I’ve been told this book by John Hershey is the most famous of the many books describing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. My first reaction was to be astonished that it was so small. I won’t be so foolish to dismiss the importance of a book that has over 400 Amazon reviews with an average of more than 4 out of five “stars,” but I expected more. Perhaps I’ve read too many books that describe the horrific effects of a nuclear weapon detonation over a city. My purpose for finally reading it was to look for new information for the book I’m writing that has the working title of “Nuclear Deterrence: An Early History of The Rocky Flats Plant.” That history obviously includes the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any history of the impact of nuclear weapons on deterrence would obviously be deficient without a discussion of the first use of nuclear weapons in war.
The book describes the situations of six residents of Hiroshima when the nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The six are described as a clerk who was chatting with a coworker, a physician who had sat down to read a newspaper, a tailor’s widow who was watching a neighbor, a German priest who was reading a magazine, a surgeon who was carrying a blood sample to a laboratory, and a Methodist pastor who was unloading a cart of clothes. The first observation is that they all had, for one reason or another, turned their heads away from the location of the detonation or were a few feet beyond a window that faced the detonation. Those small accidents of history saved all of them from having their eyes destroyed. There is a description of how a contingent of Japanese soldiers was outside and all had looked up to see the single B-29 when the detonation occurred. All of them had their “eyes melted.”
Much of the eventual human suffering from the bombing was created by the number of medical personnel who were immediately killed or incapacitated. “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 and only ten nurses out of more than more than two hundred were able to function. “In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” The burns on survivors were terrible, and the radiation impacts were yet to be experienced.
An odd observation is that people who survived and needed food were fed by “…cooked pumpkins (roasted on the vine) and dug up some potatoes that were nicely cooked underground.” The positive descriptions of feeding survivors is offset by the heart- rendering description of a mother carrying the decaying body of her dead baby.
Much of the book is about the daunting task of people who worked tirelessly to help the badly injured and dying and carrying water to the thirsty. Many of their efforts ended with the death of those they were trying to help. One man found a boat and worked for days loading people and poling or rowing across the river to deliver them to safer ground. The water rose and drowned many of the weakened people he took across the river but couldn’t get them to higher ground. He tried pull a weakened woman into the boat “…but her skin slipped off in a huge, glovelike pieces.”
“At two minutes after eleven o’clock on the morning of August 9th, the second atomic bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. It was several days before the survivors of Hiroshima knew they had company, because the Japanese radio and newspapers were being extremely cautious on the subject of the strange weapon.”
The Hiroshima survivors wondered what had been unleashed against their city. Japanese radio made an announcement on August 7th that “Hiroshima suffered considerable damage as the result of an attack by a few B-29s. It is believed that a new type of bomb was used.” One theory that was discussed among the survivors was that the blast was the result of “…magnesium powder sprayed over the whole city by a single plane and it exploded when it came in contact with the live wires of the city power system.” A week after the bombing there was a report “…that the city had been destroyed by the energy released when atoms were somehow split in two. The weapon was referred to in this word-of-mouth report as genshi bakudan—the root characters of which can be translated as ‘original child bomb’.”
The book describes with the impact of the radiation. One of the main characters was especially angered by a rumor that the atomic bomb had deposited some sort of poison on Hiroshima that would be deadly for seven years. “Up until this time, Mrs. Nakamura and her relatives had been passive about the moral issue of the atomic bomb, but this rumor suddenly aroused them to more hatred and resentment of America than they had felt all through the war.”
The survivors are described as mostly believing those who died did so because “…it was for the Emperor’s sake. A surprising number of people of Hiroshima remained more or less indifferent about the ethics of using the bomb.” Mrs. Nakamura (the tailor’s widow) expressed that “It was war and we had to expect it.” She added the words that correspond to “It can’t be helped.” However, others had hatred for the Americans for using the bomb. Dr. Sasaki (the young surgeon) 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 used the bomb and they should hang them all.”
There is a discussion of the “Keloid Girls.” They were the young women who had been burned in the blast, and some of them were taken to the U.S. for plastic surgery. No boys were involved.
The book closes with comment that the “…United States and the Soviet Union were steadily climbing the steep steps of deterrence.” The Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church at the time of the bombing made speaking tours in the U.S. until he was over seventy. The book closes with the comment that, “His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.”