ST. GEORGE — Since retiring to Southern Utah, former television producer Douglas Wellman has been busier than ever.
After moving to St. George in 2013, Wellman took a job as a chaplain at Dixie Regional Medical Center and kept busy with hobbies and enjoying downtime. He had the leftover energy to complete two novels in the past few months.
A bit of an anomaly, the release of two books relatively close to one another was caused in part from COVID-19 pandemic publishing delays and Wellman’s “mistake” of writing two novels at one time, he said with a laugh.
Willman’s novels – a nonfiction first-person account “Surviving Hiroshima: a Young Woman’s Story” and “Five Minutes, Mr. Byner,” a celebrity biography that centered on a comedy career that spanned decades – couldn’t be more different but both are equally compelling in the historical narrative they present.
Looking back on Byner’s career and his second book, Wellman recalls a plane ride the two shared as a memorable moment.
“Something had changed and at the last minute John and I had to catch a plane out of Chicago,” Wellman said. “We were sitting back in the middle of the plane and soon we hit severe turbulence. I looked up and noticed the cabin attendant’s eyes were as big as dinner plates.”
That’s never a good sign, Wellman added.
“I turned to John and said, ‘I can’t believe we’re going to die in coach,’ which lightened the moment,” he said. “When we would get together and it was always one story after another like John being friends with Elvis … and his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show where he went from being nobody, driving trucks, to performing in front of millions of people on live TV with about two hours notice to prepare for that moment.”
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Wellman studied broadcast speech/communications at the University of Minnesota.
After several years working in Twin Cities television stations, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s where he went on to become a multi-award-winning television producer and director.
Much of Wellman’s professional career has been working in comedy for shows like “The Jeffersons,” “The Facts of Life,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Gimmie a Break,” “An Evening at the Improv” and “Comedy on the Road” where he met John Byner spanning a 25-year desire to produce a biography of the comedian that came true this year.
“My work in comedy produced a level of excitement and anxiety, but I enjoyed it a lot,” Wellman said.
Wellman also worked at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts for 17 years, including 10 years as an assistant dean.
If he wasn’t busy enough, Wellman concurrently attended King’s College and Seminary, earning a theology degree.
He spent six years working as a pastor with the homeless population of Los Angeles and, after retiring from USC, volunteering for three years as a bible teacher at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane.
Wellman’s first novel, “Boxes: The Secret Life of Howard Hughes,” was published in 2010.
While his biographies offer an insight on the men behind what is public, it’s Wellman’s first-person account of Kaleria Palchikoff Drago in “Surviving Hiroshima: a Young Woman’s Story,” a Russian refugee at the time of the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, that fosters a page-turning read.
“A couple of years ago, I was put in touch with a man whose mother and family survived the bombing and subsequent firestorm in Hiroshima,” Wellman said. “They were not Japanese, but White Russian nobility who had escaped the Bolsheviks and the (1917) Russian Revolution and Civil War.”
The escape from Russia is “probably” more exciting than the Palchikoff family’s survival of the atomic bomb, Wellman added.
Shortly after the Russian country broke up Kaleria’s father, Sergei, joined the White Russian movement as a captain in charge of commanding troops.
The “Whites” were counter-revolutionary groups that fought against the Bolshevik-controlled Red Army for the control of Russia, but who were eventually defeated by the leftist revolutionaries led by the Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin.
With nowhere else to run, by 1921 Sergei Palchikoff and his troops decided to highjack a cargo ship in the port of Vladivostok that was destined for Japan.
After an agreement was reached with the Japanese captain who commanded the Russian-flagged cargo ship, the White Russians, who were now considered international criminals, agreed to surrender their weapons during the voyage. It was an event that resulted in a peaceful end to what could have been a violent confrontation.
As a military man, Sergei would have found it difficult to order his troops to hand over their weapons, but that decision had to be made, Wellman said.
“When they actually decided to surrender their weapons, they also surrendered the epaulets (ornamental shoulder pieces) on their uniforms and personal possessions,” Wellman added. “It was a very ceremonial surrender.”
