If The Bomb Drops, Baby

John Hersey

Avoidance is either a deep, deep strategy for living life, or a self-preservation mechanism.

Or maybe it’s both.

Born near the tail end of the Baby Boom, I’m supposed to share existential dread with an entire generation. We are the first generation, as the story is told in some quarters, to always live knowing the horror of nuclear war.

Like so many things that escaped me, I recall just one drill in grammar school that was probably about a bomb strike. Mostly I remember fire drills and fearing gym class. I could plausibly argue that I had no need to fear the possibility of death since it was such a close family friend, but that never occurred to me at the time and I find retrospective explanations unsatisfying.

That’s a long way to say that, despite working in libraries for three years and passing the paperback edition of this volume countless times, I never felt the need to pick it up. It’s as if there was a dead spot in my curiosity: atom bomb, Japan, dropped, bad. What else have ya got?

Before the bombing, Hiroshima was a mid-sized Japanese city. It had mostly been spared bombing.

Then the 40th-anniversary edition of this book, originally published as a one-article edition of The New Yorker in August 1946, fell into my lap. A modern book that has never gone out of print that I’ve been avoiding for half a century in pristine condition for a quarter? I’m thick but sometimes even I can hear what the universe is saying.

I’d already read some John Hersey. The novel he published during World War II, A Bell for Adano, is the sort of thing that’s regularly excerpted and anthologized. I’m certain I’ve read a portion of it. And I did get lost in Blues, his 1987 paean to what I’ve always thought of as the stupidest fish in the sea. In that particular case, I learned nothing that persuaded me to reconsider these frenzied feeders. But I enjoyed the overall feel of the book. I thought it did a great job conveying the mood of summer in and around Martha’s Vineyard, a place where I have not spent enough time.

This, though, is the work for which he is most famous. I may have passed a clueless Cold War childhood, but even I realized that there was war, with bombs and guns and planes and then, suddenly, there was something else. At the time it must have been even more jarring. I can easily imagine myself tearing through any and every scrap of information I could find trying to make sense of it all.

Little Boy, the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare.
A single bomb, it weighed less than 10,000 pounds.

This book, I submit, is an attempt to make sense of it all. And yet it’s a book that begins at the end. in the heroic victor’s telling of the tale, there are the scientists applying physics to a new form of ordinance. There are engineers, working to develop processing methods never dreamed of before in double real-time. And there are the military and political leaders who choose to use the weapon in the belief that it would cut short a prolonged, bloody and necessary invasion of the Japanese homeland.

The almost instant incineration of tens of thousands of people and relatively fast deaths of even more (more than 100 thousand died by year’s end from the effects of the blast; that’s still an inconceivable number even as we live through a similar horror) is almost incidental to the scientific/technical/geopolitical tale. Let’s not miss the important point here, illustrated by the nearby photo of the Enola Gay: people did this to people.

Before missiles, bombs were dropped from planes flown by crews.

This isn’t the place for an ethical exploration of just war theory. That sentence at the end of the prior paragraph is just a statement of fact. It makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it makes you uncomfortable. I think war, in general, ought to make us all uncomfortable. So I’ll say so and let you make up your own mind.

Hersey’s brilliant insight was to leave the ‘how’ and ‘why’ to other writers and concentrate on the ‘who.’ The bomb is secondary, a deadly MacGuffin given minimal page time, and then only in the service of describing the impact of its terrible power on real lives. The book’s first, elegant sentence almost defiantly establishes the rules:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Miss Sasaki is but one of the city residents we meet. Others include two doctors, a mother, and her three children, a Japanese Christian churchman and a German Jesuit missioner and his brethren. As I read I realized the Jesuit, Fr. Wilhelm Kleinsorge, was the one character all the others had in common and had to have served as Hersey’s entry point. The book’s Wikipedia entry confirms that and the page is worth a visit to put faces with names.

The Hiroshima blast as seen from the air. They say it was equivalent to 16,000 tins of TNT.

The core story itself is divided into four parts. This being a new edition, there is a fifth section which includes reporting Heresy did after visiting the city forty years after the blast. The ‘whatever happened to’ updates are interesting enough but, for me, they didn’t add much.

Mostly everyone had a life with all its ups and downs. The most interesting development was that Fr. Kleinsorge became a Japanese citizen and took a Japanese name: Makoto Takakura. The story of how the Japanese government gradually came to accept more responsibility for the people who suffered from the bombings (three days after the Hiroshima bombing a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki) provides a useful  look at politics and culture operating in tension.

Since we are dealing with survivors, there are no lurid deaths, There are injuries. Ms. Sasaki is trapped in debris, her leg wounded and eventually infected, which causes a year’s worth of problems. Her fiancée, who also survived, hears of her sickness and avoids ever seeing her. Dr. Sasaki, no relation, works inhuman hours at his trade. Radiation sickness, rarely seen among humans before, emerges and is finally recognized for what it is.

The aftermath. Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Mrs. Nakamura and her children have an incredibly hard time, having to flee their destroyed home and the firestorm which followed. Mr. Tanimoto, the churchman,  polled a boat incessantly back and forth across the river trying to save people including one group of burn victims, their flesh peeled-off and missing, whom he fails to get to high enough ground. I wonder if, like Jesus, he wept.

It took me far too long to get around to reading this book. I’d hope that in all those war colleges and service academies that its part of the curriculum.


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