperation: car, interpreter, lodging. At first the general was skeptical. My father said, “If you don’t believe me, ask MacArthur yourself. But before making that call, you had better consider your position.” The Japanese general bowed to him.

Q: And he wrote this entire book in six weeks? He must never have slept.

A: According to the original manuscripts, he typed all night and wandered around all day looking at the ruins and makeshift hospitals. He wore thick-soled shoes to protect himself against radiation. Each morning, by courier, he sent dispatch after dispatch of what was probably the greatest story of his career—maybe one of the most important of the century—up to Tokyo. He was sure that since the war was over, MacArthur would want to know people were still dying, and send medical assistance. Instead every dispatch was destroyed by MacArthur’s censors, and no doctors arrived for weeks. My father’s articles never reached his editors back at the Chicago Daily News and, until recently, were believed lost.

Q: But he didn’t stay in Nagasaki. He moved on to several nearby POW camps.

A: That’s right. He knew that within a 40-mile radius there were many camps full of American, British, Dutch, and Australian prisoners whom no one had found yet. Most still didn’t know the war was over. They had seen both big mushroom clouds on the horizon but not realized what they were. So he wrote story after story from those camps, taking down each man’s saga, detailing their years of slave labor and unimaginable torture in dangerous coal mines. The POW dispatches were killed by the censors, too. For me the most gratifying part of pulling together this book has been to get letters from brave men in their eighties who still remember my father.

Q: Besides the accounts of how they managed to survive, there were also powerful stories of how some POWs got to the camps.

A: It’s a virtually unknown aspect of World War II, in fact. After speaking to those POWs, he was able to write The Death Cruise, a long narrative about the deadliest Japanese “hellship”, which carried 1,600 prisoners from the Philippines to camps near Nagasaki. After weeks of starvation, dehydration, murder, bombings by our own planes, and even cannibalism in a crammed cargo hold, only 300 survived.

Q: What seems most remarkable is that your father actually lost his carbon of the dispatches—the only copy in existence of a valuable piece of history.

A: For six decades he reported from all over the world—mainly the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union, Africa. As with many war correspondents, boxes of paper just trailed him from continent to continent. Even though he retired in 1975 to a villa on the Italian coast, he never got around to organizing the past. Six months after his death I found the moldy typescripts in a wooden crate, thirty feet from where he used to sit bemoaning their loss. It saddened him deeply that they’d been erased from history. The censors had won.

Q: Did he speak to you often about his adventures?

A: Always. What he never mentioned, since he was a writer, not a photographer, was that he had a little camera with him. He took pictures both in Nagasaki and in the POW camps. I found those, too. So the book includes a portfolio of the most dramatic. Like the dispatches, until now they’ve never seen the light of day.

Q: Most of your own books are novels. This book is really your father’s book, yet you’ve written a long historical essay at the end to put it all in perspective.

A: I realized that all of the questions which naturally occurred to me would also occur to every reader. I needed to understand not just the contexts of the atomic bomb and the POWs; I also wanted to explore what it had meant to be a foreign correspondent before there were satellite phones, when the tendrils of government censorship strangled you by different methods than now. I came to realize that the entire story of how and why he was silenced was more complex than I thought. I ended up even more amazed by what he’d done, yet I saw it was a book not just about the end of the war, but the responsibilities of a writer. It proves that in any era, this kind of courageous rogue reporting is essential to learning the truth.