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How the US Hid Shocking Hiroshima Footage For Decades August 5, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in History, Nuclear weapons/power, War.
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In a new book, Greg Mitchell explains how the United States’
coverup of nuclear footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki affects us to this day.

 

August 3, 2011  |

The following article first appeared on the Web site of The Nation. For more great
content from the Nation, sign up for its
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newsletters here.

In the weeks following the atomic attacks on Japan sixty-six years ago this
week, and then for decades afterward, the United States engaged in airtight
suppression of all film shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. This
included vivid color footage shot by U.S. military crews and black-and-white
Japanese newsreel film.

The public did not see any of the newsreel footage for twenty-five years, and
the shocking US military film remained hidden for nearly four decades. While the
suppression of nuclear truths stretched over decades, Hiroshima sank into “a
kind of hole in human history,” as the writer Mary McCarthy observed. The United
States engaged in a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race. Thousands of nuclear
warheads remain in the world, often under loose control; the United States
retains its “first-strike” nuclear policy; and much of the world is partly or
largely dependent on nuclear power plants, which pose their own hazards.

Our nuclear entrapment continues to this day—you might call it “From
Hiroshima to Fukushima.”

The color US military footage would remain hidden until the early 1980s, and
has never been fully aired. It rests today at the National Archives in College
Park, Maryland, in the form of 90,000 feet of raw footage labeled #342 USAF.

When that footage finally emerged, I spoke with and corresponded with the man
at the center of this drama: Lt. Col. (Ret.) Daniel A. McGovern, who directed
the US military film-makers in 1946, managed the Japanese footage, and then kept
watch on all of the top-secret material for decades. I also interviewed one of
his key assistants, Herbert Sussan, and some of the Japanese survivors they
filmed.

Now I’ve written a book and e-book about this, titled Atomic Cover-up:
Two US Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never
Made
.
You can view some of the suppressed footage here or below.

“I always had the sense,” Dan McGovern told me, “that people in the Atomic
Energy Commission were sorry we had dropped the bomb. The Air Force—it was also
sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn’t want those [film]
images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child…. They didn’t
want the general public to know what their weapons had done—at a time they were
planning on more bomb tests. We didn’t want the material out because…we were
sorry for our sins.”

Sussan, meanwhile, struggled for years to get some of the American footage
aired on national TV, taking his request as high as President Truman, Robert F.
Kennedy and Edward R. Murrow, to no avail.

The Japanese Newsreel Footage

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over the center
of Hiroshima, killing at least 70,000 civilians instantly and perhaps 50,000
more in the days and months to follow. Three days later, it exploded another
atomic bomb over Nagasaki, slightly off target, killing 40,000 immediately and
dooming tens of thousands of others. Within days, Japan had surrendered, and the
US readied plans for occupying the defeated country—and documenting the first
atomic catastrophe.

But the Japanese also wanted to study it. Within days of the second atomic
attack, officials at the Tokyo-based newsreel company Nippon Eigasha discussed
shooting film in the two stricken cities. When the first rushes came back to
Toyko, Akira Iwasaki, the chief producer, felt “every frame burned into my
brain,” he later said.

At this point, the American public knew little about conditions in the atomic
cities beyond Japanese assertions that a mysterious affliction was attacking
many of those who survived the initial blasts (claims that were largely taken to
be propaganda). Newspaper photographs of victims were non-existent, or
censored. Life magazine would later observe that for years “the
world…knew only the physical facts of atomic destruction.”

Tens of thousands of American GIs occupied the two cities. Because of the
alleged absence of residual radiation, no one was urged to take precautions.

Then, on October 24, 1945, a Japanese cameraman in Nagasaki was ordered to
stop shooting by an American military policeman. His film, and then the rest of
the 26,000 feet of Nippon Eisasha footage, was confiscated by the US General
Headquarters (GHQ). An order soon arrived banning all further filming. It was at
this point that Lt. Daniel McGovern took charge.

Shooting the US Military Footage

In early September, 1945, less than a month after the two bombs fell, Lt.
McGovern—who as a member of Hollywood’s famed First Motion Picture Unit shot
some of the footage for William Wyler’s “Memphis Belle”—had become one of the
first Americans to arrive in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was a director with the
US Strategic Bombing Survey, organized by the Army the previous November to
study the effects of the air campaign against Germany, and now Japan.

