Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

John Hersey’s factual retelling of the experiences of six residents of Hiroshima, Japan, who survived the explosion of the first atomic bomb used against civilians was the most eye-opening, and the most devastating, documentation of its time. The story remains a profound reminder not only of human evil but also human hope and perseverance in the face of unimaginable chaos and trauma.

Summary of Event

In late 1945, The New Yorker assigned journalist John Hersey a story about the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States on August 6 of that year. Hersey was free to choose how to report the tragedy, and The New Yorker published his striking report, all thirty-one-thousand words, in one edition (August, 1946), virtually unaccompanied by other articles. Within a few months, “Hiroshima” the article was published in book form and has remained in print as Hiroshima (1946). Hiroshima (Hersey) Nuclear weapons;Hiroshima and Nagasaki Hiroshima, Japan [kw]Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion (Aug., 1946) [kw]Nuclear Explosion, Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a (Aug., 1946) [kw]Explosion, Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear (Aug., 1946) [kw]Surviving a Nuclear Explosion, Hiroshima Recounts the Story of (Aug., 1946) Hiroshima (Hersey) Nuclear weapons;Hiroshima and Nagasaki Hiroshima, Japan [g]North America;Aug., 1946: Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion[01800] [g]United States;Aug., 1946: Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion[01800] [c]Literature;Aug., 1946: Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion[01800] [c]World War II;Aug., 1946: Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion[01800] [c]Disasters;Aug., 1946: Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion[01800] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug., 1946: Hiroshima Recounts the Story of Surviving a Nuclear Explosion[01800] Hersey, John Tanimoto, Kiyoshi Nakamura, Hatsuyo Fujii, Masakazu Sasaki, Terufumi Sasaki, Toshiko Kleinsorge, Wilhelm

After traveling throughout Hiroshima, interviewing numerous victims, and gathering relevant statistics, he chose to follow six interviewees and document their experiences from the time just before the “noiseless flash” through the spring of 1946. His choice of subjects was based on their having been good interviewees, and he focused on each person as a unique individual.

Panoramic view of Hiroshima after it was struck by an atomic bomb in August, 1945.

(Library of Congress)

The Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who had arisen early on August 6 to help move a friend’s belongings, had studied theology in the United States, spoke excellent English, and kept in touch with American friends up to the time World War II broke out, making his loyalty to Japan somewhat suspect. To prove that he was loyal to Japan, he had been active in the community, taking responsibility for organizing air-raid defense for twenty families.

Tanimoto was about 3,500 yards from the center of where the atomic bomb would soon explode: then it did. Scores of Japanese soldiers ran out of hillside dugouts that had been deemed safe, but blood was running from their heads, backs, and chests. He soon was busy helping others, so his own terror subsided, but fear for his family was growing. As he ran toward the city, those fleeing had burns, torn skin, and images of clothing patterns burned into their skin. All were silent and expressionless. Soon, radiation sickness was evident.

Tanimoto finally found his family, unhurt. His wife had worked her way out of the debris and freed the children, just before the parsonage collapsed over them. Tanimoto tirelessly aided victims all around him who were crying out for water and food, and he transported several loads of people to safety across the river in a borrowed boat. When he received word that a Mr. Tanaka, chief among those who said that he was a spy, was asking for him, he arrived just in time to read a psalm as Tanaka lay dying.

When he was able, Tanimoto built a makeshift church. About a year later, he toured the United States to raise money to rebuild his church and to build a peace center. On a 1950 tour, he was invited to deliver the opening prayer for a session of the U.S. Senate. Later, Tanimoto became active in finding homes for orphaned children. In 1982, he retired from his pastorate.

Hatsuyo Nakamura, a widow, took in sewing to eke out a living. After the bomb fell, her house collapsed, but she managed to free herself and her children. Within a month, the family succumbed to radiation sickness. Resources were dwindling, and soon she was destitute. She finally received a modest house and found a job from which she retired at age fifty-five with a pension.

A wealthy, pleasure-loving doctor, Masakazu Fujii owned a private hospital. Immediately after the flash, he realized that he was in water and parts of the hospital were all around him. Finally freeing himself, he rescued two of his nurses. In severe pain, Fujii evaluated his wounds and found himself too badly wounded to care for other victims. After his recovery, he bought a clinic and built up a strong practice. He treated and befriended many American occupation personnel. Years later, in 1956, he oversaw a group of young women undergoing keloid scar surgery in the United States.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge was feeling the strain of the wartime diet and of being a foreigner in Japan during the war. On the morning of the explosion, he was conducting Mass when a siren sounded. He dismissed the group, but seeing nothing in the sky, went to his room to read. After the flash, Kleinsorge never knew how he got out, but found himself in the garden. He rallied and responded to innumerable calls for help. After a time, when he was exhausted and thirsty, a Japanese woman offered him some tea leaves, promising that they would alleviate the thirst. He was almost moved to tears by this gesture, since he had become increasingly aware of the growing Japanese hatred of foreigners.

