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Essay

Of the bomb

HE WAS A small old man and he sat alone in the tram. It was late July and very warm and the tram was making its way through the southern suburbs of Hiroshima to the ferry terminal for the sacred island of Miyajima. The old man wore a large, floppy brimmed canvas hat and a beige safari suit. He cradled in his lap a little carry bag. He had been watching me since I boarded near the A-Bomb Dome and sat on a bench opposite him. As the tram emptied, stop by stop along route 2, he continued staring through his pair of enormous, thick-lensed spectacles.

On occasion, I glanced at his kind, worn face and realised there was something not quite right with it. It was not something immediately obvious, but it was curiously out of alignment. His left eye was smaller than his right, the difference exacerbated by the thick spectacle lenses. The cheekbone, too, below the pinched eye, was flat, in defiance of the other across the bridge of his nose, which was round and full. It looked, to me, like a face that had suffered an accident a long time ago, and the imperfections were far away, on the horizon of a long life.

At one point, it was just me and the old man in the tram, and this was when he rose slowly and sat beside me. "Where are you from?" he asked. His voice was thin and his English heavily accented but clear.

"Australia," I said, turning to him.

He stared down at the carry bag in his hands.

"Are you a soldier?" he asked.

I laughed at the unusual question. "No," I said.

"I remember the Australian soldiers in 1945," he said, "with the hats." He folded up one side of his canvas brim, making an impromptu slouch hat. "Very nice," he said, smiling.

Australian soldiers had taught him to speak English at a school in Hiroshima, he said, after the war. He had been born in 1928 and had been a "ship man" when he was younger. He gripped an imaginary ship's wheel with his old hands and motioned to steer from left to right.

Then he said, unexpectedly: "I am of the atom bomb."

He rummaged in his carry bag and I noticed that the texture of the skin on his left hand was very smooth, an oddity consistent with his eye and his cheekbone. He was an old man divided into two sides. Eventually he produced a thick blue booklet, the size of a passport. I had read of these books carried by A-bomb survivors. They were medical record books.

"I am going to the hospital," he said, holding up the book. "Every week I go to the hospital."

He tapped his knee with the book before returning it to his bag.

"I was visiting Hiroshima on that day," he said, recalling August 6, 1945. "The atom bomb. Wooosh." He raised a bunched fist and flicked his hand open to indicate the explosion.

He looked at me with that crooked face and smiled again.

"I am of the atom bomb," he said.

 

I HAD COME to Japan to retrace the steps of the legendary Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. As a young reporter, and in that early grappling for mentors and models, for a guide into the architecture of journalism, I had known of Burchett for a singular achievement – he was the first Western journalist into Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb. In the 60 years since Burchett filed his famous report, "The Atomic Plague", for the London Daily Express, it has probably remained the greatest individual newspaper "scoop" of the 20th century and into the millennium. It's impossible to know now to what degree Burchett was writing for history, but you get the feeling, from the opening line, that the young reporter from Victoria had an eye to posterity. "I write this as a warning to the world."

Burchett was almost 34 years old when he made his incredible solo journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima to bring the facts of the bomb's devastation to the world, as he put it. At tremendous risk to his personal safety, he took the long train journey south, travelling in that delicate period between the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and Japan's official surrender.

It struck me, as a journalist and a novelist, that this act was the stuff of dramatic fiction and that one day I would write a novel about this chapter in Burchett's life. The story had everything – war, flight, danger, heroism and, at the centre of it all, one of the defining moments in human history. I made some cursory notes.

Years later, I was browsing through a second-hand book stall at a Gold Coast flea market when I came across an extremely battered copy of one of the prolific Burchett's polemic books – This Monstrous War. The book dealt with the Korean conflict. By now I knew more about Burchett's life, his evolution into a "radical" journalist and his ability to polarise readers, colleagues, even governments. He was accused of being a communist spy, a traitor, a fabricator. His own country, for a time, refused to grant him a passport and re-entry into Australia. Since Hiroshima, his reputation had wobbled and stumbled.