It was in Vladivostok that Kaleria was born and just a toddler during the voyage to Japan.
For the rest of the journey to Hiroshima, the Russians were no longer considered criminals but refugees seeking political asylum. They were allowed to immigrate to what would become a home away from home.
“Later in life, Sergei would say he literally hijacked a ship to get out of a bad situation in Russia,” Wellman said.
Little did he know what would happen 24 years later.
It was a clear, sunny morning – 8:15 a.m. Aug. 6, 1945 – that the most powerful weapon ever used against other humans was detonated by the United States on Hiroshima with a population of approximately 345,000.
More than 70,000 people were killed instantly when the first atomic bomb was detonated with the ultimate death toll rising to as many as 90,000 to 166,000 by the end of the year from injury and radiation poisoning.
Prior to the bombing, Sergei, an accomplished musician, played at silent movies, on the radio, and devoted his time teaching violin and cello at a girls’ school.
Sergei also taught Russian language at the Military Academy of Japan, which eventually resulted in an accusation of being a spy and a prison sentence.
“The reason why he wound up in prison was that he mispronounced the word ‘cheese.'” Wellman said. “Whoever heard that thought he had said ‘map’ and subsequently the police showed up to take Sergei to prison.”
After a year, Sergei was released and moved his family to a home on Nagarekawa Street in Hiroshima approximately 500 yards from ground zero. There was a Koi pond that surrounded the house and according to Kaleria, it was a beautiful place that offered a comfortable living.
It was then serendipity stepped in when the military took over the occupation of the home and forced the Palchikoff family to move.
With nowhere to go, Sergei moved to Ushita, a suburb of Hiroshima approximately two miles from ground zero.
Although their new home was destroyed in the bombing, it provided enough distance for survival.
“If this had not happened, they would have been incinerated when the bomb went off,” Wellman said.
In a 1994 interview with Sound Portraits Productions, Kaleria recalled the days after the bombing.
“My brother, Nikolai, had gone to America to study and continue his schooling when he was 16,” Kaleria said. “Over there, the military grabbed him up” and sent him to the Philippines.
As a radio operator, Nikolai intercepted chatter from Japan on August 6, detailing what had happened and that Hiroshima had been destroyed. This meant his family was dead.
Although his commanding officer did not believe the city was gone until President Harry Truman’s announcement the next day, it took a few requests to receive a 72-hour pass to visit the city where he was born and raised.
After the bomb was dropped, and granted his pass, Nikolai was one of the first American soldiers to set foot in Hiroshima.
“Nikolai thought we had all perished, so he came and inspected (our) house,” Kaleria said. “All he found was (a piece of metal that he recognized as a piece of) his bed mangled and all of the rest of the (house) was burned.”
When Nikolai saw the nuclear shadows of people on the sideway when the bomb detonated in front of his home, he lost all hope, Wellman said.
Serendipity again stepped in when Nikolai came across another White Russian refugee who said if his father could be anywhere, it might be waiting in line for insurance assistance but that the insurance company official only came periodically.
“As luck would have it, as Nikolai tuned up he saw his father standing in line,” Wellman said. “He soon found himself hustled off to meet his mother, Kaleria, and his younger brother David to spend a few hours with them before returning to the Philippines.”
Eventually, the Palchikoff family would immigrate to the United States. Still, it was hard to forget the past.
“My father taught Russian in the U.S. Army, but it was hard for him to start over again in another country when he was already over 50,” Kaleria said during a 2005 interview aired on the National Public Radio program “All Things Considered.” “I’ve tried to forget about the atomic bombing. Even now, I never discuss it with anyone. The bombing was a nightmare.”
Kaleria died of cardiac failure in Long Beach, Calif., on Dec. 30, 2014. She was 93.
Kaleria’s account of Hiroshima is based in part on interviews conducted by the Army Air Force after the war and Kaleria’s diaries. Wellman’s books can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores across the nation.
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