How John Hersey Revealed the Horrors of the Atomic Bomb to the US

Remembering Hiroshima, the Story That Changed Everything

How did John Hersey—not Japanese, not an eyewitness, not a scientist—come to be the first person to communicate the experience of an atomic bomb to a global audience?

Some of the answers are squashed into a fat cardboard box normally kept in a temperature-controlled, secure warehouse in Hamden, Connecticut. This is the depository of much of the vast collection of rare books and manuscripts held by Yale’s Beinecke Library, itself on the Yale campus in New Haven and among the architect Gordon Bunshaft’s most beautiful buildings, though one that the poet Czesław Miłosz, whose own papers are there, compared to a monumental tomb.

Outside the reading room, in a sunken quadrangle, stands a three-piece white marble sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, who—like almost all other Japanese Americans but in his case voluntarily—spent the Second World War in an internment camp. His Zen-influenced “The Garden (Pyramid, Sun, and Cube)” symbolizes what the catalog of Yale’s public art calls a balance of cosmic forces and a synthesis of East and West. A similar synthesis, not beautiful to look at but imaginatively still more compelling, is to be found in Box 37 of the Hersey papers.

In it are 14 individual file folders, miscellaneous in their contents except that all have to do with Hersey’s Hiroshima: letters from readers, some friends, many strangers; page proofs, contracts, telegrams from overseas publishers; a report that General MacArthur has denied preventing the book’s being published in Japanese; details of a braille edition; a list of 80-plus periodicals that have carried the original article in full. Much comes from later years: letters from children who have read the book at school; details of a grisly US tour arranged in 1955 for the “Hiroshima Maidens,” otherwise known as the “Keloid Girls” (keloid is the name of a particularly disfiguring type of scar, and these 25 women, all of whom were at school in Hiroshima ten years earlier, were given reconstructive surgery in the States). One folder, though, is more coherent, and revealing about the processes of Hersey’s research and writing. It contains:

Hersey’s military authorization, dated May 21st, 1946, to proceed from Shanghai to Tokyo.

The Pacific edition of Time magazine for February 11th, 1946. On small, flimsy paper, the issue—six months earlier than the famous New Yorker number—reprints from a Jesuit journal an article by Father Johannes Siemes, SJ, a German missionary in Hiroshima, describing his experience of the explosion and its aftermath. A carbon copy of Siemes’s typescript is also in the folder. (I’ll come back to why the piece didn’t have the same impact as Hersey’s.)

The calling cards of some Japanese contacts with handwritten English transliterations: “Dr. Sasaki,” “Dr. M. Fujii.”

Photographs of disfigured survivors.

A mimeograph copy of a Japanese technical report written in English headed “Statistics of Damages Caused by Atomic Bombardment Aug. 6, 1945. Foreign Affairs Section, Hiroshima City.”

Lab reports on tests of blood taken from another Jesuit, Wilhelm Kleinsorge, in the months immediately after the bombing.

An offprint of a 1926 scientific article by Masao Tsuzuki, at that time assistant professor of oral surgery in the medical department of the Imperial University, Tokyo, titled “Experimental Studies on the Biological Action of Hard Roentgen Rays,” reprinted from The American Journal of Roentgenology and Radium Therapy, vol. xxvi, no. 2, pages 134–150.

An extract, annotated by Hersey, from United States News dated July 5th, 1946, titled “Atomic Bomb. First Official Report on Damage to Japan. Full Text of U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey’s Findings.”

A note in English to Hersey from the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a US-educated Japanese Methodist minister in Hiroshima, apologizing for not having been at home when Hersey called, suggesting a meeting the next day, and enclosing a hastily handwritten account of his experiences of the bombing.

“A Preliminary Report Prepared by the Research Commission of the Imperial City of Kyoto on the Disaster in Hiroshima City Caused by the Atomic Bomb,” again with Hersey’s annotations.

Some of what catches the eye among these relics are what the first readers of Hersey’s article noticed, too. US media had needed little encouragement from Washington to portray the Japanese as a race of cartoon monsters, bug-eyed, big-toothed, rapacious. Here we find that among these ogres were doctors, secretaries, clergy—people not unlike readers of The New Yorker. Over the weeks after his arrival in Japan, Hersey interviewed Kiyoshi Tanimoto and other survivors and found links between some of their narratives, including those of Hatsuyo Nakamura, a woman with three children whose tailor husband had been killed in the Japanese invasion of Singapore, and Toshiko Sasaki, a 20-year-old woman engaged to a soldier.

(One subscriber complained, “I look forward to my weekly New Yorker, not for an informative Treatise, but fun and relaxation. Promise this [the Hiroshima number] is the end of such.”)

The article eventually interlaced six people’s experiences, a structure that he said later he had taken from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the narrator of which tells the stories of a group of (invented) individuals linked only by their fate: they are all on an Inca rope bridge when it collapses into a Peruvian ravine in 1714. Hersey read the novella during an illness while he was on his way to Japan. But he was being modest. His war reporting had always been about recognizable people, arbitrarily conjoined in their dreadful experiences and seen in all their variety.

