James Cameron – and a lot of other people – have been duped by a wannabe scientist and pseudo-historian.
One of the weekend guests on Coast to Coast AM was Dr. Charles Pellegrino.
If the name is familiar, you may have seen him in the Discovery Channel documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, or read the 2007 book about the tomb that he co-authored with “naked archeologist” Simcha Jacobovici (who is neither naked nor an archeologist), The Jesus Family Tomb. Pellegrino, Jacobovici, and James Cameron are the three most enthusiastic supporters of the “Jesus tomb” discovered in Talpiot three decades ago. Cameron and Pellegrino have been buds for quite some time, because according to the Lost Tomb website, Pellegrino’s work was the inspiration for Titanic. Pellegrino introduced Jacobovici to Cameron, which led to their collaboration on the Discovery doc and a few other documentary projects.
Pellegrino might also be familiar from his solo nonfiction books: Unearthing Atlantis; The Ghosts of Titanic; and Return to Sodom and Gomhorra (to name a few). It should be fairly clear by now that he likes to explore somewhat spooky, fringy topics that most historians, Bible scholars, archeologists, and paleo-biologists won’t touch with a dead rat. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unless, of course, you let the spookiness and fringiness hijack your common sense.
Pellegrino has also authored several sci-fi/ecological thrillers of the “Holy shit, we’re doomed!” variety.
You may also know Pellegrino for the subject of the C2C broadcast: His recently published book The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back (Henry Holt & Co., 2010). It combines graphic descriptions of the atomic bomb’s aftermath with the stories of several Hiroshima survivors who fled to Nagasaki, only to suffer and survive the second bombing. It also features testimony from USAF officers involved in the bombing of Japan, including the late Joseph Fuoco’s harrowing account of a hushed-up atom bomb accident that killed one American and irradiated others, reducing the weapon’s destructive power by at least half.
The book came out earlier this year, but James Cameron has already acquired the film rights. And it has already been yanked from publication. Here’s the statement from Henry Holt posted on Amazon.com: “It is with deep regret that Henry Holt and Company announces that we will no longer print, correct or ship copies of Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima due to the discovery of a dishonest sources of information for the book.
It is easy to understand how even the most diligent author could be duped by a source, but we also understand that opens that book to very detailed scrutiny. The author of any work of non-fiction must stand behind its content. We must rely on our authors to answer questions that may arise as to the accuracy of their work and reliability of their sources. Unfortunately, Mr. Pellegrino was not able to answer the additional questions that have arisen about his book to our satisfaction.
Mr. Pellegrino has a long history in the publishing world, and we were very proud and honored to publish his history of such an important historical event. But without the confidence that we can stand behind the work in its entirety, we cannot continue to sell this product to our customers.”
So, um, what happened?
Well, first off, this is not the first time Pellegrino has gotten himself into a spot of trouble with the facts. In 2008, a Who’s Who of archeology signed a statement of protest against claims made by Pellegrino, Cameron, and Jacobovici. The three amigos had been crowing that an archaeological symposium on the “Jesus tomb”, held at Princeton in January of that year, was proof that their theory of the tomb was finally being taken seriously in scientific circles. The scientific community begged to differ. They also resented the fact that the media had bypassed their serious scholarship on the issue to quote a Hollywood director and a TV producer known for his sensationalistic statements.
When The Lost Tomb of Jesus and its companion book appeared, archaeologists reiterated their conclusion that the names inscribed on six of the ten ossuaries in the tomb weren’t proof of anything, except that six people bearing those remarkably common names had died in Palestine sometime in the first century. Some of the archaeologists interviewed for the doc and book retracted or qualified their statements. (Pellegrino’s and Jacobovici’s contention that the ridiculously bogus “James ossuary” might have been the missing eleventh ossuary wasn’t even worth debating.)
This could all be quite understandable and forgivable if Pellegrino was a noob in the murky realm of “Biblical archeology.” But he wasn’t. In fact, he credits himself as the co-discoverer of the city of Sodom.
He’s referring to a site in Iraq called Madhkan–shapir, which he only partially excavated before the first Gulf War. Because it’s buried among oil fields, he surmises that earthquakes in the region allowed gas to escape where cooking fires could have ignited it. He points out that Moses saw the fires of Sodom/Gomhorra still smoldering three centuries later, and only an oil field could burn for so long.
In the bio on his website, Pellegrino explains that even though he calls himself the co-discoverer of Sodom, Madhkan–shapir is probably just one of several destroyed cities that inspired the Biblical account.
