Hiroshima by John Hersey,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946
Hiroshima was original published in the New Yorker Magazine on August 31, 1946, a year after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. During the winter of 1945-46 John Hersey, a war correspondent for several publications, was in Japan reporting on post-war reconstruction. While there he found a document written by a Jesuit missionary who had survived the bombing. He located the missionary and was introduced to other survivors.
The New Yorker published Hersey’s article in a single issue, a first for such a long piece. The cover of the issue shows a lovely summer day with people picnicking in a park. There was no warning of what lay inside. After the “Talk of the Town” column the editors had added a note:
“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.”
The article, later published by Knopf as a small book, contains the stories of six survivors, the Priest, a young seamstress, a factory worker, two doctors and a minister. In clear, undramatic prose Hersey described the impact on the city, the first destroyed by a single weapon. In precise, meticulous language he writes of the survivors From the first paragraph:
“A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition- a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next- that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.”
The survivors describe what they were doing at the exact moment of the bombing. They tell of their first reactions, their belief that the attack only affected their local neighborhoods. They tell of what they did, what they heard, what they saw. I can not imagine the feelings of shock these people must have felt and yet they continued on.
“At first Dr. Fujii could see only two fires, one across the river from his hospital site and one quite far to the south. But at the same time, he and his friend observed something that puzzled them, and which, as doctors, they discussed: although there were as yet very few fires, wounded people were hurrying across the bridge in a helpless parade of misery, and many of the exhibited terrible burns on their faces and arms. “Why do you suppose it is?” Dr. Fujii asked. Even a theory was comforting that day, and Dr. Machii stuck to his.”
No one knew anything about this devastating new weapon.
“…Those victims who were able to worry at all about what had happened thought of it and discussed it in more primitive, childish terms – gasoline sprinkled from and airplane, maybe, or some combustible gas, or a cluster of incendiaries, or the work of parachutists: but, even if they had know the truth, most of them were too busy or to wary or too badly hurt to care that they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power..”
There are images from this book that I have stayed with me since the first time I read it nearly 30 years ago. No matter how you feel about the United States first use of an atomic weapon this is a book all people should read. It was important when it was first published and is even more important today.