I developed a theory, too, that the impact of what Burchett saw in Hiroshima, and the scoop itself, changed something inside of him: that the dropping of the A-bomb was a schismatic moment for mankind, and also for Burchett's psychology. The theory had no basis in fact. It was the fancy of the novelist, trying to find a way into the head of an undeveloped character. I was already knitting a person called Burchett with the grand, subterranean themes of an unwritten novel. The A-bomb divided the 20th century. So, too, would atoms split in the mind of my Mr Burchett, altering his view of the world, perhaps sending a hairline fracture through his soul. All these muddled musings, you hope, eventually break through the scrub and into a clearing. It is the great gamble of writing fiction. Blindfolded, you fire an arrow and hope to hit a very small target. Already, I had left much of the actual Burchett behind.

When the Iraq conflict broke out post-September 11, 2001 and the world witnessed the manipulation of the media by the superpower that is America, and truth, as they say, became a casualty itself as the war rolled on for months, and then years, I kept thinking of Burchett and Hiroshima. In that instance, his purpose was the pursuit of truth. That purpose may have been tangled up with notions of future fame and accolades, of promotion and financial reward, of changing the world. It is the dichotomy of reporting – at some points in your career you write for the public, but you also write for other journalists. This is what I got, you're saying, and you didn't.

It was a dangerous, renegade act (often the prerequisite for defining moments) for which Burchett was later vilified. In some ways, it went to the very definition of reporting. In the context of the contemporary world, with television and print journalists "embedded" with US troops invading Iraq (the word itself, embedded, so quickly redefined and attached to the media, yet still reminding me of a splinter, and its associated irritation), I thought of Burchett and that warm September in 1945 when he walked through the ruins of Hiroshima with his notebook. I felt that something had been lost. That we'd mislaid something very important about, or within, ourselves. That in modern times the media was like sediment, layer after layer of it, rolled out over feeling and empathy and rage and all those human responses to things that happen in the world. That everything would set like sandstone, and one day, beneath the many stratas, a little fossilised truth would be found, embedded, fragile as a mosquito.

I'd bought This Monstrous War for a single dollar, but didn't realise until I got home that it had been personally inscribed by the author. His best wishes and signature were scratched onto the title page in blue ink some time in the 1950s.

When you begin a writing project you accept, beyond logic or reason, all manner of superstitions, totems, coincidences and signs. You believe they will help guide the arrow. I liked the idea that Burchett had autographed his book to a stranger. And that maybe that stranger was me, albeit half a century later. It was time, I thought, to pick up Burchett's trail in Japan.

 

BURCHETT FIRST HEARD of the dropping of the atomic bomb as he waited for lunch in a US military cookhouse on Okinawa. As he wrote in his autobiography, At the Barricades: "On August 6, 1945, I was shuffling along in the chow line for lunch with 50 or so weary US marines ... The radio was crackling away with no one paying much attention to it – as usual. A note of excitement in the announcer's voice as the cook's aide dumped a hamburger and mash on my tray prompted me to ask what was new."

He was told a "big new bomb" had been dropped on the Japanese. Burchett strained to listen to the voice on the radio and learned of the A-bomb. "I made a mental note that Hiroshima would be my priority objective should I ever get to Japan," he wrote.

Within a fortnight he was on board the USS Millett, which docked at the Yokosuka naval base. On the night before he left the base for Tokyo and then Hiroshima, fellow Australian newsman Henry Keys gave Burchett his .45 pistol. Accompanied by US correspondent Bill McGaffin, he immediately caught the first train into Tokyo. He was already contemplating how to get down to Hiroshima. They learned that some journalistic colleagues were staying in the Imperial Hotel. Burchett and McGaffin tried to get a room at the Dai Ichi – the "only other nearby hotel still standing".

