Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The 'Last' and the Best

Thirty-nine years ago today, The Band played their last gig, with friends, at Winterland in SF, later immortalized in The Last Waltz.  I was invited, at Crawdaddy,  but couldn't fly out from NY and, after all, it was Thanksgiving.  Well, I also missed Woodstock and it was only a few hours away.   Remember the cool story about The Hawks playing Jack Ruby's club in Dallas?  The Skyline, because it was burned out and had no roof.  Another highlight: Van the Man.  And he had to be coaxed from his hotel at last minute to do it. Below that, by popular demand:  uncut version of "Don't Do It."  With the horns of the late great Allen Toussaint.

Colbert Is a Trump Card

Last night:

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Murder in Chicago

Police release the video of last year's execution--just after cop was finally indicted for murder.  Here's first 12 seconds, cut off to spare viewers.  But shot multiple times.  The full six-minute dash cam video then follows. He was carrying small knife.  Authorities had said they fear video will spark riots or at least major protests. Remember: Chicago police claimed kid who was shot 16 times "lunged" at cop w/ knife.  That's been deadly lie how many times in past decades?  Here's the original Chicago Tribune "lunged" report.  And full take on how police covered it up.   Separate piece on Burger King ordered to delete footage from security camera.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A-Hole in One

I posted this in 2012:  NYT  with review for tomorrow's paper on new doc "You've Been Trumped" very hostile to Donald Trump, focusing on his plan to build golf course, and of course mega hotel, in...Scotland. Surprise:  "Mr. Trump comes across as an insensitive, lying bully who will do whatever it takes to realize his dream of creating what he promises will be the world’s greatest golf resort." Trailer:

John Oliver on Thanksgiving

John notes that fears of one type of refugees coming to America and killing millions coming true has only happened once in our history--and we will be sitting around the table celebrating them this Thursday.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

What a Turkey

For old time's sake, the good old Sarah Palin turkey slaughtering video.

More Cowbell? Me and Dylan, And My First Concert (50 Years Ago)

The hoopla over the release of the Dylan sessions from 1965-1966  makes me reflect on my first rock concert, 50 years ago--yes, ouch--this month, right in the middle of that Bob bonanza.

Many other concerts naturally followed, from Blind Faith to U2 and beyond, many while I served as senior editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. But that first concert remains vivid, and historic, as it was one stop on what many consider the most significant (and craziest) tour ever—Bob Dylan’s first full road trip after going electric.

In 1965, still in high school, I was a huge Dylan fan—I can honestly say that it was his “protest” phase that made me turn left. He had only recently picked up the electric guitar at Newport and hit the top with “Like a Rolling Stone.” I took a really bold step: ordering a pair of tickets for a Dylan show at Kleinhan’s Music Hall in Buffalo in early November. Even more amazing: this would be my first rock concert.

That wasn’t anything to be ashamed of back then. Only a few kids I knew had ever been to shows, usually girls who drove up to Toronto for the Beach Boys. Few bands came to Buffalo, only twenty miles away but another world, with a thick knot of highways and byways to navigate and a then-huge downtown.

I didn’t know what to expect from the concert. This was long before the “rock press” appeared, wire service tour reports were virtually unheard of, and the net, of course, did not exist. No sets lists posted online. All I’d heard was that the show opened acoustic and then went electric—and was causing disturbances everywhere. No idea who was in the backing band.

A Buffalo paper (I still have the clipping) ran a three-paragraph story, with the last two amounting to this: “He has performed at the Lincoln Center and Town Hall, and has made a series of personal appearances in England. Dylan’s music has dropped most of its original overtones of the wandering troubadour. His beat is sharper and heavier and the words are more complex.” This was the state of “rock journalism” back then.

Somehow we made it to the hall. Immediately I was thrown into the freakiest crowd I’d ever encountered, although “freaky” was not yet in the lingo. Most seemed to be from the University of Buffalo, at the time one of the most politically active campuses in the East. Numerous kids had long bushy hair, like Dylan, far scruffier and wilder looking than the British invasion band members. Many girls had devilishly long, straight hair. Some wore political buttons. A few antiwar protesters shouted slogans outside. It was exciting and, for me, exotic.

I still have a stub so I know that my girlfriend and I were in row J of the left-center balcony. Dylan came out alone, with just a stool next to him. It held a change of harmonica, a glass of water and, evidently, some pills that he dipped into from time to time. He’d already been associated with “drugs,” whatever that meant, and I wondered if he was popping illegal substances or just fighting a cold.

