Misunderstanding Hiroshima


Richard H. Minear is Professor of History emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst. His books include translations: Hiroshima: Three Witnesses, Kurihara Sadako’s Black Eggs, and The Autobiography of ‘Barefoot Gen.’ His best-selling Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel contains an introduction by Art Spiegelman. An Asia-Pacific Journal Associate, he wrote this article for the Asia Pacific Journal.

Mark Selden is a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal. With Kyoko Selden he edited The Atomic Bomb: Voices From Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His homepage is markselden.info/

Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima (Henry Holt, 2010) (1) came highly touted. Its special claim to fame seemed to be its scientific background. The jacket identified the author as someone who “has contributed articles to many scientific journals based on his work in paleobiology, nuclear propulsion systems for space exploration, and forensic archaeology.” A blurb from a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History (he is an associate professor of biology at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University) praises the “scientist’s eye for detail” that Pellegrino exhibits. The reviewer in the New York Times wrote: “He pays particular attention to forensic detail, and provides a slow-motion, almost instant-by-instant explanation of how the atom bomb discharged its fury.” (2) The reviewer for the Washington Post wrote: Pellegrino “lets cool, scientific description produce its own shock effects. He shows us the physics of atomic destruction. It may be that what makes Hiroshima so horrifying is seeing human beings reduced to bare elements, death a matter of chemicals, not consciousness. Pellegrino describes what happens inside: iron separating from blood, an atomic refinery, bones becoming incandescent, marrow boiling away, soft tissue dissolving in Ebola-like bleeding.” (3)

Despite all this cheerleading, Last Train is a train wreck. The first sign of trouble came from U.S. airmen on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions; they charged that Pellegrino informant Joseph Fuoco, who claimed to have been a last-minute replacement on the Hiroshima mission, flew on neither mission. (4) Then came questions about Pellegrino’s story that a civilian weapons specialist died of radiation on Tinian the night before the mission and about his assertion that the Hiroshima bomb was a “dud.” (5) Then came the news that Pellegrino’s claim to have a Ph.D. from Victoria University in New Zealand was false. (6) The publisher has now withdrawn the book from the bookstores “due to the discovery of a dishonest sources [sic] of information for the book. It is easy to understand how even the most diligent author could be duped by a source, but we also understand that opens that book to very detailed scrutiny. The author of any work of non-fiction must stand behind its content. We must rely on our authors to answer questions that may arise as to the accuracy of their work and reliability of their sources. Unfortunately, Mr. Pellegrino was not able to answer the additional questions that have arisen about his book to our satisfaction.” (7)...

What follows is only occasionally a critique of Pellegrino’s book. It is more fundamentally a consideration of the state of Hiroshima studies today: what we have, what we need, what—if anything—we can do to protect ourselves from the Pellegrinos of this world and the media that accept their claims....

Mark Selden Comment #1: The issues of truth and accuracy are critically important for every non-fiction work, which is what Last Train purports to be. They are equally important for the credibility of the author and the press. It is worth noting, however, that the “facts” whose abuse apparently most angered readers, commentators and interviewees, centered on questions such as the identity of the flight crew and the claim that a nuclear accident occurred prior to the Hiroshima mission. That discussion has detracted from understanding and debate on the central issues of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb that define the nuclear age in which we live. These questions include the nature and impact of the atomic bombs on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the ethics of bombing civilians; assessment of the atomic bombing and firebombing that annihilated sixty-four Japanese cities. These issues can be explored through discussion of truth and fiction in Last Train in light of the vast literature on the bomb, including the documentary and fictional accounts of survivors, and the historical literature assessing the bomb.

Fact and fiction: how important is the distinction? What is the role of survivors? What is the role of historical novelists? What is the role of documentary film? Of Hollywood film? Of science? These are questions not at all specific to Hiroshima. Treatments of the European holocaust have spawned a similar debate: consider only William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice (National Book Award for Fiction, 1980; leading actress Oscar for Meryl Streep in 1982) and Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (winner of three Oscars in 1998).