The 600-strong press corps was focused on covering the surrender ceremony on board the Missouri on September 2. But Burchett was looking in the opposite direction – to Hiroshima. "With the aid of my [Japanese] phrase book I was able to get to the Japanese official news agency (Domei in those days) and found that a train still went to where Hiroshima used to be. This was a great surprise because journalists had been briefed for months that the Japanese railway system had been brought to a halt ... The journey would be long, difficult to say how long. Nobody, I was warned, went to Hiroshima."

By 6am on the day of formal surrender, Burchett was journeying south. In the early hours of September 3, he stepped off the train at the shell that was Hiroshima railway station, and into history.

 

RENOWNED FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Murray Sayle, who spent much of his life in Japan, did his best to prepare me for my Burchett trip. I had been put in touch with Sayle by that other great Australian expatriate journalist, Phillip Knightley. In some ways, in my mind, they, along with Burchett, formed some sort of journalistic triptych. Sayle in Japan. Knightley in London and the Soviet Union. Burchett in South-East Asia. What I learned, on arrival in mid-July last year, was that you cannot really prepare yourself for Japan.

As I flew in at dawn, the sight through the aircraft porthole of Mount Fuji dusted with pink light only accentuated a feeling of remoteness. It didn't look real. It was not the fault of Mount Fuji, but perhaps the curse of modern travel in an age of ceaseless images and advertising, of icon bombardment and the cultural hijacking of the world's most beautiful and recognised features. Framed in the Perspex window, it could have been a cardboard postcard.

I arrived in Tokyo at morning rush hour, and eventually made my way to my small, neat lodgings not far from the Imperial Palace. I stayed at the Tokyo Family Hotel. The foyer was, strangely, reminiscent of something you might find by the English seaside: dark woods and lace drapes and a cluttered front desk. My room was not unlike a narrow ship's cabin, and yet contained everything you'd expect of more expansive hotel accommodation, just in miniature. I was in a very big city in a very small room.

On that first morning, I walked to the Imperial Hotel, not the original that opened in 1890, nor the second incarnation made of volcanic rock and terracotta designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1920s, but the third, a mélange of '70s and '80s high-rise towers. A few blocks away stood the Dai Ichi, but again, nothing Burchett would have recognised. "The manager, gazing at us as if we had dropped from the moon, explained that the hotel was full and 'uncomfortable'," Burchett reminisced of 1945.

The Dai Ichi, like the Imperial, was now ultra-modern and reached into the sky. With some difficulty, I asked the manager if he possessed any published history of the hotel and after much confusion with great courtesy he handed me a contemporary brochure highlighting the hotel's many fine facilities.

At the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, I was granted a guest card for a period of one month and was offered use of the library facilities. There, journalists from around the world sat and read newspapers in that half-leisurely, half-alert manner that most journalists read newspapers.

It wasn't possible, again in a modern high-rise, to fully imagine the street-level world of Burchett and his colleagues at the end of the war, with most of Tokyo levelled courtesy of General Curtis LeMay's B-29 bombing raids on the city. Or the bonhomie at the bar in the Imperial, or the meals they shared in the remaining hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the city's central hub.

I returned to the ship's cabin, drained by jet lag and the fierce summer heat, and was woken in a daze around 5pm by the woman in the Tokyo Family Hotel who delivered fresh tea to the rooms at the same time each day.

I had lost all sense of time and place, and felt that sensation many times in Tokyo. It was so huge I was incapable of settling a mental map of its dimensions in my head. Yet, simultaneously, it was intimate – the cabin-like room, the hundreds of simple courtesies extended by its citizens both out in the streets and within the Family Hotel, the effortless efficiency of everything that promoted the illusion you were in a city a tenth of its actual size.

It was only at night, with the crowds and the lights and unremitting energy, that the illusion evaporated and you knew you were somewhere that was like nothing else on earth.

