John Hersey, Hiroshima, Penguin Books

Special new edition with a chapter on The Aftermath

This book is essential reading. Disregard your textbooks and television, buy Hiroshima and turn your mind back to a subject most of us prefer not to think about: nuclear war. Atom bombs. Total devastation. The effect our power games can have on us, the players.

Hiroshima was first released in 1946, as a Penguin book and simultaneously as a special one-article issue of The New Yorker. It had a profound effect on a world which knew little about the effects of the new super-bomb. It contained no moralising; no contemplation of what these bombs may lead to. John Hersey had simply gone to Hiroshima and recorded the story of six people who had experienced the bomb. The words he used were as close to theirs as possible. The result was, and is, a remarkable book. No flowery adjectives are flying about its pages, for it does not need them. It says a lot for John Hersey that he restrained from taking such liberties: in so doing he has produced a masterpiece of unbiased journalism, and a modern classic.

It is impossible to summarise a book so brief and yet so detailed. In reading it you are swept up in the events it describes, almost to the point that you are there, watching. The presentation of six viewpoints provides a deadly-accurate pace for the narrative: the noiseless flash described six times, drawing out that brief moment forever; the realisation by the six that a bomb has dropped; the period of lonely confusion, dealing with the event; and then, as the story picks up speed and the events swirl together, the chaos, as hundreds huddle together and cry for help in a shattered park, between poisoned rivers, in a ravaged wasteland.

It is a tribute to Hersey that he tells a story of real human beings, of ordinary people, when the temptation in 1946 would have been to produce yet another piece of wartime propoganda. The five Japanese and one German are portrayed as they deserve, with sympathy and respect. As a result, Hiroshima becomes a universal tale which may yet be retold anywhere: in New York; in Moscow; in Sydney.

Those who have read this book already should go back to it, for Hersey has added another chapter, dealing with the lives of the six since his last visit. This chapter, almost as long as the original book, holds even more relevance for us today, as it stands as a symbol of our societies' short memories. We learn how each survivor struggled through the difficult rebuilding years; how each came to grips with the after-effects of the bomb on their tired bodies. But more importantly, we learn how each slowly forgot that fateful day, simply in order to get on with their lives. In the end, Hersey reinforces this point through the life of the most active survivor, one who travelled the U.S. raising money for the survivors and memorials. "He lived in a snug little house... He ate too much... He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world's, was getting spotty."

None of us can continually carry the guilt and fear of Hiroshima... we also must get on with our lives. But we occasionally need to remind ourselves of what we have done, and what we are doing. This account is the ideal reminder.


Father Kleinsorge heard a voice from the underbrush, "Have you anything to drink?" He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. (They must have had their faces upturned when the bomb went off; perhaps they were anti-aircraft personnel.) ... One of them said, "I can't see anything." Father Kleinsorge answered, as cheerily as he could, "There's a doctor at the entrance to the park. He's busy now, but he'll come soon and fix your eyes, I hope."


First published in Togatus, 2 June 1987.
This page: 28 February 2000; last modified 8 May 2018.

©1987, 2000 Rory Ewins