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.
Almost lost in the debate is the footage, which remains one of the clearest historical records of the bombings' aftermath.
After the footage was quietly declassified in 1973, bits of it were used for the first time in the seminal 1974 British television history series "The World at War," according to Mark Meader, archive specialist in the motion picture division of the National Archives. Portions showed up in Japanese documentaries, on anniversaries of the bombings and in a 1983 U.S. documentary called "Dark Circle."
Then it would disappear again.
"It gets 'rediscovered' every decade or so," says Meader. "It's on 16-millimeter film, which means it can't really be used at good quality in large-screen motion pictures. . . . People hear it's been classified, they don't remember hearing about it and they always think it's never been seen before."
The irony of the footage today is this: Originally shot as propaganda for the U.S. military, it is now used almost exclusively by people opposed to nuclear weapons and to the military.
McGovern was not surprised by this, he once told Mitchell.
"I always had the sense that people in the Atomic Energy Commission were sorry we had dropped the bomb," Mitchell quotes McGovern as saying years ago. "The Air Force -- it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon they didn't want the images out because they showed the effect on man, woman, child."
McGovern, now 95 and living in California, could not be reached by phone yesterday.
In late 1945, he and a crew had gone to Japan to begin filming. They eventually shot 90 reels of 16mm film, containing 30 hours of footage. About five hours pertain to the damage and death in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The rest is about everyday life in Japan.
Viewing the silent, unedited raw footage today -- anyone can, it's in public access at the archives -- is a historical experience on several levels. First, there is the documentary aspect in seeing rare footage from postwar Japan. Second, there's what it says about the people behind the camera. The hospital footage is morbid in the way it lingers over wounds. It's disturbing that the filmmakers had women undress in front of the camera, exposing their breasts and radiation damage.
And in the final image that they shot, on the very last reel, there is a boisterous group of boys out fishing. They have bamboo poles. They jostle. One little boy -- this image is included in "Original Child Bomb" -- smiles, all bright eyes and jug ears, and you marvel at him, there in the sunlight 60 years ago, the very image of childhood resilience against war, death and heartbreak.
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 this U.S. Navy photo, a bombing victim lies in a makeshift hospital in a Hiroshima bank building.