After the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, the U.S. government censored the truth about the terrible carnage the atomic explosion wrought. John Hersey, a 32-year-old war correspondent, told the truth about it.
Hersey wrote 31,000 words that described in detail the effects of nuclear warfare on survivors. His editor at the New Yorker magazine decided to devote its entire Aug. 31, 1946 issue to it, something never done before or since. Roger Angell, a New Yorker editor, wrote that Hersey’s prose was “so stripped of mannerism, sentimentality, and even minimal emphasis as to place each reader alone within scenes laid bare of all but pain.”
In 1999, the 36 members of New York University judged Hiroshima the finest piece of American journalism in the 20th century.
He was born June 17, 1914, the son of staunch Congregationalist parents, Grace Baird and Roscoe Hersey. They were so staunch they became YMCA missionaries to China, and John was born in Tientsin. He only spoke English as a second language. He learned to speak Chinese first.
His family came from old Puritan stock. His ancestor William Hersey settled Hingham, Mass., in 1635, along with a few others that included Abraham Lincoln’s ancestor.
At the age of 10, John Hersey returned to the United States, attending public school in New York and then the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. From there he went on to Yale, where he joined Skull and Bones and lettered in football. He then did graduate studies at Cambridge University. Soon afterward, he got a job working as a Time correspondent. In 1940, he went to the magazine’s Chongqing bureau then covered the fighting in Europe and Asia for Newsweek.
In the winter of 1945-46, Hersey reported on the reconstruction of Japan for the New Yorker. While in Japan, he read a reprint of the journal of a German missionary who survived the bombing in Time magazine. Hersey visited the missionary, who introduced him to others.
Those six survivors formed the nucleus of Hiroshima.
The book famously begins with the activities of those six characters when the bomb went off at exactly 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945.
Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk at the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her desk and was turning her head to speak to the woman who sat next to her.
Dr. Masakazu Fujjii was sitting down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital.
Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood at her kitchen window watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane. Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit, lay in his underwear on a cot on the third floor of his order’s three-story mission house reading a magazine.
Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital, walked down one of the hospital corridors carrying a blood specimen for a Wassermann test.
The Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Hiroshima Methodist Church pastor, paused at the door of a rich man’s suburban house with a handcart full of things he had evacuated in fear of the bombing raid everyone expected.
Hersey described the bomb as a ‘tremendous flash of light cut across the sky’ that seemed like a ‘sheet of sun.’
“A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors,” wrote Hersey. “They still wonder why they lived when so many others died.”
In less than two years, the book had been reprinted in 80 periodical publications, translated into 11 languages and sold more than 600,000 copies.
“Its 31,000 words suffice because they abstain from the smallest judgment or moral positioning, and leave the reader to deal with the consequences and the questions,” wrote Angell. The restrained flow of his words, his characters’ conversations and the burnt-out city made it feel like an ancient tragedy, he wrote.
“The achievement was unmatchable. Could he ever again write anything quite like it? “The puritan in Hersey told him not only that he couldn’t but also that he shouldn’t, or not with the same ease,” wrote his biographer, Jeremy Treglown.
Hersey went on to considerable achievement. He wrote two dozen books and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel A Bell for Adano, along with many other journalism prizes. He taught at Yale and served as master of one of its residential houses.
For many years, he lived on Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard. He married an ex-girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Frances Ann Cannon. Over dinner in New York, Kennedy told Hersey the story of how his PT boat sank. Hersey wrote it for the New Yorker, later used as campaign literature for Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
His second wife, Barbara Day, was the ex-wife of New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams. They had a summer home in Key West, which they shared with his friend Ralph Ellison. John Hersey died there on March 24, 1993.
Aftermath of Hiroshima
In 1985, Hersey wrote a follow-up to Hiroshima, again for the New Yorker. In it, he wrote,
“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory.”
With thanks to This Old Man: All in Pieces by Roger Angell and Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima by Jeremy Treglown. This story was updated in 2021.