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Publisher Henry Holt withdraws disputed Hiroshima book

March 1, 2010 |  6:13 pm

Publisher Henry Holt & Co. today announced the withdrawal of the book "The Last Train From Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back" by Charles Pellegrino. Parts of the book, which had received strong positive attention from NPR, the New York Times and other media outlets, have come under question

Pellegrino says he was duped by one source, the now-deceased Joseph Fuoco. Fuoco claimed he was a flight engineer on one of the planes accompanying the Enola Gay, serving as a last-minute substitute for James R. Corliss. Veterans of the 509th Composite Group, which was formed to conduct the two atomic bombings against Japan, have produced evidence to the contrary and disputed many other elements in the book.

In February, Pellegrino spoke to the New York Times, saying he was "stunned" that Fuoco, who died in 2008, had been an imposter. "I liked and admired the guy. He had loads and loads of papers, and photographs of everything."

Initially, Henry Holt was going to issue corrected versions of the book, but it took a hard look at the entire contents of the book -- and at Pellegrino. "Questions about other sources and the author’s credentials arose," the publisher wrote in today's press release. There is no evidence that one person who appears in the book actually existed; Pellegrino says that he knew that already because he'd invented a pseudonym and forgot to mention it. Maybe there is as simple an explanation for the concerns over his C.V.: Pellegrino's website says that he earned a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in 1982, a detail that has not been confirmed.

How is it that a book that took years to write, edit and correct made it all the way to shelves without anyone checking the facts of Fuoco's claims? Should Pellegrino have dug deeper? After the memoir scandals of James Frey, J.T. Leroy and Margaret B. Jones, and the recent recall of Herman Rosenblat's Holocaust memoir "Angel at the Fence," is it the publisher's job to check every claim, every statement, for accuracy?

Maybe. But maybe they just can't. Denis Johnson, publisher of the independent Melville House, writes:

...at some point, the publisher must make the same leap of faith in an author that a book critic makes in deciding to review a book. In this instance, that leap was based partly on the track record of the author (Pellegrino has published 12 books). And after all, who would suspect a fairly reputable historian of failing to undertake the most rudimentary research on such a sensitive story?

"The Last Train From Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back" and author Pellegrino may have gotten extra attention with the news that "Avatar" director James Cameron, with whom Pellegrino had worked before, had optioned the book. While it's admirable that the publisher will take the historically inaccurate book from the shelves, it's hard not to wonder about how rigorously publishers can fact-check the books that aren't so much in the spotlight.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: An Allied corresponded surveys the rubble of Hiroshima, 32 days after the 1945 atomic blast. Credit: Associated Press