The first set was all one could have wished, although I can’t say for sure which songs he played, except that it was weighted toward the newer non-electric ones such as “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I specifically remember that he played “Desolation Row,” which I loved and which went on forever—not a bad thing in this case. Okay, no controversy so far.

After intermission, spent largely staring at the odd menagerie of counterculture precursors, I settled back in my seat, nervous, no doubt, about the coming reaction. And a large part of the crowd, it turned out, had brought their “A” game. A band came out with Bob—actually The Band, as it turned out, although they were then known as The Hawks (that’s Robbie Robertson on the left and Levon on the right in the photo above, and see here for cool photo of Levon with Band members in 1964). They immediately started playing “fucking loud,” as Dylan famously ordered them when heckled in Great Britain on the same tour.

No idea what the first tune was, but I do know what happened between songs: heckling, pointed cries of “We want Dylan” (the folk one, that is) and “Put down the guitar!”—and the ringing of a cow bell somewhere down the balcony!

Dylan plunged ahead, with more noisy protest, and the cowbell, after the song’s final note. And so it went, although I recall that the cowbell slackened after awhile. Beyond “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” I can’t say for certainty what they played. Since I’d never been to a rock show before, I had no idea what other bands sounded like live, if the sound system was always this crappy, if performers rarely or always spoke to the audience, and how much of an encore, if any, could one expect.But I had to start somewhere, and this was it.

A few weeks later, the heckling and cowbells got too much for Levon Helm, and he left the tour—to work on an oil rig. He was absent when the troupe famously went on to England and were heckled there, too.

Several months later, Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and then stopped touring—after his motorcycle accident, which some still suggest was faked to give him an excuse to give up the rigors, and controversy, of the road. Levon returned, took part in a few of the Basement Tapes sessions, then stayed on as The Hawks became (briefly) The Crackers and then The Band. And after they played their Last Waltz about a decade later—see “Don’t Do It” from that gig—Levon kept on drumming, acting (Coal Miner’s Daughter, among others), singing and rambling.

Or, as the highlight of that 1969 concert in Buffalo, captured below a few months later, put it: “Slippin’ and Slidin.”

Me, Donald Trump, and Miss USA

It was two years or so ago when a story emerged about a would-be beauty queen recruited for Donald Trump's venerable Miss USA contest--and, among other things, asked to provide oral sex to advance her cause.  This reminded me of my brush with the contest, before Trump took it on--back in 1974, when it was briefly based in my hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y.   I covered the contest that year for my magazine, Crawdaddy, and wrote a much-too-long cover story, offending many in town with my pro-feminist slant.  I think the headline was something like, "Selling Boobs to Rubes.'

What was cool that year was that in contrast to many recent winners, the reigning Miss USA (left) was a very un-glossy, intelligent, hip young woman, who was blessed with the name Amanda Jones--as in the Rolling Stones song "Miss Amanda Jones"--marched in peace rallies, was pro-choice, and spoken out about feminism (and against the contest itself) during her year on the job.  As she told Bob Barker on the night was crowned: "I'm not the type."  She even on occasion asked that she be referred to as "Ms. USA." Imagine that today.

When I interviewed her she was clearly ready to leave the post and promised a surprise for the night of the big telecast.  Sure enough, at the close of the ceremony, as she gave her "final walk" as queen, she looked straight into the camera (and, at that time, still a large TV audience) and gave the signal from the recent hit film, The Sting--indicating the whole beauty contest  thing was a sham, a "con."  Good times!  Studs Terkel later interviewed her for a book.  Her Wikipedia entry details it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Songs for Thanksgiving

A few tunes follow expressing various reasons for giving thanks. (Also note: I posted earlier the greatest of them all, Beethoven's "Hymn of Thanksgiving").   Kicking off with the very seasonal, "King Harvest" by The Band in amazing live in studio version.

From Sam Cooke, one of the true greats, from his gospel days, with the Soul Stirrers,  1950s, mentioning everything from flowers to kids on the street. 
Then very early Led Zep in one of the few songs actually titled "Thank You." Though there's also Natalie Merchant's.

