Monaghan based author Joe McCabe recounts aspects of writing Rebels to Reels, his fascinating biography of the Irish-born US Air Force cameraman who captured the harrowing images we have today of the aftermaths of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.
One Monday morning in September 1999 I was settling into the start of another busy week as a journalist in my home town of Carrickmacross in Monaghan when I received a phone call. It was our then local librarian, Marita Hughes. She urged me to get myself down to the library as soon as I could as there was an American visitor there whom, she strongly felt, I should talk to.
That visitor was Lt. Colonel Daniel A. McGovern, United States Air Force (Retired). I had never heard of him but, by the end of my interview with him that day, I wondered why. Marita had been right because, as it would turn out, her phone call was the genesis of a biography which, on and off, would eventually take me over twenty years to complete. The interview began and, as he gradually related his remarkable story to me, Dan McGovern soon had me captivated. The son of a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, he informed me that he had actually grown up in Carrickmacross where he had witnessed clashes in the Irish War of Independence, rode on Crossley Tenders with the Black and Tans and witnessed his father hand over his RIC barracks to Irish Free State Forces in 1922.
Writing About What You Know
Later, in America Dan became designated Cameraman/Photographer to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, trained the first combat cameramen for the US Army Air Forces, filmed footage for Hollywood director William Wyler’s acclaimed 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle – A Story of A Flying Fortress and then led the filming of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb aftermath footage we have today. However, McGovern also did so much more than that and he met some amazing historical and celebrity figures along the way.
They say that you should always write about what you know. In that respect I have been very fortunate with the book which eventually emerged from that initial 1999 interview – Rebels to Reels – A biography of Combat Cameraman Daniel A. McGovern USAF, more details of which are available on its Amazon listing HERE. At the outset of writing it, I already had a keen interest in military history and particularly that of World War II. Chronicling Dan McGovern’s full story as it emerged soon became a labour of love.
Piecing together the finer details and the actual chronography of many aspects of Dan’s story however, proved to be the most difficult challenge . This was given the passage of time since many of the overall important historical events had occurred. This is, at least in part, why writing Rebels to Reels turned out to be such a prolonged writing process, but it was imperative to me to get it right. Some six years after I had met Dan McGovern, and with work still progressing on the book, Dan passed away. My primary source of first-hand information, Dan himself, was gone.
Footnotes and Formatting
Arriving at the finished manuscript now was going to take many more years of deep research principally undertaken in Ireland, the United States and Japan. It involved countless interviews and exchanges of correspondence with key people mainly all across the United States, most of whom had known, served or worked with Dan McGovern. It involved a laborious wide-ranging process of researching documents, photographs and film as well as other known interviews, following leads and hunches, cross-checking, cross-referencing and fact-checking. The very final stage of this research process was severely hampered by the Covid 19 pandemic. Eventually, however, it was complete.
As an independent author, I had full control of my book and, as I already had the experience, I undertook the editing and then the formatting of my biography of Dan McGovern entirely myself. Footnotes and citations, I decided in the case of this book, would be best accessed at the end of every individual chapter rather than in their entirety at the end of the biography as is usually the case in other non-fiction titles. In total, there are over 10,000 words of historical footnotes and citations in Rebels to Reels. A great many readers tell me they like this arrangement and that it works well.
A Feast of Photographs
McGovern’s story is, of course, visually heavy. It has to be given the nature of his profession. Rebels to Reels has over 130 black and white photographs and film grabs within its pages, all strategically placed as close as possible to where they are relative within the text. This arrangement does result in some additional white spaces in the eBook download, but again, eBook readers tell me they like it. So it’s a compromise.
Rebels to Reels for the very first time also contains the backstories of how many of Dan McGovern’s films, film sequences and still photographs were shot during his many military deployments worldwide. To access these historical films and photographs I first searched the video and photo files available online in the US National Archives. McGovern had told me they were there but not all could be found. However, much of the elusive footage and completed films I eventually did find either on YouTube or through the great historical resources within the United States Air Force or through the many USAF affiliated civilian organisations and individuals.
Incidentally, I was in awe of just how many of these films and footage sequences I had initially viewed in numerous feature films and documentaries decades before I had even met Dan McGovern. Back then I was oblivious to the fact that a man from my own hometown in Ireland had recorded them for posterity. That was a phrase McGovern used often.
Reader Film Access
It was very important to me also that readers of Rebels to Reels had easy access to the very historic film material about which they were reading in the book. To achieve this, I uploaded a selection of the most relevant films and film clips onto the biography’s companion website rebelstoreels.com which can be viewed HERE. I then flagged the website’s existence in the introduction of the book itself. This, I feel has worked extremely well and importantly, yet again, many of my readers tell me so.
To tell Dan McGovern’s story properly also necessitated learning the technical aspects of the many camera types he used and the filming and photography techniques he employed. However, it was important to impart this information to the reader in such a way that it was not overly technical and without inhibiting the flow of the story. I am confident that I have achieved that.
Quite a few readers, having completed Rebels to Reels, have contacted me to draw comparisons with Dan McGovern and the fictional Forrest Gump movie character who stumbled through historical events. Whilst McGovern was, of course, the real deal it’s somewhat ironic however, that Forrest Gump actor Tom Hanks and also Hollywood director Steven Spielberg both knew their fellow film-maker Dan McGovern. He featured in one of their own documentary productions. Just like Dan, both men recognised then and indeed continue to recognise today, the critical importance of preserving history and particularly the history of their chosen medium – for posterity.
(c) Joseph McCabe
About Rebels to Reels – A Biography of Combat Cameraman Daniel A. McGovern USAF:
This is the fascinating true-life story of the man who filmed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only weeks after the dropping of the atomic bombs. This three-part, highly researched biography tells the full story of how the often harrowing footage we have today was shot and of how McGovern saved it for posterity despite decades of US government suppression. Earlier, ‘Big Mack’ was designated cameraman and photographer to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt before being chosen to train the very first combat cameramen of World War Two for the then United States Army Air Forces.
‘Rebels to Reels’, for the very first time, tells the full story of how McGovern trained those cameramen before he himself deployed to England from where he flew six perilous combat missions over Nazi occupied Europe. Readers glean a unique ‘fly on the fuselage’ experience as ‘Rebels to Reels’ brings them on McGovern’s B-17 missions as he filmed. This biography also contains Dan’s remarkable accounts of his involvement in the UFO Roswell Incident and of the transition of the USAAF into the United States Air Force – the 75th Anniversary of which occurs in 2022. However, Dan’s story begins not in America, but in Ireland where, as a boy and the son of an RIC policemen, McGovern associated with the infamous Black and Tans as he eye-witnessed the Irish War of Independence unfold which ultimately led to the partitioning of Ireland.
Order your copy online here.