It all started with an otherwise minor reference in a library archive at Stanford University.
At first, UC Merced professor Sean Malloy wasn't much impressed by that detail -- a citation for several photos in archive taken in the aftermath of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
After he followed up and saw the photos for himself, he realized that citation carried far deeper importance than he expected.
The 10 photos, which had never been published, were probably taken by an unknown Japanese photographer in the immediate aftermath of the city's devastation -- photos which show the enormous death toll unleashed by the bomb.
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"(The photos) appear to be relatively soon after the bombing because they show bodies there still," Malloy said. "Most of the photographs that we have of Hiroshima were taken well after the fact, and they show the rubble -- but they don't show the bodies."
Malloy came across the photos last year while conducting research for his book, "Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan," which was recently published (Stimson was Secretary of War under President Harry Truman and advocated use of the bomb; three of the recently unearthed photos are in the book).
Even more interesting than the story of how Malloy found the photos in the Stanford's Hoover Institution Archives, however, is how they ended up there in the first place. They come from undeveloped rolls of film discovered in a cave on the outskirts of Hiroshima in 1945 by the late Robert Capp. Capp was a U.S. serviceman who was a member of the American occupation forces that entered Japan after its surrender in August 1945.
Capp held on to the photos for decades until 1998 when he decided to donate them to Stanford. Capp donated the photos with one stipulation: the photos couldn't be reproduced until 2008.
Although Malloy said he doesn't know why Capp decided to keep the photos from public view for so long, Capp did leave behind a taped interview with an archivist about the photos, which is also kept in Stanford's archives. "I was stunned when I saw the photographs," Malloy said. "They are unlike anything that I had ever seen before. And I have seen hundreds of photographs of Hiroshima."
The images are gruesome -- not for the faint of heart. One photo shows the charred bodies of children, their clothes and flesh burned away. Another captures stacks of bodies piled on top of one another amidst the ruined city, while others include bodies floating in water.
Douglas Erber, president of the Japan America Society of Southern California, a nonprofit that works to build bridges of understanding between Japan and the United States, said there's file footage of the effect the bomb had on people who lived farther away from the epicenter of the nuclear blast.
Erber said these latest photos, in contrast, are some of the only ones that show the immediate human cost of the bomb. Erber said he was struck most by the photos because the dead are civilians and children. "That's what hurts the most. It's very painful," Erber said. "I would hope it makes people sit back and think about the real cost of war."
Gregg Herken, a professor at UC Merced's school of social sciences, humanities and art, said he believes the photos are "another piece of the story" of Hiroshima. "More interesting than the photos themselves, perhaps, is their 'provenance' -- their origins, and that remains a mystery. A story yet to be told," Herken said.
Malloy said he's encountered a variety of reactions to the photographs -- and he understands the bombing of Hiroshima is still an intensely sensitive subject for many people. "How people react to these photographs is very personal. It relates to their own feelings about the war, the atomic bomb, their own feelings about the meaning of Hiroshima," Malloy said. "A historian can't give you an answer to the question of what Hiroshima means or what these photographs mean. That's for individuals to decide for themselves."
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.