As he made plans to shoot the official American record, McGovern learned
about the seizure of the Japanese footage. He felt it would be a waste to not
take advantage of the newsreel footage, noting in a letter to his superiors that
“the conditions under which it was taken will not be duplicated, until another
atomic bomb is released under combat conditions.” McGovern proposed hiring some
of the Japanese crew to edit and “caption” the material, so it would have
“scientific value.” He took charge of this effort in early January 1946.

At the same time, McGovern was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur on
January 1, 1946, to document the results of the US air campaign in more than
twenty Japanese cities. His crew would shoot exclusively on color film,
Kodachrome and Technicolor, rarely used at the time even in Hollywood. McGovern
assembled a crew of eleven, including two civilians. Third in command was a
young lieutenant from New York named Herbert Sussan.

The unit left Tokyo in a specially outfitted train, and made it to Nagasaki.
“Nothing and no one had prepared me for the devastation I met there,” Sussan
later told me. “We were the only people with adequate ability and equipment to
make a record of this holocaust…I felt that if we did not capture this horror on
film, no one would ever really understand the dimensions of what had happened.
At that time people back home had not seen anything but black and white pictures
of blasted buildings or a mushroom cloud.”

Along with the rest of McGovern’s crew, Sussan documented the physical
effects of the bomb, including the ghostly shadows of vaporized civilians burned
into walls; and, most chillingly, dozens of people in hospitals who had survived
(at least momentarily) and were asked to display their burns, scars, and other
lingering effects for the camera as a warning to the world. At the Red Cross
Hospital in Hiroshima, a Japanese physician traced the hideous, bright red scars
that covered several of the patients—and then took off his white doctor’s shirt
and displayed his own burns and cuts.

After sticking a camera on a rail car and building their own tracks through
the ruins, the Americans filmed hair-raising tracking
shots
that could have been lifted right from a Hollywood movie. Their chief
cameramen was a Japanese man, Harry Mimura, who in 1943 had shot Sanshiro
Sugata
—the first feature film by a then-unknown Japanese director named
Akira Kurosawa.

The Suppression Begins

While all this was going on,
the Japanese newsreel team was completing its work of editing and labeling all
their black and white footage into a rough cut of just under three hours. At
this point, several members of Japanese team took the courageous step of
ordering from the lab a duplicate of the footage they had shot before the
Americans took over the project—and hiding it in a ceiling at the lab. Then they
handed over their footage.

The following month, McGovern was abruptly ordered to return to the United
States. He hauled the 90,000 feet of color footage, on dozens of reels in huge
footlockers, to the Pentagon and turned it over to General Orvil Anderson.
Locked up and declared top secret, it did not see the light of day for more than
thirty years.  McGovern would be charged with watching over it. Sussan would
become obsessed with finding it and getting it aired.

Fearful that his film might get “buried,” McGovern stayed on at the Pentagon
as an aide to Gen. Anderson, who was fascinated by the footage and had no qualms
about showing it to the American people. “He was that kind of man, he didn’t
give a damn what people thought,” McGovern told me. “He just wanted the story
told.”

Once they eyeballed the footage, however, most of the top brass didn’t want
it widely shown and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was also opposed,
according to McGovern. It nixed a Warner Brothers feature film project based on
the footage that Anderson had negotiated, while paying another studio about
$80,000 to help make four training films.

In a March 3, 1947, memo, Francis E. Rundell, a major in the Air Corps,
explained that the film would be classified “secret.” This was determined “after
study of subject material, especially concerning footage taken at Hiroshima and
Nagasaki.”

The color footage was shipped to the Wright-Patterson base in Ohio. McGovern
went along after being told to put an I.D. number on the film “and not let
anyone touch it—and that’s the way it stayed,” as he put it. After cataloging
it, he placed it in a vault in the top secret area.

“Dan McGovern stayed with the film all the time,” Sussan later said. “He told
me they could not release the film [because] what it showed was too
horrible.”

Sussan wrote a letter to President Truman, suggesting that a film based on
the footage “would vividly and clearly reveal the implications and effects of
the weapons that confront us at this serious moment in our history.” A reply
from a Truman aide threw cold water on that idea, saying such a film would lack
“wide public appeal.” (He also censored the first Hollywood movie, an MGM epic,
about the bomb, a wild tale,  as
I wrote here last week
.)

McGovern, meanwhile, continued to “babysit” the film, now at Norton Air Force
base in California.

