John Hersey’s classic 1946 account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I read a 1966 Bantam paperback, which does not contain the final chapter added in later editions.
4 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 2
The experiences of six citizens of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the United States’ first atomic bomb attack: Toshiko Sasaki, Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Hatsuyo Nakamura, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, and Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto.
Hiroshima is an Important Book. Putting that cliché on a work immediately shoves it into a dated box, making people who haven’t read it see it as a chore. But Hiroshima is readable as well as Important, the sort of book that should be required in high school history (and read by adults who missed it in school). It’s not a long book (Reading Length puts it at 46,825 words, about three hours for the average reader) and Hersey’s style is matter-of-fact and informative, despite the horrific material presented. He’s not making this political, he’s not making this about governments, he’s simply recounting what these people experienced in their immediate vicinity.
Almost no one in Hiroshima recalls hearing any noise of the bomb.
He (…) drew blood from the arm of a man in order to perform a Wasserman test.
A diagnosis test for syphilis using a specific antibody reaction (the Wasserman reaction) of the patient’s blood serum. It was named after the bacteriologist August Paul von Wassermann (1866-1925).
There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.
In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand, nearly a thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.
Father Kleinsorge (…) took Mr. Fukai up pickaback.
Is “piggyback” just a distortion of “pickaback”?
On the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had on their kimonos [were burned into their skin].
In general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery.
The hurt ones were quiet; no one wept, much less screamed in pain; no one complained; none of the many who died did so noisily; not even the children cried; very few people even spoke.
“It’s some Grummans coming to strafe us!”
The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, later Grumman Aerospace Corporation, was a leading 20th century U.S. producer of military and civilian aircraft. Founded in 1929 by Leroy Grumman and partners, it merged in 1994 with Northrop Corporation to form Northrop Grumman.
 There are graphically disturbing moments in Hiroshima (of course), but Hersey presents it as directly and simply as he can, without being gratuitous. If you are wondering if Hiroshima is appropriate for a younger reader, look at these sections. If the kid could emotionally handle them, they can handle the book:
He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.
When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw 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. (…) One of them said, “I can’t see anything.” Father Kleinsorge answered, as cheerfully as he could, “There’s a doctor at the entrance to the park. He’s busy now, but he’ll come soon and fix your eyes, I hope.”
He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, “These are human beings.”
The children, in spire of being very sick, were interested in everything that happened. They were delighted when one of the city’s gas-storage tanks went up in a tremendous burst of flame.
“It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British Grand Slam, which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”
The Grand Slam was a 22,000 lb earthquake bomb used by RAF Bomber Command against strategic targets during the Second World War. Known officially as the Bomb, Medium Capacity, 22,000 lb, it was a scaled-up version of the Tallboy Bomb. It was the most powerful non-atomic aerial bomb used in combat until 2017.
At a beautiful moon bridge, he passed a naked, living woman who seemed to have been burned from head to toe and was red all over.
A moon bridge is a highly-rounded arched pedestrian bridge associated with gardens in China and Japan. The moon bridge originated in China and was water introduced to Japan.
Occasionally they stopped suddenly in their perfectly cheerful playing and began to cry for their mother.
It was difficult for all the children in the park to sustain the sense of tragedy.
On the second day the vice-chief of the hospital went down in the basement to the vault where the X-ray plates were stored and found the whole stack exposed as they lay.
Already, Japanese physicists had entered the city with Lauritsen electroscopes and Neher electrometers; they understood the ideas all too well.
Lauritsen Electroscope (1940s)
This type of electroscope was designed in 1937 by Charles Lauritsen specifically for the measurement of radiation. (…) It had both the sensitivity required for use in the laboratory and the portability that allowed it to serve as a type of survey instrument – at the time no true survey instruments were commercially available.
On Wikipedia.org’s Talk:Electrometer page, someone reading Hersey’s Hiroshima asked about the Neher electrometer on September 8, 2015:
Could it be H. Victor Neher (1904-1999) Caltech professor of physics from 1931-1970? (…)
Answer (from September 8, 2015):
Yes, H V Neher. It was originally used for work on cosmic rays with balloon borne instruments. (…) Neher’s electrometer was a particularly good quartz fibre device.
The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew. Especially in a circle at the center, sickle senna grew in extraordinary regeneration.
The only references to hairy-fruited bean I can find lead back to Hiroshima, though the Mucuna pruriens, a tropical legume native to Africa and tropical Asia, is almost completely covered with fuzzy hairs (when the plant is young). Other names include velvet bean, coward, cowitch, lacuna bean, and Lyon bean. The plant is notorious for the extreme itchiness it produces on contact.
