This shocking, indispensable book has been called the most important piece of journalism ever written, and was pronounced the most best work of American journalism of the twentieth century by the 36-member panel of New York University's journalism department. Fellow "New Yorker" writer Roger Angell reiterated in 1995 that Hersey's account "became a part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust." The truth it told may well have stopped an utter worldwide nuclear catastrophe which could have potentially wiped out life on planet Earth. Hersey himself noted, "What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory... the memory of what happened at Hiroshima."
The original version was initially intended to run in "The New Yorker" over four issues, but it was ultimately decided that the entire 31,000-word piece would be published as a single article in the August 31, 1946 edition, yet another never-before-done feat, as it comprised nearly the entire content of the magazine issue. After its publication as a single volume, this book has never been out of print, and has sold more than three million copies worldwide.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Richard Hersey (1914-1993) was born in Tientsin, China, the son of Protestant missionaries for the YMCA. He reportedly could speak Mandarin before he could speak English. Hersey and his family returned to the US when he was ten. He later attended Yale University and became a Mellon Fellow at the University of Cambridge. It was during his time there that he got a summer job as a private secretary for Sinclair Lewis (1937), but later that year became an essayist for "Time" magazine, after reportedly writing an essay critical of the magazine's quality. Likely on account of his language skills, he was transferred to the magazine's Chongqing bureau in 1939. Hersey served as a war correspondent for "Newsweekly" during the Second World War, writing articles for both "Time" and "Life" magazines.
Hersey was serving as a reporter for "The New Yorker" in 1945, when he came across a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Perhaps memories of his own parents' experiences as missionaries struck a chord: Hersey followed up on the account he had discovered, visiting the missionary, who, in turn, introduced him to other survivors. As a seasoned war correspondent, the significance of the event was not lost on him. The experiences of survivors of this historic travesty was an account Hersey could not ignore. He approached an editor at "The New Yorker" about a series of articles he wanted to write regarding the event which had occurred the previous summer, focusing on the experiences of some of the survivors. The project was quickly approved. Hersey traveled to Japan in May, 1946, and began collecting material from survivors. Ultimately, the account focused on the lives of six individual survivors.
Hersey became a highly influential figure when his correspondent days ended. He became a master of Pierson College from 1965 to 1970, where he engaged in activism and early opposition to the Vietnam War, not surprisingly, based on what he had seen and experienced. He taught two writing courses in fiction and non-fiction for eighteen years. Hersey continued to write into his twilight years, ultimately returning to Hiroshima in 1985 to write a follow-up to his 1946 piece, which was included in a revision of the original volume of the book. Hersey died at his winter home in Key West in 1993, and was buried near his other home at Martha's Vineyard. He was honored with one of the five US first-class stamps commemorating influential journalists. After his death, his Alma mater, Yale, decreed that it would imitate an annual John Hersey Lecture, starting in 1993. A John Hersey Prize was endowed in 1985 by his students, which is awarded to a senior or junior for an outstanding journalistic work engaging moral and social issues.
The book follows six individuals who were all within about a mile of the detonation (though none closer than about 1,400 yards), from the initial blast, to about a year after the event.
The six people whose accounts appear in the book are as follows:
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge (Makoto Takakura): a 38-year-old German priest of the Society of Jesus, he was located about 1,400 yards from Ground Zero when the bomb detonated. He eventually became a Japanese citizen, changing his name. He reportedly never fully recovered from radiation syndrome, however. He moved to a smaller church in Mukaihara in 1961, but his health continued to deteriorate. He suffered a fall in 1976, which caused multiple vertebrae fractures, causing him to become bed-ridden from then on. He died in 1977.
Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto: pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, he was located 3,500 yards from the blast. He also struggled from radiation syndrome for an extended period of time. Tanimoto was first brought to the US by the Methodist Board of Missions for a speaking engagement, as he spoke fluent English. In 1955, he again traveled to the US with a group of the so-called "Hiroshima Maidens," a group of 25 women who were school-age girls at the time of the bombing, who came for reconstructive surgery. It was during this visit that he unexpectedly met Captain Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, on a TV show. Tanimoto died in 1986. The annual Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize is named for him.
