On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, an American plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The bomb detonated above the city, destroying most of the buildings and killing a hundred thousand people - nearly half the city's population.
Journalist John Hersey traveled to Hiroshima after the war and interviewed six survivors of the explosion. He wrote about it in his book "Hiroshima."
The survivors - two clergymen, two doctors, a widow, and a young female clerk - were near the city's edge when they saw the flash of light. Their paths crossed multiple times.
Hersey relays their stories in a straightforward journalistic style. It reminded me of Thornton Wilder's classic novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," but it struck me harder knowing that these were real stories of real people.
The first four chapters cover the two weeks immediately following the detonation, as the survivors deal with the injuries to themselves, the destruction of their homes and workplaces, and the massive devastation of their city. The New Yorker published these chapters in its August 1946 issue - a year after the incident. The issue quickly sold out, and the chapters were published as a book shortly after.
Hersey returned to Japan forty years later to learn about the lives of the six survivors after the war. Most of them suffered long-term physical and mental effects from the experience. Some had passed away in the years between. He told their later life stories in the July 1985 issue of the New Yorker. Editions of the book published after 1985 included this as a final chapter.
The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and on Nagasaki three days later undoubtedly led to Japan's surrender less than a month later. But this book does not focus on the reasons for the bomb or whether its use was justified. It seeks instead to shine a light on the effect the bomb had on the ordinary people in its path. No one has dropped an atomic bomb on a city since then, and "Hiroshima" may have contributed to widespread resistance to nuclear warfare. One cannot help but be moved by the misery the victims experience after such an attack.
More than any book I can remember, "Hiroshima" brought the horrors of war to life. Nations go to war, which often causes collateral damage, destroying the lives of innocent bystanders. Hersey gave faces and voices to these victims.