A review of Hershey, John. Hiroshima. New York: Random House, 1985.

John Hershey, in his book Hiroshima, follows the lives of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the United States on August 6, 1945. Each survivor had their own unique experience, and their stories vary. The book tells of their experiences from the very beginning when the bomb dropped to a few months afterwards. In the beginning of the book, Hershey shows the daily lives of each of the survivors right before the bomb was dropped. Then, Hershey describes the actions of the survivors immediately after the bomb. Most of them are injured, some more so than others. One of them is not injured and feels guilt for not being injured. Later on, Hershey records the radiation sickness that befalls three of the six survivors a few weeks after the bomb was dropped. Though one survivor comes close to death, all three survive. Hershey then begins to show how each survivor attempts to resume a normal life. The last chapter, which is in the most recent edition, is written 40 years afterwards. In it, Hershey simply tells the story of each survivor for the last 40 years. Hershey shows the physical and psychological toll on each survivor throughout each chapter. The primary sources in this book are clear: they are the oral histories of the six survivors in the book. Hershey was one of the first journalists able to view Hiroshima soon after the atomic bomb. Interviewing these six witnesses not long after their horrific experiences, their memories would have been still quite vivid. In the last chapter, it is an oral history approximately 40 years later. Perhaps the main quote that sums up Hershey’s thesis comes at the end of chapter one. Referring to one of the survivor’s injury, who had a bookshelf fall on her when the bomb was dropped, he quotes “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” In this quote, Hershey conveys that humans have used knowledge as a means for catastrophic ends, and the victims being individuals such as this woman. The physical and psychological suffering that had only just begun, could perhaps be traced back to this ‘knowledge.’

Chapter one of the book starts out introducing the six survivors. There is a section for each one, that briefly describes who they are, where they work, etc. Hershey then goes on to tell what each one was doing the morning of the explosion, in the hours and minutes before. The purpose of chapter one seems to be to provide an opportunity for the reader to see that there was a sense of normality before the atomic bomb explosion. Although there were signs of war everywhere (air raid sirens, planes flying over, etc.), the survivors had grown accustomed to it and carried on with their lives. Each survivor had his or her own needs, worries, and problems. When the ‘noiseless flash’ occurred, there whole lives would be changed. Hershey goes from one survivor to the next, briefly telling the reader what they were doing immediately before the bomb dropped. As mentioned earlier, chapter one ends with the quote that is perhaps sums up Hershey’s thesis.

Hershey has provided evidence throughout the book. It is not hard to find. Throughout the book, one sees the destruction first hand, through the eye witness accounts of the survivors.

This book is a powerful story. Its greatest strength is perhaps to show the communal spirit of the Japanese people in the face of suffering. Hershey quotes in chapter 4, talking of the six survivors, saying “What they thought of their experiences and of the use of the atomic bomb was, of course, not unanimous. One feeling they did seem to share, however, was a curious kind of elated community spirit… a pride in the way they and their fellow-survivors had stood up to the dreadful ordeal.”

Quotes from the book convey the primary themes and purposes of the book

“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 them.” (2).

“With the tide risen, his bamboo pole was now too short and he had to paddle most of the way across with it. On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, “These are human beings.” (45).

“A surprising number of the people of Hiroshima remained more or less indifferent about the ethics of using the bomb. Perhaps they were too terrified by it to want to think about it at all… Many citizens of Hiroshima, however, continued to feel a hatred for Americans which nothing could possibly erase.” (89).

Reviews of Hiroshima

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/05/hiroshima-by-john-hersey-survivors-stories-carry-weight-of-history

https://www.jstor.org/stable/3637589?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents Yavenditti, Michael J. “John Hersey and the American Conscience: The Reception of “Hiroshima”.” Pacific Historical Review 43, no. 1 (1974): 24-49. doi:10.2307/3637589.