Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Original Ground Zero

In a picture shot in September 1945 by a U.S. Navy photographer, a Japanese soldier walks through a section of Hiroshima that was leveled by the bomb.
In a picture shot in September 1945 by a U.S. Navy photographer, a Japanese soldier walks through a section of Hiroshima that was leveled by the bomb. (National Archives)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 6, 2005

In the National Archives in College Park, the reels are numbered 11002 and 11003.

Shot by a U.S. Army Air Forces film crew in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the months after the atomic bombs were dropped, the reels go from one deformed survivor to the next. Women with scalded faces. A man with melted ears. A boy with no skin on his back. A man with such horrific wounds his hands appear to be leprous.

The footage was immediately classified as "top secret" by the military and hidden for nearly three decades.

Images from "the 11000 series," as archivists refer to the 30 hours of footage shot by the crew of Lt. Col. Daniel A. McGovern, make a rare public appearance on television tonight, the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. The footage, shot in hospitals and across Japan, forms the bulk of the postwar scenes in "Original Child Bomb," an hour-long film on cable's Sundance Channel. The documentary, drawing its title and antiwar message from a Thomas Merton poem about the A-bomb, debuts at 8 p.m. and repeats throughout the month.

"There are still parts of it I don't want to look at," says Holly Becker, the show's producer. "Certainly we didn't use the worst of what's possible there. . . . But the whole point of the film, of course, is to document the human cost of nuclear war."

The footage is most startling at first because it's in color -- unusual for 1945 -- and because of its rarity. Filmed images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the days after the bombings (Nagasaki was hit Aug. 9) are almost nonexistent. The sky is a lovely blue. The knoblike mountains around town are a delicious green. In the destroyed zones, the valley where Nagasaki lay, the trees are leafless and shorn off. Everything appears a lifeless brown, just dirt, concrete and rubble. Factories are reduced to nests of collapsed steel girders. There are wide shots of sections of town, where everything is just gone.

Later on the film, when a trolley car jammed with people trundles past the camera, the instinct is to jump, to suddenly realize that, in the aftermath of the most destructive force ever unleashed, cable cars in outlying parts of town kept working. People woke up, got dressed, went to some sort of work each day. Life, horrid as it was, went on.

In fact, hour after hour, as the military filmmakers traveled across Japan to capture images of sumo wrestlers, children playing, open-air markets doing business, a family eating a formal dinner at home, you have to keep reminding yourself that this is post- A-bomb Japan. It looks so normal that in "Original Child Bomb," filmmakers used the postwar footage to depict the pre -bomb days.

"Portions are almost artful," says Greg Mitchell, the editor of the trade publication Editor & Publisher and author of "Hiroshima in America," who wrote about the history of the footage earlier this week in his magazine. "The camera people had come out of Hollywood studios. They had a film sense."

This weekend, there will be major ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the bombings the world over. Candlelight vigils, marches, news conferences are planned. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists devoted its cover to the question "Would You Have Dropped the Bomb?"

To supporters, President Harry S. Truman hastened the end of a horrific war -- more than 50 million people died worldwide in six years -- by using the bomb to pacify a nation that had attacked Pearl Harbor, shown no mercy in the Bataan death march and committed any number of atrocities against the Chinese.

To peace activists, using a weapon that killed about 115,000 civilians almost instantly and tens of thousands more over the months that followed was an unconscionable war crime.

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