From Monaghan to Hiroshima – An Irishman’s Diary about the extraordinary life of Danny McGovern
Danny McGovern: the film archive he brought back from Japan would be quietly suppressed for decades
In my home town of Carrrickmacross, there used to be a hardware store called Daly’s. It was beside the Garda station, formerly the RIC barracks. And it was partly thanks to this location that, during Ireland’s revolutionary years, a friendship formed between two local schoolboys, Val Daly – from the shop – and Danny McGovern, son of a police sergeant.
That was a dangerous time for Sgt McGovern, with frequent IRA ambushes in the area. But being the son of a policeman had its risks too.
One day, while dressed in a sailor suit, the young McGovern was on the wrong end of a politically motivated roughing-up from other boys. The men in the barracks had to give him boxing lessons, and the attack was not repeated.
Having outlived the War of Independence, however, McGovern’s father opted to emigrate in 1922. So at age 12, Danny became an American.
In time there, he too would have a career in uniform; not in a sailor suit this time, but that of the US Air Force, in which he rose eventually to be a lieutenant-colonel.
FilmsA photographer and film-maker, he was recruited by the USAF’s artistic wing, the First Motion Picture Unit, composed entirely of Hollywood movie professionals and tasked, during the second World War, with producing hundreds of propaganda and training films.
McGovern survived two plane crashes during this work, which included scenes for The Memphis Belle, a landmark 1944 documentary about a B-17 bomber. But the job that came to define him happened just after the war, in the autumn of 1945, when he was sent to Japan, to record the effects of the bomb in Hiroshima.
For the next nine months, McGovern was head of a film-making crew that included a fellow American Herbert Sussan, and Harry Mimura, a Japanese cameraman who had already worked on the debut of one of cinema’s all-time greats, Akira Kurosawa.
Using Kodachrome and Technicolor, then barely known in Hollywood, the team shot vast amounts of footage, not just from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but many other bombed-out cities. Much of it is still disturbing to watch. Sussan’s subjects included, for example, 16-year-old Sumiteru Taniguchi, his back stripped of skin by the Nagasaki bomb, who spent two years lying on his stomach while doctors worked to save him (they did and, remarkably, he’s still alive today).
But this and other such scenes proved too graphic for the US Atomic Energy Commission, and helped ensure that the archive McGovern brought back from Japan would be quietly suppressed for decades.
Others documenting the aftermath of the bombs included the writer John Hersey. His 31,000-word epic, Hiroshima, was published in a single issue of the New Yorker in August 1946. In book form, it later sold three million copies, and in 1999, was named the greatest American work of journalism of the 20th century.
In contrast, McGovern’s films – along with confiscated Japanese footage – were buried from public view. This was partly, he believed, the result of collective American guilt at what the bombs had done. “We were sorry for our sins,” he said. But it also facilitated the continuation of the arms race that raged throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
In the meantime, McGovern became a reluctant policeman of his own work, ensuring that at least it didn’t get lost (deliberately or otherwise) until it eventually saw the light in the 1980s, when placed in the National Archives.
His postwar career also included a surreal episode in which he was commissioned to photograph supposed UFO activity in Roswell, New Mexico. He saw some odd things there, but didn’t capture anything. On the contrary, he later helped expose a hoax film purporting to show a secret autopsy on a crashed “alien”.
Daniel McGovern died at his home in California in 2005, aged 96.
He had been back to Ireland a few times, his USAF uniform turning the heads of the women of Carrickmacross, and he kept up a life-long correspondence with his old friend Val Daly until the latter’s death in 1968.
But I first heard his extraordinary story only this week, thanks to Doreen Purcell, Val’s daughter, who now lives in Dublin. As a 1950s child, she told me, she was barely aware of what her father’s American friend did.
For the Daly children, the main benefit of the relationship had been the full-colour comics that arrived by post regularly in the dull postwar years, bringing adventure and excitement from a seemingly more glamorous world.