A week later, I took a seat in carriage 15 of the Shinkansen Nozomi Super Express bullet train bound for Hiroshima. The trip was scheduled to take just on four hours. In early September of 1945, Burchett estimated the same journey would take him between 20 and 24 hours.

 

BURCHETT WAS NOT unused to rough conditions. During the Depression he "took to the road" with a swag in search of work. He found himself near Mildura, where he lived for six months "under an outsize gum tree at Bruce's Bend, a big curve in the Murray River". He wrote: "I lived by catching fish, exchanging the surplus from my own consumer needs for flour and salt from a nearby shop, eating grilled Murray cod and catfish and damper ..."

Burchett reported that the train he boarded that morning in Tokyo at 6am was carrying members of the Japanese Imperial Army, many having just been demobilised. He shared cigarettes with them and they reciprocated with pieces of dried fish and sake. The seated officers in the compartment had swords on their belts.

One of his fellow passengers was an American priest. The priest's job was to instruct American troops on how to behave in Japan at this delicate time of surrender so as to avoid offending the locals. The priest warned Burchett "that the situation in our compartment was very tense and that a false move might cost our lives. The officers were furious and humiliated at their defeat. Above all, I must not smile as this would be taken as gloating over what was happening 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 since the train was in complete darkness when we passed through what seemed like endless tunnels."

What exactly was going through Burchett's mind on that interminable journey? His personal safety? How he could ultimately file his story out of Hiroshima, if at all? The A-bomb itself?

Sayle presented a theory: "At the time the simple fact of going there was the big scoop for ... Burchett of theDaily Express and showed courage and initiative – he just bought a ticket, got on the train and went. Sort of thing a later generation of war reporters did all the time and not nearly as risky as his later exploits in Korea and South-East Asia. WW2 was officially over, you will recall, and Burchett had a US Navy accreditation that kept him outside the purview of the US Army censors. Tokyo was, in fact, far worse damaged, with at least three times the civilian casualties. Look at photos of the time. The atom bomb was the latest wonder of military science, so Wilf just followed a normal reporter's nose for news."

Burchett arrived in Hiroshima at 2am on September 3. He was held in a "flimsy shelter" by two black-uniformed guards who were unsure of the foreigner's motives. He explained he was a shimbun kisha, or journalist, and even presented his Hermes portable typewriter as proof. He was only released after they read a letter he carried with him to Domei's Hiroshima correspondent, Mr Nakamura, who himself greeted Burchett shortly after. Together they followed a tramline "towards buildings a mile or two distant".

"There was devastation and desolation and nothing else," Burchett wrote. "Lead grey clouds hung low over the city, vapours drifted up from fissures in the ground, and there was an acrid sulfurous smell." He would soon encounter the bomb survivors suffering from an illness that nobody had yet put a name to. He would write in his momentous report that "thirty days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly – people who were uninjured in the cataclysm from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague".

Somewhere, in that devastated city, was a 17 year-old boy recovering from injuries to the left side of his body.

 

THE DISTANCE FROM Tokyo to Hiroshima is roughly that of Sydney to Brisbane. That's where the similarity ends. The train line follows the southern and south-western heel of Honshu Island. Once through the vast conurbation of Tokyo itself towards Yokohama, the land was flat and heavily utilised. Around Nagoya, fields and rice paddies and vegetable gardens crept to the edge of the line.

At 300km per hour, the view through the wide window of carriage 15 was, by necessity, cursory and piecemeal. Inside the carriage, the passengers were like any in the world on this Friday – businessmen returning home from Tokyo, students visiting parents and friends for the weekend. The cabin was thick with cigarette smoke.

It's hard to know if Burchett's consideration, at this point in his journey, lent itself to the fields and villages he was passing through, the men in straw hats working the paddies, the pencil-thin smoke from small fires at the edge of the fields. The view, quite possibly, had altered very little since his race to Hiroshima.

