Hiroshima. By John Hersey (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1989). 160 pages. Reviewed by Your Name, Date of Review.
John Hersey (1914 – 1993) decided to write a story about the atomic bombing of Japan that would explain the catastrophic consequences to the people on the ground there at the time. Hersey spent weeks in Japan interviewing eyewitnesses to the event and eventually produced a long article entitled “Hiroshima” which appeared in The New Yorker. Two months later Hiroshima was printed as a book. The general story is that of six people who were on the scene when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. The book describes the aftermath of the August 6, 1945 bombing of the city of Hiroshima when the first atom bomb was dropped. John Hersey’s viewpoint was unique because he had experienced living in China as well as the United States when he was a child. He produced several prominent books about the American military: Men on Bataan, Into the Valley, and A Bell for Adano. The thesis of Hiroshima is that war is morally problematic and best examined from personal perspectives. As such, the book is written as a forthright account of the bombing integrated with personal perspectives and narratives. In this way, Hiroshima puts a human face on the death toll and devastation there. It also made clear how cataclysmic the atomic bomb was and called into question its use in the future. Hiroshima gives a detailed explanation about the lives of six individuals who witnessed the attack. The city’s total populace before the bomb was about 250,000 and afterward was about 150,000 with many more permanently injured. Hersey's Hiroshima looks at the lives of six survivors from the minute of the attack until a couple of months afterwards. Kiyoshi Tanimoto was a Methodist minister educated in the United Sates who was uninjured by the blast. As fires spread around the city, Tanimoto and Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a Jesuit cleric, tried to help people. They helped try to evacuate, provided water, and comforted the people they could. A large number of the casualties were incapacitated to the point of immobility. There was no immediate official response or help, so it was individuals like Kleinsorge and Tanimoto who tried to fight the fires. For Hersey's work on Hiroshima , he also interviewed Toshiko Sasaki, the youthful office worker whose leg was broken during the attack.
She was just beginning her workday, the next thing she knew she was down, “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books” (9). She cannot get treatment for her injury. So many medical personnel were killed or incapacitated in the explosion and fires that there is a shortage of treatment in general. Dr. Terufumi Sasaki was uninjured and as the staff specialist for the Red Cross Hospital, he is so overwhelmed with patients that he basically moves in permanently. After Japan officially surrenders and reconstruction of the city begins, radiation illness becomes apparent among eh survivors of the blast. The casualties of radiation poisoning become hot, pallid, and sometimes their hair falls out. Many, including Father Kleinsorge, never completely recuperate from the radiation poisoning. Hershey also documents how some on the city attempted to keep living their typical lives as usual, in some sort of dazed state of denial. In his reprisal forty years after the attack, Hershey describes how Father Kleinsorge and Dr. Fujii died from sudden mysterious diseases years afterwards. Miss Sasaki turned into a religious recluse. Dr. Sasaki and Reverend Tanimoto commit their lives to helping individuals. Hersey finds that the people of Hiroshima were still experiencing the ill effects of attack so many years later. The bulk of the book explains how the six individuals reacted to the bomb and how their understanding of what had happened grows as time passes. For example, Mr. Tanimoto believes the attack was aimed at his immediate vicinity. As times passes he becomes aware that much of the entire city has been obliterated. He sees smoke billowing from the central area of the city and realizes that the wind is quickly spreading the flames. Running toward the smoke and fire, he searches for his wife and infant. He sees that people have been horribly hurt and burned, “He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way.
The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands” (16). Rubble and weeping are all around him. Almost immediately, Tanimoto feels what can be described as survivor’s guilt. Miraculously, he discovers his wife and infant, both unhurt. Dr. Sasaki and Dr. Fujii both survive the initial impact, but Fujii is hurt and his facility, staff, and patients decimated. As the flames spread, they seek safety in the waterways as 10,000 injured individuals swarm into his 600-bed facility. Sasaki does his best to help people in all the confusion, he is actually treating people wearing someone else’s glasses and both he and Dr. Fujii are bewildered about what weapon could have brought on so much ruin so fast. Miss Sasaki believes she will probably lose her leg. She is stuck underneath a bookshelf, scarcely cognizant of the level of destruction that has occurred until much later. Throughout all of this, there is fire everywhere. Hersey does not explore the devastation using his own narrator voice, which is calm and sometimes matter of fact. Instead his narrative is made convincing because he describes the aftermath of the bombing through the lens of eyewitnesses. From Miss Sasaki’s viewpoint, the reader discovers that she remained alone in a crude shelter when people arrive to inform her of the deaths of almost her whole immediate family. She is ill with radiation sickness and an infection for months and suffers from severe (and understandable) depression. Finally, she is rehabilitated enough to get around with the use of crutches. When the next bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, the people in Hiroshima become more cognizant about the totality of the attack and the destruction it has wrought. They search for missing relatives.
The people who Hersey documented try to put their lives back together as physicists and experts examine the destruction in Hiroshima. Japanese physicists report that the destruction was so intense granite slabs melted. The bomb was so bright that shadows from buildings and people were emblazoned on walls. The plutonium bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was worse. Hersey explains that this attack was nothing like traditional bombings or air raids. He wants to make it clear that the morality behind the use of the atomic bomb is questionable but Hersey uses this information sparingly because he is intent is to tell the story of the people on the ground. Hersey incorporates various striking yet subtle elements and almost casually introduced data from the records. Readers who wonder if the people on the ground in Hiroshima hold a grudge against Americans because of the bombing are told about Mrs. Nakamura disdains Americans for a while, really hates them when she believes they have dropped poison on Japan. When talk of poison ends up being unwarranted, her contempt fades. Others in Japan dismally acknowledgement that Japan brought this upon itself, “It was war and we needed to expect it" (47). Mr. Tanimoto contacts an American companion to forge an alliance but Dr. Sasaki does indeed hold a grudge. None of this comes as a surprise to the reader. Hersey touches on the notion of total war by way of a priest’s letter to Rome in which catastrophe and civilian victims are to be expected in such situations. None of Hershey’s accusations of immorality is overt, but they are subtly included in the discussions. Hersey just sort of lets the picture and evidence speak for itself and leaves conclusions about ethics to the reader. His personal opinion about the politics behind the bomb is indistinct through much of the book. Hersey does not come out and state what he thought about the decision and its outcome.
Nor does he expressly respond to the survivors’ stories, the ones he tells. Readers are not lectured, the book is no diatribe, mostly it is what Hershey intended it to be, stories from the perspective of the fortunate ones, the ones who lived to tell their tales. John Hersey wrote this book for the American newspaper reading public but it became much more than that. It is officially selected as part of accelerated reading programs for grades eight and nine in public schools and often assigned at the college level in both History and English classes. Banned in Japan at the time of publication it was devoured by the American reading public. Hershey’s technique of down playing his personal perspective if an effective way of generating profound sympathy in his readers. Written at the time of the bombing, today Hiroshima stands alone as a primary source. Decades of readers at the college level and among the general reading pubic hear the stories of a half dozen people who witnessed the event. This is a subtle way to present the moral problems of war as well as the importance of putting faces to statistics. It is probably impossible for most people to comprehend how 100,000 people could be incinerated or how six people could survive seeing it. Obviously, Hersey had grave concerns about the use of and future of atomic weapons. Yet his perspective remains restrained as he focuses on letting the eyewitnesses explain the events. Six normal working people saw and experienced an event so inexplicable that it is not only amazing they survived the bomb; it is amazing that they remained sane afterward. Hiroshima is a powerful and enduring book; it stuns as it arouses the sympathy and inspires contemplation among its readers.