Hiroshima at 75

August 6, 2020 at 9:29 am | Posted in nuclear war | 3 Comments

Back in the day, Eleanor Walker, my mentor in the Grail movement, was given to saying that she didn’t read her books; she “felt warmly toward them.”

One of my books that I have felt warmly toward over the years but never read is John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  With the 75th anniversary of that bombing today, on August 6, I decided that it was time to read it.

When I began to read, I realized that I also hadn’t actually read the subtitle:  The Story of Six Human Beings who Survived the Explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima.  For the book is, indeed, a masterful interweaving of the stories of six individuals who lived through the bombing—what they experienced before, during, and soon after the blast. At first I feared that the book might be too much of a happy story, since it focused on survivors, but I soon gave up on that: the book details what the survivors suffered as well as what those around them suffered and in many cases died from. But the only way Hersey could collect their stories was if they had, indeed, survived.

Another thing I totally overlooked was that the book was published in 1946—a year after the bombing—and had previously been published in The New Yorker. How on earth did Hersey ever gather the detail he weaves into these stories in such a short period of time? It did not surprise me to learn, however, that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years before Hiroshima, so extraordinarily well-told are those stories.

The six “individuals” whose stories Hersey interweaves are Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk at the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, the head of his own private hospital; Mrs. Hatsoyu Nakamura, a widow with two children; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit: Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the large, modern Red Cross Hospital, and the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church.  All six were in different locations somewhat removed the center of city when the bomb exploded at 8:15 in the morning, which is part of the reason that they survived.

A year after the bombing, Hersey tells us, Miss Sasaki was a cripple, having suffered extreme damage to her legs when the Tin Works collapsed; Dr. Fujii’s hospital, which had taken him decades to build, had collapsed into a river and he had nothing to rebuild it with; the widow Nakamura and her children were destitute; Rev. Tanimoto’s church had been destroyed and “had no prospects of rebuilding”; Father Kleinsorge, who had labored ferociously to help others after the bombing, was back in the hospital with radiation sickness; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of doing the work he once could do. “The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same” (114).

A number of details have stayed with me from reading Hiroshima. One is of a survivor passing by a victim whose face had fallen off and another seeing someone with fluid from their melted eyes running down their cheeks; that the radiation sickness caused three stages of suffering and sometimes death for victims, but that the bombing also caused a wide range of weeds and plants to spring up. I guess radiation isn’t all bad!

It also struck me, though it did not particularly surprise me, that the details of the bomb’s heinous effects were repressed by the US, who had occupied Japan immediately after the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, but that Japanese scientists circulated the information widely. Also striking was that the Methodist minister, Rev. Tanimoto, who worked like a crazy person reaching out to suffering survivors despite his own radiation sickness, had access to many fewer resources than the German Jesuits in Hiroshima, who had been able to rebuild their chapel and provide food to survivors fairly soon after the bombing.

Finally almost inconceivable to me was Hersey’s reporting that many survivors of the bombing did not complain about their suffering; they believed they experienced it out of loyalty to their country and the emperor. Similarly, I could hardly believe that a good number of them remained indifferent throughout their lives about the ethics of the bombing. It was just the kind of thing countries did in order to win, they believed. Others, however, hated the US ever after, as well they might have.

It can be tempting to read Hiroshima as a well-written story of something that happened three-quarters of a century ago to people on the other side of the world. But to do so would be a serious error, since various experts like William Perry are warning us that a new nuclear arms race is now underway, with the psychotic in the White House legally empowered to push the nuclear button without consulting anyone. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now puts the hand of the Doomsday Clock at a hundred seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. If we don’t want to pass people on the street whose faces have fallen off or enable the melting of other people’s eyes—or our own—we have to remember Hiroshima, protest nuclear funding, and most important of all, vote in November.

This article may appear in the August 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.





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  1. Marian,
    It was good to read your post today. I listened to news programs yesterday offering remembrances of Hiroshima and heard William Perry speak. I, too, decided to go searching for my copy of the book, as you did, which I never read but have carried with me through various moves over the years. It is time to read it. I hope we never, ever forget the horror of that act–the dropping of the bomb. And yes, we must remain informed and vigilant. Good advice–VOTE IN NOVEMBER. Just made a donation to my Congress person who attended a meeting about the P.O. this week. It seems like a small thing for me to do–but it’s all connected. Thank you for helping me stay informed and engaged. You do good work.


    • Thanks so much for reading and responding, Mary. And keep up the good fight!


  2. Whew, a tough read but, as ever, a gripping and important one.


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