How the US Hid Shocking Hiroshima Footage For Decades
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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.