Hiroshima (1946 and 1985) is journalist John Hersey’s classic account of six survivors of the 1945 atom bomb attack on Japan. Amid the wreckage, these six lived to offer their accounts of the devastating experience.
Introduction: Discover what happened to six people in Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped.
How does it feel to experience an atom bomb explosion? What does it do to a city and the people in it? And how does it feel to be a survivor when more than a hundred thousand around you die?
These are the questions that the journalist John Hersey asked in 1946, the year after the United States dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
His astonishing account, first published in the New Yorker and later as a stand-alone book, tells the story of six of the relatively lucky ones, all stationed far enough out from the center not to have died immediately. Their intertwining tales tell of shock, compassion, pain, and determination.
Hersey’s book is a journalistic classic, which helped pave the way for the New Journalism school of the likes of Truman Capote several decades later, using novelistic techniques to tell real-life stories with amazing impact.
In 1985, Hersey returned to the city and discovered what had happened to the six in the decades since, writing a new chapter.
This summary takes you right through from the moment the bomb landed to the mid-1980s. You’ll hear about all six of Hersey’s interviewees.
Needless to say, it contains some distressing material.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- how the explosion affected the weather;
- how the people of Hiroshima tried to help each other; and
- how the experience shaped their lives in the decades after.
It was exactly 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, and the chance movements of six Hiroshima residents – which way they were walking, where they were sitting, the precise way they were leaning over in their chair – happened to mean they survived.
When the atomic bomb dropped, the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto was helping a friend move his belongings to the edge of the city in case an air raid came. It was a still, quiet morning.
A huge flash of light appeared, and the two men ducked for cover. Mr. Tanimoto dove between some rocks. Like others, he heard no noise.
For Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a war widow, the flash was an intense white. She’d followed official advice to evacuate the city center, and was on the outskirts with her three young children, watching a neighbor reluctantly tear his house down – a measure taken to prevent the spread of fire, in case of an attack.
The intense white blast hurled her across the room. She was buried in debris, but unhurt. She heard a cry, “Mother!” How lucky they were: all three children survived and she was able to pull them free.
Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a jovial lover of middle-aged prosperity, was sitting on the porch in his underwear, reading the newspaper. At 8:15, before he knew it, he found himself suspended in the river, trapped fortuitously between two timbers – parts of the now submerged private hospital in which he’d been living.
Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit, was in the mission house, also reading in his underwear. The next thing he remembered, he was wandering around the vegetable garden, surveying a scene of utter devastation.
The only unhurt doctor at the Red Cross Hospital, the young Terufumi Sasaki, had come into work earlier than usual as he hadn’t slept well. He was walking down a corridor holding a blood specimen when the flash came. He ducked down, saying to himself, “Be brave!” His glasses and slippers flew off and the blood smashed on a wall.
Miss Toshinki Sasaki, a clerk at a tin works – not a relation of the doctor’s despite their shared surname – was at her desk in a room lined with books. She was turning her head away from a window when the entire building collapsed around her, trapping her under a mound of books and bookcases. Her leg hurt horribly.
But, by chance, she was alive.
Mr. Tanimoto, the man helping a friend move to the edge of the city, poked his head out from between the rocks. It was an apocalyptic scene. The first thing he noticed was a parade of soldiers, dazed and covered in blood, emerging from a dugout they’d made in the hillside. The sky, previously so clear, was darkened by dust. It looked like twilight.
He heard a cry, “I’m hurt!”, and found an old lady carrying a young boy. Mr. Tanimoto led them to an emergency meeting point, a nearby school. There were already at least 50 people there, and the floor was covered with glass.
He ran up a little hill so he could see across the city – and saw nothing but thick smoke, dust, and fire. Huge water droplets rained down – he thought they came from a firefighting effort; in fact they were an aftereffect of the blast itself.
Mr. Tanimoto went back and found his friend, Mr. Matsuo, was safe. Aware – and a little ashamed, in fact – of his own good fortune, he ran toward the city.
He saw chilling sights on his route. Amid the cries of those trapped impossibly in the debris, survivors were fleeing in the opposite direction, bearing terrible burn marks, vomiting, silent in their suffering. Some of the burns he saw on their bodies were shaped like flowers – the white color on their kimonos had repelled the heat. He muttered a few apologies – sorry for not being comparably hurt.
He ran seven miles and then swam across a river.
By an utter stroke of luck, he came across his wife and daughter, but in their heightened state of shock they barely registered how unlikely this was. He saw that they were safe, and continued onwards. Mr. Tanimoto wanted to help his church congregation.
Then he realized people were gathering at Asano Park, so he made his way there, to help as many as he could.
“Why is it night?” asked Myeko, Mrs. Nakamura’s five-year-old daughter. Having freed her three children, she was exhausted. Her neighbor, who’d been dismantling his house, was dead.