And, of course, we then have to let Sly Stone thank you for letting him be himself again (and in his case, again and again).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Still Taking Berlin

Finishing my book on Berlin tunnels--why so little activity on this blog this year.  See you again soon.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Lego Version of "Dr. Strangelove"

A truly amazing version of Stanley Kubrick's greatest movie (released 51 years ago this year)--via Legos.   Part II features the good doctor and the "mineshaft gap" scene. Yes, that's the actual dialogue (and voices of actors) from the film. (Also, see wild, original trailer for the film, which was axed by the studio.)-- G.M.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Recalling "Bloody Sunday"

Something happened to remind me that one of my favorite movies since 2000 is Paul Greengrass's early film Bloody Sunday.  James Nesbit got an Oscar nomination and yes, the U2 song closes the film.  I followed the official inquiry and legal cases--which the film sparked--ad read the excellent book by (and chatted with) witness Don Mullen, and more.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

When 'Born to Run' Was Born

The iconic breakthrough Springsteen album released on this day in 1975.  We had just given our friend his first magazine cover  anywhere at  Crawdaddy--more than two-and-a-half years after publishing his very first magazine feature (my fun video here).  I was in the Blauvelt studio for the early takes--and now live right over the hill from where that happened.  Very early he had played what became "Born to Run" on the banged-up piano in his Jersey apartment.  Still recall 40 years ago in early August getting the test pressing--with the songs in a different order.  Also, the original album cover with the title in script.  By the way, I will always believe I inspired the famous Roy Orbison line (see here).

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The 'Double Hibakusha'--Bombed in Both Atomic Cities

When I was a kid, my best friend Paul, in his animated way, told me (more than once) the story of a Japanese man who supposedly arrived in Nagasaki one day and while walking along a road told a friend about the unearthly bright flash he had seen in the sky over Hiroshima just three days before. Then it appeared again and the man said, "Just like... that!"

Of course, I knew that Paul was making this up. It certainly never appeared in any of my school books. Imagine my surprise, many years later, when I learned, while visiting Japan, that the tale was basically true. A dozen or more Japanese men and women (the number is contested, because some were pretty distant from the blasts) are indeed considered "double hibakusha" -- survivors of both bombs.

I even got to interview one of them in Nagasaki.

Two atomic weapons have been used in wartime, and Kenshi Hirata, a diminutive, sad-faced accountant, experienced both of them.

When the bomb hit Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Hirata was at work at the Mitsubishi shipyards two miles from ground zero. He escaped serious injury, but after wandering around the center of Hiroshima for two days, searching for his wife, he'd seen and smelled quite enough death. Somehow some trains were still running and he caught the first one leaving for his home town: Nagasaki. He carried with him the bones of his wife.

When it reached Nagasaki at 10:30 the following morning, he headed for home, a half-hour walk. His mother was relieved to see him, for she had heard that a new type of bomb had been used in Hiroshima. Hirata excitedly started describing the frightening white flash he had observed in the sky three days earlier -- when he saw it again through the front window about two miles away (so my friend's story was not so far off).

As one of the world's leading authorities on the effects of the atomic bomb, Hirata was a good man to have around the house. Grabbing his mother, he dove under a table as their windows blew in.

"The bomb that makes this white flash must be following my every step," Hirata thought afterward, as they cleaned up the broken glass. This time he did not go out and wander around the epicenter, his curiosity about new weapons that flash in the sky and blow out windows two miles away pretty much satisfied. He did not leave the house for weeks. "I did not want to see such sad, miserable sights again," he told me.

One had to appreciate the absurdity. Twice cursed or twice blessed? If you were A-bombed twice within three days, and survived, and went on to live a full, healthy life, would you consider yourself doubly unlucky or doubly lucky? "I felt so dishonored that I had to experience the atomic bomb twice," Hirata said, explaining why he had not talked about this until recently. "It's nothing to be boastful about. I could not talk to anyone about it because almost no one else met the bomb twice. So there was no one who could sympathize with me."

Greg Mitchell's new books and ebooks on this subject are
Atomic Cover-up and Hollywood Bomb.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Hiroshima: The Day After

As noted yesterday, President Truman's announcement to the nation--in which he carefully IDed Hiroshima only as a "military base," not a large city--broke the news of both the invention of an atomic bomb and its first use in war.  By that evening, radio commentators were weighing in with observations that often transcended Truman's announcement, suggesting that the public imagination was outrunning the official story. Contrasting emotions of gratification and anxiety had already emerged. H.V. Kaltenhorn warned, "We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we use today can be turned against us."

