A Recall For Bad History?

The New York Times reports that The Last Train from Hiroshima, a critically acclaimed new book about the  destruction of Hiroshima that is already being prepared for a film adaptation by James Cameron, was substantially based on fraudulent “eye-witness” recollections by a man who wasn’t there.

The most sensational revelation in the book is the first account of a secret accident involving the atom bomb that supposedly killed one American,  irradiated others and  reduced the bomb’s effectiveness by half. That story, as well as other details, came from interviews with Joseph Fuoco, whom the book described as a last-minute substitute on one of the two observation planes that escorted the Enola Gay to its doomed destination.

Fuoco, however, has been shown to be an imposter. James R. Corliss, the plane’s regular flight engineer, was on the bombing run and did not need a substitute. After reviewing evidence presented by Corliss’s family and members of the flight crew, author Charles Pellegrino now agrees that Fuoco, who died in 2008 at age 84, was lying.

Now what?

Pelligrino says that said he will rewrite sections of the book for paperback and foreign editions, but is that enough? It probably won’t stop Cameron, who has shown a willingness to distort history for his own artistic purposes in the past (See: “Titanic”), from making Fuoco’s version of the facts “real” for millions of movie-goers.

Fuoco’s accident story has outraged the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico where “Little Boy,” the Hiroshima bomb, was made. Officials there say the story of the fatal accident is pure myth. “This book is a Toyota,” the Times quotes Robert S. Norris, the author of Racing for the Bomb, as saying. “The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record.”

Mark Twain reputedly said,  “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” With the help of the internet and films, I’m sure the distance has doubled. The harm created by Fuoco’s account, to a great extent, is done and irreparable. I am uncomfortable with Norris’s idea of recalling bad history books like they were dangerous vehicles; when literature and books are involved, we should be wary of anything that even  resembles censorship. Fuoco’s account is a lie, but what about other histories based on half-lies? Should old histories be “recalled” when we uncover new or better information? Sometimes yesterday’s lie turns out to be true after all.

Certainly all future printings and editions need to correct the record, and someone should sit down with James Cameron and urge him to resist the “JFK” route, using bad history to make a good movie. Meanwhile, Charles Pellegrino has a lot to answer for. He wrote The Last Train from Hiroshima; it was his responsibility to make certain Fuoco’s story was true before he confused the historical record with an old man’s fantasies. Why didn’t he confirm Fuoco’s story with Corliss’s family and the flight crew? That was a disastrous failure of diligence on his part, and his best-selling historical botch has damaged historical clarity and a deserving man’s legacy as a result. The Corliss family provided the Times with a copy of the air medal order—dated Sept. 14, 1945— that lists Corliss and the other crew members.  “By direction of the president,” it cites the men for “meritorious achievement,” as each “was well aware of the great danger involved.” The family would have provided Pelligrino with a copy too…if he had asked.

Pelligrino is a fiction writer, trained as a zoologist. He wrote a history book without applying the professional ethics of a historian, engaged in historical malpractice, and now a lie has its shoes on and is circling the world.

6 thoughts on “A Recall For Bad History?

  1. Welcome to postmodernist history 101. There is no such thing as ‘objective truth’. All history is a lie, there is not way of knowing ‘what really happened’ so we should tell the lie that we want to tell, the lie that is better to tell. That is the rationalization behind JFK, this book, James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”, and apparently a large chunk of the news media. In history, this inevitably makes the United States the source of all evil and every atrocity in the world.

    Fashionable and trendy people for the last few decades have been inundated by this message from the world of literary criticism. It appeals to the same self-righteous, self-important types who try to assert their first-amendment rights by holding sit -ns to protest the fact that the principal wouldn’t print their list of girls who might have VD in the school newspaper (yes, I know that dates me). How does this relate to this ‘novel’? The author knows it isn’t true. He always has. But, it isn’t that he doesn’t care, he wants this ‘lie’ to get out. He wants it to get out because it denigrates the US involvement in WWII, it makes the Manhattan project undeniably evil. He is rewriting history because he believes in rewriting history, as do people like Cameron.

  2. What about current events? Can we analyze any distortions in major world events? Take Haiti for example. The stories I read would have me believe that Haiti was a great place with no strife until an earthquake hit. How convenient that after a century of neglect (my opinion) we as a country can come together and say Haiti was perfect before, but now we care because there was an earthquake.

    It’s actually a pretty good scapegoat. We get to use that as our inciting incident for charity and putting on a good face. Its a way to influence their culture with ours, because before the earthquake, it was too dangerous of a place to even approach.(my opinion)

  3. I suspect the author, like many before him, are too wrapped up in the monetary gain and a chance at noteability to worry over something that will be forgotten (or not known at all) by most of the population. Self-serving behavior, after all, is quite “in” regardless of its implications.

    • I think that’s right—I also think that histories by non-historians should always be taken with some skepticism. History is a discipline, and this is what happens when amateur historians write professional histories.

    • …although the issue isn’t the recall, or even the need to have a recall, but the lateness of the recall and internal documents showing that millions of cars with serious safety problems were intentionally not fixed or recalled when Toyota knew they were dangerous and even deadly. Good luck with that Yaris.

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