“They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.”
John Hersey in Hiroshima
Hiroshima: A New Edition With a Final Chapter Written Forty Years After the Explosion. By John Hersey. Vintage, 152 pp., $6.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
A tailor’s widow lit her stove and set some rice to cook. A priest read Mass in a mission chapel where worshippers knelt on a traditional Japanese matted floor. A doctor walked a house guest to the train station, then went out onto the porch to read a newspaper.
In Hiroshima John Hersey tells the stories of these people and three others who lived when the atomic bomb fell on their city. With almost eerie calmness, he describes what the six were doing at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. Then he follows them for a year as they face hunger and homelessness, grieve for families and friends and develop radiation sickness or other illnesses.
In the best journalistic tradition, Hersey lets the facts speak for themselves and avoids moral judgments. His account of the bombing first appeared in the August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorker with this note:
“The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.”
Published in book from the same year, Hiroshima may have more uncredited influence than any other book on the best accounts of how the events of Sept. 11 affected ordinary people. The 1989 Vintage paperback includes a chapter on the survivors’ lives 40 years later. It ends with a section on the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, one of the six people profiled in the book, who was pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church when the bomb fell. In 1980s, Tanimoto owned a Mazda made in Hiroshima and still took an hour’s walk each morning with his dog: “He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.”
Best line: Kyoshi Tanimoto, the Methodist minister, searched for his family after the bombing: “Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general the survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbors, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery. The wounded limped past the screams, and Mr. Tanimoto ran past them. As a Christian, he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese, he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt …
“All the way, he overtook dreadfully burned and lacerated people, and in his guilt he turned to right and left as he hurried and said to some of them, ‘Excuse me for having no burden like yours.’”
Worst line: “In a city of 245,000, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” Like the first estimates of the World Trade Center deaths, this one appears high. Max Hastings writes in his acclaimed Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–1945: “The Japanese afterwards claimed that around 20,000 military personnel and 110,000 civilians died immediately. Though no statistics are conclusive, this estimate is almost certainly exaggerated. Another guesstimate, around 70,000, seems more credible.”
Published: 1946 www.amazon.com/Hiroshima-John-Hersey/dp/0679721037
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.