Hatsuyo Nakamura: a widow of a tailor who had recently died in Singapore, who was raising three children, aged ten, eight and five, she was located about 1,350 yards from Ground Zero. She continued to work a series of odd jobs to support her family, after suffering illness as a direct result of radiation exposure. After she recovered somewhat, she reportedly worked at a mothball factory for thirteen years. She was later invited to become a member of the Bereaved Family Association. Only in 1975 did she receive a monthly allowance, after a law was passed allowing for the support of survivors.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii: located about 1,500 yards from the center, he owned a well-equipped, modern private hospital which contained about 30 rooms. Dr. Fujii continued his medical practice in Hiroshima, having apparently suffered few long-term ill effects from the bomb. He died in 1973.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki: a 25-year-old surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital who lived with his mother, he was located about 1,650 yards from Ground Zero. Dr. Sasaki reportedly suffered few ill effects from the bombing, but was mentally affected by the trauma of what he had seen and experienced for the rest of his life. He was also one of the first to document and attempt to treat what is now recognized as radiation syndrome, which was completely unknown of at the time. He resigned from his work at the Red Cross Hospital in 1951 and went into private practice.
Toshiko Sasaki (Sister Dominique): no relation to Dr. Sasaki above, she was 20 years old and engaged to a soldier, working as a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works. She was located about 1,600 yards from Ground Zero when the bomb detonated. Gravely injured, she was eventually abandoned by her fiance and underwent multiple surgeries over the course of fourteen months to try to improve the condition of her leg. She eventually became a nun with the Society of the Helpers of Holy Souls, taking final vows in 1953. She retired in 1978.
Not only on account of its priceless content, Hersey's masterpiece is also groundbreaking for another reason: it constitutes one of the earliest and most effective works of "New Journalism," which adopts the narrative, storytelling techniques of fiction and applies them to non-fiction writing. Curiously, Hersey himself reportedly criticized the style initially, one which he heavily influenced. It would be refined over the course of the next few decades, but its roots are here, in the wake of the most destructive conflagration in human history, including the accounts of six ordinary people who experienced something extraordinary, and lived to tell the tale.
Still told in a rather "straight reporting" style with little elaboration, and even less opinion (refreshing, considering the news climate in which we now find ourselves), the author lets the events speak for themselves, which are nothing short of absolutely horrific. The nascent nature of this style of writing is evident, and could be described as somewhat "dry" to readers of the present day, but the events and sights speak for themselves, allowing readers' imaginations to fill in the scenes. For example, without embellishment, Hersey writes of an experience reported by Father Kleinsorge, a German priest, when encountering some survivors: "Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached them with water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw that there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel) Their mouths were swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot. So Father Kleinsorge got a large piece of glass and drew out the stem so as to make a straw, and gave them all water to drink that way."
The author himself finally acknowledged the effectiveness of this style, reportedly stating that the "just-the-facts" style of writing meant that material was often quickly forgotten, including things which SHOULD not be forgotten, whereas "the things we remember are emotions and impressions and illusions and images and characters: the elements of fiction." Tragically, what is not fiction is the bombing, and the resulting travesties in its aftermath. Women with the floral patterns of their kimonos burned into their skin, because light-colored fabric repelled some of the heat, but dark-colored fabric absorbed it, thus burning the skin underneath, permanently branding the patterns of the clothing someone was wearing that day onto their bodies. Shadows on the ground, on stairs, on walls, of vaporized humans, the only remnants of their existence.
The Hiroshima "Little Boy" bomb, a "uranium gun" weapon, was the product of years of research, in the wake of the Manhattan Project, ostensibly used to avoid a costly invasion of the Japanese mainland, in terms of both economics and lives. The sites were supposedly chosen because they were large urban areas which had military significance. Hiroshima, a "virgin" target, undamaged by any previous bombing or military activity, was the headquarters of the Second General Army, which was responsible for the defense of southern Japan, and the headquarters of the 59th Army, the 5th Division and the 224th Division. It was also a supply and logistics base.
To avoid a cataclysmic loss of life, in the event that an airdropped device actually worked, some of the scientists had proposed a non-military demonstration, to try to get the Japanese government to surrender before the bombs were deployed, but the Scientific Advisory Panel rejected the idea, stating specifically that "we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use." Reportedly, some worried that the bomb wouldn't work, which would then alleviate any shock value which might result from its military deployment and demonstrate weakness. In short: the US government wanted some bang for their buck, about $2 billion in all, in 1945 dollars. They wanted to see the result of its deployment on a target in a heavily populated area, to determine whether these weapons were viable in a combat setting, and economically worth the expenditure. They got their answer.
