Hiroshima by John Hersey * Format: Paperback Book * 8/31/1946
Not for the faint of heart, this powerful, slim little volume recounts the stories of the survivors of the first atomic bomb attack in history, when the US dropped the bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. The book starts on the morning of the attack and follows the survivors, in unflinching detail, as they stuggle through the first minutes, hours, days, and months of the Atomic Age with an awareness of what that really means that few of us can comprehend.
The book is organized around the stories of 6 survivors: a widowed seamstress and mother of 3 young children; a German Catholic priest; a young woman who worked in a factory; a Protestant minister; a young doctor who worked in a large hospital; and an older doctor who had his own private hospital. The book is written in the New Journalism style that Hersey helped create, where storytelling techniques more frequently seen in works of fiction are applied to non-fiction.
The first chapter begins in the early morning before the bomb drops, and follows the explosion itself. Subsequent chapters chronicle the survivors’ experiences during the first few hours, then the first few days, 12 days, and 1 year after the bombing. Modern editions also include a follow up chapter written by the original author after he sought out the survivors to find out the rest of their stories 40 years after the publication of the book.
This book drives home why nuclear proliferation and trigger-happy tyrants are a continuing danger, but it’s also a true story about the horrors of war and the best and worst of what extreme circumstances bring out in people. It’s the original nuclear apocalypse book that’s given rise to all of the others, except these characters and plotlines are real, and could happen again if we aren’t careful.
Similarly nightmarish stories happen today in small, poor and/or war torn countries. Instead of atomic bombs, the people suffer from chemical weapons, plague-like illnesses such as ebola, radiation leaks, and more. But news reports from around the world also frequently reveal that nuclear testing continues, as does the use of nuclear reactors for power generation. As long as the nuclear club exists, another Hiroshima is possible.
The story is a testament to the courage and spirit of the Japanese people. Rather than acting out the violent scenarios generally portrayed in fictional nuclear wars, the citizens of Hiroshima began to organize and cooperate to rescue and care for survivors within minutes of the blast. Communication, food supplies, transportation, and medical aid were virtually nonexistent, while there were thousands of survivors suffering, seeking missing friends and family, and in need of aid. Even under these impossible conditions, the people did what they could for each other until more help arrived.
This is also the story of a medical mystery and medical experimentation on an entire city, since Hiroshima was the first time that radiation sickness had ever been seen and followed to this extent. Doctors had no idea what to expect or how to treat the symptoms when the first victims became ill. The entire surviving population became test subjects who were studied for the rest of their lives to measure the long term effects of radiation.
John Hersey was the son of missionaries. He was born in China and spoke Chinese before he spoke English. He was a war correspondent during World War 2, covering Europe and Asia. After the war ended, he was in Japan during the winter of 1945-46. There he met a Jesuit missionary who had survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Through this missionary, Hersey met other survivors, and began to formulate his plan for a story about the effects of the bombing through the eyes of the survivors. The book version of Hiroshima has never been out of print since its initial publication in the US or in Japan.
Hiroshima was originally published as an article in the New Yorker, one year after the bomb dropped, taking up the entire edition on 8/31/46. It caused a worldwide sensation, since Japan had been under a news blackout and little information had been released to the public about the affects of the bomb. The article inspired the creation of the famous Doomsday Clock by the Manhattan Project scientists that created bomb, which scientists use to educate the public about the likelihood of humans destroying the earth with our own technologies.
The New Yorker has made the entire original article available on their site for free: Hiroshima. This version doesn’t include the follow up chapter that was added to the book in the 80s.