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Adam Harrison Levy

Hiroshima Lost and Found


Editor's Note: A version of this article orginally appeared on Design Observer in 2008. After publication, the International Center of Photography aquired the photographs and mounted an exhibition in 2011. They also published a catalogue. In addition, Nancy Knight, Lt. Corsbie’s granddaughter, contacted the author after reading the post on Design Observer. As a result, the story took a different turn.

Although this version contains material from the orginal post, the information about Lt. Corsbie is new. It adds much more detail, and strangeness, to the story of how the Hiroshima photographs ended up on a street corner.

We publish this updated version to mark the anniversay of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th



Distorted steel-frame structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima

1. Discovery

One rainy night in Watertown, Massachusetts, a man was taking his dog for a walk. On the curb, in front of a neighbor’s house, he came across a pile of trash: old mattresses, cardboard boxes, a few broken lamps. In the heap of garbage he spotted a battered suitcase. He bent down and picked it up. He turned the suitcase over and popped open the clasps.

Inside he found a jumble of black-and-white photographs, some bent and broken, of devastated buildings, twisted girders, and blasted bridges — images of a ruined city. He snapped the clasps closed, tucked the suitcase under his arm, and hurried home.

Standing at his kitchen table he opened the suitcase again. He was looking at something he had never seen before: the effects of the first use of the atomic bomb. The man was looking at Hiroshima.

In a dispassionate and scientific style, the 700 photographs he found inside the suitcase that night pictured a city seared by a new form of warfare. And now, sixty-nine years after the bombing, their story can be told.


Damaged turbo-generator and electrical panel of Chugoku Electric Company, Minami Sendamachi Substation, Hiroshima


Blast-damaged ruins of Chugoku Coal Distribution Company or Hiroshima Gas Company

2. The Bomb

On August 6, 1945, Captain W.S. Parsons, the bomb commander of a B-29 airplane called the Enola Gay, wrote in his flight log at 8:09 a.m. that the target of his bombing run was in sight. At 08:15 and thirty seconds, he wrote the following: “Dropped bomb. Flash followed by two slaps on plane. Huge cloud.”[1]

Although exact numbers have never been agreed, something in the order of 140,000 people died within moments of that log entry, many of them vaporized in the heat of the blast or burnt to death by the fireball that swept through the city. Thousands more would die in the following months and years as a result of sickness caused by radiation.

Given the magnitude of the event, and its immense historical significance, we have few photographs of post-bomb Hiroshima. This is no accident. On September 18, 1945, just over a month after Japan surrendered, the U.S. government imposed a strict code of censorship. They suppressed the few images taken by Japanese photographers and banned all non-military photographs of the city, the original Ground Zero (this was the first time the phrase was used).

When we think of Hiroshima and what comes to mind is the mushroom cloud. Awesome in its way, with its bulbous head and towering stem, it is nonetheless an abstract image freed from human agency and human consequence.

The lack of visual evidence of the atom bomb’s effect has helped us to forget its devastating impact. To see is to remember. Up until now, there have been few publicly available images of what happened on the ground when the first atomic bomb exploded. As a result, Hiroshima has become, as the novelist Mary McCarthy wrote in 1946, “a kind of hole in human history.”


Steel stairs warped by intense heat from burned book stacks, Asano Library, Hiroshima


Complete destruction of wooden floor (air-space beneath) and telephone switch and relay racks of Hiroshima Telephone Company, Central District Exchange

3. The Mystery

In 2003 I was working as a historical researcher for a big budget BBC drama-documentary about Hiroshima. In the course of my research I heard about the unlikely story of a suitcase full of photographs that were found on a street corner in a town in Massachusetts. The man who found them ran a local diner.

I went to investigate.

The Deluxe Town diner is a classic air stream decked out in high 1950s style: ivory and turquoise panels and glass brink trim — a diner as quintessentially American as a Twinkie.

Standing inside was a man wearing brown corduroy trousers, a dark blue sweater and tortoise shell glasses. His grey hair was cut short, with a tuft sticking straight up on top.

Don Levy (no relation) is a connoisseur of found objects. Finding the photographs that night was the peak of his trash diving career. But he didn’t know what do with them. The photographs were in terrible shape — some were stuck together, others had been hole-punched and stuffed into binders. He put them all in archival plastic sleeves, packed them into a cardboard box, and left them in his basement.

I asked Levy if he had ever tried to find out who owned the photographs. He said that it had never occurred to him.

We visited the local Town Hall and looked up the names of all the past owners of the house in front of which he had found the photographs. Back at the diner, we Googled the names on the list and came up with the phone number for the man who sold the house in 2000, about the time that Levy found the photographs.

When we called, the voice on the other end of the line shook with shock.

“The photographs of Hiroshima? You have them? I must have thrown them out by accident when I was moving. Or I left them there and the new owners threw them away. I never would have dumped them. I’ve been carrying them around with me since 1972!”

