“When he dared, [the Reverend] Mr. [Kyoshi] Tanimoto raised his head and saw that the rayon man's house had collapsed. He thought a bomb had fallen directly on it. Such clouds of dust had risen that there was a sort of twilight around. In panic, not thinking for the moment of Mr. Matsuo under the ruins, he dashed out into the street. He noticed as he ran that the concrete wall of the estate had fallen over—towards the house rather than away from it. In the street, the first thing he saw was a squad of soldiers who had been burrowing into the hillside opposite, making one of the thousands of dugouts in which the Japanese apparently intended to resist invasion, hill by hill, life for life; the soldiers were coming out of the hole, where they should have been safe, and blood was running from their heads, chests, and backs. They were silent and dazed.
“Under what seemed to be a local dust cloud, the day grew darker and darker.”—John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946)
I meant to write this post yesterday, on the anniversary of this landmark event in literary history, the publication of Hiroshima in The New Yorker, until circumstances intervened. But with one brief, unsettling reminder of catastrophe last week, another, more tangible event this past weekend, and the 10th-year anniversary of a truly devastating event next weekend, the time still feels right for this post.
On this date 65 years ago yesterday, The New Yorker, in probably the boldest act of its entire history, devoted its entire issue to an extended report by John Hersey on the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Virtually all of the trademark touches of this most cosmopolitan of periodicals—cartoons, one-liners, short stories that redefined the genre—were gone, leaving readers face to face with only this extraordinary account of the U.S. bombing of this Japanese seaport from the perspective of six survivors.
The quote I’ve chosen highlights the story of the first of these half-dozen victims as told by Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (A Bell for Adano) as well as reporter. In a way, he is confirming the vow made by the American government as soon as it picked up the pieces from Pearl Harbor: that war would be visited in kind on the military machine that had forced death and disorder on America (not to mention Japan’s own Asian neighbors).
But, by the end of the account, it becomes clear that the blood all too apparent on the Japanese soldiers now weighs heavily, in a moral sense, on the United States as well. It has inaugurated a vast era of uncertainty, as indicated by some of the phrases in the above quote: a “sort of” twilight; a hole in which the Japanese soldiers “should” have been safe; what “seemed” to be a local dust cloud. The traditional fog of war has morphed into something more sinister: a cloud of dust that would bring death to 100,000 men, women and children, regardless of their responsibility for the war.
It would take many more years before the full physiological effects of the atomic bomb would be documented. But nobody reading Hersey’s account could fail to realize that, even less than a year after the attack (the author had interviewed the survivors in the spring of 1946, nine months after the bomb was dropped), the victims would not simply “recover”—their lives had been so irreparable damaged that it truly could be said that the living envied the dead.
In the last vignette closing the first chapter, the sixth survivor, a twentysomething office clerk named Toshiko Sasaki, is stunned as a bookcase collapsed on her: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books,” Hersey writes. That sentence, as loud as one of the sirens that resounded throughout Hiroshima August 6, 1945, is a warning that even one of the bulwarks of civilization is now powerless to save human life from violence wrought, in anger and vengeance, from the sky.