Someone told her people were meeting at Asano Park. Before heading there, not thinking straight, she plunged her sewing machine – her only source of income – into a water tank, for safe keeping.
As she left, she spotted Father Kleinsorge, the German Jesuit, running past in his underwear. He was rushing to deposit a suitcase full of money in an air-raid shelter. Then, returning to the mission, he helped a fellow priest whose head was spurting blood. The secretary, Mr. Fukai, was standing alone in tears. He didn’t want to move. So Father Kleinsorge picked him up, and set off, ignoring his protestations, toward Asano Park.
Mr. Fukai was a small man, but still not easy to carry. When Father Kleinsorge stumbled and had to put him down, he ran back manically into the spreading flames.
Dr. Fujii spent 20 minutes trapped in the river, but struggled painfully free when he realized the tide was coming. He surveyed the scene as best he could without his glasses. It must have been a whole cluster of bombs, he speculated. He helped the people nearby, but, as flames were spreading all around him, he sat back and waited. When he could, he began the long walk to his family’s house, much further out of the city. He was in immense pain.
Dr. Sasaki had been handed a different lot. Unhurt and stationed in the hospital, he got to work. He took some glasses off an injured nurse’s face, and haphazardly began to treat whoever was standing near him. He began sending away anyone who was only lightly hurt: time was best spent, he calculated, stopping people from bleeding to death.
Dr. Sasaki worked on, and on, and on, for 19 hours without a break. At 3 a.m. he went out and collapsed in exhaustion. Wounded patients found him where he lay and implored him for help. He started up again.
All in all, almost a hundred thousand were dead or soon to be dead. The same number again had injuries.
And all the while, Miss Sasaki remained immobile among a mound of books. Some men dragged her out of the rubble, but she still couldn’t move, so she waited there, with two other miserable people close to death, for two whole days.
Mr. Tanimoto, Father Kleinsorge, and the Nakamura family were all in Asano Park as the evening of the first day approached. A promising message blared out from a boat in the nearby river: a hospital ship was on its way. It never arrived.
The park was a relatively safe place, but Mr. Tanimoto realized it wasn’t safe enough for the worst injured, as a fire was heading that way. They wouldn’t be able to escape. So he found a small boat on the riverbank, apologized to the five corpses he had to brush aside, and began the grim process of ferrying the least mobile people across the river to a safer-looking spot on the bank. He paused when a huge whirlwind appeared, another devastating aftereffect.
Later on, Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge teamed up to find some food at the Father’s mission. The pumpkins in the garden had been roasted by the heat of the bomb; the potatoes in the earth had baked. They took the spoils back to the park. The Nakamuras tried to eat, but couldn’t keep it down. They’d made the mistake of drinking river water.
Mr. Tanimoto resumed his work ferrying the nearly dead across the river. He had to keep reminding himself that the clammy, swollen bodies he was carrying were human beings.
The next morning, he looked across the river again, and the bodies he’d carried there were gone. He hadn’t placed them high enough up the bank. The tide had taken them.
Miss Sasaki was luckier: on the third day, August 8, some friends came and found her. Her leg still looking terrible, she was taken to a military hospital.
Dr. Sasaki, meanwhile, continued his monstrous shift. He did three straight days before walking all the way out to the suburbs, calling his mother to tell her he was alive, and then going home to sleep for 17 hours.
Around which time – 11:02 a.m. on August 9 – the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Not that the people of Hiroshima had any idea what was happening in Nagasaki. In fact, they still didn’t know what had happened to them.
Rumors were spreading, though. Some speculated that the Americans had sprayed magnesium powder over the city’s power lines, causing explosions. Some said, confusedly, that they’d created an explosion by somehow splitting an atom in two. Few people understood what that meant, except for the team of physicists who soon came to pay a visit.
On the ground in Hiroshima, working out exactly what had happened was secondary to just surviving. In the days that followed, those on the ground found ways to make a life amongst the wreckage of the city. The Nakamuras were taken into Father Kleinsorge’s Novitiate chapel, and gradually tried to regain their appetite.
Father Kleinsorge sent a colleague out of the city to visit Dr. Fujii, to see what had become of him. He was found nursing a broken collarbone and sipping whisky.
Mr. Tanimoto continued his work, helping people and reading prayers for the dying. Dr. Sasaki kept going as well, treating burn after burn, wound after wound.
Miss Sasaki continued her long wait in the military hospital, her leg in a bad state but unamputated.
On August 15, nine days after the bomb, anyone listening to the radio heard an unfamiliar, rather sad voice. Emperor Hirohito was making his first ever radio announcement, to declare the end of the war.
A few weeks later, on September 9, Miss Sasaki’s leg was still swelling, and the resources at the military hospital were no longer enough. So, she was taken by car to the Red Cross Hospital, and for the first time she could look out at the state of her city.
