The original book was copyrighted and published in 1946. It is nonfiction. The edition I just finished reading was published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1985. I know, I know -- where have I been that it's taken me so long to read it? And why did I read it now?
Reason No. 1 -- my daughter loaned it to me. She's a student at Colorado University, Denver. Her Honors Project is a book of poetry focused on poetry of witness and documentary poetics. This is but one of the books she's reading in preparation to write her poems. .
Reason No. 2 -- In today's world climate the threat of nuclear war has thrown me back to the days of my youth when magazines had Jello recipes, diets, and blue prints for bomb shelters.
And Reason No. 3 -- Hersey's book Hiroshima mentions Father Hubert Schiffer, a German Jesuit priest. He and three other priests were in their Hiroshima mission compound less than one mile from ground zero on the morning of August 6, 1945, when the bomb called "Little Boy" exploded over the Japanese city.
Many years ago I got to hear Fr. Schiffer speak. At that time he was the Catholic Chaplain at the University of Oklahoma. Appropriately enough, he was speaking in the underground auditorium between the Sequoyah Building and the Will Rogers Building in Oklahoma City's Capital Complex. That area included a cafeteria, the auditorium, and enough space for important state government officials to take cover in the event of a nuclear attack.
I remember it had huge metal doors that could be closed and ample supplies of water and crackers in barrels. I also remember that across the hall from the auditorium was a cafeteria (which we Welfare Department employees patronized religiously.) They made the best cinnamon rolls and coffee, good reasons for us to look forward to coffee breaks.
Anyway, when Fr. Schiffer spoke, he told about his time in Hiroshima.
At the time of the bombing Wikipedia sets Hiroshima's population at approximately 340,000–350,000. Fr. Schiffer said that before the bomb, he could not see the ocean from his building because of the city's many other buildings. After the bomb, almost everything in the central part of the city was gone. There was nothing to block his view of the sea. Wikipedia estimated as many as 123,000 people died that first day.
Fr. Schiffer told about being taken out of the city to recuperate from injuries and radiation sickness. It took about a year for him to recover. When he was well enough, he returned to the city to find orphaned children roaming the city, depending on each other, and living however they could. He took over the bombed-out shell of a building and began collecting the children and the necessities to care for them -- sometimes leaving food outside the building to lure them in.
The American occupying forces had plenty of supplies in the area but Schiffer was blocked from them by the red tape many of us are familiar with. Finally, with a borrowed truck and a couple of people to help, he showed up at the gate of a supply depot. He explained that he needed bedding and food for his orphans, but he did not yet have official approval. The MPs refused him admittance.
He said he was going in to get what he needed. He had his helpers get out of the truck. He laid down in the front seat behind the truck's steering wheel, gunned it, and crashed through the gate. The MPs (I guess thinking it not a good idea to fire on a priest) stood by while he and his helpers loaded the truck. They handed the MPs a list of what they were taking and left. Father Schiffer said he never heard any complaints from the American military, nor did he receive a bill. In fact, after that, the Americans responded in a more favorable and timely manner to his requests for aid.
John Hersey's book follows six survivors of the bomb. The book begins:
Miss Toshinki Sasaki, a clerk in the personel department of the East Asia Tim Works, had just turned her head to chat with the girl at the next desk.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a physician, had just sat down to read the paper on the porch of his private hospital.
Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor's widow, was watching a neighbor from her kitchen window.
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Priest, lay on a cot in the mission house reading a Jesuit magazine.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon, walked along a hospital corridor with a blood specimen for a Wasserman test.
The Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, was about to unload a cart of clothes at a rich man's home in the suburbs.
The mundane activities did not really touch me until I read the Hiroshima Methodist Church and, all of a sudden, I realized that my view of World War II Japan was fundamentally wrong. A Methodist Church -- not a mission, but a church lead by a Japanese Methodist minister and attended by Japanese parishioners. In his book Hersey talks about damage to the Chamber of Commerce Building, the difficulty of withdrawing money from the damaged banks, the heroic efforts of medical personnel to treat the horribly wounded in equally badly damaged hospitals, etc., etc., etc.
This did not at all fit my John Wayne/Robert Mitchum-American-movies-trained concept of the people who attacked my people at Pearl Harbor.
Of course, these were not the people who attacked Pearl Harbor, any more than I was the person who dropped that atom bomb on them. I hadn't realized just how complete my sense of us and them was -- at least for the Japan that existed then.
That was before I was born. That was the Japan that my father fought in the Pacific. In my mind, somehow World War II Japan was completely separate from the Japan where my school friend Ray's great grandparents came from. Or the 1970's Japan my little yellow Honda car came from.
The original book ended and was published during the first anniversary year of the bombing. Hersey wrote: A year after the bomb was dropped, Miss Sasaki was a cripple; Mrs. Nakamura was destitute; Father Kleinsorge was back in the hospital; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of the work he once could do; Dr. Fujii had lost the thirty-room hospital it took him many years to acquire, and had no prospects of rebuilding it; Mr. Tanimoto's church had been ruined and he no longer had his exceptional vitality. The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same.
The hope at the end of World War II was that nuclear weapons would never be used again. Hersey does not end the revised edition with such rose-tinted glasses. He dates the development of nuclear weapons around the world up until the 1985 edition of Hiroshima. He brings us up to the fortieth anniversary of that first nuclear bomb. Each of the six survivors was still alive. They had built new lives for themselves. They had endured.
The cover of Hiroshima quotes the Saturday Review of Literature -- "Everyone able to read should read it."