We have in English a wealth of accounts about the Manhattan Project and the building of the bomb and the scientists who participated. We have a wealth of books assessing the military situation in summer 1945 and the policy decision—if there was one—to drop the bomb. We have available in English a wealth of accounts including survivor accounts. These include John Hersey’s early—and still widely read—Hiroshima (1946). We have the writings of Hara Tamiki and Kurihara Sadako and Ōta Yōko and Tōge Sankichi. (8) There are volumes of poetry and photographs. There are as well a considerable number of artistic and literary attempts by non-survivors: Ōe Kenzaburō’s Hiroshima Notes; Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain; After Apocalypse: Four Japanese Plays of Hiroshima, which features both hibakusha and non-hibakusha playwrights. (9) There are collections of short stories—by survivors and non-survivors: The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath; The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (10) There is Hachiya Michihiko’s Hiroshima Diary. There is Barefoot Gen; we will soon have Nakazawa Keiji’s prose autobiography. (11)...

Many of us concerned with Hiroshima are humanists, ethicists, and social scientists—historians, specialists in Japanese literature and society. We tend not to deal in nanoseconds and neutrinos. Should we? Should we be embarrassed because we don’t? Does Pellegrino make the case that this level of science is an essential part of the picture even for non-scientists? I think not. Indeed, focusing on the technical may be a way to avoid confronting the human and moral issues.

Consider, for a moment, a case with some clear parallels to Hiroshima: the European holocaust. (12) When we teach the European holocaust, we set it in many contexts: history, technology, and war. We don’t begin or end with survivor experiences, but survivor accounts—Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Charlotte Delbo, Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan—play a critical role. But how would experts on the European holocaust react to a treatment that discusses, nanosecond by nanosecond, the effects of Zyklon B on the respiratory system of a specific victim—Anne Frank, say, had she not died of typhus? Is this helpful knowledge or scientific obscurantism? (13)

I submit that this level of supposed scientific accuracy is absurd. The issue isn’t—shouldn’t be—the specific effects of an atomic bomb on specific human bodies at this nanosecond/microscopic level. With poetry and prose and art and photography, we document the agony of individuals, named and anonymous, but pseudo-scientific exactitude of the sort Pellegrino purports to offer gains us nothing.

Mark Selden Comment #3: I would frame this differently. The specifics of the experiences of victims, whether holocaust or Hiroshima, comfort women, or Nanjing massacre victims convey, better than almost anything else to many students and readers the power of the experiences. This is why people teach the novels that you and others have translated, why they teach Barefoot Gen, why they use some of the poetry written by victims with its precise images of life and death, why they use the Maruki Hiroshima murals, horrifying as some of them are. I believe the proper point to be made is that the record of individual experiences, whether as bio or autobiography, film, manga, photography, vital as it is, is insufficient if the goal is to grasp the significance of these events: it is essential to open questions that lead to understanding of historical, legal, and ethical frameworks. It is appropriate that historians, political scientists, literary critics, artists, writers, etc. and, yes, scientists, will offer different, perhaps complementary framings of those larger issues are. An ideal pedagogical situation would be one in which their multiple perspectives could be brought into conversation....

Mark Selden Comment #5: On close inspection, the attempt to create verisimilitude through precise factual statements undermines the author’s credibility. By contrast, the detailed treatments of the human consequences of the atomic bombing in the novels and poems discussed briefly above convey with great power and awe the human experiences of individual hibakusha, and the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In playing fast and loose with the facts, conflating distances across the city, ignoring distinctions between historical figures and literary creations, we see Pellegrino at work on the future film score. What is striking about all of these examples, however, is that none appear to add any deeper understanding of the human toll of the atomic bomb than either the documentary accounts, such as those of Dr. Hachiya, or the many literary accounts such as those of survivors like Ōta Yōko, Hara Tamiki or Hayashi Kyōko, or other authors such as Ibuse Masuji or Ōe Kenzaburō. Far from it. At the same time, his pseudo-science undermines the credibility of the entire work. In the end, book readers are likely to remember Last Train for the author’s fraudulence. But the book’s flaws run deeper. For all its ability to dramatize a story through close attention to a handful of hibakusha (real and imagined) Pellegrino never elevates his account to draw the attention of readers to the largest issues posed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: these are, first, the continuing controversy over the decision to use the atomic bomb against the citizens of two cities and its significance in ending the war; and, second, the human consequences of the use of atomic weapons and hence the significance for the future of war in the atomic age....

Does Pellegrino succeed in making characters real? Readers will draw their own conclusions. My own judgment is that he does not. Compared with the classics of Hiroshima literature—Ōta and Hara and Tōge and Kurihara, compared even with John Hersey’s Hiroshima(14), about which I have the gravest reservations, Last Train does not offer a compelling vision of what happened on the ground.