Terufumi Sasaki, a surgeon, was in a hospital laboratory, 1,650 yards from the epicenter, when the blast ripped through the hospital. He was the sole uninjured staff person; he was probably saved by having taken a streetcar instead of his customary train to work. He lost his glasses, however, which severely impeded his work. With only eight doctors for ten thousand patients, he worked for three days with only one hour’s sleep. One month later and twenty pounds lighter, he slept six hours each night and still wore borrowed glasses. Much of his work for the next five years was removing keloid scars, which resulted from burns. In 1951, he opened his own clinic. A physical examination revealed lung cancer, and after surgery, a severe hemorrhage brought him close to death. He later deemed this near-death experience the most important of his life, for it taught him the importance of compassion. After his wife died in 1972, he opened a geriatric practice. Although quite wealthy, he lived what he lectured to his staff: to work not for money primarily, but to put patients first.

At the East Asia Tin Works, Toshiko Sasaki, a personnel clerk, had been taking a break when the bomb exploded. Sixteen hundred yards from the epicenter, Sasaki lost consciousness as she was covered with bookcases and piles of debris. Many hours later, moving in and out of consciousness, she was taken outside into the rain. After she had gone two days without food or medical treatment, friends notified her that her parents and brother had died. Her crushed leg was now severely infected, and she overheard discussions about amputation, but no surgical equipment was available. Unable to set her fractures because of the infection and having no cast materials, she only received aspirin for pain. Also, she was showing signs of radiation sickness. A year later and finally at home, she was beginning to feel alive again when the man whom she was to marry backed out: his family did not wish him to marry a “cripple” and a hibakusha, a person with radiation sickness. Under Father Kleinsorge’s ministry, Sasaki converted to Catholicism. Because she was unable to care for herself and her surviving siblings, the children went to an orphanage; she was hired there as an attendant. In 1954, convinced that she would never marry, she became a nun and was made director of a home for the elderly.

Significance

John Hersey’s first-person accounts show how six residents of the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the first city ever to be destroyed by a single weapon, lived through an unimaginable trauma. Hersey’s work tells how people—regardless of country of origin, class, ethnicity, race, gender, age, or other background—cope with the horrific in their everyday lives. The understated stories of these six ordinary people are remarkable. They made Hersey well known around the world, notorious among the U.S. military-led government in Japan—where the book was banned until 1949—and respected among fellow journalists. Hiroshima (Hersey) Nuclear weapons;Hiroshima and Nagasaki Hiroshima, Japan

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bataille, Georges. “Concerning the Accounts Given by the Residents of Hiroshima.” Translated by Alan Kennan. In Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Examines, from medical and psychological standpoints, how victims of the Hiroshima disaster dealt with the nuclear disaster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hersey, John. Hiroshima. Rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Hersey’s classic work adds a chapter written forty years after the original article and recounts the author’s search for the six original survivors of Hiroshima, whose post-bomb lives he documented. Widely read in its original form, this work is probably the most moving story of individual human responses to the tragedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hogan, Michael J., ed. Hiroshima in History and Memory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A work of memory and remembrance that focuses on how Hiroshima and Nagasaki have remained poignant symbols in the national consciousness of not only Japan but also the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanders, David. John Hersey Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Updates Sanders’s 1967 volume, John Hersey, which profiles Hersey’s life and reports on the bombing and its aftermath by sharing six of his interviews. Chronology, notes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharp, Patrick B. “From Yellow Peril to Japanese Wasteland: John Hersey’s Hiroshima.” Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 4 (2000): 434-452. Discusses the U.S. military’s official handling of the Hiroshima bombing, which named it a “historical moment.” Hersey, in contrast, undermined the official rhetoric. Also compares Hersey’s treatment with the “waste land” imagery of poet T. S. Eliot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sollers, Werner. “Holocaust and Hiroshima: American Ethnic Prose Writers Face the Extreme.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 118, no. 1 (2003): 56-61. Relates the Hiroshima bombing event and the Holocaust in Europe to modernism. Discusses the role of the “universal” in world events.

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