The photo shows the devastation in Nagasaki after the atomic bomb: a scorched wilderness where a city once stood. In the center is a lonely man with a camera.
It was September 9, 1945 and Lt. Daniel McGovern, a US Army Air Force cameraman, documented Ground Zero, the point just below the bomb’s detonation four weeks earlier. Few would recognize McGovern, but the vision of the apocalypse is well known from documentaries set in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
The footage will be shown this week and next to mark the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing that wiped out Japanese cities and showed the reality of nuclear war: devastated landscapes, burned skeletons, radiation sickness.
But these haunting images might not exist without McGovern. As part of the US Strategic Bombing Survey – which studied the effects of bombing – McGovern monitored Japanese and American camera crews in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back in the US, he saved the footage from repression by making secret copies.McGovern holds photo of himself in Nagasaki with son Tim in 1998. Photo: Al Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Only now, decades later, has his full story come to light. Joe McCabe, a journalist from McGovern’s native County Monaghan, Ireland, has summed up his remarkable life in a biography, Rebels to Reels, published earlier this month after 20 years of research, including interviews with McGovern before his death in 2005.
McGovern’s relatives traveled to Monaghan last week to unveil a plaque. “I’m blown away. It’s such a surprise that my Uncle Dan and his family will be recognized,” said Michael McGovern, a nephew.
Research has revealed that McGovern witnessed not only the dawn of the nuclear age, but also the Irish Revolution, Franklin Roosevelt’s White House, Wartime Hollywood and the so-called Roswell Incident, which made its way into UFO lore.
His presence at key moments in the 20th century has drawn comparisons to Forrest Gump, the fictional character who stumbled through historical events. “Dan was the most interesting person I’ve ever met,” McCabe said.
McGovern was born in the town of Monaghan in 1905, the son of a policeman. During Ireland’s War of Independence in 1919-21, while still a boy, he hitchhiked with the Black and Tans, a British force.
The family moved to the US and McGovern, nicknamed Big Mack because of his 6ft 5in frame, joined the Air Force and eventually ended up in its artistic wing, the First Motion Picture Unit. He was a photographer for President Roosevelt before founding an Air Force camera training school in Hollywood, where he met Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable and other stars.
McGovern flew bombing raids over Germany – surviving two crashes – and filmed footage used in a 1944 documentary called The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.
His pivotal work came a year later in Japan, where he took stills and filmed in 35mm in black and white and technicolor.
The fields around Nagasaki were bleached white and the city looked as if a “massive anvil” had leveled it, he later told McCabe. In a destroyed school, he filmed the corpses of children amid mountains of skulls. “Hundreds of children were sucked through the windows. We always found bones.”
He filmed harrowing scenes in overcrowded hospitals, including the agony of a 16-year-old boy named Sumiteru Taniguchi. “His whole back looked like a bowl of bubbling tomatoes.”
Other patients had rashes, hair loss, and bleeding from the nose and mouth — a mysterious illness later identified as radiation sickness.
McGovern also captured the phenomenon of people being atomized but leaving shadows caused by radiant heat. The two atomic bombs are estimated to have killed more than 200,000 people.
McGovern’s teams collected 100,000 feet of color footage and enlisted the help of a Japanese newsreel service, Nippon Eigasha, which had 26,000 feet of black and white footage, much of which was filmed before the Americans arrived. The Irishman helped edit the Japanese footage into a documentary titled Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and planned to convert the color footage into a different one.
However, the authorities in Washington classified the material as secret in 1946. “They didn’t want the American public to see the horrors,” McGovern said. He discreetly made copies at the Pentagon. He stored one set in an Air Force film depot in Dayton, Ohio and kept another set himself.
Years went by – McGovern witnessed missile tests and debunked theories about aliens at Roswell as “a lot of crap” – and then in 1967 a US Congressional committee that included Robert Kennedy asked to see the atomic bomb footage. The footage had been declassified, but no one could find the originals. McGovern, now a lieutenant colonel, referred the authorities to his copies.
In 1970 the general public got a first glimpse of some of the recordings. It had been incorporated into a film entitled Hiroshima Nagasaki – August 1945, which premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The auditorium was full. In the end nobody made a sound.