It wasn't until the following morning, Aug. 7, that the government's press offensive appeared, with the first detailed account of the making of the atomic bomb, and the Hiroshima mission. Nearly every U.S. newspaper carried all or parts of 14 separate press releases distributed by the Pentagon several hours after the president's announcement. They carried headlines such as: "Atom Bombs Made in 3 Hidden Cities" and "New Age Ushered."

Many of them written by one man: W.L. Laurence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, "embedded" with the atomic project. General Leslie Groves, military director of the Manhattan Project, would later reflect, with satisfaction, that "most newspapers published our releases in their entirety. This is one of the few times since government releases have become so common that this has been done."

The Truman announcement of the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, and the flood of material from the War Department, firmly established the nuclear narrative. It would not take long, however, for breaks in the official story to appear.

At first, journalists had to follow where the Pentagon led. Wartime censorship remained in effect, and there was no way any reporter could reach Hiroshima for a look around. One of the few early stories that did not come directly from the military was a wire service report filed by a journalist traveling with the president on the Atlantic, returning from Europe. Approved by military censors, it went beyond, but not far beyond, the measured tone of the president's official statement. It depicted Truman, his voice "tense with excitement," personally informing his shipmates about the atomic attack. "The experiment," he announced, "has been an overwhelming success."

The sailors were said to be "uproarious" over the news. "I guess I'll get home sooner now," was a typical response. Nowhere in the story, however, was there a strong sense of Truman's reaction. Missing from this account was his exultant remark when the news of the bombing first reached the ship: "This is the greatest thing in history!"

On Aug. 7, military officials confirmed that Hiroshima had been devastated: at least 60% of the city wiped off the map. They offered no casualty estimates, emphasizing instead that the obliterated area housed major industrial targets. The Air Force provided the newspapers with an aerial photograph of Hiroshima. Significant targets were identified by name. For anyone paying close attention there was something troubling about this picture. Of the 30 targets, only four were specifically military in nature. "Industrial" sites consisted of three textile mills. (Indeed, a U.S. survey of the damage, not released to the press, found that residential areas bore the brunt of the bomb, with less than 10% of the city's manufacturing, transportation, and storage facilities damaged.)

On Guam, weaponeer William S. Parsons and Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets calmly answered reporters' questions, limiting their remarks to what they had observed after the bomb exploded. Asked how he felt about the people down below at the time of detonation, Parsons said that he experienced only relief that the bomb had worked and might be "worth so much in terms of shortening the war."

Almost without exception newspaper editorials endorsed the use of the bomb against Japan. Many of them sounded the theme of revenge first raised in the Truman announcement. Most of them emphasized that using the bomb was merely the logical culmination of war. "However much we deplore the necessity," the Washington Post observed, "a struggle to the death commits all combatants to inflicting a maximum amount of destruction on the enemy within the shortest span of time." The Post added that it was "unreservedly glad that science put this new weapon at our disposal before the
end of the war."

Referring to American leaders, the Chicago Tribune commented: "Being merciless, they were merciful." A drawing in the same newspaper pictured a dove of peace flying over Japan, an atomic bomb in its beak.

When Truman Failed to Pause in 1945--and the War Crime That Followed

By August 7, 1945, President Truman, while still at sea returning from Potsdam, had been fully briefed on the first atomic attack against a large city in Japan the day before.  In announcing it, he had labeled Hiroshima simply a "military base," but he knew better, and within hours of the blast he had been fully informed about the likely massive toll on civilians (probably 100,000), mainly women and children, as we had planned.  Despite this--and news that the Soviets, as planned, were about to enter the war against Japan--Truman did not order a delay in the use of the second atomic bomb to give Japan a chance to assess, reflect, and surrender.

After all, by this time, Truman (as recorded in his diary and by others) was well aware that the Japanese were hopelessly defeated and seeking terms of surrender--and he had, just two weeks earlier, written "Fini Japs" in his diary when he learned that the Russians would indeed attack around August 7.  Yet Truman, on this day, did nothing, and the second bomb rolled out, and would be used against Nagasaki, killing perhaps 90,000 more, only a couple hundred of them Japanese troops, on August 9.  That's why many who reluctantly support or at least are divided about the use of the bomb against Hiroshima consider Nagasaki a war crime--in fact, the worst one-day war crime in human history.