The devastation, she was expecting. What came as an eerie surprise was the vivid blanket of green that was now covering the ruins. Somehow, the bomb had stimulated the roots of the city’s weeds, and they’d gone into overdrive. Hiroshima was awash with the bright colors of morning glories, daylilies, panic grass, and feverfew.
Miss Sasaki became the patient of her namesake, Dr. Sasaki, 20 pounds lighter now and still wearing the glasses he’d taken from a nurse. He found that her health, overall, was passable. She did, though, have some small hemorrhages, all over her skin.
Father Kleinsorge, initially so healthy, had some strange symptoms, too. He’d picked up some small, negligible cuts in the carnage – but one day they suddenly opened up and became inflamed. Mrs. Nakamura, as well, was doing her hair one day when a whole clump simply came away with the comb. She lost it all in just a few days. Mr. Tanimoto, meanwhile, felt generally ill and feverish, in a way that was hard to define.
The bomb hadn’t just brought heat and destruction and extreme weather – it had also brought radiation sickness.
With time came greater understanding. The scientists located the exact center of the explosion and pieced together what had happened. The fact that some clay tiles had melted, quite far out from the center, told them that the heat of the explosion would have been 6,000 degrees Celsius.
They also worked out that more than a hundred thousand people had died – some from burns, some from radiation, and about half from miscellaneous other injuries.
As a holy man, Father Kleinsorge made visits to people in the hospitals. One day he saw Miss Sasaki, who wasn’t a Christian. She gestured to her leg, and asked him how a loving god could have let it happen.
Father Kleinsorge replied that this wasn’t God’s work. Man had sinned, and fallen from grace.
These six, of course, were among the lucky ones. In the years and decades that followed, they all rebuilt their lives. Survivors of the bomb were known as hibakusha, and were treated with wariness by their compatriots. It was years before they began to receive state support.
Miss Sasaki converted to Christianity, and eventually became a nun. Her greatest strength was taking care of the dying. She’d seen so much death that she had no fear herself.
Father Kleinsorge suffered from ill health throughout his life, but continued his selfless work. He also achieved his dream of becoming a Japanese citizen, changing his name to Father Makoto Takakura. He passed away in 1977.
Dr. Sasaki found himself a highly eligible young man, having been spared any serious injuries, and he soon married. After a few years treating the wounded in Hiroshima he set up his own clinic and achieved great success and wealth.
Dr. Fujii, much further on in his career, had immediately set up a new medical practice, eager to treat the occupying American forces and practice his English. He made a good life for himself, his wife, and his five children, who all followed in his medical footsteps. He fell into a coma in 1963 and died nine years later.
Mr. Tanimoto, who’d run so many miles just after the bomb hit, maintained his frenetic workload. He became a spokesperson for the hibakusha and made many fundraising tours to the USA. Astonishingly, he even ended up on an episode of This Is Your Life in 1955; with remarkable insensitivity, he was introduced to Captain Robert Lewis – one of the pilots who’d dropped the bomb – who arrived in the studio drunk.
In 1982, he finally retired and sank into a cozy life of daily walks, too much food, and hazy memories.
Mrs. Nakamura retrieved the sewing machine she’d plunged into the water tank and had it repaired, making a living for her and her children through odd jobs. Later, she found work at a mothball company, and stayed there for many years. When her children grew up and married, she retired.
Unlike Mr. Tanimoto, she didn’t become politically animated – it took years before she even started to claim the benefits she was entitled to. Her attitude was: “Shikata ga nai” – “It can’t be helped.”
The most important thing to take away from this is:
When the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, an entire city was ruined. More than a hundred thousand people died in all, and many of the survivors – known in Japan as hibakusha – suffered devastating injuries and radiation sickness. The six survivors that journalist John Hersey wrote about were affected, and acted, in contrasting ways. But their lives, like the whole world, were changed forever.
About the author
JOHN HERSEY was born in Tientsin, China, in 1914 and lived there until 1925, when his family returned to the United States. He studied at Yale and Cambridge, served for a time as Sinclair Lewis’s secretary, and then worked several years as a journalist. Beginning in 1947 he devoted his time mainly to writing fiction. He won the Pulitzer Prize, taught for two decades at Yale, and was president of the Authors League of America and Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Hersey died in 1993.
History, Classics, War, Cultural, Japan, World War II, Asia, Writing, Journalism, Academic, School, Military, Nuclear Weapons and Warfare History
On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic “that stirs the conscience of humanity” (The New York Times).
Almost four decades after the original publication of this celebrated book, John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search of the people whose stories he had told. His account of what he discovered about them is now the eloquent and moving final chapter of Hiroshima.
“One of the great classics of the war” (The New Republic) that tells what happened in Hiroshima through the memories of survivors—from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
“Nothing can be said about this book that can equal what the book has to say. It speaks for itself, and in an unforgettable way, for humanity.” —The New York Times
“One of the great classics of the war.” —The New Republic
“Everyone able to read should read it.” —Saturday Review of Literature