John Hershey’s nonfiction book Hiroshima, originally published in 1946 soon after the end of the Second World War, and republished forty years later after Hershey returned to the subject, tracked down survivors and families and added a new section bringing the reader up to date, is the story of six individuals, two physicians, a German priest, a Methodist reverend, a widow with three children, and a young woman engaged to be married. All of these individuals survived the August 6, 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Hershey’s book (originally a lengthy magazine article published in The New Yorker) tells the personal stories of these six individuals, beginning in the days before the bombing and tracing their ordeals through the event and its aftermath. What one takes away from Hiroshima is the book’s main themes emphasizing the resilience of the human spirit; the suffering from the aftereffects of the bomb, especially from radiation-related illnesses; the struggle to put lives back together after the physical and emotional trauma of the atomic bombing; and the intensely personal way in which each of the six individuals endured largely alone despite living in a culture that is well-known for its emphasis on the notion of community.
A “Publisher’s Note” preceding Hershey’s text places the latter’s narrative into a particular historical and social context. That note explains the history of this project intended to humanize for American readers the people against whom the United States had just fought a protracted and incredibly bloody war. The New Yorker, the note points out, dispatched journalist Hershey to Japan to:
“find out what had really happened at Hiroshima: to interview survivors of the catastrophe, to endeavor to describe what they had seen and felt and thought, what the destruction of their city, their lives and homes and hopes and friends, had meant to them; in short, the cost of the bomb in terms of human suffering and reaction to suffering.”
During the war, especially in the days immediately following the Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. naval installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, American images of the Japanese reflected the most primitive of racial stereotypes, with Japanese soldiers portrayed in American propaganda as savages unsparing in their desecration of human life. While not without substantial foundation in fact – the Japanese occupation of China and Southeast Asia involved wide-scale and unbelievably horrific acts on the part of Japan’s military – the cumulative effect of those images, especially as portrayed in films intended to support the war effort, was to completely dehumanize the Japanese people. Hershey’s article and subsequent book was instrumental, at least to a degree, in tearing away that façade and revealing the humanity common to all ethnicities and races. Hershey’s subject matter – those six individuals – provided a portrait of a people who had suffered terribly as a direct consequence of the American atomic bombing of their city. These were not savages, but decent human beings most of whom had dedicated their lives to helping others, either physically or spiritually. Hershey’s themes of resilience, suffering and emotional isolation are powerfully depicted. Some of these individuals interviewed by Hershey had survived the bombing physically unscathed – or so they had initially thought. The unique characteristics of this particular bomb, however, would manifest itself in complications not experienced in other bombings. In one passage, Hershey describes Hatsuyo Nakamura, the widow with three children, discovering that the absence of cuts and bruises and burns such as those experienced by so many others did not mean that she had escaped the bomb’s effects:
“As she dressed on the morning of August 20th . . . Mrs. Nakamura, who had suffered no cuts or burns at all, though she had been rather nauseated all through the week . . . began fixing her hair and noticed, after one stroke, that her comb carried with it a whole handful of hair; the second time, the same thing happened . . . [I]n the next three or four days, her hair kept falling out of its own accord, until she was quite bald. She began living indoors, practically in hiding.”
Mrs. Nakamura, of course, was suffering from radiation sickness, and tens of thousands of others in Hiroshima would similarly be forced to endure the painful and sometimes disfiguring effects of the bomb’s blast. The city could eventually be rebuilt; and the broken bones would heal, but the long-term effects of history’s first atomic bombing would be felt for decades to come.
Hiroshima presents the very human side of the American atomic bombing of that city in the closing days of World War II. In the chaos and destruction and suffering that followed not just the atomic bombings (Nagasaki would be targeted for an even larger atomic bomb several days later) but the wide-scale conventional and fire bombings of Tokyo and other cities would ensure that those six individuals and hundreds of thousands of others would have to endure largely alone. Hershey’s themes of emotional isolation, the resilience of the human spirit, and the scale of carnage associated with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are present throughout his book, and the themes continue to resonate today.