So you might be noticing a pattern here. Pellegrino selects an historical artifact, connects it to a famous event that may or may not have even happened (or attaches himself to someone who has already made that connection), then promotes the hell out of it by writing a book and/or appearing in documentaries on the subject. This is an acceptable M.O. if you actually have persuasive evidence to back up your theory, but Pellegrino rarely (if ever) has the goods. Most of his books are minor masterpieces of speculation and conjecture.
Then there’s the problem of Pellegrino’s doctorate. Namely, he doesn’t have one. He isn’t a paleo-biologist with a degree from New Zealand’s Victoria University, as he has been claiming for almost 30 years. That doesn’t stop him from highlighting the “Dr.” on his website.
Pellegrino was a PhD candidate at Victoria U. in the ’70s, but his thesis was rejected and his ’86 appeal denied. When confronted with the fact that the university has no record of him being awarded a PhD, Pellegrino declared that it was revoked in the early ’80s because of a dispute over evolutionary theory. This “academic witch hunt” forced him to flee New Zealand after his lab was destroyed by vandals.
His thesis supervisor disputes this. Retired Victoria University professor Bob Wear stated, “I guess Pellegrino is very good at bullshit and he has managed to convince people of his authenticity throughout his life.” He describes Pellegrino as an intelligent but sloppy researcher prone to “weird tangents”.
Where does this leave his claims of being a multidisciplinary research scientist and engineer, designing everything from NASA life-detection systems to “the world’s first antimatter rocket”?
Then there’s the fact that The Last Train to Hiroshima isn’t the first of Pellegrino’s books to be withdrawn by its publisher. In 1990 Random House yanked Pellegrino’s Unearthing Atlantis from the presses after a Greek archaeologist challenged its content.
Now, back to that Hiroshima book. As mentioned, Pellegrino included the reminiscences of the late WWII vet Joseph Fuoco, who was assigned to the crew of one of the two surveillance planes that accompanied the Enola Gay on its date with destruction. He replaced flight engineer James Corliss at the last minute, because Corliss had fallen ill.
While the bomb was being loaded at an airbase on the Pacific island of Tinian, there was an accident in which an American scientist died. Fuoco pieced together what happened: Damage to the nuclear fuel assembly resulted in a deadly burst of radiation and reduced the bomb’s destructive power by more than half. Pellegrino repeatedly refers to Little Boy as “a dud.”
Almost as soon as The Last Train to Hiroshima appeared in print, the family of the late James Corliss stepped forward to refute Fuoco’s version of events. They say Corliss was in the surveillance plane, and all the evidence is on their side: Not only do the surviving crew members recall his presence, President Truman presented him with an air medal for his part in the operation.
Fuoco does not appear on the roster of the 509th Bomb Group. Ever.
At this point, it’s not clear who was behind the bogus story attributed to Fuoco. We only have Pellegrino’s word that Fuoco’s account came wholly from him, as the man died in 2008. His widow, Claire Fuoco, contends that he would not have invented such a story.
Nuclear scientists and historians had major problems with Fuoco’s story, too. The destructive potentials of Little Boy and Fat Man were fully realized; there is no evidence that either was damaged. Atomic historian Robert S. Norris stated that it is Pellegrino’s book, not the atomic bomb, that was defective. “This book is a Toyota,” he told the New York Times.
In February Pellegrino acknowledged his mistake in accepting Fuoco’s alleged version of events without researching it in any depth, and pledged to correct his errors for subsequent editions of the book. But the Fuoco story proved to be only part of the problem. Pellegrino was unable to satisfactorily answer questions about another of his sources, a Jesuit priest who claims one of his colleagues committed suicide. To date, there has been no confirmation that these two priests actually existed.
James Cameron, who last December accompanied Pellegrino on a visit to Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the last known survivor of both bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has referred to the criticism of Pellegrino’s work as “a misunderstanding”, insisting that Pellegrino would not fabricate anything.
It’s sad that Pellegrino’s fake credentials and poor research may scotch any Hiroshima film project Cameron had in the works, because as Greg Mitchell pointed out in a November editorial at The Huffington Post, the bombing of Japan is still something of a verbotin subject in America.
The outcry over Last Train has inspired the usual navel-gazing and excuse-spewing among editors, publisher reps, and literary agents. But given his track record, the most appalling aspect of the Hiroshima affair isn’t that Charles Pellegrino conducted shoddy research; it’s that anyone actually believed anything he had to say in the first place.