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'First Into Nagasaki' unearths once-censored eyewitness accounts

The Medical Institute Hospital sits behind a wrecked shrine on Sept. 7, 1946. The shrine was 700 meters from the atomic blast. (George Weller, Anthony Weller/Polaris Images)

First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War, By George Weller, Edited by Anthony Weller, Crown, 320 pp., illustrated $25

Days after the United States dropped an atomic bomb over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945 , Japan announced its surrender and World War II came to an end. American military authorities then initiated a press blackout prohibiting reporters from entering the Japanese port city where between 40,000 and 70,000 people had died as a result of the bomb.

One 38-year-old American war correspondent, Pulitzer Prize winner George Weller, violated the blackout, becoming the first Western reporter to witness the devastation on the ground . Weller, impersonating a colonel, sneaked into Nagasaki and brazenly demanded the help of Japanese military authorities in writing a report about the bombing. "Colonel" Weller interviewed eyewitnesses, survivors, doctors, and imprisoned Allied POWs and wrote a brilliant series of reports about the decimated city. Alas, when he sought to get these dispatches printed in American newspapers, including his own Chicago Daily News, American military censors stepped in and had them all suppressed.

Weller's Nagasaki dispatches wouldn't be discovered until after his death, in 2002 , and they are reproduced here, as edited by his son Anthony, for the first time. These exceptionally important eyewitness accounts, collected and organized by a tireless war reporter dedicated to making the horrible truth known to the American public, describe the fateful moment of atomic impact. An American POW imprisoned near Nagasaki, Captain John Farley of New Mexico, told Weller, "I saw a terrific flash. It was white and glaring. . . . Light was projected upward as well as downward, something like the aurora borealis." Farley then described the mushroom cloud, the intense heat, and the resulting destruction. A British POW who also witnessed the bomb dropping described "a ball of fire giving off white smoke in the sky, and suddenly bursting out in all directions."

Weller visited Nagasaki's overcrowded hospitals, brimming with scenes of death and suffering worthy of the nightmarish imagination of Hieronymus Bosch . Weller describes one hospitalized Nagasaki woman who "lies moaning, with a blackish mouth stiff as though with lockjaw, and unable to utter clear words. Her exposed arms and legs are speckled with tiny red spots in patches." Weller notes that 70 percent of the deaths were from burns, but many other victims suffered from something Japanese doctors dubbed "Disease X," later known as radiation poisoning.

Weller also spent days interviewing just-liberated Allied POWs imprisoned near Nagasaki. They had been used as slave labor in coal mines, and subjected to constant beatings, accidental deaths, torture, and execution. One POW from Texas tells Weller: "For twenty-six months I was beaten daily by the guards." An Oklahoma POW describes the Japanese atrocities he'd seen during the infamous Bataan Death March earlier in the war : "I saw at least fifty men shot, and forty to fifty bayoneted."

These collected dispatches, focusing on the horrors of post-bomb Nagasaki and the brutal treatment of Allied POWs, vividly relate the everyday inhumanity of the Pacific war. Several POWs actually welcomed the atomic bombing, despite its deadly potential. One POW from San Francisco tells Weller: "I'm glad that the atomic bomb spared us prisoners all that an invasion would have meant." Weller himself speaks of the use of the bomb on Nagasaki as "selective and proper and as merciful as such a gigantic force could be expected to be."

No matter one's opinion of the bombing of Japan, the tireless reporting recorded here remains an invaluable historical resource for those seeking the truth about what was done to, and done by, the residents of Nagasaki. Despite the sanitizing impulses of US military censors, George Weller's words continue to speak eloquently about the horrors of war across a gap of 60 years.