Mark Selden Comment #6: The question remains: why were so many reviewers and readers deeply impressed by Pellegrino’s account, only to feel deeply cheated when revelations appeared that undercut many of his boldest claims? The reasons certainly include his narrative gift and filmic impulses. The conception of tracking survivors of the Hiroshima bomb who made their way home to Nagasaki only to be bombed again, was a cinematic vision that rested on a small number of actual cases. Pellegrino is in fact a skilled screenwriter in the sense of being able to conjure powerful, even compelling images, at times at the expense of the historical record. Last Train reveals why reviewers and readers need to be on their guard, perhaps especially so when the writing is gripping. Fortunately, the literature of the bomb, including both the primary and secondary literatures, abound with authentic texts, some of which are even more riveting....

Consider here the comment on Amazon.com of Thomas J. Frieling of the University of Georgia:

My problem is the fact that this book got positive reviews in the mainstream press (including the NYT). I have to ask—what has gone wrong with the process of reviewing books? And backing up one step—what's gone wrong with the publishing industry that allows error-riddled books to pass muster? Doesn't the publishing industry employ copy editors and fact-checkers any more?

And who gets selected to review books like this—reviewers who obviously aren't qualified to pass judgment on the book's quality or accuracy? Where are the experts who could vouch for a book's accuracy -- why aren't they being sought out to review books about which they are recognized subject experts? It should be a scandal. (15)

Henry Holt and the New York Times—even James Cameron—need not look far to find genuine Hiroshima experts, genuine survivor accounts. They can go to the catalog of any major library or spend ten minutes searching on the web. That they don’t is a function of many factors, including the economics of publishing today....

American textbook treatments of Hiroshima since World War II, the fiasco at the Smithsonian in 1995 when political pressure prevented both questioning the Hiroshima decision and reflecting on the human impact of the bomb (16), the decision of the Obama administration in spring 2010 against adopting a “no first use” policy: these are all different facets of the same phenomenon—denial. Even sixty-five years after Hiroshima, we refuse to face the reality of nuclear war. Pellegrino’s Fuoco claimed, falsely, to have been in the B-29 that photographed the bombing of Hiroshima. Why make such a claim except to bask in the glory of a “successful” mission? For their part, Nakazawa and many other bomb victims, who really were there, concealed their past, hoping to avoid the supposed shame of victimhood. (17) Why not admit to having been in Hiroshima on August 6 unless there is a social price to be paid? An American on the sidelines fakes involvement in order to share supposed glory; many directly involved fake non-involvement in order to avoid supposed shame. We have all lived in nuclear denial. (18) The way out is not the “creative non-fiction” of a Pellegrino but serious engagement with “what is always already there.”

I’m not holding my breath. In believing Fuoco’s story, if he did believe it, Pellegrino became the scammer scammed. But scammers often have the last laugh. James Cameron, director of Avatar, for which Pellegrino was a scriptwriter, has optioned Last Train. (19) Back in the latter days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, with Reagan prone to make factually incorrect statements, his aide Donald Regan once likened Reagan’s aides to a shovel brigade: “Some of us are like a shovel brigade that follow a parade down Main Street cleaning up.” (20) That parade featured Ronald Reagan, and Regan and his fellows were doing their best to protect their leader. This parade features Pellegrino/Cameron and their ilk, with visions of blockbuster movies. We specialists are the folks with shovels. There are too few of us, and too few shovels.

Mark Selden Comment #8: Too few . . . perhaps. Yet as we write, it is Pellegrino’s work which has been discredited as a result of information and analysis from multiple sources. And important debates sparked by Japanese and international authors and artists make the subject of the bomb a realm of lively and significant debate in shaping the future of the planet. Indeed, during April and May 2010, the issues of the control of nuclear weapons will receive close scrutiny among the nations of the world in relationship to the five-year review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty taking place at the United Nations in New York and to the limited proposals for non-first strike use of the bomb floated by the Obama administration.


(1) Charles Pellegrino, The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back (Henry Holt & Co., 2010).

(2) Bill Schutt, back jacket. Dwight Garner, “After Atom Bombs’ Shock, the Real Horrors Began Unfolding,” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2010.

(3) Joseph Kanon, Washington Post, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010.


(5) By dud, Pellegrino did not mean it failed to explode; he meant that it was much less powerful than expected (about this claim, see below).

