John Hersey, Hiroshima. The New Yorker, 31 August 1946. “TO OUR READERS: The New Yorker this week [31 August 1946] 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. The Editors.” Jon Michaud, Eighty-Five From the Archive: John Hersey. The New Yorker, 8 June 2010: “Perhaps the most notable feature of “Hiroshima” is Hersey’s precise and unadorned style, which simply records the facts and places the moral and interpretive onus on the reader.” Paris Review Interview with John Hersey, Summer-Fall 1986: “My choice was to be deliberately quiet in the piece, because I thought that if the horror could be presented as directly as possible, it would allow the reader to identify with the characters in a direct way.” John Hersey in a letter to historian Paul Boyer: “The flat style was deliberate, and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.”

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 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 that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; 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; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything….

[The destruction of the offices and hospitals and equipment of the majority of the physicians and surgeons of Hiroshima and the incapacitation of their own bodies] explained why so many citizens who were hurt went untended and why so many who might have lived died. Of a hundred and fifty doctors in the city, sixty-five were already dead and most of the rest were wounded. Of 1,780 nurses, 1,654 were dead or too badly hurt to work. In the biggest hospital, that of the Red Cross, only six doctors out of thirty were able to function, and only ten nurses out of more than two hundred. The sole uninjured doctor on the Red Cross Hospital staff was Dr. Sasaki. After the explosion, he hurried to a storeroom to fetch bandages. This room, like everything he had seen as he ran through the hospital, was chaotic—bottles of medicines thrown off shelves and broken, salves spattered on the walls, instruments strewn everywhere. He grabbed up some bandages and an unbroken bottle of mercurochrome, hurried back to the chief surgeon, and bandaged his cuts. Then he went out into the corridor and began patching up the wounded patients and the doctors and nurses there. He blundered so without his glasses that he took a pair off the face of a wounded nurse, and although they only approximately compensated for the errors of his vision, they were better than nothing. (He was to depend on them for more than a month.)…

[Mr. Tanimoto] was the only person making his way [back] into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and everyone of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatever….

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces….

Dr. Sasaki and his colleagues at the Red Cross Hospital watched the unprecedented [radiation] disease unfold and at last evolved a theory about its nature. It had, they decided, three stages. The first stage had been all over before the doctors even knew they were dealing with a new sickness; it was the direct reaction to the bombardment of the body, at the moment when the bomb went off, by neutrons, beta particles, and gamma rays. The apparently uninjured people who had died so mysteriously in the first few hours or days had succumbed in this first stage. It killed ninety-five per cent of the people within a half mile of the center, and many thousands who were farther away. The doctors realized in retrospect that even though most of these dead had also suffered from burns and blast effects, they had absorbed enough radiation to kill them. The rays simply destroyed body cells—caused their nuclei to degenerate and broke their walls. Many people who did not die right away came down with nausea, headache, diarrhea, malaise, and fever, which lasted several days. Doctors could not be certain whether some of these symptoms were the result of radiation or nervous shock. The second stage set in ten or fifteen days after the bombing. The main symptom was falling hair. Diarrhea and fever, which in some cases went as high as 106, came next. Twenty-five to thirty days after the explosion, blood disorders appeared: gums bled, the white-blood-cell count dropped sharply, and petechiae [hemorrhages about the size of grains of rice, or even as big as soybeans] appeared on the skin and mucous membranes. The drop in the number of white blood corpuscles reduced the patient’s capacity to resist infection, so open wounds were unusually slow in healing and many of the sick developed sore throats and mouths. The two key symptoms, on which the doctors came to base their prognosis, were fever and the lowered white-corpuscle count. If fever remained steady and high, the patient’s chances for survival were poor. The white count almost always dropped below four thousand; a patient whose count fell below one thousand had little hope of living. Toward the end of the second stage, if the patient survived, anemia, or a drop in the red blood count, also set in. The third stage was the reaction that came when the body struggled to compensate for its ills—when, for instance, the white count not only returned to normal but increased to much higher than normal levels. In this stage, many patients died of complications, such as infections in the chest cavity. Most burns healed with deep layers of pink, rubbery scar tissue, known as keloid tumors. The duration of the disease varied, depending on the patient’s constitution and the amount of radiation he had received. Some victims recovered in a week; with others the disease dragged on for months.

As the symptoms revealed themselves, it became clear that many of them resembled the effects of overdoses of X-ray, and the doctors based their therapy on that likeness. They gave victims liver extract, blood transfusions, and vitamins, especially B1. The shortage of supplies and instruments hampered them. Allied doctors who came in after the surrender found plasma and penicillin very effective. Since the blood disorders were, in the long run, the predominant factor in the disease, some of the Japanese doctors evolved a theory as to the seat of the delayed sickness. They thought that perhaps gamma rays, entering the body at the time of the explosion, made the phosphorus in the victims’ bones radioactive, and that they in turn emitted beta particles, which, though they could not penetrate far through flesh, could enter the bone marrow, where blood is manufactured, and gradually tear it down. Whatever its source, the disease had some baffling quirks. Not all the patients exhibited all the main symptoms. People who suffered flash burns were protected, to a considerable extent, from radiation sickness. Those who had lain quietly for days or even hours after the bombing were much less liable to get sick than those who had been active. Gray hair seldom fell out. And, as if nature were protecting man against his own ingenuity, the reproductive processes were affected for a time; men became sterile, women had miscarriages, menstruation stopped….

Many citizens of Hiroshima…continued to feel a hatred for Americans which nothing could possibly erase. “I see,” Dr. Sasaki once said, “that they are holding a trial for war criminals in Tokyo just now. I think they ought to try the men who decided to use the bomb and they should hang them all.”