Below, a piece I wrote not long ago.  One of my books on the atomic bombings describes my visit to Nagasaki at length.
Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of only two cities in the world to "meet the atomic bomb," as some of the survivors of that experience, 68 years ago this week, put it.  It remains the Second City, and "Fat Man" the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. "We are an asterisk," Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once told me, with a bitter smile. "The inferior A-Bomb city."

Yet in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-Bomb city, the city with perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.

And then there's this. "The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable," Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, once observed, "but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki" -- which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same thing. "The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki," he once said. "Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I'm glad I'm not a scientist because I'd feel so guilty now."

A beautiful city dotted with palms largely built on terraces surrounding a deep harbor--the San Francisco of Japan -- Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country's gateway to the west. The Portuguese and Dutch settled here in the 1500s. St. Francis Xavier established the first Catholic churches in the region in 1549, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country's Catholic center. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders here, supplied the modern rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 19th century.

Glover's life served as a model for the story of Madame Butterfly, and Nagasaki is known in many parts of the world more for Butterfly than for the bomb. In Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover's home overlooking the harbor (see left), sings, "One fine day, we'll see a thread of smoke arising.... " If she could have looked north from the Glover mansion, now Nagasaki's top tourist attraction, on August 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.

By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan's increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district, the poor part of town, where a magnificent cathedral seating 6000 had been built.

At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, "Fat Man" was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession. Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.

While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The bomb's blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but didn't quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the Nakashima valley. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or more fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb's blast in Hiroshima.

If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at least one important sense, the Second City. Nothing would have escaped, perhaps not even the most untroubled conscience half a world away.

Hard evidence to support a popular theory that the chance to "experiment" with the plutonium bomb was the major reason for the bombing of Nagasaki remains sketchy but still one wonders (especially when visiting the city, as I recount in my new book) about the overwhelming, and seemingly thoughtless, impulse to automatically use a second atomic bomb even more powerful than the first.

Criticism of the attack on Nagasaki has centered on the issue of why Truman did not step in and stop the second bomb after the success of the first to allow Japan a few more days to contemplate surrender before targeting another city for extinction. In addition, the U.S. knew that its ally, the Soviet Union, would join the war within hours, as previously agreed, and that the entrance of Japan's most hated enemy, as much as the Hiroshima bomb, would likely speed the surrender ("fini Japs" when the Russians declare war, Truman had predicted in his diary). If that happened, however, it might cost the U.S. in a wider Soviet claim on former Japanese conquests in Asia. So there was much to gain by getting the war over before the Russians advanced. Some historians have gone so far as state that the Nagasaki bomb was not the last shot of World War II but the first blow of the Cold War.

Whether this is true or not, there was no presidential directive specifically related to dropping the second bomb. The atomic weapons in the U.S. arsenal, according to the July 2, 1945 order, were to be used "as soon as made ready," and the second bomb was ready within three days of Hiroshima. Nagasaki was thus the first and only victim of automated atomic warfare.

In one further irony, Nagasaki was not even on the original target list for A-bombs but was added after Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to Kyoto. He had visited Kyoto himself and felt that destroying Japan's cultural capital would turn the citizens against America in the aftermath. Just like that, tens of thousands in one city were spared and tens of thousands of others elsewhere were marked for death.

General Leslie Groves, upon learning of the Japanese surrender offer after the Nagasaki attack, decided that the "one-two" strategy had worked, but he was pleased to learn the second bomb had exploded off the mark, indicating "a smaller number of casualties than we had expected." But as historian Martin Sherwin has observed, "If Washington had maintained closer control over the scheduling of the atomic bomb raids the annihilation of Nagasaki could have been avoided." Truman and others simply did not care, or to be charitable, did not take care.

That's one reason the US suppressed all film footage shot in Nagasaki and Hiroshima for decades (which I probe in my book and ebook Atomic Cover-up).

After hearing of Nagasaki, however, Truman quickly ordered that no further bombs be used without his express permission, to give Japan a reasonable chance to surrender--one bomb, one city, and seventy thousand deaths too late. When they'd learned of the Hiroshima attack, the scientists at Los Alamos generally expressed satisfaction that their work had paid off. But many of them took Nagasaki quite badly. Some would later use the words "sick" or "nausea" to describe their reaction.

As months and then years passed, few Americans denounced as a moral wrong the targeting of entire cities for extermination. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, declared that we never should have hit Japan "with that awful thing." The left-wing writer Dwight MacDonald cited America's "decline to barbarism" for dropping "half-understood poisons" on a civilian population. His conservative counterpart, columnist and magazine editor David Lawrence, lashed out at the "so-called civilized side" in the war for dropping bombs on cities that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians.