On the train, I re-read American John Hersey's classic account of the bomb and its aftermath, Hiroshima, and Hiroshima Notes by the great Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, who wrote: "As I arrive in Hiroshima in the summer of 1963 day has just dawned. No local citizens have appeared on the streets yet; only travellers here and there near the railroad station. On this same morning in the summer of 1945, many travellers had probably just come to Hiroshima. People who had departed from Hiroshima 18 years ago today or tomorrow would survive; but those who had not left Hiroshima by the day after tomorrow in August 1945 would experience the most merciless human doom of the 20th century."

This was what the first-time visitor thought of the city before arrival – calculating dates and times, trying to make sense of the logistics of fate and circumstance, because the actual concrete reality of the detonation of the bomb was so hard to comprehend.

The train sped on quietly. Tongues of heavily wooded forest nosed the edge of the rail line and, beyond Kyoto and Okayama, the landscape began to change. Here the hills were suddenly rugged and dramatic, one after another in tight folds. So began the "endless" tunnels that Burchett described. I counted 19 tunnels before the train emerged into the low dish that was Hiroshima city. Even in the bullet train, some of them took up to two minutes to traverse.

As the American priest had left Burchett's train at Kyoto, the reporter remained the only Westerner on board and, coupled with the sequence of tunnels, it was understandable he described his predicament as "bleaker than ever". Those tunnels were also, in some way, a hellish passage that delivered him to a hellish place. He could not have imagined the impact of an atomic bomb on a city. Nobody in history had ever seen it. It was beyond human imagination. But here, going through the tunnels, I was slipping, again, into the creation of a narrative, trying to see and feel on behalf of Burchett, to get into his skin. Even as you're thinking it, you realise what a ridiculous endeavour this exercise is; that you're separated from the world, and your character, by a sheet of glass. In those tunnels, I knew deep down I saw not Burchett in 1945, or weary Imperial soldiers drifting into sleep with the rocking of the train, but only the reflection of my own face.

It was early afternoon by the time I stepped off the bullet train and into Hiroshima's modern train station. I took a 10-minute taxi ride to my hotel, the Hiroshima Green in the centre of town, and I could have been in any moderate-sized city of 1.1 million people in the world.

The physical and mental constraints of a city as dense as Tokyo were gone. Hiroshima had wide boulevards lined with trees, a pretty network of rivers and bridges, and a central or downtown focus around which everything hinged.

What it had, though, that no other city can lay claim to, was the A-Bomb Dome, sitting there by the Motoyasu-gawa River across from the Peace Memorial Park. It was implacable and haunting and so deeply embedded in the consciousness that it would take a long time of sitting beside it, staring at it and photographing it before it even took form as the ruins of an actual building.

I checked into the Hiroshima Green and immediately made my way back to the dome, drawn to it, as millions of other visitors have been over the past 60 years. I sat on a wall near the back of the dome and looked at it for an hour.

Returning to the hotel, I sought out the hypocentre of the bomb, not far from the dome. It was only a few streets away, marked by a small plaque. Behind the plaque was a multi-storey car park, and next to it, the Hiroshima Green Hotel.

 

BURCHETT MUST HAVE been exhausted by the time the time he followed those buckled tramlines into the heart of a devastated Hiroshima. What he saw around him he described flatly and with little embellishment. Not only was it Burchett's writing style, but also he must have had no alternative faced with incomprehension at the immensity of what he witnessed with his own eyes. He sketched simply, piece by piece. He didn't need to do anything else. Everything he saw that day was new. As he recalled in his memoir:

"From the third floor of the Fukuoka department store, as I looked in every direction, there was nothing to be seen but flat acres of ground, a few young trees, and some factory chimneys. Among the few gutted buildings still standing near the former department store was a church which, closer inspection revealed, had jumped into the air to return, practically intact, but crazily athwart its foundations.

