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The pure horror of Hiroshima

by Donald Richie

In 1946, just after the first anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima, “The New Yorker” magazine’s Aug. 31 issue published the complete text of John Hersey’s portrait of the atom bomb and its effects on the Japanese city.

HIROSHIMA by John Hersey. London: Penguin Books, reissued 2009, 244. pp., £9.99 (paper)

At the end of the war, in 1945, Hersey was in Japan writing about the reconstruction of the devastated country when he happened across an account written by a Jesuit priest who had survived the Hiroshima destruction. It was he who introduced the reporter to other survivors.

From these, Hersey chose six individuals: two doctors, a minister, a widowed seamstress, a young woman who worked in a factory, and the priest himself. These became the principal characters in an account that melded nonfiction reportage with the stylistic devices of the novel, all expressed through the plainest of styles.

“On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns . . . the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.” A would-be rescuer took a victim by the hands “but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.” One observer found 20 soldiers, “their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel.)”

As one critic remarked: “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima, yet Hersey’s reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm and restrained, that the horror the story had to tell comes through all the more chillingly,” as in the passage, “a great number sat and lay on the pavement, vomited, waited for death, and died.”

Later Hersey would say of this now celebrated style: “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.”

I certainly remember my experience, reading it in a battered (and forbidden) copy of “The New Yorker.” The magazine had been discouraged by the occupation authorities but a copy or two still circulated, samizdat-style, when I read it in Tokyo in January 1947. The experience was direct; the plainness of the style and the horror of the account both moved and shocked.

Among those also experiencing shock were the top brass of American Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s SCAP (the offices of the occupation). The supreme commander of the allied powers had strictly prohibited dissemination of any reports on the consequences of the bombings, and now look at what Hersey had done — spread it all over.

The ban had extended to photos and movies — all copies were gotten out of the country and sent direct to Washington. Such censorship included scientific writings as well. Reports concerning the effect of the blast could not be made public until the closing months of the occupation. Thus for over six years, Japanese scientists were denied assess to data that might have assisted them in helping atomic-bomb victims.

And when Takashi Nagai’s elegiac “Bells of Nagasaki” was first published in Japan, General Willoughby insisted that an American-constructed appendix on “The Sack of Manila” be included. (Though its inclusion could easily be taken as suggesting that Nagasaki and Manila were comparable atrocities — hardly, as historian John Dower has noted, what the Americans intended.)

John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” did not appear in Japanese translation until 1949. But it was never again out of print. In 1985, the American edition added a new chapter, “The Aftermath,” which tells readers what became of the six survivors Hersey wrote about. It is this edition that is here reissued in this new Penguin version, making again available what has been called “the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II” and one in which we find the most compassionate answer to that war’s most notorious atrocity.