However much we rejoice in victory, he wrote, "we shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt which prevails among us.... What a precedent for the future we have furnished to other nations even less concerned than we with scruples or ideals! Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it."

Greg Mitchell's books and ebooks include "Hollywood Bomb" and "Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made." Email:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

When Truman Opened the Nuclear Era With a Lie

When the shocking news emerged that morning, exactly 70  years ago, it took the form of a routine press release, a little more than 1,000 words long. President Harry S. Truman was in the middle of the Atlantic, returning from the Potsdam conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Shortly before 11 o’clock, an information officer from the Pentagon arrived at the White House carrying bundles of press releases. A few minutes later, assistant press secretary Eben Ayers started reading the announcement to about a dozen members of the Washington press corps.

In this way, on this day, President Truman informed the press, and the world, that America’s war against fascism—with victory over Germany already in hand—had culminated in exploding a revolutionary new weapon over a Japanese target.

The atmosphere was so casual, many reporters had difficulty grasping the announcement. “The thing didn’t penetrate with most of them,” Ayers later remarked. Finally, the journalists rushed to call their editors.

The first few sentences of the statement set the tone: “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT.…The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold…. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.”

Truman’s four-page statement had been crafted with considerable care over many months, as my research at the Truman Library for two books on the subject made clear. With use of the atomic bomb rarely debated at the highest levels, an announcement of this sort was inevitable—if the new weapon actually worked.

Those who helped prepare the presidential statement—principally Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson—sensed that the stakes were high, for this marked the unveiling of both the atomic bomb and the official narrative of Hiroshima, which largely persists to this day. It was vital that this event be viewed as consistent with American decency and concern for human life.

And so, from its very first words, the official narrative was built on a lie, or at best a half-truth.

Hiroshima did contain an important military base, used as a staging area for Southeast Asia, where perhaps 25,000 troops might be quartered. But the bomb had been aimed not at the “Army base” but at the very center of a city of 350,000, with the vast majority women and children and elderly males (probably 30,000 children would die that day or in weeks and months that followed).

In fact, the two most important reasons Hiroshima had been chosen as our number-one target were: it had been relatively untouched by conventional bombs, meaning its large population was still in place and the bomb’s effects could be fully judged; and the hills which surround the city on three sides would have a “focusing effect” (as the target committee put it), increasing the bomb’s destructive force.

Indeed, a US survey of the damage, not released to the press, found that residential areas bore the brunt of the bomb, with less than 10 percent of the city’s manufacturing, transportation and storage facilities damaged.

There was something else missing in the Truman announcement: because the president in his statement failed to mention radiation effects, which officials knew would be horrendous, the imagery of just “a bigger bomb” would prevail for days in the press. Truman described the new weapon as “revolutionary” but only in regard to the destruction it could cause, failing to even mention its most lethal new feature: radiation.

In many ways, the same dangerous myth about nuclear weapons, first promoted by Truman, persists in the minds of many today: that any use of the more powerful weapons of today by a state (say, the United States or Israel) could be and would be targeted on strictly military enclaves or weapon sites, with little threat to thousands or millions living nearby.

Many Americans on August 6, 1945, heard the news from the radio, which broadcast the text of Truman’s statement shortly after its release. The afternoon papers carried banner headlines along the lines of: “Atom Bomb, World’s Greatest, Hits Japs!”

On the evening of August 9, Truman addressed the American people over the radio. Again he took pains to picture Hiroshima as a military base, even claiming that “we wished in the first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians.” By then, an American B-29 had dropped a second atomic bomb over the city of Nagasaki, which killed tens of thousands of civilians and only a handful of Japanese troops (along with Allied prisoners of war). Nagasaki was variously described by US officials as a “naval base” or “industrial center.”

Greg Mitchel is the author of more than a dozen books, including Atomic Cover-Up (on the decades-long suppression of shocking film shot in the atomic cities by the US military) and Hollywood Bomb (the wild story of how an MGM 1947 drama was censored by the military and Truman himself).

The Hiroshima Tile

Seventy years ago this week, atomic scientist Leo Szilard wrote a petition that served as the final real effort to halt the momentum for the use of horrible new weapons against Japanese cities.  It would fail, of  course.  A month later, the U.S. would drop two atomic bombs over two large Japanese cities, killing about 200,000 civilians (mainly women and children) and a few thousand troops.

