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A Career Too Good to Be True

Gabriel Schoenfeld

Charles Pellegrino is the author of The Last Train From Hiroshima, published in January by Henry Holt. It tells tales about a hitherto unknown accident with the first atomic bomb that caused casualties and reduced the yield of the explosion. It is based in part upon the recollections of one Joseph Fuoco, who had claimed to have been aboard one of the two observations planes that escorted the Enola Gay on its mission to Hiroshima.

But there was one small problem with Pellegrino’s account. Despite Mr. Fuoco’s claims, he was not on the flight. Interviewed by the New York Times in February, Pellegrino admitted having been duped. He told the Times he was stunned: ”‘I liked and admired the guy. He had loads and loads of papers, and photographs of everything.’ The public record has to be repaired, he added. ‘You can’t have wrong history going out,’ he said. ‘It’s got to be corrected.’”

Yet there might be more here than meets the eye. Mr. Pellegrino has had an astonishing career. He is the author of a dozen books, one of which was used as source material for James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie, Titanic. More recently he gave guidance to Mr. Cameron in the production of Avatar.

Mr. Pellegrino is also a certifiable polymath. On his website, he describes himself as a “scientist working in paleobiology, astronomy, and various other areas,” as well as a “designer for projects including rockets and nuclear devices (non-military propulsion systems), composite construction materials, and magnetically levitated transportation systems.”  He is also a “space flight consultant.”

This is a tall order. The question is, is it also a tall tale?

Mr. Pellegrino asserts on his website that he earned a Ph.D in 1982 from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Henry Holt told the New York Times that his doctorate was in zoology. Once upon a time, checking on such a claim might have taken months. But my query to the university was answered promptly via e-mail by its “employment relations manager.” She wrote:

Your enquiry has been passed to me for response. The University is undertaking an investigation into the situation that has arisen in relation to Charles Pellegrino. I can confirm that Mr Pellegrino does not have a PhD from this University. No further statement will be provided at this time.

One need not be a rocket scientist to see that Pellegrino is not a rocket scientist, a zoologist, or any other kind of scientist. Nor is he a historian. Mr. Pellegrino may or may not have been duped by Mr. Fuoco. Henry Holt was certainly duped by Mr. Pellegrino. The public record, one might say, has to be repaired. You can’t have wrong history going out. It’s got to be corrected.

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