"Low-level concrete bridges had also jumped off their piles, some spans landing back again, others dropping into the river ... There were no remnants of broken walls, no large chunks of rubble or blocks of stone and concrete, no craters, as one usually finds in a bombed city. It was destruction by pulverisation followed by fire.

"The reason that some buildings were still standing in the centre, according to police, was that they were in the epicentre of the explosion, directly under the bomb as it parachuted down and thus in a relative safety zone as the explosive force expanded outward from the epicentre."

Even at this point, Burchett had not reached the epicentre of his own world scoop, the horrifying heart of the story and the reason his work had such a global impact.

He found it soon enough, visiting the Communications Hospital on the outskirts of the city. There, a month after the bomb, he saw people "in various stages of physical disintegration".

"In ward after ward it was the same," Burchett recalled. "Patients were terribly emaciated and gave off a nauseating odour which almost halted me at the first door. Some had purplish burns on the face and body; others had bunched, blue-black, blistery marks on the neck."

Doctors pleaded with Burchett to arrange for scientists familiar with this "sickness" to come to the city to help. "I could only explain that as a journalist I would faithfully report what I had seen, and that although not American, but attached to the Allied forces, I would do my best to get scientists who 'knew' to be sent to Hiroshima as soon as possible."

He wasted no time with his report. He returned to the city centre, sat on a concrete block with his Hermes typewriter before him, and wrote his story.

How his report made it out of Hiroshima, to Tokyo, and then the wider world – to be published on September 6, 1945, in the Daily Express, was in itself a dramatic story. His Hiroshima colleague, Mr Nakamura, sent every word via a hand-operated Morse code set to the Domei office in Tokyo. It was courtesy of the subterfuge work of Nakamura and several unknown Japanese that the story was relayed to London.

As Sayle reported in his piece "Did the Bomb End the War?" published in The New Yorker in 1995, General Douglas MacArthur imposed censorship on the Japanese press on September 18. The press code banned anything that might "directly or by inference, disturb public tranquillity", or convey "false or destructive criticism of the Allied Powers". Much of the work of the Western press went through the usual processes of military perusal.

Burchett's report had slipped through the net in the shadow of the official Japanese surrender. There would be nothing out of Hiroshima for a long time afterwards.

On his return to Tokyo, Burchett attended a press conference at the Imperial Hotel where a military scientist explained there was no possible way the reported sickness of Hiroshima survivors was related to atomic radiation. Burchett asked the officer if he had been to Hiroshima. It was his trump card – he had seen things first hand. The officer had not. After a brief exchange Burchett was told he had "fallen victim to Japanese propaganda".

Burchett was later informed that MacArthur was expelling him from the country for having breached the bounds of "his" military occupation. The order was withdrawn. Burchett returned to London. Australian troops were sent into Hiroshima post-bomb. Some of them taught the locals English.

A year later, Hersey visited Hiroshima and returned with a story of the city and survivors and radiation sickness. It was published in full in The New Yorker and reverberated around the world. Its contents, too, were largely denied by officials.

 

DESPITE HIROSHIMA CITY'S physical appeal, its young population, its vigour, there is a weight that hovers around it. After a week there, I began to feel that weight, wandering repeatedly through the Peace Park, visiting and revisiting the Peace Museum, circling but never really leaving the gravitational pull of the A-Bomb Dome.

Part of the experience, too, was visceral. To visit Hiroshima close to August, to feel the pressing and relentless humidity and see those clear, pale blue skies was to connect, however remotely, to that morning of August 6. The world can change, but weather and quality of light can put you outside of time.

This was how hot it must have felt for them, too, the civilians of Hiroshima, before 8.15am that day. This was how the light must have looked as schoolchildren left home for the day and men and women went to work in those packed trams.

There are, too, opposing forces at work in Hiroshima. It has become, naturally, a symbol of tragedy, of the potential evil forces of technology, of the depths of humanity. At the same time, it carries the baggage of the future, of peace and a nuclear-free world.