The Japanese Footage Emerges

At the same time, McGovern was looking after the Japanese footage. The
Japanese government repeatedly asked the US for the full footage of what was
known in that country as “the film of illusion,” to no avail.

Despite rising nuclear fears in the 1960s, before and after the Cuban missile
crisis, few in the United States challenged the consensus view that dropping the
bomb on two Japanese cities was necessary. The United States maintained its
“first-use” nuclear policy: under certain circumstances it would strike first
with the bomb and ask questions later. In other words, there was no real taboo
against using the bomb. This notion of acceptability had started with Hiroshima.
A firm line against using nuclear weapons had been drawn—in the sand. The United
States, in fact, had threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile
crisis and on other occasions.

On September 12, 1967, the Air Force transferred the Japanese footage to the
National Archives Audio Visual Branch in Washington, with the film “not to be
released without approval of DOD (Department of Defense).”

Then, one morning in the summer of 1968, Erik Barnouw, author of landmark
histories of film and broadcasting, opened his mail to discover a clipping from
a Tokyo newspaper sent by a friend. It indicated that the US had finally shipped
to Japan a copy of black and white newsreel footage shot in Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. The Japanese had negotiated with the State Department for its return.
From the Pentagon, Barnouw learned in 1968 that the original nitrate film had
been quietly turned over to the National Archives, so he went to take a
look.

Attempting to create a subtle, quiet, even poetic, black and white film, he
and his associates cut it from 160 to sixteen minutes, with a montage of human
effects clustered near the end for impact. “Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945” proved to
be a sketchy but quite moving document of the aftermath of the bombing, captured
in grainy but often startling black and white images: shadows of objects or
people burned into walls, ruins of schools, miles of razed landscape viewed from
the roof of a building.

In the weeks ahead, however, none of the (then) three TV networks expressed
interest in airing it. “Only NBC thought it might use the film,” Barnouw later
wrote, “if it could find a ‘news hook.’ We dared not speculate what kind of
event this might call for.” But then an article appeared
in Parade magazine, and an editorial in the Boston
Globe
blasted the networks, saying that everyone in the country should see
this film:

This at last pushed public television into the void. What was then called
National Educational Television (NET) agreed to show the documentary on August
3, 1970, to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of the
bomb.

The American Footage Comes Out

About a decade later, by pure chance, Herb Sussan would spark the
emergence of the American footage
, ending its decades in the dark.

In the mid-1970s, Japanese antinuclear activists, led by a Tokyo teacher
named Tsutomu Iwakura, discovered that few pictures of the aftermath of the
atomic bombings existed in their country. Many had been seized by the US
military after the war, they learned, and taken out of Japan. The Japanese had
as little visual exposure to the true effects of the bomb as most Americans.
Activists managed to track down hundreds of pictures in archives and private
collections and published them in a popular book. In 1979 they mounted an
exhibit at the United Nations in New York.

There, by chance, Iwakura met Sussan, who told him about the US military
footage.

Iwakura made a few calls and found that the color footage, recently
declassified, might be at the National Archives. A trip to Washington, DC,
verified this. He found eighty reels of film. About one-fifth of the footage
covered the atomic cities. According to a shot list, reel #11010 included, for
example: “School, deaf and dumb, blast effect, damaged Commercial school
demolished School, engineering, demolished.School, Shirayama elementary,
demolished, blast effect Tenements, demolished.”

The film had been quietly declassified a few years earlier, but no one in the
outside world knew it. An archivist there told me at the time, “If no one knows
about the film to ask for it, it’s as closed as when it was classified.”

Eventually 200,000 Japanese citizens contributed half a million dollars and
Iwakura was able to buy the film. He then traveled around Japan filming
survivors who had posed for Sussan and McGovern in 1946. Iwakura quickly
completed a documentary called Prophecy and in late spring 1982
arranged for a New York premiere.

Later a small part of the McGovern/Sussan footage turned up for the first
time in an American film, one of the sensations of the New York Film Festival,
called Dark Circle. Its co-director, Chris Beaver, told me, “No wonder
the government didn’t want us to see it. I think they didn’t want Americans to
see themselves in that picture. It’s one thing to know about that and another
thing to see it.”

