Part 2: How They Hid the Worst Horrors of Hiroshima - WhoWhatWhy

Part 2: How They Hid the Worst Horrors of Hiroshima

Reading Time: 6 minutes1

The second installment of our series on how the worst devastation caused by the Atomic bomb was deliberately concealed from Americans for decades. You can read Part One here.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, a B-29 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, the vast majority women and children. Three days later, the U.S. 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 U.S. readied plans for occupying the defeated country—and documenting the first atomic catastrophe.

The American public knew little about conditions there beyond Japanese assertions that a mysterious affliction was attacking many of the survivors, claims that most Americans took 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.”  Many were still dying horribly from the new ‘A-Bomb disease’—that is, the effects of radiation–or burns from the original blast. Tens of thousands of American troops occupied the two cities.  Few were urged to take precautions.

The Japanese newsreel company Nippon Eigasha was already shooting film in the two stricken cities. On October 24, 1945, a U.S. military policeman ordered a Japanese cameraman in Nagasaki to stop shooting. The U.S. General Headquarters (GHQ) confiscated his film, and the rest of the 26,000 feet of Nippon Eigasha footage. An order banned all further filming. It was at this point that Lt. Daniel McGovern took charge.

McGovern—a director and member of Hollywood’s famed First Motion Picture Unit—was one of the first Americans to arrive in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, which was studying the effects of the air campaign against Germany and Japan.

Lt. Daniel McGovern

Lt. Daniel McGovern

When McGovern learned of the Japanese footage, he noted 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.” He proposed hiring a Japanese crew to edit and “caption” the material, so it would have “scientific value.”

Later, McGovern was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur to document the results of the U.S. air campaign in more than twenty Japanese cities. His crew would shoot exclusively on 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.

Sussan told me that after their train pulled into Nagasaki, “Nothing and no one had prepared me for the devastation I met there.”  He added, “We were the only people with adequate ability and equipment to make a record of this holocaust.”

McGovern’s crew documented the physical effects of the bomb, including ghostly shadows of vaporized civilians burned into wall. Even more chilling, dozens of hospital patients were asked to display their burns, scars, and other lingering effects for the camera as a warning to the world. A Japanese doctor at the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima traced the hideous red scars that covered several of the patients—then took off his shirt and displayed his own cuts and burns.

After sticking a camera on a rail car, the Americans filmed hair-raising tracking shots through the ruins that could have been lifted from a Hollywood horror movie.  The Chief cameraman working for the Americans was Japanese, Harry Mimura who, in 1943, had shot Sanshiro Sugata—the first feature film by a then-unknown director named Akira Kurosawa.

Meanwhile, that May, the Japanese newsreel team was completing the editing ordered by the U.S.  Several took the courageous step of getting the lab to secretly duplicate footage—and hiding it in a ceiling at the lab.

Deep-Sixing the Film

The following month, in June of 1946, McGovern hauled 90,000 feet of color footage to the Pentagon and submitted it to General Orvil Anderson. Locked away and declared top secret, it did not see the light of day for more than thirty years.

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 at first had no qualms about showing it to the American people. Once the top brass screened it, however, most high-ranking officers didn’t want it widely shown.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was also opposed, according to McGovern. It nixed a Warner Brothers feature film based on the footage, while paying another studio about $80,000 to help make four “training” films to show U.S. soldiers how such weapons might he used on the battlefield, and steps they’d need to take to prevent exposure to deadly radiation.

In a March 3, 1947, memo given to me by McGovern, 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 into a vault in the top-secret area.

Herbert Sussan, now a top TV producer, became obsessed with finding this cache of unique documentary footage he helped make, and getting it aired. But his efforts kept running into walls. He 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 dashed those hopes, saying such a film would lack “wide public appeal.” (The White House also censored the first Hollywood movie, an MGM epic, about the bomb, as I wrote here recently.)

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

The Phantom Film

Starting in the 1950s, the Japanese government repeatedly asked the US for the full release of their own film, known to the Japanese as “maboroshi”, or the “phantom” film.

Nuclear fears soared in the 1960s, driven in part by the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But few in American media or governmental circles challenged the consensus view that dropping the bomb on two Japanese cities had been necessary.

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

Then, in the summer of 1968, Erik Barnouw, author of landmark histories of film and broadcasting, saw a clip from a Tokyo newspaper indicating that, after high-level governmental negotiations, the U.S. had finally shipped to Japan a copy of black and white newsreel footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Barnouw learned that the original nitrate film stock had been quietly turned over to the National Archives—and was by then available—he went to take a look.

And he turned what he saw into a work of art—a subtle, quiet, even poetic film, created from a carefully selected 16 of the original 160 minutes. Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945, was 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, with a montage of human effects clustered near the end for impact.

In the weeks ahead, however, none of the 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 editorial in the Boston Globe blasted the networks’ reluctance. 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.

Panel Buries the Film’s Message

Hundreds of thousands of Americans finally got a chance to see this footage, although one TV station in Tampa aired it only after deleting the human effects segments.  And NET, against Barnouw’s wishes, aired a panel discussion immediately following his film, with most of the panelists backing the use of the bomb against Japan.

Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Atomic Cover-up.” He is the former editor of Nuclear Times and Editor & Publisher and writes a daily column at The Nation. 