Portulaca oleracea (common purslane) is an annual succulent.
Clotbur is a herbaceous plant of the daisy family, with burred fruits.
Panicum (panicgrass) is a large genus of about 450 species of grasses native throughout the tropical regions of the world. They are often large, annual or perennial grasses, growing to 1-3 m tall.
Tanacetum parthenium, feverfew, is a flowering plant in the daisy family. It is a traditional medicinal herb which is commonly used to prevent migraine headaches.
Sickle senna is a common name for several plants and may refer to Senna obtusifolia (a legume that is considered a particularly serious weed) or Senna tora (a dicot legume that is considered a weed in many places).
I can’t find corroboration about this claim that many plants grew very soon after the bomb. Some articles say oleander was the first plant to blossom again after the bomb, some say red canna flowers, and those seem to have taken time to come up.
The Ono Army Hospital, where a team of experts from Kyoto Imperial University was studying the delayed affliction of the patients, suddenly slid down a beautiful, pine-dark mountainside into the Inland Sea and drowned most of the investigators and their mysteriously diseased patients alike.
They settled on the torii gateway of the Gokoku Shrine.
A torii is the gateway of a Shinto shrine, with two uprights and two crosspieces. The word means “bird abode.” It symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to sacred.
Hiroshima Gokoku Jinja is a Japanese Shinto Shrine. The original shrine was founded in 1869. In 1945, it was destroyed by the atomic bombing, and was rebuilt within the confines of Hiroshima Castle in 1965 with the aid of donations from the citizens of Hiroshima.
They gave him (…) arsenic (in Fowler’s solution) for his anemia.
Fowler’s solution is a solution containing 1% potassium arsenite and once prescribed as a remedy or a tonic. Thomas Fowler of Stafford, England, proposed the solution in 1786 as a substitute for a patent medicine. From 1845, Fowler’s solution was a leukemia treatment. Into the late 1950s, Fowler’s solution was prescribed in the United States for a wide range of diseases, including malaria, chorea, and syphilis.
A Buddhist priest (…) suggested that moxibustion might give him relief; the priest showed the pastor how to give himself the ancient Japanese treatment, by setting fire to a twist of the stimulant herb moxa placed on the wrist pulse.
Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine therapy which consists of burning dried mugwort (moxa) on particular points of the body. It plays an important role in the traditional medical systems of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia. Suppliers usually age the mugwort and grind it up to a fluff; practitioners burn the fluff or process it further into a cigar-shaped stick. They can use it indirectly, with acupuncture needles, or burn it on the patient’s skin.
Not all the patients exhibited all the main symptoms. People who suffered flash burns were protected, to a considerable extent, from radiation sickness. Those who had lain quietly for days or even hours after the bombing were much less liable to get sick than those who had been active. Grey hair seldom fell out.
They reported that 78,150 people had been killed, 13,983 were missing, and 37,425 had been injured. No one in the city government pretended that these figures were accurate – though the Americans accepted them as official.
She asked bluntly, “If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?” She made a gesture which took in her shrunken leg, the other patients in her room, and Hiroshima as a whole.
“My child,” Father Kleinsorge said, “man is not now in the condition God intended. He has fallen from grace through sin.” And he went on to explain all the reasons for everything. (…)
Whether or not Father Kleinsorge’s answers to Miss Sasaki’s questions about life were final and absolute truths, she seemed quickly to draw physical strength from them.
I wonder what Kleinsorge said? Hersey doesn’t tell us in the text. This makes me think of Part 3 of Walter Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz (see especially note ).
Carpenters cut timbers, gouged mortises, shaped tenons, whittled scores of wooden pegs and bored holes for them.
A mortise (or mortice) and tenon joint is a type of joint that connects two pieces of wood or other material.
He felt tired all the time. “But I have to realize,’ he said, “that the whole community is tired.”
A surprising number of the people of Hiroshima remained more or less indifferent about the ethics of using the bomb. Possibly they were too terrified by it to want to think about it at all.
Most libraries should have at least one copy of Hiroshima; The New Yorker (which originally published the piece) has it available on their site. You have no excuse not to read it. But Hiroshima should only be an entry point. It doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive, final account; it is an introduction. I’d like to read a Japanese perspective giving a wider view of Hiroshima’s history and lifestyle before and after the attack. If you’ve got any recommendations, send them over.
Next week, a great novel told in short stories: Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.