Every year at this time, I begin a "Hiroshima Countdown," re-tracing the fateful steps in the weeks leading up to the first use of atomic weapons against people and the immediately aftermath.

After I visited Hiroshima for more than two weeks in 1984 (and also Nagasaki) on a journalism grant I returned home with enough material, and inspiration, to write dozens of articles, and two books, over the following decades.  I also came home with a very tangible, haunting, artifact, given to me by one of my hosts:  a piece of a stone tile that once lined one of several branches of the Ota River that cuts through Hiroshima.  It had been in place there on August 6, 1945, and survived the atomic bombing--but was burned black on most of one side (indeed, the other side is unmarked).

That's a photo of it, still in my possession, at left.  Imagine the level of heat required to burn stone in this way. Then imagine deliberately exploding a new weapon, which also emitted deadly rays of radiation, directly over the center of a large city populated largely by women and children.

It's particularly haunting if you know that the rivers played a key role in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing, as tens of thousands staggered there seeking comfort, only to end up boiled to death or simply succumbing to their wounds or radiation.  Thousands of bodies would bob on the river for days.  The tile, like so many of the victims, was burned black, an anonymous object like all the rest, only it cannot feel pain, and recall it.

Greg Mitchell's book Atomic Cover-up on the U.S. probes the suppression for decades film footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by our military film crew. 

The Photog and the Flash

Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer for the Chugoku Shimbun, took the only pictures in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, that have surfaced since. It was these five photos LIFE magazine published on September 29, 1952, hailing them as the "First Pictures - Atom Blasts Through Eyes of Victims," breaking the long media blackout on graphic images from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On August 6, 1945, Matsushige wandered around Hiroshima for ten hours, carrying one of the few cameras that survived the atomic bombing and two rolls of film with twenty-four possible exposures. This was no ordinary photo opportunity. He lined up one gripping shot after another but he could only push the shutter seven times. When he was done he returned to his home and developed the pictures in the most primitive way, since every dark room in the city, including his own, had been destroyed. Under a star-filled sky, with the landscape around him littered with collapsed homes and the center of Hiroshima still smoldering in the distance, he washed his film in a radiated creek and hung it out to dry on the burned branch of a tree.

Five of the seven images had survived, and they are all the world will ever know of what Hiroshima looked like on that day. Only Matsushige knows what the seventeen photos he didn't take would have looked like. Even more graphic film footage, remained hidden for decades (as I probe in my new book Atomic Cover-up).
Two of his pictures have been widely reprinted in magazines and books. In one, a ragged line of bomb victims sit along the side of Miyuki Bridge, two miles from ground zero, legs folded to their chests. It's hard to tell if it is torn clothing or skin that hangs from them in tatters. No one cries out. They simply stare at what lies across the bridge: a tornado of flame and smoke rushing toward the suburbs. The second picture is a tighter version of the first, focusing on a policeman and a few school girls standing in the center.

All of the figures in the two photos have their backs to the photographer and are staring at the approaching holocaust. Although many in these images no doubt died later, neither of these pictures shows a single corpse. Yet the two photos capture the horror of the atomic bombing better than any panoramic image of twisted buildings and rubble (and so, like the film footage, they had to be suppressed in America for many years). Perhaps that is because the people in Matsushige's pictures are feeling more than the lingering effects of the blast -- they are still experiencing the bomb itself. "Little Boy" has not yet finished with them or their city. The terror evident in the way the victims are standing or sitting in these grainy black and white photographs says more about the human response to the monstrous unknown than any Hollywood recreation.

And because the photographer has the same perspective as his victims we see what they see. We are on that road to Hiroshima, three hours after the bomb fell, staring into the black whirlwind.

The pictures are so affecting because ever since that day, all of us have, in a sense, been standing on that road to Hiroshima, alive but anxious, and peering into the distance at the smoke and firestorm.

When Matsushige, then retired came to meet me in an eighth-floor conference room at his old newspaper -- a small man, dapper in white shoes -- he explained that he could not take more photos that day because "it was so atrocious" and he was afraid burned and battered people "would be enraged if someone took their picture." He tried to capture more images but he could not "muster the courage" to press the shutter.

A few weeks later, the American military confiscated all of the post-bomb prints, just as they seized the Japanese newsreel footage, "but they didn't ask for the negatives," Matsushige said, grinning like a cat. These were the pictures that caused a stir worldwide when they appeared in Life seven years later.  No photographic images of Nagasaki taken on August 9 have survived.  And the U.S. suppressed film footage shot by our own military for decades.