NEXT:  Part 3: the color U.S. footage finally gets released, and why more need to see it today.

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16 responses to “Part 2: How They Hid the Worst Horrors of Hiroshima”

  1. 海味批發 says:


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  2. Bryan Blackburn says:

    Atom bombs were something both Germany and Japan were attempting to develop and in fact they were very far along in the process and Japan was under the impression that Germany had functional bombs and they felt we could have confiscated many of the bombs they had.

  3. Bertram says:

    The two bombs detonated over Japan were tiny by comparison to many (if not most) of today’s nuclear weapons. As a former teacher I can attest that there is a near total blackout both on educating children or public discussion on the catastrophic consequences that would follow any use of these weapons today.

  4. bobster1985 says:

    At first, after the end of the war, almost everybody in the U.S. thought that dropping the bombs was the right thing to do. Then, many years later, revisionist historians began to question the decision.

    The central arguments of the revisionists are these: that Japan was on the brink of surrender before the bombs were dropped; that if only the Allies had amended their demand for unconditional surrender to allow the Emperor to remain on the throne, that Japan would have agreed to surrender. Also, that estimates of massive U.S. casualties had the Allies chosen to invade Japan instead of using the atomic bombs were wildly inflated and only came after the war ended in order to justify the decision to use the A-bombs.

    But the arguments of the revisionist historians have been thorough debunked by documentary evidence, much of which has only come to light in recent years. The Japanese cabinet, which alone had the power to end the war, was not prepared to surrender before the bombs dropped. In fact, even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, the Army and Navy ministers in the cabinet wanted to continue the war. They were convinced that the Japanese plan for defending the home islands from invasion, called Ketsu-go, would inflict such terrible losses on the Allies that more favorable terms for peace could be negotiated. It finally took the intervention of Emperor Hirohito to persuade the cabinet to end the war.

    Telegrams between Tokyo and the Japanese ambassador to Russia prove that although Japan was exploring the possibility of using Russia, still neutral then, as a go-between to negotiate an end to the war, the terms they sought would be completely unacceptable to the Allies. Not only would the Allies have to allow the current Japanese government to remain in power, they also wanted no occupation of Japan by Allied troops, and any war crime trials of Japanese soldiers could only be done by the Japanese themselves. They also wanted to retain certain of their conquests, including Korea, Formosa, and Manchuria, as part of any negotiated settlement. When the Japanese representative in Moscow proposed surrender with the one condition being the retention of the Emperor, the Japanese government rebuked him and said that was unacceptable.

    So much for the myth that Japan was on the brink of surrender. As to the alternative to using the A-bomb, an invasion of the home islands would have been a bloodbath. The Japanese forces on Kyushu, the first island scheduled to be invaded, were approximately the same size as those of the invading Americans. The Japanese had stockpiled thousands of planes, boats and submarines to use as suicide weapons against the invaders. The terrain of the home islands was similar to that of Okinawa, where fanatical resistance inflicted huge casualties on the American troops. Moreover, Japanese civilians were being trained in ways to kill invading troops using crude weapons, with the entire population encouraged to resist even at the cost of their lives. Without a doubt, millions of Japanese would have died if the invasion had taken place, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who would have been maimed or killed.

    The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tragedies that should never be repeated. But history shows that they were the least terrible option that Truman had for ending the war.

    I’d suggest two books on the subject: “Hell To Pay” by D.M. Giangreco, and “Downfall” by Richard Frank. Both explore these issues in depth and thoroughly debunk the revisionist historians.

  5. IMPOed says:

    Why do I think Truman is Dick Cheney’s hero/ mentor!

  6. James Ratliff says:

    So many people. How sad.

  7. Okie says:

    We had them whipped, but why the hell, why not vaporize a few thousand gooks to show them who’s The Boss.

    • IMPOed says:

      Those “gooks” were men, women and children!

    • Rob says:

      Hitler had ur attitude towards Jews, Americans need to take a few steps in these people’s shoes and STOP continuing this policy.

  8. IMPOed says:

    I want my donation back.

  9. IMPOed says:

    The beginning of the end of America, our arrogance is appalling!!
    The Bush/ Cheney administration going to war killing hundreds of thousands of innocents for the sake of a poisonous money maker only advances my claim, fuck the MIC!!!

  10. Tom Harris says:

    “the worst devastation caused by the Atomic bomb was deliberately concealed from Americans for decades”
    Was this information also concealed from the Japanese people!!!!

    Why are Reactor power generators allowed to be built in any country when the very great danger they present are known. Why do we continue to live with the threat of massive over kill from the nuclear arsenal that is present on our Earth. The devastation potential seems to have been concealed from many of US. Or is there a total disconnect.

    • IMPOed says:

      It is kind of hard to conceal Fukushima, but then again, just another corporate snow job! We are all mushrooms!

    • Sangoma66 says:

      Except we glow in the dark

    • says:

      Actually, yes, it was also concealed from the Japanese people. Although obviously the survivors (hibakusha) and their families were aware, the US Occupation imposed a strict press code that prohibited any published reference to the atomic bombings or their aftereffects so many people were unaware of the full impact of the radiation for many years. Even poetry was forbidden. (Note: Herbert Sussan was my father and I spent a year in Hiroshima coming to know many of the people he once filmed.)