This is what happened to us, the city says. Don't let it happen again, ever.

This year, on the 60th anniversary of Little Boy, as the bomb was dubbed, dropping out of the hatch of the Enola Gay, tens of thousands of Japanese will make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima. Doves will be released. Lanterns will be floated down the city's many rivers. Folded paper cranes in their millions, made by children all over the world, will festoon Peace Park.

On my last day in Hiroshima I returned again and again to the A-Bomb Dome. I photographed it at dawn, mid-morning, midday, throughout the afternoon and at dusk. I was hoping that the camera might understand what I was looking at, rather than trying any longer myself.

As I prepared to make for Tokyo and home, The New Yorker was reporting on how Americans were bringing home their dead from Iraq.

 

WILFRED BURCHETT DIED in 1983. To this day, his career, writing and actions still cause fierce debate and argument, particularly his reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in him and his work. To mark the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, Melbourne University Press will publish the full, previously unseen version of Burchett's memoir, At the Barricades. Publisher and editor Nick Shimmin worked with Burchett's son, Sydney artist George Burchett, on the manuscript double the size of the 341-page published version.

Shimmin's introduction to the book notes: "Wilfred Burchett was the greatest journalist Australia has ever produced, and one of the best foreign correspondents the world has ever seen. Merely to make such a claim will arouse the ire of those who have sustained decades-long, vitriolic attacks on him and his legacy, but this volume goes some considerable way to justify the claim and refute the calumny which has been piled upon Burchett over the last 50 years. The pages that follow were written by Wilfred around 1980, shortly before he died. Less than half of what he wrote in this memoir was published in 1982 as At the Barricades, but the publishers on that occasion saw fit to remove much of what was most interesting in the text.

"The idea of publishing the book arose two years ago. I had met Wilfred's son, George, 15 years ago when I joined him working for Australia's multicultural broadcaster, the Special Broadcasting Service. Years of discussions about the state of the world became increasingly dismayed as we observed the behaviour of governments after 9/11, until on one occasion George mentioned that much of what was happening now reminded him a great deal of what his father had described, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam wars. And the seed was sown.

"Considering the sad role played by the media in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and the blatant lies and deceptions of the 'coalition of the willing' and its spin doctors, it is a good time to revisit a previous generation of 'dissident' journalists who challenged the official line and, in Wilfred's case, paid a heavy price. Many of those who vilified him in the later part of his career are still writing, still locked into the ideological blinkers of the Cold War. For them, despite the evidence of this book and so much more, Burchett will always be a name which provokes irrational hatred. But anyone with a more open mind, tolerant sympathies and a desire for the truth will read this book with fascination and admiration."

Knightley recalled the first time he met Burchett: "In the early 1970s, I was working in London on a book about war correspondents (eventually published as The First Casualty). I had reached the Pacific theatre in World War II and had a long list of war correspondents I would need to interview. Wilfred Burchett was at the top of the list. But how to find him? Some said he was living in Paris; others said Sofia or Moscow or Beijing. After all, he covered many countries. Then I went one night to a party in Battersea and there he was sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, drink in hand, holding forth on the state of the world while a group of young admirers sat on the floor entranced."

Alex Mitchell, former foreign correspondent and state political editor for the Sydney newspaper The Sun-Herald, was initially enamoured with the legend of Burchett. "I met him for the last time in 1978 at a bar in Paris to discover what he knew about the 1940 assassination of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Fourth International. I have nothing but admiration for his journalistic skills (when he was practising the craft in its purest sense as he did when covering Hiroshima) and for his tenacity to 'get the story' and 'be on the spot' where it was happening. Many of his books and writings remain extraordinarily valuable for historical research, but much of his work was unadulterated propagandising for the Stalinist bureaucracies of Moscow and Peking. I believe you can admire the man but remain hostile to his political beliefs. My chief contempt is for today's press parasites who sit in judgement on Burchett. None of them have been anywhere or done anything. They are intellectual midgets by comparison."