This is the first of the things that distinguish his article from Johannes Siemes’s, vivid though that is and widely available though it had been, thanks to Time. Siemes was writing for his coreligionists, and although his experiences were “authentic,” W. G. Sebald was right in his later insistence that this is the least of qualifications; what matters is how well you write. The differences are apparent within a few lines. Siemes says:

August 6th began in a bright, clear summer morning . . . I am sitting in my room at the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Nagatsuka; during the past half year, the philosophical and theological section of our Mission had been evacuated to this place from Tokyo. The Novitiate is situated approximately two kilometers from Hiroshima . . . From my window, I have a wonderful view down the valley to the edge of the city. Suddenly—the time is approximately 8:14—the whole valley is filled with a garish light that resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find the cause of this remarkable phenomenon.

And Hersey:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the South East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At the same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital . . . Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid defense fire lane.

It’s quietly done, but Hersey immediately gets more in: information, irony (those futilely self-sacrificial air-raid precautions), immediacy, suspense, and especially—though here there’s a caveat—attention to Japanese people.

There were also two surprises. In 1946 readers didn’t expect an American to deal so sympathetically with this subject. And whereas Time was a newsmagazine, The New Yorker, as many reports on the story commented more or less facetiously, was at the time generally associated with light entertainment. (One subscriber complained, “I look forward to my weekly New Yorker, not for an informative Treatise, but fun and relaxation. Promise this [the Hiroshima number] is the end of such.”) Still, Hersey was helped by and quotes from Siemes’s piece, which also crucially alerted him to the Catholic mission as a useful source of contacts.

The next character he introduces in his article, in fact, is Wilhelm Kleinsorge, “a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclin[ing] in his underwear on a cot.” He’s the man whose ominous lab reports are also in this folder: “19/9/45 W[hite] B[lood] C[ount] 3,600. Haemoglobin 50%. Polymorphs 35% . . . Blood Colour Index 0.67%.” In a section added 40 years later, Hersey described the long, painfully various illnesses these clinical measurements gave the priest warning of. Though less vocal than Tanimoto, Father Kleinsorge is a key figure in the narrative and before that was crucial to Hersey’s research, introducing him first to Tanimoto and then, through their joint networks, to all the book’s other main characters, as well as writing his own account of his experiences on which Hersey also drew.

The decision to focus solely on people physically affected by the bomb came early on, so Hersey’s cast doesn’t include Masao Tsuzuki, author of the 1926 paper on radiation, which he nonetheless read and filed. In the 1920s, the point of radiation was to benefit people by looking inside their bodies—the procedure found so worrying in its intimacy by Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain—and destroying anything malign that was growing there. Unwelcome side effects of such treatment soon became a concern, and it was these that Tsuzuki had examined in a series of experiments on rabbits: tests of various levels of intensity, some using “the hardest rays such as are employed in the so-called modern deep therapy,” with observation of their immediate and subsequent consequences: numbers of deaths, “Average Living Days,” and effects on different parts of the rabbits’ bodies including their lymphatic system.

“After irradiation,” he noted, “all animals look as if they were exhausted and gradually become thinner, frequently suffer from diarrhea, and their vital resistance is so much weakened that they die from the slightest injury . . . few of them show power of recuperation.” At the time, in rejoinders printed at the end of his article, Tsuzuki’s American colleague-critics defensively pointed out that in medical treatment only part of the patient is irradiated, whereas the whole body of the rabbit was exposed in his procedures, but in 1945 his methods proved more relevant than anyone could have anticipated.

The decision to focus solely on people physically affected by the bomb came early on, so Hersey’s cast doesn’t include Masao Tsuzuki, author of the 1926 paper on radiation.

By then, Tsuzuki—still based at what is now the University of Tokyo—headed the medical section of the Japanese Research Council. Immediately after the explosion he traveled to Hiroshima and, as best he could, began a research program there, mentioned by Hersey, into the impacts of the event, chiefly of heat, blast, primary radiation, and what the scientist called “radioactive poisonous gas,” on people in the hospital. His entire career had been an unconscious preparation for this event, and because of what he was finding out and his eminence, he quickly became an embarrassment to the occupying power. Everything was done to keep him quiet, while U.S. scientists, or so he claimed, were busy pinching his results.

All this is another story, told briefly but vividly much later in a 1994 book by a science historian, M. Susan Lindee: Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima. And while Hiroshima doesn’t involve Tsuzuki, it draws on his and other Japanese research summarized in this folder—particularly the city’s official research into the bomb’s impact.

The earliest American investigations tended, as Hersey acerbically pointed out, to lay most emphasis on material damage:

Scientists swarmed into the city. Some of them measured the force that had been necessary to shift marble gravestones in the cemetery, to knock over twenty-two of the forty-seven railroad cars in the yards at Hiroshima station, to lift and move the concrete roadway on one of the bridges, and to perform other noteworthy feats of strength.