"Little Boy" was ready to go in May, 1945. At the time of the bombing, the population of Hiroshima was estimated to be about 350,000. It was famously carried by the Enola Gay, a B-29 named for the pilot Col. Paul W. Tibbets's mother. The 393rd Bombardment Squadron was responsible for its delivery. The Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber, took off from Tinian Island, about six hours flight time from Japan, accompanied by two other B-29s. The aircraft met at the Iwo Jima rendezvous at 5:55 AM, and headed for Japan. At 8:09 pilot Tibbets started the bomb run. Bombardier Major Thomas Ferebee released the device at 8:15, which fell for 44.4 seconds before detonating at an altitude of 1,900 feet, to maximize the blast effect. The Enola Gay had traveled about 11 miles before it experienced the shock form the blast, an estimated yield of 16 kilotons, an absolute firecracker compared to the devices of the modern-day, which are measured in megatons. Nevertheless, the radius of total destruction was about a mile. Only pilot Tibbits, Captain William Parsons, who was the mission commander, and bombardier Ferebee knew the type of weapon it was. Everyone else was told to just expect a blinding flash of light, and were given blackout goggles to protect them. Not even the scientists knew whether the plane would survive the shock wave.
A fact that few people are aware of: SIX more attacks were planned, three in September, and three in October, should the Japanese refuse an unconditional surrender. Two more "Fat Man"-type assemblies were readied and scheduled to leave the US mainland for Tinian on August 11 and 14, but the Japanese surrender made their use unnecessary. In his capitulation speech, Hirohito stated that "the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and to do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but it would also lead to the total extinction of human civilization."
The result is where the books picks up: around a third of the population was killed by the blast and firestorm, some 75,000 people, with another 70,000 injured, about half the city's population. The temperature at ground level instantly reached some 7,000 degrees F. 4.7 square miles of the city were totally destroyed, including nearly 70% of its buildings. Tibbets himself noted, "at the base of the cloud, fires were springing up everywhere amid a turbulent mass of smoke that had the appearance of bubbling hot tarâ¦" which he could see... from ELEVEN MILES away. As the book notes, a shocking 90% of doctors and 93% of the nurses were killed or injured, as most were in the downtown area at the time of the blast. The closest known survivor, Eizo Nomura, was in the basement of a reinforced concrete building, only about 560 feet from Ground Zero: he died at age 84. An estimated 90,000 to 140,000 people, up to 40% of the population of Hiroshima, died in 1945, although the number who died as a result of the bombing, including radiation, is unknown, as the number who died of cancers following radiation exposure. Nor is the number of miscarriages or birth defects associated with the bombing known. Hiroshima was struck by Typhoon Ida in September, 1945, which caused even more destruction. Notwithstanding the radiation exposure, which was poorly understood, the city was rebuilt after the war.
The survivors of this event, particularly the ones old enough to vividly remember it, are almost extinct. If there were any period of history that I could time-travel to to personally experience, it would be those few years of World War II, even more than ancient Rome, the period I have spent a third of my life studying. As Those Who Remember are now so few, all of whom will pass out of existence within my lifetime, we need these accounts to shock us, to shake us out of our complacency. THIS HAPPENED. Sitting in our climate-controlled environments from a position of unprecedented safety, reading the words of the people who lived and experienced, so many decades ago, we are strangely detached from the actual occurrence, so much so that it often seems little more than fiction. As so many of us have never experienced the ravages of war, we are lulled into a sense of false security that it could not happen again... notwithstanding ever-creeping nuclear proliferation. We would be wise to ever recall the words of historian George Santayana, who once wrote: "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
An anecdote of a VERY small personal connection:
On display at the Harry S. Truman presidential library in Independence, Missouri, is a small, seemingly insignificant artifact... which is anything but. I encountered it by chance during a visit several years back, when I was visiting an elderly relative. In a small, glass case in the museum, is an innocent-looking cylindrical, metallic object with a green plug. I went over to look at it, because when I first saw it from a distance, I couldn't make out what it was. And what I found chilled me to the core. I've thought about it ever since.
The note attached read as follows:
10 Aug '45
I certify that this is one of the two Green Safety Plugs used on F-33 at Nagasaki, Japan on 9 August 1945. This was the second Atomic Bomb dropped on the Empire.
Phily M. Barnes
The note from the exhibit, which is displayed in one of the workshops, states that this is the "green safety plug from 'Fat Man,' the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. The safety plug guarded against the premature detonation of the atomic bomb. It was removed from the bomb and replaced with a red activating plug after 'Bockscar,' the B-29 that carried the bomb, took off on its flight to Nagasaki from the island of Tinian." The handwritten note on the tag attached to the bomb plug was written by the plane's bomb commander and witnessed by the electronics test officer, Commander Frederick Ashworth, USN, (Weaponeer) and Lieutenant Philip M. Barnes, USN (Assistant Weaponeer), respectively.
Clearly, all those present were acutely aware of the historic significance of this event, and of what they were about to do. This wasn't afterthought: this note was written the day of the event. The persons involved then labeled and sent this artifact to then-President Truman, an eyewitness to history if ever there were one.
Here's why we need to read. Accounts like these constitute nothing less than the purpose of the written word: to pass down the wisdom of the ages to the youthful transgressors of the present. I get it. I wish more people did.