Marc Levitt, the former owner of the house, still lived in Watertown. Levy invited him to come over to the diner. Over blueberry pie and coffee we learned some more.

In the early 1970s he and a friend had been hired to clear out the basement of a house in Westchester. They were told to haul the contents to the local dump. An old wooden trunk caught his friend’s eye. Inside they found black and white photographs. The friend took the trunk and Levitt took the photographs.

“I was haunted by them”, he said. “Something about them overwhelmed me. They don’t represent the horror exactly because there are no bodies. They’re clinical. But the power of them is really intense.”

A few weeks after the meeting Levitt I received an email saying that he had made contact with his old friend. Unbelievably, Harlan Miller still had the trunk. Miller would send me an email soon wrote Marc.

Five days later, I received the email. There was no message. But attached were eight photographs of the trunk, sitting on a kitchen table, taken from slightly different angles. The trunk looked crude but solid. On the front was a name: Lt. R. L. Corsbie.


Ruins of Nagarekawa Church of the Japan Christian Society interior, Hiroshima


Ruins of Red Cross Building, Hiroshima

4. The Physical Damage Division


The day after Japan surrendered, President Truman commissioned the United States Strategic Bombing Survey for the Pacific Theater of War. The mission of the survey was, to “measure precisely” the impact of the bomb — ”to put calipers on it, instead of describing it in emotive terms”.

As part of the overall report, a special team called the Physical Damage Division was assembled. It was made up of 150 men, including engineers, ordnance experts, interpreters, draftsmen and photographers. Their job was to examine the physical effects of the blast — on the chimneys, walls, and reinforced-concrete structures that survived — and to explain its impact: how metal and concrete and wood reacted to the intense pressure and heat of the atomic bomb.

Soon after receiving the email of the trunk, I read through the War Department’s history of the Strategic Bombing Survey and confirmed that Lt. Corsbie was part of Group Number 1 of the Physical Damage Division. He had arrived in Hiroshima on October 8, 1945 and stayed through the end of November.

During those months members of the Division would fan out across the city to trace blast paths, calibrate bomb damage, and analyze the physical destruction of the city.

It could be grim going. Members of the team stumbled across human skeletons that had not yet been cremated. “The cities of Japan in those dark autumn days were a manifestation of unspeakable gloom,” remembered John Kenneth Galbraith, who was a member of the Survey. “. . . only ashes and gaunt, free-standing chimneys.”[2]

In order to document this damage — to identify, catalogue, and embalm Hiroshima for further analysis — seven members of the Physical Damage Division were tasked with the job of taking photographs of the destroyed city. Trained as an architect, Corsbie was probably one of the draftsmen. But he kept 700 of the work prints of the Physical Damage Divison’s photographs. And those were the images that ended up in Corsbie’s wooden trunk.


Ruins of Chugoku Electric Company, Transformer Repair Station, Hiroshima

5. Lt. Robert Corsbie

Nancy Knight, Robert Corsbie’s granddaughter, was guarded over the phone. “Well,” she said, “I’ll give you some background about our family but you really have to talk with my mother — she’s the only person who survived the fire. I was only nine at the time.”

“Fire?” I asked. “What fire?”

“You’ll have to talk to my mother. But I will say that I don’t have many memories of my grandfather. I was too young. But I do remember that he used to sit me on his lap and we would listen to Madame Butterfly together. Over the fireplace hung two samurai swords that he had brought back from Japan. He joked that if I didn’t learn one of the arias by the time I was eighteen he would cut my head off.”

***

Along with the task of documenting the devastation of Hiroshima there was a second goal to the work of the Physical Damage Division — to compile data that could be used to help American cities survive a nuclear attack in the future.

And here lies a crucial paradox: at the moment of America’s total victory there was simultaneously an awareness of the country’s future vulnerability.

The way out of this paradox was in the concrete structures that had survived the blast. In the words of the Survey, “Men arriving at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been constantly impressed by the shells of reinforced concrete buildings still rising above the rubble of brick and stone or the ashes of wooden buildings.”[3] The Physical Damage Division studied these concrete shells as if they were blueprints for the atomic future.

***

After the war, Corsbie joined the Atomic Energy Commission as a bomb expert. As the director of the Civil Effects Group, he brought his experience from Hiroshima directly to bear on the testing of the physical infrastructures that the US government was developing in order to survive a nuclear attack. Corsbie helped design the U.S. military’s first atomic bomb shelter.

According to a colleague who worked with him at the AEC, Corsbie was “quite a character. He was a pretty hard, high-living guy. He loved his drinks at night and stuff like this, but he was a very energetic and sincere worker…he did a great job on this thing.”[4]

***

Corsbie’s daughter, Nancy Mason, was more forthcoming with her memories of her father than her daughter had been.