Here and elsewhere among his papers, by contrast, are summaries of interviews with his human informants during the six weeks he spent in Hiroshima. Tanimoto and Kleinsorge were especially valuable. The young clergymen’s churches were close to each other, and they worked together. Also nearby was one of Hiroshima’s most beautiful gardens, Shukkeien Park, formerly land belonging to the town’s 16th-century castle. When U.S. air raids on Japanese cities began in 1944, the park was designated an official evacuation area for local people—not very sensibly, since the castle itself had long been a military headquarters and was therefore an obvious target. In the event it was close to the A-bomb explosion’s epicenter and, for those still alive, on a main route of retreat from the worst of the heat and destruction to a less badly affected area of the city, north of the park but separated from it by the tidal Kyobashi-gawa River. So these Catholic and Methodist missions were at the hub of some of the intensest relief efforts on August 6th, 1945.

Hersey went to see Kleinsorge as soon as he arrived in the city, and after they had talked, Kleinsorge sent him on to his Methodist colleague. Tanimoto was out when Hersey called, the American left his card, and the minister, worried that he might miss him altogether, wrote him a long handwritten account of his part in the events. A covering note explained the duties that had just taken him away, only nine months since the bomb was dropped: “I am very sorry being out when you visited me yesterday. I have to go to school for teaching this morning as already scheduled.”

Hersey returned, and Tanimoto later recorded his impressions of this “tall gentleman with an oval face” who was wearing a uniform but “had about him the refinement of a literary man.” Hersey’s missionary background and Eastern early upbringing immediately made a connection that kindled the minister’s always quick enthusiasm: “I felt as if I had met with an old friend of mine,” he wrote, and “now recollecting, it appears I overtalked on it.” The two men formed a lasting relationship.

Brought up as a Buddhist, the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto (Hersey gives all his characters their full names in Anglicized form: a gesture to good manners especially noticeable at a time when the Japanese were still demonized, but also a way of asserting their status in ways immediately graspable in the West) was among the survivors who made indefatigable-seeming efforts on behalf of other people in Hiroshima—in his case, rounding them up, bringing them water, rowing them to what he hoped was safety.

He gained particular prominence in Hersey’s account because of his distinctive voice, spoken and written, with its touching modesty as well as its confusions and linguistic errors. He was, Hersey tells us in one of his many rapid, precise sketches, “a small man, quick to talk, laugh, and cry. He wore his black hair parted in the middle and rather long; the prominence of the frontal bones just above his eyebrows and the smallness of his mustache, mouth, and chin gave him a strange, old-young look, boyish and yet wise, weak and yet fiery.” It’s this unlikely hero who plunges into something like hell and saves everyone he can. And the attention to his hair, his bones, his skin on this early page unobtrusively prepares our responses for the kinds of damage we’ll soon encounter: people with their hair on fire, melting flesh, broken and putrefying bodies.

Hersey gives all his characters their full names in Anglicized form: a gesture to good manners especially noticeable at a time when the Japanese were still demonized.

To read the finished text against its sources is to see how subtly Hersey preserves the idiosyncrasies of Tanimoto’s text while for the most part resisting the easy “color” of just quoting it. But in the silence of the Beinecke Library, with the light shifting across the sculpture outside the window, the minister’s own words, written for Hersey that summer night in 1946, carry an emotional charge all their own. “God help and take them out of the fire,” Hersey quotes Tanimoto as having prayed as he necessarily ignored the helpless in favor of those for whom he hoped he could do something. But while Hersey gives us the essence of what immediately follows in Tanimoto’s hastily scribbled version, he doesn’t reproduce it. Here is Tanimoto:

In the result I made a long round way. As far as I went there were full of wounded people, men and woman, boy and girls, even babies. I was only one who was completely safe. Passing through among them I repeated in my mouth, “Excuse me for having no burden like you do.”

When I reached the bank of the river Ota, I jumped myself into the river, knowing no bridge to cross on account of fire. But the river was too wide and deep for me. The stream run as fast that I was about to be drowned, having lost my strength to swim. When I arrived at another bank, I was necked, no shirt and no shoes to wear.

Finally I got back to Sentei, the bank of Ota River, next to my residencial section of the city. As I had told my neighbors, they got together and gathered there. It was my first concern to see my church and parsonage. I thrust into the fire and run about 100 yards, but on behalf of fierceness of the blaze I gave up my desire to see the church.

On having returned to the bank, I found a Jemma-sen, Japanese boat, on the rocks. There were five men who were already dead. With a short prayer I took out these dead bodies and pulled down the boat into the river and rowed across with a bamboo bar instead of oar and let the wounded people cross the river all the day long.

__________________________________

From Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima. Used with the permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2019 by Jeremy Treglown.

Jeremy Treglown
Jeremy Treglown
Jeremy Treglown is an award-winning writer and critic. His previous books include Franco’s Crypt (FSG, 2013) and biographies of Roald Dahl, Henry Green, and V. S. Pritchett. A former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he has taught at Oxford, University College London, Princeton, and the University of Warwick, and has written for The New Yorker, Granta, and The New York Times Book Review. He lives in London.





More Story
Every Day is Earth Day: 365 Books to Start Your Climate Change Library The idea of a single day devoted to the earth is absurd. In the 49 years since the first Earth Day was celebrated, human...