Despite this exposure, not a single story had yet appeared in an American
newspaper about the shooting of the footage, its suppression or release. And
Sussan was now ill with a form of lymphoma doctors had found in soldiers exposed
to radiation in atomic tests during the 1950s—or in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Still, the question of precisely why the footage remained secret for so long
lingered. But McGovern told me, “The main reason it was classified was because
of the horror, the devastation. The medical effects were pretty gory. The
attitude was: do not show any medical effects. Don’t make people sick.”

But who was behind this? “I always had the sense,” McGovern answered, “that
people in the AEC were sorry they had dropped the bomb. The Air Force—it was
also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn’t want those
images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child. But the AEC,
they were the ones that stopped it from coming out. They had power of God over
everybody. If it had anything to do with nukes, they had to see it. They were
the ones who destroyed a lot of film and pictures of the first US nuclear tests
after the war.”

As Dark Circle director Chris Beaver had said, “With the government
trying to sell the public on a new civil defense program and Reagan arguing that
a nuclear war is survivable, this footage could be awfully bad
publicity.”

Today

In the summer of 1984, I made my own pilgrimage to the atomic cities, to walk
in the footsteps of Dan McGovern and Herb Sussan, and meet some of the people
they filmed in 1946. (The month-long grant was arranged by the current mayor of
Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba. My new book has a lengthy
chapter describing what it’s like to be in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to
intervieww survivors.) By then, the McGovern/ Sussan footage had turned up in
several new documentaries. On September 2, 1985, however, Herb Sussan passed
away. His final request to his children: Would they scatter his ashes at ground
zero in Hiroshima?

In the mid-1990s, researching Hiroshima in America, a book I would
write with Robert Jay Lifton, I discovered the deeper context for suppression of
the US Army film: it was part of a broad effort to suppress a wide range of
material related to the atomic bombings, including photographs, newspaper
reports on radiation effects, information about the decision to drop the bomb,
even a Hollywood movie.

Then, in 2003, as chief adviser to a documentary film, Original Child
Bomb
, I urged director Carey Schonegevel to draw on the atomic footage as
much as possible. Original Child Bomb went on to debut at the 2004
Tribeca Film Festival, win the top Silverdocs award, and debut on the Sundance
cable channel. After sixty years at least a small portion of that footage
reached part of the American public in the unflinching and powerful form its
creators intended.

Americans who saw were finally able to fully judge for themselves what
McGovern and Sussan were trying to accomplish in shooting the film, why the
authorities felt they had to suppress it, and what impact their footage, if
widely aired, might have had on the nuclear arms race—and the nuclear
proliferation that plagues, and endangers, us today. But only small parts of the
movie have been used (see the video below), only a small number of Americans
have seen any of it. A major documentary on the footage, and the suppression,
should still be made.

 

Greg Mitchell is the former editor of Editor &
Publisher and author of nine books

Comments»

1. Terry R - January 8, 2012

Shocking and profound.

2. daniel - January 26, 2012

wow………

3. nikki - February 29, 2012

this is really sad i am learning about world war to and for my exploring world war ll project i watched a movie called Hiroshima i learned so much

4. New - March 1, 2012

Sa ii razbunam!!

5. Katelin Gagnon - March 9, 2012

wow… I cant believe that people would do this to innocent people, they did not need this to happen to them

6. mr goodewing - March 11, 2012

Katelin, they did not have to do a SNEAK attack on Pearl Harbor in time of peace and kill over 2000 innocent american sailors. THINK ABOUT THAT.

rogerhollander - March 11, 2012

Point one: no soldier or sailor is “innocent;” they are all part of a killing machine, albeit victims of the economic and political elites who put them in harms way.

Point two: the attack on Pearl Harbor did not occur out of contex, the Japanese and American Empires were getting into a hot war competing for supremecy in the Pacific; it was the short sighted (some say deliberately) American military and president that didn’t anticipate the attack.

Point three: From a political, military, ethical and moral standpoint there is a major difference between attacking a naval base on the one hand and dropping atomic weapons on two civilian cities on the other.

7. Estefany - March 11, 2012

Thats true, they only attacked the naval base in pearl harbord and killed 2000 “inocent” people.

But those Americans that you defend killed more than 90.000 people in Hiroshima and 80.000 en Nagasaki, tons of families and kids that were burned to dead and the ones who lived did it in pain and without enough medical assitment because even hospitals were destroyed and the doctors were affected. Even the babys from the womens that survived were born with deformation.

There’s not a reason or problem big enough to justify this acts.

