“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”
As readers we connect on one simple but unflinching principle: words possess amazing power. In his latest work, Charles Pellegrino adroitly summons their potency. His detailed yet compelling analysis is woven with the thread of true human narrative, and even though he lays its foundation upon the objectivity of science, The Last Train From Hiroshima is at once accessible and seductive in both its horror and its fascination.
When I went to school—as I recall—we were given the commercial airline version of this small but devastating window in history—the 30,000-foot view, with little turbulence and a smooth ride to the deck of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s unconditional surrender. Bereft of detail, the material taught was the modern equivalent of bullet points in a mind-numbing sales presentation. Mr. Pellegrino fills in the grim gaps, suturing closed yawning cavities in my inoculated learning. Be forewarned—the truth is not pretty, the details not sparse. The forensic detail alone is dramatic, and at times brutally graphic. Eyewitness accounts, diaries, family histories—a deep well from which Pellegrino draws to present, in stark clarity, the dawning of the nuclear age in warfare. This is not like the conveniently sterilized Hollywood versions we’re familiar with.
Be assured this book is, in no way, a discourse on the “we should” or “we shouldn’t” ideologies. In many places it reads cinematically, the story revealed from both ends of the delivery/reception spectrum. The author spends a little time in the beginning describing the detonation process—not in split-seconds or moments, rather in millionths and thousandths of a second. He refers to the explosions of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs as “brief reincarnations of distant suns.” At the outset, he describes events directly at Moment Zero, Ground Zero, at the Dome of Hiroshima’s Industrial Sciences Building (now known as the “Peace Dome”):
“At the moment the bomb came to life, before a globe of plasma could belly down to ground level, the top millimeter of the Dome’s metal cladding would catch the rays from the bomb and liquefy instantly, then flash to vapor. Bricks and concrete, too, were on the verge of developing a radiant, liquid skin.”
Immediately adjacent to that building, a woman tends to her garden. Pellegrino doesn’t sketch but clearly delineates the process of a human body being vaporized before the nervous system can register pain:
“From the moment the rays began to pass through her bones, her marrow would begin vibrating at more than five times the boiling point of water. The bones themselves would become instantly incandescent, with all of her flesh trying simultaneously to explode away from her skeleton while being forced straight down into the ground as a compressed gas. Within the first three-tenths of a second following the bombs detonation, most of the iron was going to be separated from (her) blood . . .”
This is a guided tour of Hell via the recollections of a number of double survivors—people who lived through the blast at Hiroshima and, for various reasons, took the last of two trains to Nagasaki, only to survive the destructive forces of a bomb three times as powerful as the first. We are given behind-the-scenes passes to watch as Paul Tibbets and Charles Sweeney pilot the Enola Gay and Bock’s Car B-29 bombers over their respective targets. And we are witness to a latent force at least as powerful as the physical destruction caused—the chasmal rifts and fractures the bombs would create within families and amongst old friends.
In both Nature and man’s nature, seeds of better things begin to sprout and slowly, if grudgingly, take root. Some of the survivors experienced a spiritual fallout, and a few of the hibakusha—the largely ostracized people who “lived” through the bombs—left philanthropic ripples in their eventual wake, taking up the gauntlet to present to the rest of humanity the terrors of atomic weapons—this despite the efforts of the Japanese government and the MacArthur Protocols. Through the many interviews with survivors Pellegrino has helped to remove the scab from a 65-year-old wound and apply a salve of truthful exposition to begin the healing process.
There are problems within one particular section, however. According to the New York Times, one of the men central to uncovering an accident on Tinian with the first bomb—a Joseph Fuoco—never participated in either of the bombing missions, as claimed by Pellegrino. He tells us that Fuoco filled in at the last minute for James Corliss, the intended flight engineer. But when Corliss allegedly becomes ill just before the Hiroshima mission, Fuoco becomes the go-to guy. Pellegrino appears to have performed due diligence in his research, but perhaps not enough. Corliss’s family has provided some amount of evidence which reportedly proves that it was Corliss on those flights, and not Fuoco. An Air Force spokesman has stated there exists documentation tying James Corliss to the Hiroshima mission, while they have no record of Joseph Fuoco having been assigned to that bomber squadron.
Mr. Pellegrino has, to his credit, stated that he will set the record straight for any editions yet to be printed. In an interview with the Times he stated “I’m stunned. I liked and admired the guy. He had loads and loads of papers, and photographs of everything.” He added, “The public record has to be repaired. You can’t have wrong history going out. It’s got to be corrected.”
As a writer I understand that it can be difficult to cover all bases all the time—sometimes you just can’t get to information you need, while others you simply overlook or don’t give due consideration. I cannot possibly begin to presume what happened in this instance. It strikes this reviewer as odd that the Corliss family had the documentation, and yet it doesn’t seem to have made it into Pellegrino’s account. Perhaps he had requested an interview and was rebuffed—I don’t know.
But the author did not hide behind any public relations smoke-and-mirrors apparatus in light of the information. He gets straight to the point and tells us he will fix it. Given the body of his previous work I find no reason whatsoever to believe this was, in any way, intentional. And it certainly doesn’t diminish the impact of the stories related by the survivors.
As readers we’ve all come across books that we recommend to friends, family, etc. We do so because we enjoyed them, because they’ve added value to the time we’ve spent within their pages. Once in a while a book comes along which is worthy of elevation above our personal recommendations—it merits an almost moral imperative to be read. The Last Train From Hiroshima is compelling to that end. This book should be at the core of any class traversing WWII history, although given the erroneous information concerning Fuoco and Corliss I would hope it would be the corrected version.
Pellegrino’s words, while painful, sometimes even disturbing, draw into bitter relief invaluable lessons about our capacity to kill, to survive, and even to inspire. Relative to the atom bomb, his words are more than equal to the task.
I am most grateful to Ted Sturtz of the New York Journal of Books and Theresa Giacopasi of Henry Holt & Company for getting me a copy of this book to review.
UPDATE: The Associate Press, along with other media outlets, have “exposed” apparent flaws in the Last Train story. Questions have been raised about more than the dubiousness of the Fuoco incident I mentioned in my review.
- There appears to be a grey area concerning a Father Mattias and a Jesuit monk, both mentioned early in the book. According to Pellegrino the Jesuit, a one John MacQuitty, was “a changed identity,” one which he neglected to include in the acknowledgements of the book. There was never a first name given for Father Mattias.
- Questions of the author’s doctoral pedigree are also raised. On his web site Pellegrino states he received a Ph.D. in 1982 from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. After the AP queried the university, they could find no proof of such a claim. Pellegrino does own up to a falling out with the university over a controversial theory of evolution, but the doctorate in question, while it had been discredited–along with a number of other scientists–was reinstated in 1997.
I do not consider the entire book to be a trove of falsehoods. One might argue that to find one such arbitrary fact discredits the whole. I am not so quick to judge given Pellegrino’s prior work. He should have owned up to such things in the acknowledgements, assuredly, but I cannot believe that the entire account is fictionalized.
It is disappointing to see such a work of importance marginalized by lackluster fact checking, but I think we do history a greater disservice by throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The publisher has offered to buy back copies of the book from book sellers, and will not re-publish any other editions or corrections. I, for one, am glad I had the opportunity to read the book before it is erased from our accounts of history. I will, undoubtedly, learn more in the long run, once all the wrinkles are ironed out, than I would have known at all had I not been exposed to the book.
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