After seeing John Hersey (1914 – 1993) and his historical record Hiroshima mentioned on the BBC this week, we decided to review the book. We read it a few years ago and it certainly left an indelible impression, even if it is a rather short depiction of what happened to six men and women during the event.
Earlier this month, it was another anniversary since the bombing in 1945. For those of us who weren’t around at the time, this is a detailed insight into a hellish nightmare and the moment when WWII brought the world to the brink of madness, with 100,000 lives wiped out in an instant. Hersey went into Japan in 1946 to interview survivors, so the resulting work offers a candid look at the atom bomb and its aftermath.
In the BBC’s article (John Hersey’s Hiroshima revealed the horror of the bomb), it hails Hersey’s work as one of the greatest ever pieces of investigative journalism. New York University’s journalism department voted it the finest piece of American journalism in the 20th century, which is saying something.
First released on 31st August 1946, it’s essentially a depiction of Hell on Earth. The bomb hit Hiroshima at exactly 8:15 am on August 6th 1945 and created “a noiseless flash”. Despite the monumental destruction it caused, there were survivors who were able to recall the nightmare whilst also living out the aftermath of the bomb, including its long-term health effects and emotional distress.
The six survivors interviewed were: Miss Toshiko Sasaki, Mr Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge (a German Jesuit priest), Dr. Masakazu Fujii, and Dr. Terufumi Sasaki. As Hersey points out:
"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."
Almost exactly 70 years after its release, it’s able to make folks such as ourselves (in our early 30s, with August 1945 seemingly a completely different era) appreciate what happened. With over 17,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled across the planet, it’s a timely reminder that even setting one of those things off simply isn’t an option.
We don’t want to go on too much about Hiroshima as it’s a difficult and controversial subject. It’s important the world remembers the events, however, and if you’d like to know more then go and buy the book. Svetlana Alexievich followed a similar route in 1996 with
Svetlana Alexievich followed a similar journalistic route in 1996 with Voices From Chernobyl, lifting the lid on a different type of nuclear disaster 40 years after Hiroshima – she won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for her efforts.
As for John Hersey, he won the Pulitzer prize for his novel A Bell for Adano (1944). Clearly one of the 20th century’s most important writers, he doesn’t figure as often in literary circles as his peers (such as Orwell, Sartre, and Camus). This seems a touch unfair, so for a brilliant introduction to an excellent writer start with this ever pertinent piece of journalism.