Is just awful what humanity can do just for a piece of land.

8. Alice - March 15, 2012

Hoo !!! es muy impactante las imagenes dios sea conciente de esto y se tome justicia para ese pais de puras guerras, los maldigos a todos los que tuvieron en esos años, cobardes no dan la cara usan armas para cuidar sus peludos y blancos traseros,,, idiotas , ratas cuscas, perros sarnozos….

9. EvilSamson - March 21, 2012

It’s so sad to see, what my (planned) kids could become if a world war ||| came, or if a nuklear powerstation blew up and ‘infected’ my children with radioactivity ..

10. Passerby - May 2, 2012

Counterpoint one: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done as an alternative to an invasion of Japan, which would have resulted in an order of magnitude more deaths of Japanese civilians (as well as soldiers on both sides) than the bombings themselves.

Counterpoint two: Remember that portions of the Japanese government were prepared to fight the war to the bitter end, that the Japanese military was prepared to stage a coup to keep Japan from surrendering, and that publicly Japan responded to the Potsdam Declaration demanding its unconditional surrender by “killing it with silence.”

Counterpoint three: The atomic bombings, and the proposed invasion of Japan, were NOT done because the United States wanted to annex the country. In fact, it was Japan doing the annexing of other lands which led to the war between the two countries. Especially after the U.S. tried to stop Japan’s expansionism without resorting to war via an oil embargo

Counterpoint four: While Goodewing bringing up Pearl Harbor was a bad comparison, he does have a point. The Empire of Japan wasn’t waging a “clean” and honorable war. Just ask the 250,000 to 300,000 innocent Chinese civilians who were massacred during the Rape of Nanking.

It IS tragic to see the suffering people have gone through thanks to the atomic bomb, and I am not trying to downplay that. It stunned me to see the interview with the one disfigured survivor. At the same time, I have little patience for people who eagerly demonize or vilify Americans concerning the bombing, or claim the United States had imperialist ambitions for so doing.

11. Sk311 - June 27, 2012

the war was bad about the conflict that had happen you guys have gave me some advice for my work on the issue of the wark thanks guy but we should just let them rest in peace

12. ScootieP - July 16, 2012

Mr. Goodewing…at least Pearl Harbor was an attack on military personnel and not millions of civilians, there is a huge discrepancy here.

13. Max - October 12, 2012

ScootieP, there is no discrepancy in a war like that. You batter the enemy until they lose their will to fight. The bombs did their job. If we had went with the alternative. Millions, I repeat, MILLIONS would’ve been killed on both sides. It is a tragedy that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had to go through that. But Japan brought it on themselves. We gave them many warnings, only to be ignored.

rogerhollander - October 12, 2012

Your comment is typical American bloodthirsty vengeful triumphalism. You can believe the propaganda if you wish, but the facts are otherwise. Historians and American generals, including Eisenhower, knew the Japanese were defeated and ready to surrender, and opposed the use of the atomic bomb. It was used to humiliate the Japanese and show the Soviets what we had. Read Gar Alperowitz.

14. Forrest sorum - January 30, 2013

I don’t think Alot of people who are commenting on this relies . They knew for a fact that if they went to war with america they would lose by a lot! We have souls and relies that it is not right to blow up all of there country but they were bringing ships that were only ment to carry one shoot 2 torpedoes and then they would blow them self up. In my opinion they new what would happen and still do it, just so maybe they deserve it. If I swore at my father as a kid I would get spanks. A bad word isn’t as bad as pain but I knew what would happen. End of story:)

15. Jasmin - February 17, 2013

Why can I not find this book online??

rogerhollander - February 17, 2013

Jasmin, you should be able to find it on Amazon: the title is “Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made” and the author is Greg Mitchell.

16. john - June 11, 2013

What about japans atrocities? Look up unit 731,the japanese make the Nazis look like saints! Chemical, biological and all kinds of ghastly experimentation done on chinese civilians and pows.the japanese fought total war and massacred millions of civilians and pows, THEY DESERVE ZERO SYMPATHY. oh and japan was planing to make their own atomic weapon but the nuclear material smuggled out of Germany on u-boat 234 was intercepted by the u.s. and used in the Nagasaki bomb. Japan used biological bombs on china so how are they any better?

17. Jjjj - May 8, 2019

I hope one day a new superpower is gonna destroy America because the USA possessed weapons of mass destruction. Usa is a terrorist country


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