John Hersey's 'Hiroshima' Is Still Essential Reading, 75 Years Later

Will Hersey
·7-min read
Photo credit: Universal History Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: Universal History Archive - Getty Images

As a child who enjoyed scanning books on shelves more than actually reading them, the spine of one Penguin Classic in our dining room stood out. Hiroshima by John Hersey. Here was a real-life published author with the same surname as mine, and to a nine-year-old who’d never come across another Hersey in the wild, this was an intoxicating discovery. I should point out that the entertainment benchmark was considerably lower in 1986.

I hoped the good-looking Ivy League professor might be a distant relative on the American branch. The faded cover and yellowing pages told me it was old, though, and old meant obscure. The single word title, too, was definitely a turn-off. I already knew Hiroshima as a byword for horror on a scale it was best not to think about. How could a paperback this slim hope to cover it? And when a whole city is obliterated under a mushroom cloud, are there even any stories left to tell?

It took me until this January, three-and-a-half decades later, to steel myself to find out. Hersey’s 30,000-word account of what happened to six survivors from moments just before 8.15am on 5 August 1945 when the US Air Force B-29 Superfortress bomber “Enola Gay” dropped its 9,700lb uranium bomb — somewhat grotesquely nicknamed “Little Boy” — is told almost entirely through their eyes: “Dr Fujii hardly had time to think that he was dying before he realised that he was alive, squeezed tightly by two long timbers across his chest, like a morsel suspended between two huge chopsticks.”

It’s as gripping as it is terrifying; the detail, unshowy prose and an intercutting style — that we might now consider “modern” — combine to freeze the fates of these six men and women in time as they face the unfaceable; fire, desolation, zombie-like neighbours, starvation, poison. Looking back, I’m glad my younger self stuck to Asterix.

Photo credit: STF - Getty Images
Photo credit: STF - Getty Images

Far from being obscure, it has been called everything from the most famous magazine article ever written, to the world’s first non-fiction novel. In 1999, it was voted the greatest piece of American journalism of the 20th century. As a book, it has never been out of print. To fully understand it, though, you have to imagine its impact on being published 75 years ago this August, a whole year after it happened, during which all that the world had known about Hiroshima were a few grainy landscape shots and some carefully managed “facts”.

Because as crazy as it sounds for a country that had just dropped the world’s first atomic bomb (and the second three days later on Nagasaki), America had been carefully managing a cover-up. No photographs or details of injured survivors were allowed to be published. Reports had to be filed via the War Department. The significance of such an experimental bomb was downplayed as a “labour-saving device” to speed up the end of the war. Later on, rumours from Japan that people were dying from radiation long after the event were dismissed as “Tokyo tales”.

Coverage was instead dominated by landscape shots, technical details and numbers too big to mean anything: the bomb was apparently equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT; 13sq km had been affected; 60,000 buildings had been destroyed.

Hersey, a commended front-line war reporter for Time magazine, now back home after the war as a freelancer, wanted to know less about the buildings and more about the people who’d lived in them. A loose plan was made with The New Yorker magazine’s managing editor William Shawn to fill the void and be the first to report on how it felt to be on the receiving end.

The biggest hurdle was being allowed into Japan, which meant getting past the increasingly strict occupying forces led by General Douglas MacArthur. The writer and editor decided on a Trojan horse approach, presenting Hersey as a patriotic, model correspondent and war hero, also an alumnus of Yale and Cambridge, then married to a former girlfriend of John F Kennedy. Rather helpfully, he had a flattering Time magazine profile of MacArthur on his CV, too. It worked.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

Another twist of fate came on the trip out to Japan via China — where he had lived until he was 10 — when he went down with the ’flu. While laid up, he borrowed a copy of Thornton Wilders’ novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which follows five different characters who die when a rope suspension bridge collapses in Peru.

Then 31, Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano (1944) — about a Sicilian town occupied by US forces — had just won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize. He’d long been interested in the idea of applying the story-telling techniques of novel-writing to journalism. The biggest news story in the world would now be that opportunity.

Throughout his time in Hiroshima, Hersey was terrified. Not of further attacks, or of being outed by the US authorities; it was primal dread that all these ruins had been caused by a single bomb. Himself the son of missionaries, he found his first interviewee through the church: the German missionary Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge. From there, he interviewed 50 others, only deciding on the final six that would make the cast list when he was back in the US.

From the bon viveur Dr Masakazu Fujii, who was just settling down cross-legged with his morning paper when the bomb hit; to the 20-year-old clerk Miss Toshiko Sasaki, who was in her office, just turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk when chaos ensued. As Hersey described it: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”

He stayed for just three weeks, wrote nothing on-site and didn’t submit anything to MacArthur’s office as he should have done, instead smuggling his notes back home in June, where he began work on his red Olivetti portable typewriter. The piece was originally planned to run in four consecutive issues of The New Yorker but on realising what they had, Shawn and editor Harold Ross made the at-the-time unprecedented (and repeated only twice since) call to devote an entire edition — that of 31 August 1946 — to a single story. Staff, contributors and even the printers were kept in the dark about the decision. National newspapers were given the story a few hours before it came out.

And so, 391 days after “Enola Gay” dropped its payload, here was the first account of what happened to the people down below: doctors, mothers, priests and office workers doing chores, worrying about the war, reading magazines, peering over at their neighbours. The story ran around the world. All 300,000 copies in the print run quickly sold out. Albert Einstein tried to order 1,000 copies, not to profit from their rising resale value, but to send to fellow scientists around the world. The BBC broadcast every word of it over two weeks.

Photo credit: Three Lions - Getty Images
Photo credit: Three Lions - Getty Images

On a human level, for many the penny dropped that there was no them, only a global us. And the US military message that these experimental bombs were not so different from conventional weapons had been devastatingly disproved. One piece of reporting had forced the world to consider what this bomb actually meant for the world and its future. If indeed it would have one.

Hersey gave only a handful of interviews throughout his entire life, preferring to “let the story do the work”. Proceeds from the subsequent book went to the Red Cross. Although regarded by many as the forefather of so-called New Journalism, his adherence to facts and keeping himself out of the story put him somewhat at odds with the celebrity status of Wolfe, Capote, Vidal and Mailer who would follow under that movement.

Perhaps accordingly he is not a household name. His biography is titled Mr Straight Arrow. He didn’t like the limelight, but his contribution, which later included work on the Holocaust, police brutality, civil rights and a 1985 return to Hiroshima, had, briefly at least, put him there.

He once said that it’s our collective memory of Hiroshima that has prevented another nuclear bomb being dropped. This piece of faithful and yet radical reporting, now just a slim and faded paperback on the corner of a bookshelf, is where that memory came from.

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more delivered straight to your inbox.

SIGN UP

Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts

SUBSCRIBE

You Might Also Like