In August of 1946, as Americans celebrated the one-year anniversary of the end of World War II, The New Yorker magazine devoted an entire weekly edition to the remembrance of one of that war’s final events, the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The magazine, which would typically have featured several articles by different writers, instead devoted its August 31, 1946 edition to one extended article by journalist John Hersey, who had been one of the first Western journalists into Hiroshima after the bombing. Hersey’s article focused on six survivors – among them a Methodist minister and German Catholic priest – of the Hiroshima blast.
Without editorial comment, Hersey detailed the experiences of these six survivors and painted a horrifying portrait of the human cost of the atomic bombs. One passage, detailing Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s efforts to save the dying and aid the wounded, was particularly heart-wrenching:
“Just before dark, Mr. Tanimoto (a Methodist minister) came across a twenty-year-old girl, Mrs. Kamai, the Tanimotos’ next-door neighbor. She was crouching on the ground with the body of her infant daughter in her arms. The baby had evidently been dead all day. Mrs. Kamai jumped up when she saw Mr. Tanimoto and said, “Would you please try to locate my husband?”
“Mr. Tanimoto knew that her husband had been inducted into the Army just the day before… Judging by the many maimed soldiers Mr. Tanimoto had seen during the day, he surmised that the barracks had been badly damaged by whatever it was that had hit Hiroshima. He knew he hadn’t a chance of finding Mrs. Kamai’s husband, even if he searched, but he wanted to humor her. “I’ll try,” he said.
“’You’ve got to find him,” she said. “He loved our baby so much. I want him to see her once more.’”
So moving was Hersey’s account that Time magazine editorialized,
“Every American who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational phenomenon that can now be accepted as part of civilization, like the airplane and the gasoline engine, or who has allowed himself to speculate as to what we might do with them if we were forced into another war, ought to read Mr. Hersey.”
Having just passed the 71st anniversary of the bombing (and a contested half apology from the United States’ current Bomber in Chief), it seems that John Hersey’s mostly-forgotten work is due for a resurrection. His story may not change anyone’s position on whether or not the bombs should have been dropped, but it would at least remind Americans of what the bombings actually represent.