Burchett's son, George, told me his father never spoke of the Hiroshima experience at home. "Not because he avoided the subject, but because conversation around the table was usually about current events," he said. "When he told stories from the past, they were usually stories about him growing up in rural Australia or entertaining anecdotes from the past. Wilfred was great fun to be with and, as he was away a lot, there was usually a lot of catching up to do before he 'hit the road again'.

"Hiroshima was, without doubt, the defining moment in Burchett's journalistic career. For Wilfred, Hiroshima marked several fundamental shifts. It was the end of the 'good war' – World War II – and a preview of what WW III would be like. That he 'de-embedded' himself from the press pack to follow his instincts and make his way to Hiroshima is a measure of his impeccable professional instincts. That he grasped the significance of the event and wrote the prophetic lines: 'I write this as a warning to the world' is a measure of his ability to grasp the significance of events, not merely report them. That, despite carrying fragments of Japanese shrapnel in his leg for the rest of his life, he wrote with compassion about the victims of the bomb, is a measure of his humanity.

"Is Wilfred Burchett relevant today? You bet! Just think of Iraq, all the lies that got us there and the role of a complacent press in peddling the official line."

Novelist Rodney Hall once told me that he cared little for historical research when he wrote historical fiction. What does it matter, he said, if a cartwheel has 10 spokes or 12? He was saying that capturing feeling was more important than the accretion of detail; that you can travel in time and take readers into the past, through intuition, via the heart and the mind, without the obstruction of an undergrowth of useless facts.

Writing a fictional account of someone who actually lived presents an enormous amount of entrenched undergrowth. The path is hindered by sentiment, real memories, active debate. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of Wilfred Burchetts fully rounded and set in the minds of family, acquaintances, colleagues. There are Burchetts formed by opposing ideologies, based on his actions and his work and opinions. There are ASIO papers that sketch one Burchett and soon-to-be-read pages of his own autobiography that will produce another.

My Wilfred Burchett is starting to step into the light as well, but he's just a pencil outline on the far side of a dense field. I like to think he's free of the baggage he accrued through the course of a life. He's not a legend and he's not a traitor. He's just a young man following his instinct on a news story, perhaps the only pure story of his career. But how to get through the field?

 

THE OLD JAPANESE man in the floppy-brimmed hat rose slowly from his seat as the tram approached his stop near the hospital that day in Hiroshima.

"Very good to meet you," he said, and he shook my hand.

I held that old hand perhaps longer than courtesy expects. He smiled and clutched his carry bag and stepped onto the platform.

As the doors to the tram closed I watched him take a few steps and turn to face the window of my carriage. I looked at his right hand folded over the small bag. I had shaken that hand. I had shaken the hand of an atomic bomb survivor in Hiroshima. I thought, perhaps romantically, that I had touched history.

I looked at him through the window and it made me think of reporting and history and even life. Only on rare occasions do we see something not through a pane of glass. Mount Fuji through the plane window. The Japanese countryside through the bullet train window. Hiroshima through the tram window.

How do we truly see? How do we presuppose to see anything as it really is, without the filter of the glass – not just landscapes and city vistas, but how people are thinking? How they really are?

The tram started to move off. Just before he disappeared from view, the old man of the atom bomb raised his left arm, opened his palm and held it there.

It was a kind of salute, from one stranger to another. A gesture which suggested that, in the end, we are all just human beings together.

On my last night, the air-conditioning in my room in the Hiroshima Green Hotel was chugging inconsistently, and I sweltered until morning. When I woke, the pillow was drenched, and inexplicably covered in the brown and black tidemarks of my sweat. I spent my last hour in Hiroshima trying repeatedly to wash the ugly stains from the pillowslip in the bathroom sink, but they wouldn't disappear. 


From Griffith Review Edition 9: Up North © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review