ManhattanWhiteGirl's Blog

All Things NYC
JUNE 20, 2012 6:16AM

Reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima

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Apropos of nothing I started reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima this week. I’ve had the book on my shelf forever, since I lived in Japan—I taught English there for two years in the early ’90’s. I bought the book and many others of every kind at Kinokunya, the colossal bookstore in Tokyo. It wasn’t the first book I had read on the subject either; I had read a similar story by a Japanese author whose name I don’t remember, similar in so far as it was a narrative account of what happened. But I was still shocked and moved by Hersey’s book, even if the information was already familiar to me.

Hersey traces the lives of six survivors of the bomb, and what emerges is a horrifyingly vivid account of the immediate aftermath of this manmade disaster. Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor, happens to escape injury and he wanders out into the city, driven by his automatic instinct to both help others and to find out what’s going on. He describes a true hell, of people dazed, burned, lost, stunned, buildings destroyed for miles around, dead everywhere. No one knows what hit them; it takes weeks and months for anybody to understand.

Tanimoto is compelled to help. He feels a sense, perhaps Japanese, of guilt over himself being intact. He even apologizes to people as he goes along, stumbling over the injured and sometimes the dead. Fires immediately start and later toward evening a rain with unnaturally large drops falls and then comes a wind that rips up and sends down all the trees in Asano Park where the survivors had gathered—an apocalypse.

People are trapped under wrecked buildings and pinned down by beams. Others are running around trying to get them out, looking for lost relatives and friends, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. Tanimoto takes the hand of a woman buried in rubble. He tries to help pull her out and her skin slides off her hand like a glove. There is silence everywhere, not screaming and moaning, silence and a quiet crying out for help. Tanimoto has been moving nonstop, trying to do what he can. But this gives him pause. He has to sit down and almost throws up.

People are calling out for water, burned, sick victims, and Tanimoto finds a vessel and does his best to distribute a few sips to the injured. They thank him quietly and make motions toward bowing. He comes across a group of soldiers in a concrete shelter. They must have all been looking up since they are injured in the identical way: their eyes are melted from their sockets and the liquid can be seen on their faces. They ask for water and Tanimoto complies.

Ordinary citizens, they had been expecting incendiary bombs, B-29s, but not this. People had flash burns all over their bodies. When the bomb went off they reported seeing a blinding flash of light. Wild speculation circulated about how the extent of the destruction was possible. Around evening people started vomiting and this went on for days. What was making them sick? People had designs burned into their bodies, for example a kimono with dark flowers where the dark color had absorbed the heat and the light had not. Similar patterns could be seen on buildings and bridges, a function of which materials absorbed the most heat.

How long was it before burns, wounds and crushed limbs started oozing pus and becoming putrid? The hospitals were all destroyed. There were few medical supplies and no electricity. This book painted a picture in my mind not likely to leave soon. This and other stories of what man does to man. My mind inevitably imagines what it would be like to experience this scene. What if it were New York and I was out there with my son? What would I do? Who would I try to find? Would I try to help, stumbling over dead bodies, collapsed buildings, the sick and wounded? How would I comfort my son, and try to convince him we lived in a sane world?

I was reading for a short time in the empty auditorium of my school this week when another scene from literature flashed to my mind. Elie Wiesel in Night describes how as a child he was being forced along on a march from one camp to the next and the thought hits him that he never returned these particular library books. He’s bothered by this and feels guilty, and I could really understand this because I think I would feel that way, too. It’s strange how certain thoughts come to us and I started wondering about how history creates these extreme moments that no one would ever want to live. Is there something defining about them? Is there a reason?

I visited both Hiroshima and Nagasaki when I was in Japan. I swore you could feel the ghosts. I could see them in my mind, the scenes. I saw the Atomic Dome, a skeletal structure of a domed building; it now serves as a commemorative to the war.

Tanimoto had a dream of building in an international peace society in Hiroshima. It never quite got established the way he had hoped. How and why, are the questions I ask myself. I’m emerging from the dust of a difficult school year as it now comes to an end. I have some time to think. I have some time to read some books.

I had a triple-good friend (Japanese) when I lived in Japan and we’d speak of such things often, the horrors of history. We’d ask ourselves why. I felt pointless and useless at times in the face of it. “All we can do is feel bad,” my friend said. I didn’t have a child then. I had more time to dedicate myself to such notions.

I couldn’t think about much of anything all year while I was teaching—except my job. It pretty much keeps you on a one-track course. But I’m glad I have some time now. I think reflection matters. I read Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative as well. I think about people who suffer. I feel bad. I feel grateful for my life and I try in a million small ways to make a difference when and where I can.



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Nice summing-up. Do you have an opinion as to whether the use of the bomb was militarily justified? Obviously not justified morally, but war is not moral.
I remember learning about this in school. I was so interested in it that I did a report on it for extra credit. Like you I could feel the pain and horror of the people. Such sadness. My opinion - though it wasn't asked of me - I don't think such a massive military move was necessary.