"Sometimes I think I should have gathered my courage and taken more photos, but at other times I feel I did all I could do," he added. "I could not endure taking any more pictures that day. It was too heartbreaking." With that, Matsushige packed up his belongings, bowed deeply, and left the room, vibrant in straw hat, blue suit and bright white shoes, carrying in his arms a portfolio of pictures that are utterly unique, and must remain so.

Greg Mitchell's new book and e-book  is ""Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made (Sinclair Books).

Inside a Mound in Hiroshima

In the northwestern corner of the Hiroshima Peace Park, amid a quiet grove of trees, the earth suddenly swells. It is not much of a mound -- only about ten feet high and sixty feet across. Unlike most mounds, however, this one is hollow, and within it rests perhaps the greatest concentration of human residue in the world.

Grey clouds rising from sticks of incense hang in the air, spookily. Tourists do not dawdle here. Visitors searching for the Peace Bell, directly ahead, or the Children's Monument, down the path to the right, hurry past it without so much as a sideways glance. Still, it has a strange beauty: a lump of earth (not quite lush) topped by a small monument that resembles the tip of a pagoda.

On one side of the Memorial Mound the gray wooden fence has a gate, and down five steps from the gate is a door. Visitors are usually not allowed through that door, but occasionally the city of Hiroshima honors a request from a foreign journalist.

Inside the mound the ceiling is low, the light fluorescent. One has to stoop to stand. To the right and left, pine shelving lines the walls. Stacked neatly on the shelves, like cans of soup in a supermarket, are white porcelain canisters with Japanese lettering on the front. On the day I visited, there were more than a thousand cans in all, explained Masami Ohara, a city official. Each canister contained the ashes of one person killed by the atomic bomb.

Behind twin curtains on either side of an altar, several dozen pine boxes, the size of caskets, were stacked, unceremoniously, from floor to ceiling. They hold the ashes of about 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb. If, in an instant, all of the residents of Wilmington, Delaware, or Santa Fe, New Mexico, were reduced to ashes, and those ashes carried away to one repository, this is all the room the remains would require.

More than 100,000 in Hiroshima were killed by The Bomb, the vast majority of them women and children, plus elderly males.  Fewer than one in ten were in the military. 

Most of those who died in Hiroshima were cremated quickly, partly to prevent an epidemic of disease. Others were efficiently turned to ash by the atomic bomb itself, death and cremation occurring in the same instant. Those reduced by human hands were cremated on makeshift altars at a temple that once stood at the present site of the mound, one-half mile from the hypocenter of the atomic blast.

In 1946, an Army Air Force squad, ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to film the results of the massive U.S. aerial bombardment of Japanese cities during World War II, shot a solemn ceremony at the temple, capturing a young woman receiving a canister of ashes from a local official. That footage, and all of the rest that they filmed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealing the full aftermath of the bombings, would be suppressed by the United States for decades (as I probe in my book Atomic Cover-Up).

Later that year, survivors of the atomic bombing began contributing funds to build a permanent vault at this site and, in 1955, the Memorial Mound was completed. For several years the collection of ashes grew because remains of victims were still being found. One especially poignant pile was discovered at an elementary school.

The white cans (that's my photo) on the shelves have stood here for decades, unclaimed by family members or friends. In many cases, all of the victims' relatives and friends were killed by the bomb. Every year local newspapers publish the list of names written on the cans, and every year several canisters are finally claimed and transferred to family burial sites. Most of the unclaimed cans (a total of just over 800 in 2010, for example) will remain in the mound in perpetuity, now that so many years have passed.

They are a chilling sight. The cans are bright white, like the flash in the sky over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. From all corners of the city the ashes were collected: the remains of soldiers, physicians, housewives, infants. Unclaimed, they at least have the dignity of a private urn, an identity, a life (if one were able to look into it) before death.

But what of the seventy thousand behind the curtains? The pine crates are marked with names of sites where the human dust and bits of bone were found -- a factory or a school, perhaps, or a neighborhood crematory. But beyond that, the ashes are anonymous. Thousands may still grieve for these victims but there is no dignity here. "They are all mixed together," said Ohara, "and will never be separated or identified." Under a mound, behind two curtains, inside a few pine boxes: This is what became of one-quarter of the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.