For many years now, World War II, and its “greatest generation” of heroes, have earned massive media coveage and TV specials, films too many to count, and books galore. You might think, by now, and after nearly seven full decades, every major story had been told. But one that has gotten very little attention, in any sphere, is the US military occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and 1945, beginning just weeks after we attacked the two cities with atomic bombs, spread destruction and radiation over a wide area. The following is excerpted from my new book Atomic Cover-Up.
The first American troops landed at Yokohama, near Tokyo, on August 28, with 15,000 pouring in within a few days, under the direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Also arriving were forward elements of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, which had been organized by the Army the previous November to study the effects of the air campaign against Germany and had now shifted its sights to Japan (film footage they would shoot would be suppressed for decades).
The Japanese surrendered on the battleship Missouri on September 2. At this point, the American public knew little about conditions in the atomic cities, which are far south and west of Tokyo, beyond Japanese assertions that a mysterious and deadly affliction was attacking many of those who survived the initial blasts (claims that were largely taken to be propaganda). No Westerners had arrived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no photographs circulated. The first Americans did not reach Hiroshima until September 3. They were beaten there by the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who had already filed a story for the London Daily Express describing people dying from an “atomic plague.” The first American to reach Nagasaki, George Weller, found that all of his dispatches were spiked by General MacArthur’s office in Tokyo.
On September 8, General Thomas F. Ferrell arrived in Hiroshima with a radiologist and two physicists from Los Alamos, ordered by Manhattan Project chief General Leslie Groves to return to Tokyo the following day with preliminary findings. There was some urgency. It was one thing if the Japanese were dying of radiation disease; there was nothing we could do about that. But sending in American soldiers if it was unsafe was another matter. Three days later, Farrell announced that “no poison gases were released” in Hiroshima. Vegetation was already growing there.
The first large group of US soldiers arrived in Nagasaki around September 23, about the time the Japanese newsreel teams started filming, and in Hiroshima two weeks later. They were part of a force of 240,000 that occupied the islands of Honshu (where Hiroshima is located) and Kyushu (Nagasaki). Many more landed in Nagasaki, partly because its harbor was not mined. Marines from the 2nd Division, with three regimental combat teams, took Nagasaki while the US Army’s 24th and 41st divisions seized Hiroshima. The US Navy transported Marines and evacuated POWs, but its role ashore (beyond medical services) was limited.
Most of the troops in Hiroshima were based in camps on the edge of the city, but a larger number did set up camps inside Nagasaki. Because of the alleged absence of residual radiation, no one was urged to take precautions. Some bunked down in buildings close to ground zero, even slept on the earth and engaged in cleanup operations, including disposing bodies, without protective gear. Few if any wore radiation detection badges.