For most of his working life, controversial Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett chose to report from the “other side”. His unorthodox views and activities caused him to be labelled a traitor by many.
Born in Melbourne in 1911 to George and Mary Burchett, William Burchett was forced to drop out of school at an early at because of poverty. However after working odd jobs as a salesman and an agricultural labourer, Burchett began his career in journalism in 1940 after moving to London
He worked as a freelance reporter and gained accreditation with the Daily Express newspaper. He covered many important events like the Vietnam War and Stalinist Russia during the course of his profession; however he is most remembered for his report on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945.
Wilfred Burchett was the first Western journalist – and almost certainly the first Westerner other than prisoners of war – to reach Hiroshima after the bomb. Burchett entered Hiroshima alone in the early hours of 3 September 1945, less than a month after the first nuclear war began with the bombing of the city. After travelling for 30 hours, what Burchett saw at the hospitals in Hiroshima, left him deeply disturbed. The story which he typed out on his battered Baby Hermes typewriter, sitting among the ruins, remains one of the most important Western eyewitness accounts, and the first attempt to come to terms with the full human and moral consequences of the United States’ initiation of nuclear war. While 250 journalists were reporting on the Japanese surrender, Burchett alone realized the real story was in that doomed city, officially off limits to outsiders.
After much persuasion, his article appeared in the Daily Express newspaper in London on 5 September 1945, entitled “The Atomic Plague”. His report caused a furor in the US Government, which was trying to cover up the incident as a successful bomb test, without reporting the scale of human and environmental devastation, the bombs caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Thereafter, Burchett faced many other hostilities at the hand of US authority. His press accreditation was withdrawn by General MacArthur. While journeying to Tokyo, a request for a lift back by US Army plane was denied. A Request to deliver a copy of his report to newspaper colleagues at press headquarter in Tokyo was also not complied with. His undeveloped negative films containing the historic images of Hiroshima victims were mysteriously missing. Because of his visit to Hiroshima, he was unceremoniously deported from there
For Burchett, that experience was a turning point, ‘a watershed in my life, decisively influencing my whole professional career and world outlook’. In the years after the bombings, this experience influenced his ideology about the government and the angles he chose for his stories.
In his lifetime, Burchett had been often condemned as a communist and a traitor, especially in Australia. However he had an international reputation, launched by his courageous solo trip to Hiroshima, where reported the horrendous crimes that had occurred there. In this age of “embedded” journalists and dominance of the mass media by powerful corporations, reporting often seems to be mere channeling of government propaganda. It is, therefore, inspiring to read the work of someone who dared to investigate for himself, often “from the other side” of conflicts, to see with his own eyes and judge accordingly.
It was his firm conviction that the West was wrong in Korea, and wrong later in Vietnam, and the stories he filed outraged the West. He was denied a passport in Australia and lived in exile for 17 years, without citizenship in any country.
Wilfred Burchett died of cancer aged 72. The cancer, which was the result of the radioactive environment in Hiroshima, stayed with him for 40 years and he was one of the last victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.