Father Kleinsorge and the other German Jesuit priests, who, as foreigners, could be expected to take a reltively detached view, often discussed the ethics of using the bomb. One of them, Father Siemes, who was out at Nagatsuka at the time of the attack, wrote in a report to the Holy See in Rome, “Some of us consider the bomb in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civilian population. Others were of the opinion that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?”

Jonathan Dee, Interviews: John Hersey, The Art of Fiction No. 92. The Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1986.

Before I went on the trip [to China and Japan in 1946] I had lunch with William Shawn, who was then the number two to Harold Ross on The New Yorker, and we talked about various possible stories. One that we thought about was a piece on Hiroshima. At that point, what seemed impressive was the power of the bomb, and almost all the reporting had had to do with the devastation it had caused, the physical devastation; it was really in terms of the destructive power of the bomb that Shawn and I envisioned the story. But as I thought about it in advance, while I was working in China, I thought more and more that I wanted to try to do something about the impact on people rather than on buildings, on the physical city….

Reading [The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder], I sensed the possibility of a form for the Hiroshima piece. The book is about five people who were killed when a rope suspension bridge over a canyon in Peru gave way, and how they had happened to find their way to that moment of fate together. That seemed to me to be a possible way of dealing with this very complex story of Hiroshima; to take a number of people—half a dozen, as it turned out in the end—whose paths crossed each other and came to this moment of shared disaster. So I went to Hiroshima and began right away looking for the kinds of people who would fit into that pattern. I went first to some German priests, because I’d read a report to the Holy See on the bombing by a German Jesuit who had been there. One of the priests—Father Kleinsorge, about whom I wrote in the Hiroshima piece in the end—spoke some English, and he began to introduce me to others. Through him I met the Protestant minister, Tanimoto, who spoke very good English, having studied at Emory University before the war. And both of them then introduced me to still others. I must have talked to forty or fifty people, trying to find the ones that would work for what I wanted to do. I narrowed it down to the six I finally wrote about, and got their stories. I spent about three weeks doing that, and came home and wrote it, in about a month, I guess….

[The piece] was originally intended as four separate pieces to be run in four successive weeks. One of the problems in handling it serially was that of giving enough clues in the second installment about what had happened in the first so that the reader who hadn’t read the first would be able to pick up on it. But not so much as to stop someone who had read the first from wanting to read the second. That difficulty led Shawn finally one day to say, “Look, we just can’t, we’ll have to do this all in one week.” He took the idea to Ross, who a few days later called me and said that he wanted to give an entire issue to the account. So we then went back and untangled it all—made it consecutive, for one issue….

My choice [of style] was to be deliberately quiet in the piece, because I thought that if the horror could be presented as directly as possible, it would allow the reader to identify with the characters in a direct way. I’ve thought quite a lot about the issue of fiction and journalism as two possible ways of presenting realities of life, particularly such harsh ones as we’ve encountered in my lifetime. Fiction is the more attractive to me, because if a novelist succeeds, he can enable the reader to identify with the characters of the story, to become the characters of the story, almost, in reading. Whereas in journalism, the writer is always mediating between the material and the reader; the reader is conscious of the journalist presenting material to him. This was one of the reasons why I had experimented with the devices of fiction in doing journalism, in the hopes that my mediation would, ideally, disappear. I believe that the reader is not conscious of the writer of fiction, except through the author’s voice—that is, you are conscious of the person behind the work. But in journalism you are conscious of the person in the work, the person who’s writing it and explaining to you what’s taken place. So my hope was, by using the tricks and the ways of fiction, to be able to eliminate that mediation and have the reader directly confronted by the characters. In this case, my hope was that the reader would be able to become the characters enough to suffer some of the pain, some of the disaster, and therefore realize it.


What were some of the tricks of fiction that you tried to employ?


Well, there’s the whole issue of point of view, presenting each of the characters from his viewpoint. There are six points of view in the book, and each section devoted to Tanimoto, Miss Sasaki, Dr. Fujii, and so on, enters into each survivor’s state of mind without representing his thoughts—it’s all done in terms of action, of what happened to them, what they saw, heard, and did. The reader looks at what is happening through the eyes of each of these characters, as he would in reading through a point of view in fiction. Then there is the means of building suspense in fiction: the writer takes a given episode up to the verge of some kind of crisis, and then cuts away from it to another scene, making the reader want to get back to the first to learn the outcome. One of the other fictional elements in Hiroshima, I feel, is the way in which time is opened up. The first passages are very tight in time, and then time gradually pulls out as you go through the story, to a more—not to a casual pace, but to a pace which one hoped would open out into a sense of a long and terrible future—which has since indeed come to pass….

It was a very big step for them to devote the entire space to a single piece. This meant that they gave it wonderful editing. It was the first experience I had had with editing as careful as that. At Life, they had a lot of confidence in their writers, sometimes to the extent that—well, I know of articles I wrote for Life which no single editor read from beginning to end. On the Hiroshima piece, I must have spent ten hours a day for twenty days with [Harold] Ross and [William] Shawn on it. Ross’s kind of editing was to put hundreds of questions in the margins of the proofs—The New Yorker puts things in galleys the minute they arrive, so the editors can see them as New Yorker pieces, I guess. Ross wrote many, many queries. A typical query of his was this: I had written of ruined bicycles near the epicenter of the bomb as “lopsided bicycles.” Ross’s query was “Can something which is two-dimensional be lopsided?” As Shawn and I came to this, we realized that Ross was right, it couldn’t. That happened late one evening after we’d been working for hours, and so we both said, let’s deal with that tomorrow morning. So I went home, thought about it, and decided that the only word I could use in place of “lopsided” would be “crumpled.” Got in the next morning before Shawn; the galleys were on his desk and he’d written “crumpled” in the margin already. That was an example to me of the way he becomes the writer he’s dealing with.