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The Last Great Untold Story of World War II—and the Lingering Effects Today | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

The Last Great Untold Story of World War II—and the Lingering Effects Today

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.

“We walked into Nagasaki unprepared…. Really, we were ignorant about what the hell the bomb was,” one soldier would recall. Another vet said: “Hell, we drank the water, we breathed the air, and we lived in the rubble. We did our duty.”

A marine named Sam Scione, who had survived battles on Guadacanal, Tarawa and Okinawa, now arrived in Nagasaki, sleeping first in a burned-out factory, then a schoolhouse. “We never learned anything about radiation or the effects it might have on us,” he later said. “We went to ground zero many times and were never instructed not to go there.” A year later, on his return to the United States, his hair began to fall out and his body was covered in sores. He suffered a string of ailments but never was awarded service-related disability status.

The occupying force in Nagasaki grew to more than 27,000 as the Hiroshima regiments topped 40,000. Included were many military doctors and nurses. Some stayed for months. The US Strategic Bomb Survey sent a small group of photographers to take black-and-white photos of blast effects. By all accounts the Americans were charmed by the Japanese, thankful that the bomb might have helped end the war and profoundly affected by what they witnessed. “In the back of our minds, every one of us wondered: What is this atomic bomb?” a Nagasaki veteran later testified. “You had to be there to rea1ize what it did.” After describing the horrors, he added: “We did not drop those two [bombs] on military installations. We dropped them on women and children…. I think that is something this country is going to have to live with for eternity.”

Not every American felt that way, of course. A staff sergeant who served in Hiroshima named Edwin Lawrence later recalled thinking, “The Japs got what they deserved.” What he remembered most vividly was the constant smell of charcoal in the air.

Mark Hatfield, a young naval officer in 1945 and later a longtime US senator (known for his opposition to the Vietnam war), would reflect on his “searing remembrances of those days” in Hiroshima when a “shock to my conscience registered permanently within me.” Much of his legislative and personal philosophy was “shaped by the experience of walking the streets of your city,” he wrote to the mayor of Hiroshima in 1980, adding that he was “deeply committed to doing whatever I can to bring about the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

The biologist Jacob Bronowski revealed in 1964 that his classic study Science and Human Values was born at the moment he arrived in Nagasaki in November 1945 with a British military mission sent to study the effects of the bomb. Arriving by jeep after dark he found a landscape as desolate as the craters of the moon. That moment, he wrote, “is present to me as I write, as vividly as when I lived it.” It was “a universal moment…civilization face to face with its own implications.” The power of science to produce good or evil had long troubled other societies. “Nothing happened in 1945,” he observed, “except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man.“

When Bronowski returned from Japan he tried to persuade officials in the British government and at the United Nations that Nagasaki should be preserved exactly as it was. He wanted all future conferences on crucial international issues “to be held in that ashy, clinical sea of rubble…only in this forbidding context could statesmen make realistic judgments of the problems which they handle on our behalf.” His colleagues showed little interest, however; they pointed out delegates “would be uncomfortable in Nagasaki,” according to Bronowski.

More than 9,000 Allied POWs were processed through Nagasaki, but the number of occupation troops dropped steadily every month. By April 1946, the United States had withdrawn military personnel from Hiroshima, and they were out of Nagasaki by August. An estimated 118,000 personnel passed through the atomic cities at one point or another. Some of them were there mainly as tourists, and wandered through the ruins, snapping photos and buying artifacts.

When the servicemen returned to the United States, many of them suffered from strange rashes and sores. Years later some were afflicted with disease (such as thyroid problems and leukemia) or cancer associated with radiation exposure. Little could be proven beyond a doubt, and all of their disability and compensation claims were denied, despite the efforts of a new group, the Committee for US Veterans of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Killing Their Own, a book published in 1982, charged that their experience “closely resembles the ordeals of a wide range of American radiation victims, consistently ignored and denied at every turn by the very institutions responsible for causing their problems.”

The military had long declared that radiation dissipated quickly in the atomic cities and posed little threat to the soldiers. A 1980 Defense Nuclear Agency report concluded, “Medical science believes multiple myeloma has a borderline relationship with exposure to ionizing radiation. That is, there are some indications that exposure to radiation may increase the risk of this disease, but science cannot yet be sure.”

In the years that followed, thousands of other “atomic vets,” among the legion who participated in hundreds of US bomb tests in Nevada and in the Pacific, would raise similar issues about exposure to radiation and the medical after-effects. The costs of the superpower arms race after Hiroshima can be measured in trillions of dollars, but also in the countless number of lives lost or damaged due to accidents and radiation exposure in the massive nuclear industry that grew to astounding proportions throughout the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But the long-overlooked military personnel who entered Hiroshima and Nagasaki—key players in one of the last largely untold stories of World War II—were truly the first “atomic soldiers,” and how many may still be suffering from their experience remains unknown.

Greg Mitchell’s new book and e-book is Atomic Cover-up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki and The Greatest Movie Never Made.

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