(6) In the note “About the Author” at the back of the book, the Ph.D. is in paleobiology; on the Henry Holt website (since scrubbed) the Ph.D. is in zoology. The pre-scrubbed website is available here. According to the publisher, "Mr. Pellegrino said that the Victoria University of Wellington [New Zealand] . . . had stripped him of his Ph.D. because of a disagreement over evolutionary theory. ‘It got to be a very hot and nasty topic in 1982,’ Mr. Pellegrino said in a telephone interview.” Motoko Rich, “Pondering Good Faith in Publishing,” March 9, 2010, p. C-1, 6. But the university has confirmed subsequently that Pellegrino was never awarded a Ph.D. Professor Pat Walsh, vice chancellor of Victoria University, called Pellegrino’s story “baseless and defamatory.” Here is her account: “He submitted a thesis which in the unanimous opinion of the examiners was not of a sufficient standard for a Ph.D. to be awarded. Following complaints from Pellegrino, an investigation was carried out by the University. In 1986, Pellegrino appealed to Her Majesty the Queen. The case was then considered by the Governor-General who disallowed the appeal. Accordingly, Pellegrino was never awarded a Ph.D. from Victoria and therefore could not have had it stripped from him or reinstated at a later date.” Quoted in Motoko Rich, “University Rejects Pellegrino Claim in Degree Dispute,” New York Times Media Decoder, March 5, 2010.

(7) The full statement is available on Amazon.com’s page for the Pellegrino book. One result of the publisher’s action: as of late March, the book (list price $27.50) was selling new on Amazon.com for $90 and up, used for $60 and up. On April 7 Amazon had 13 new from $74.00, 11 used from $49.95, and 1 collectible from $499.99.

(8)Hiroshima: Three Witnesses (tr. Minear, 1990); Kurihara Sadako, Black Eggs (tr. Minear, 1994).

(9) David Goodman, ed. and tr., After Apocalypse: Four Japanese Plays of Hiroshima (Cornell, 1994); the playwrights are Hotta Kiyomi, Tanaka Chikao, Betsuyaku Minoru, and Satō Makoto. Hotta Yoshie, Judgment (tr. Nobuko Tsukui; Intercultural Research Institute, 1994).

(10)The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, ed. Kenzaburō Ōe; Grove Press, 1985; The Atomic Bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eds. Kyoko and Mark Selden; M.E. Sharpe, 1989.

(11)Barefoot Gen, 10 vols., Last Gasp Press, 2004-2009; Hiroshima: The Autobiography of ‘Barefoot Gen,’ tr. Richard H. Minear (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010 forthcoming).

(12) Cf. Minear, "Atomic Holocaust, Nazi Holocaust: Some Reflections," Diplomatic History (Spring 1995): 347-365. Part of a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima, this essay was omitted—with no mention made of the omission—when the symposium was issued as a book: ed. Michael J. Hogan, Hiroshima in History and Memory (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(13) Pellegrino refers a couple of times (30, 32) to “what became known (in the field of disaster psychology) as the Edith Russell Response: the tendency to focus on absurd details in the midst of horror or grave danger.” Edith Russell was on the Titanic and went back to her cabin before heading for the lifeboats. If you search on Google for “Edith Russell Response,” you get a grand total of two hits—both to Pellegrino! The term is apparently his invention. Whether it applies to Edith Russell I can’t say, but it surely applies to Pellegrino.

(14) See the sharp attacks by Dwight McDonald, “Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’” (Politics 3.10:308 [October 1946]) and Mary McCarthy, Letter to the Editor (Politics 3.10:367 [November 1946]). See also my Hiroshima: Three Witnesses, 7-8.

(15) Frieling, Head of Access Services at the University of Georgia Libraries, reviewed space-related books for many years for Library Journal.

(16) See, for example, Philip Nobile, Judgment at the Smithsonian (Marlowe, 1995) and Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory (Temple, 1996).

(17)Hibakusha feared as well being discriminated against in their search for marriage partners; they and others feared genetic damage in future offspring.

(18) Cf. Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (Putnam’s Sons, 1995).

(19) Cameron’s jacket blurb for Last Train contains unintended humor: Last Train “combines intense forensic detail—some of it new to history—with unfathomable heartbreak.”

(20) Bernard Weinraub, “Criticism on Iran and Other Issues Puts Reagan’s Aides on Defensive,” New York Times, Nov. 16, 1986, p. 1.

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