Charles H. Loeb defied the American military’s denials and propaganda to show how deadly radiation from the strike on Hiroshima sickened and killed.
“Loeb Reflects On Atomic Bombed Area,” read the headline in The Atlanta Daily World of Oct. 5, 1945, two months after Hiroshima’s ruin.
In the world of Black newspapers, that name alone was enough to attract readers.
Charles H. Loeb was a Black war correspondent whose articles in World War II were distributed to papers across the United States by the National Negro Publishers Association. In the article, Mr. Loeb told how bursts of deadly radiation had sickened and killed the city’s residents. His perspective, while coolly analytic, cast light on a major wartime cover up.
The Page 1 article contradicted the War Department, the Manhattan Project, and The New York Times and its star reporter, William L. Laurence, on what had become a bitter dispute between the victor and the vanquished. Japan insisted that the bomb’s invisible rays at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had led to waves of sudden death and lingering illness. Emphatically, the United States denied that charge.
But science and history would prove Mr. Loeb right. His reporting not only challenged the official government line but also echoed the skepticism of many Black Americans, who, scholars say, worried that race had played a role in the United States’ decision to drop the experimental weapons on Japan. Black clergy and activists at times sympathized openly with the bomb’s victims.
Mr. Loeb’s questioning never got the recognition it deserved. While hailed as a civic leader in Cleveland, his hometown, and more widely as a pioneering Black journalist, he was unappreciated for having exposed the bomb’s stealthy dangers at the dawn of the atomic age. His insights, until now, were lost to history.
The Radiation Lies
In his article, Mr. Loeb told of a press tour of Hiroshima that had crossed paths with a military investigation of the atomic victims by American scientists and doctors. The study had been ordered by Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Army, who directed the making of the bomb, and led by his deputy, Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Farrell. One scientist was surprised to hear General Farrell tell the investigative team in an early briefing that its mission was to “prove there was no radioactivity.”
General Groves, historians say, wanted the bomb to be seen as a deadly form of traditional warfare rather than a new, inhumane type. An international treaty in 1925 had banned the use of germ and chemical weapons. The head of the Manhattan Project wanted no depiction of atom bombs as uniquely terrible, no public discussion of what became known as radiological warfare.
Exploding atom bombs emit two kinds of radiation. In the first seconds, the expanding fireball sends out colossal bursts of neutrons and gamma rays powerful enough to speed through the air for miles and still penetrate steel, concrete and human bodies. They break chromosomes and upend the body’s cellular machinery, causing sickness, cancer and death. These disrupters vanish instantly and are hard to measure directly.
Atomic detonations also generate a second, more persistent and detectable wave. The split atoms of nuclear fuel produce hundreds of different kinds of radioactive fragments, including Strontium-90and Cesium-137. They can emit their own deadly rays for years. The particles ride the churning mushroom cloud into the sky, travel on the wind for hundreds of miles, and rain back to earth as radioactive fallout. Detecting them is easy. The clicking sounds of Geiger counters reveal the radiating particles.
“You could live there forever,” Mr. Laurence of The Times quoted the general as saying of Hiroshima.
In contrast, Mr. Loeb addressed the fireball’s initial burst, not the nonexistent fallout at ground zero. He did so by reporting on the findings of Col. Stafford L. Warren, who before the war was a professor of radiology at the University of Rochester.
Mr. Loeb’s education most likely helped him discern the truth. At Howard University, one of the nation’s leading historically Black colleges and universities, he had taken a pre-med curriculum before turning to newspaper work and was familiar with the basics of physics and chemistry, anatomy and pathology, X-rays and lead shielding. What kept him from going to medical school, he recalledlate in life, was lack of tuition, not interest.
It’s unclear where Mr. Loeb encountered Colonel Warren. It could have been at a news conference, a social occasion or both. In Tokyo, both men frequented the Dai-ichi Hotel, which was a billet for military officers and civilian correspondents.
Mr. Loeb described the correspondents returning from Hiroshima as “completely flabbergasted.” In contrast, his own article was unemotional. He numbered his conclusions, as if writing a scientific paper. Radiation was his third point, after blast and damage.
The former pre-med student ignored the Geiger counters and the official denials that had appeared in The Times and other papers. Instead, he noted the military study was “designed to lay to rest the wild speculation” about radiation victims in the devastated city and proceeded to substantiate the human suffering with hard facts.
Military censorship took out any attempt by reporters back then to portray human suffering. It allowed depictions of broken buildings, not broken bodies. Mr. Loeb’s article thus gave no details of the atomic victims.
But memories of Japan haunted him long after the war, according to his daughter Stella Loeb-Munson. She recalled him talking of melted faces, of skin hanging from wasted bodies. During an interview, Mrs. Loeb-Munson pointed to a photograph he took of a crumpled body on a sidewalk.
“It totally messed him up for years,” she said. Slowly he turned from sullen to angry. “He had to talk about it — he had to,” Mrs. Loeb-Munson said. “He was really messed up. He never really got over it.”
The Radiation Victims
The Times sought to ignore the topic altogether. Beverly Deepe Keever, a professor of journalism, analyzed its coverage of the Hiroshima bombing and reported that out of 132 articles she examined, she could find only one that mentioned radiation.
The Black press in subsequent months kept pounding away. The Baltimore Afro-American spoke of “thousands of radiation victims.”
The military itself soon cast light on the enormity of the misinformation campaign. In June 1946, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey said most medical investigators saw the radiationemissions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as responsible for up to 20 percent of the deaths. If the bombings took roughly 100,000 to 200,000 lives — today considered a credible range — the radiation killed up to 40,000 people.
The rays also produced a dark legacy. Over decades, studies of the survivors revealed that they endured high rates of cancer, stroke, cataracts and heart disease. Babies in utero at the time of the bombings suffered poor development, epileptic seizures and reduced head size.
Black newspapers perform “a real service” not only for Black people but also, Mr. Loeb said, the press in general because they reliably present alternative points of view and fresh perspectives.
“You have to tell the truth,” he added. If not, he said, “you’re in trouble.”