Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Why I Read It: World War II history is always on the table; was going through a box of old books and decided to pull it out and read it.

Summary: The author follows the stories of six people caught in the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, told in four parts.

My Thoughts: Having not been there, it's hard for me to say on what side of the coin I would have fallen. I can say today whether or not I would have supported the dropping of the bomb, but having not been alive and in the United States in 1945, I cannot say how I would have felt at the moment. Of course, most Americans weren't in on the debate anyway.

And I'm guessing that even in the immediate aftermath, there was little American sympathy for the Japanese civilians killed in the blast. With the press filtered as it was in those days, average Joe probably had little knowledge of the truth as it was. Then, too, after four years of war, bloodshed, rumored atrocities and the revelation of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, there must have been a general numbness to death in distant lands.

But to the first-time reader in 2015, there is no such distancing.

The first-person descriptions offered by Hersey from the mouths of his interview subjects are jarring. Descriptions of physical impacts are as heartbreaking as the psychological crashes, like the tale of the woman who held onto her dead baby for days in order to show her husband their child one last time. He, a newly-recruited soldier, was probably dead already, too.

The sense of lost wonder - what kind of bomb was it? - was bewilderment in its truest description. Rumors abounded about paratroopers following the explosions, of gasoline sprinkled over the city then lit by incendiary bombs, and more. In a way, the fear of what came next mirrored the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, when trigger-happy American antiaircraft crews shot at their own planes. Some Japanese spoke with absolute authority; they knew what the bomb was. Others simply listened, the topic way over their heads.

The tale is utterly humanizing, in the sense that it takes us to ground zero of the enemy's worst day, and forces us to understand that their every day lives were not much different from ours. We are left to wonder, how would Los Angeles have done in the same situation, or Chicago? What if 10,000 wounded and sick Americans tried to find help at a 600-bed hospital? What if 100,000 of your closest friends were suddenly gone? What would you do if you found the silhouette of your uncle burned into a granite slab near the spot of impact, a permanent ghostly reminder of his last act?

This book has long been touted as one that everyone should read. I cannot disagree.


  1. I had put this on a reading list for my son this year as part of his history study. We have already read Holocaust books like "Night" by Elie Wiesel and "The Hiding Place" by Corrie Ten Boom (among others), so I had been looking for something else. In the end, I decided to focus on some other areas of history since he has already read a lot about WWII. However, I think this is one that I may add to my list to read.


  2. It's pretty remarkable and a quick read to boot. I'm following up with The Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, which is even darker than this one! I gotta find something a little more light-hearted next,

  3. Okay, then don't read Unbroken, yet. Great book. Not light-hearted. How about one about the Appalachian Trail? I'm reading Southbound now, but I think the best one I have read (not counting Bryson's) was AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.

    1. I was on a panel once with a guy who had walked the trail several times (and a barefoot hiker, as well). I should have asked him a few more questions while I had the chance. It's such an amazing feat. Oh well. I have a book on pirates I'm reviewing for Amazon Vine soon, so that will probably be next, and then two for Sea History magazine. Sometimes I have no choice :)