“I know that he was traumatized by what he had seen” she told me. “He went through a bombed-out school in Hiroshima and that got to him, I know. He brought home two burned school books and a small saki cup that had been blackened by the blast.”

A year after he returned from the war the Corsbie’s had another child, a boy named Robert Jr. He had Downs Syndrome. The parents kept him at home.

I asked Nancy to tell me more about her father’s work with the AEC.

“He went out west to Nevada quite a lot when I was growing up. He was testing houses to see if they could withstand nuclear blasts. It was the time of “duck and cover”. When I was in the sixth or seventh grade, he was on TV. We got out of school early to watch. They dressed him up in something that looked like tin foil and they dropped him by helicopter near one of those test houses that they had blown up in the desert. They called him the “Twenty Four Carat Hero.”

In 1962, Corsbie left government service and joined a private practice as an architect. He specialized in designing structures that could withstand natural and man-made disasters. In other words, he specialized in turning corporate and public buildings into vast bomb shelters.


Blast-damaged trolley and mangled electrical wires, Hiroshima

6. The Fire

On the night of January 7, 1967, Nancy Mason had a date. Newly divorced, she was planning on dropping her nine-year-old daughter off at her father’s house. But at the last minute her date cancelled, and she decided to just stay at home.

Early the next morning, the phone rang. There had been a fire at her father’s house.

Corsbie’s house was a nine-bedroom Tudor mansion called Homewood in Ossining New York. When Nancy arrived she was confronted by a house that was totally devastated. Almost 200 volunteer firefighters, four pumper trucks, and a hook-and-ladder had been called to fight the blaze but to no avail. Robert Corsbie, his wife Evelyn, and their twenty-year-old son had all died in the blaze.

The First Assistant Fire Chief in 1967 was Richard Apostolico. Forty-four years later, he still remembered the fire. “It was one the worst I have ever seen. Some things you never forget. The house was built like a fortress.”

Homewood had an extra-thick slate roof and the windows that were at least one-quarter of an inch thick. “We had a terrible time doing what we call ventilation. That’s how you let the gasses and burning fumes out of a burning building. It was something unreal — we had pike poles and still we couldn’t break the glass.”

As a result of its unusual construction, the house intensified the heat like a furnace.

Apostolico found Mrs. Corsbie in the foyer about thirty-five feet short of the front door. “When I got in there, I dragged her the rest of the way out.” But it was too late. According to the obituary in The New York Times the following day, she was found fully dressed “in a skirt, sweater and a pair of high heeled shoes beside her.”[5]

Then he tried to find Corsbie. Battling the ferocious heat and smoke, it took Apostolico twenty to thirty minutes until he found him dead “draped over a lounge chair. He was trying to get out of a side door. He was close — about fifteen feet away — but he didn’t make it.”

According to the Times, Corsbie was also was fully dressed, “including a necktie.” Because of the intensity of the heat the firemen then had to suspended their search and rescue. When they resumed they found Robert Jr. in his pajamas in an upstairs bathtub full of water. “He was probably trying to keep away from the flames” said Apostolico. He had died of smoke inhalation.

The Corsbies had thrown a party the night before, during which, according to witnesses, they had candles burning. After everyone had gone home they probably had a nightcap on their living room sofa and dozed off. “The candles in the living room must have tipped over accidentally or burned down in a such way that the drapery in the room caught fire,” Apostolico told me. “The drapery fell to the floor. There was tremendous heat. The fire was so hot that in the kitchen, which was fifty to sixty feet from the living room, we found the telephone trailing onto the floor like it was a piece of licorice.”

Nancy Mason told me that the entire contents of the house were destroyed. But down in the basement, where her father had meticulously boxed, filed and stored all his records, almost everything survived.

A few days later, still reeling from grief and shock, Nancy Mason emptied the contents of the basement. She took them to her house and loaded them into her basement. And she left them there while she struggled to reconstruct her life.

Five years later, she decided to clean out her basement. She hired Harlan Miller and Marc Levitt to get rid of father’s effects and take them to the local dump. And that’s when Miller salvaged the trunk and Levitt grabbed the photographs.

Levitt stuffed them into an old suitcase. When he eventually bought the Watertown house he stored the suitcase in his basement. And when it came time to move house, he either mistakenly threw the suitcase away, or the people who bought the house did.

Either way, there it was, left in a pile of trash, until Don Levy, out taking his dog for a walk that rainy night, bent down and popped open the clasps.


Damaged interior of Hiroshima Railway Station

Notes

[1] Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1982), p. 34 (8:15 is local Hiroshima time).

[2] John Kenneth Galbraith, A Life in Our Times: Memoirs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 231.

[3]USSBS, The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, p. 38.

[4] Nevada Test Site Oral History Project, “Interview with L. Joe Deal, September 27, 2005, Las Vegas, Nevada,” p. 35.
[5] Ibid

Posted in: History, Photography

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