Hiroshima by John Hersey

Patricio G. Espinoza
COMM 4370, Literary Journalism
Professor Dr. Kay O’Donnell
November 26, 2011

How Journalism Provided A Human Face to The Horror of Nuclear War

Online Multimedia Version

Many accounts had been told and written about how the Atomic bomb works, the science, the formulas, the mechanics, the equipment. But never before, the world had learned what it was like to be bombed. On August 31st, 1946 they did. The New Yorker had just published and dedicated an entire edition of the magazine to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”. In thirty-one thousand words, Hersey tells the world the stories of six Japanese survivors. Their story of horror, life, hope, death and survival would later become one of the most renowned works of journalism ever published in the twentieth century.1

Hiroshima is based in the stories of six Japanese survivors 8

A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition -a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one street-car instead of the next that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time none of them knew anything. (Hiroshima I-14)2

A year after the bombing of Hiroshima, editors at the New Yorker wanted to know what “really” happened when the most powerful bomb the world had ever seen was dropped in Hiroshima. John Hersey spent a month in Japan and through his work of literary journalism, the stories of these six survivors came to life.

No one could ever imagine what it was like to be 1,400 yards from the center of the explosion –like Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge (Makoto Takakura). Temperatures at the epicenter were believed to have reached over six thousand degrees. Or how Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura had managed to survive with her three children, but had lost her entire livelihood, and endured months of painful recovery, if one could even call recovery to debilitating side effects for life. But not everyone was as “lucky” as the subjects of Hersey’s story. Most of the victims who had managed to survive would die within two weeks, some without even visible injuries: “You’ll be out of here in two weeks,” he said. But when the doctor got out in the corridor, he said to the Mother Superior, ” He’ll die. All these bombs, people die you’ll see. They go along for a couple of weeks and then they die.” (Hiroshima 100)2

Listen to Pacifica Radio Special Anniversary broadcast of Hiroshima 9

In Hiroshima, John Hersey’s access is key to his work, and while he avoids editorial commentary, his point of view is focused and determined as his third person narration follows the survivors and places the readers in a moment of time one may think is fiction, but is real:

Late in February 1946, a friend of Miss Sasaki’s called on Father Kleinsorge and asked him to visit her in the hospital. She had been growing more and more depressed and morbid ; she seemed little interested in living.” “She asked bluntly, ‘* If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?” She made a gesture, which took in her shrunken leg, the other patients in her room, and Hiroshima as a whole. (Hiroshima 110)2

As human as the stories are in “Hiroshima,” Hersey’s style was labeled by critics as dry. But in the mid eighty’s, forty years after he wrote the article, in a letter to historian Paul Boyer Hersey said, “The flat style was deliberate, and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.” (By The Bomb’s Early Light 208)3

I couldn’t agree more. As it is only such “deliberate flat style” that allows the journalist in this case to do his job as an eye witness to the stories the survivors would tell, but without tainting their feelings and emotions that may come out of their accounts.

Hiroshima is truly an extraordinary work of literary journalism, the ability for a reporter to weave real life events in a novelistic kind of way without crossing the fine line between real-life events and fiction. Although one may think, by reading the survivors stories, that their accounts could have easily been the work of futuristic fiction in a war far away that killed thousands with the stroke of a bomb no one had ever heard of.

As strange as it may seem, even today, after the realities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we still think of the consequences of nuclear and atomic weapons as something that “could” happen in the future, but no one really knows how or what the consequences could be. Take Katrina, for example, no one really understood what was going on until images on television and survivors’ accounts started to be broadcast and related by journalists on the ground. The earthquakes in Haiti or the Tsunami in Japan are other examples; millions of dollars in donations poured in after the devastating images were shown.

Immediacy and technology is what helped journalists to cover the above examples, however back in 1946, it took a year before an American publication like The New Yorker decided to write such an in-depth human interest piece beyond the history, war time economics and related political angles of War World II and the U.S. – Japan conflict. And even after the story was assigned and Hersey was back from Japan, the magazine still thought of publishing it as a series of stories. It was only after they learned of the strength and depth of the survivors’ accounts that things changed. John Hersey had managed to capture and put a human face in the lost lives of thousands.

TO OUR READERS, The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all, but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use; The Editors. (“Hiroshima”, The New Yorker, 31 Aug. 1946.)4

And so there it was, the atrocities of an atomic bomb told by those who were there. And this, in my humble opinion, perhaps painful, but may be the reason for the success in 1946 of The New Yorker and John Hersey’s work Hiroshima. A story that seemed fiction to Americans far away from Japan finally became real. Readers could now attach a human face to one of the most horrific war caused tragedy in the history of human kind. Hersey’s work would also become ground breaking journalism.

Watch four videos about Hiroshima aftermath. Viewer discretion is advised 10

The New Yorker’s special edition was sold out within hours, requests for publication for journals around the world poured in. Albert Einstein ordered a thousand copies. A personally approved by Hersey version was broadcast by ABC Radio, all copyright fees after deductions were donated to the Red Cross. 5

Perhaps a true testament to his work as a journalist, Hersey never gave permission for a dramatization, and I can see why. A dramatization, would have taken away and muddy the true life stories of the survivors, and even editorialized their accounts, something John Hersey never did.

When John Hersey died in 1993, The New Yorker published an obituary, which in part read “Hiroshima” might have been “the most famous magazine article ever published…” and it continued:

“If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima; yet Hersey’s reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm, and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly.” (The New Yorker, 1993) 6

On a personal and professional note:

As a working reporter in 2005, I experienced the difference between court facts and testimony and how the accounts of survivors –like in Hersey’s story- can make a difference. I was covering the Victoria trial and with only access to court sketches, archive video and interviews of survivors, I did a series of stories that reported on the daily facts of the trial, but built upon the survivors’ personal stories of survival and what it was like inside the 18 wheeler where more than 70 undocumented immigrants had been locked and left to die under 100+ degrees. It was in fact the “point of view” I chose to follow what guided my reporting enriched by the survivors accounts. The story Trajica Jornada (tragic journey) received a 2005 Emmy award for Outstanding Continuing Coverage.


1. “Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century”, NYU (1999)
2. “Hiroshima”, Penguin Books (1946)
Internet Archive http://www.archive.org/stream/hiroshima035082mbp/hiroshima035082mbp_djvu.txt
3. “By the Bomb’s Early Light”, Paul Boyer (New York: Pantheon, 1985)
4. “Hiroshima”, The New Yorker (Aug. 31,1946)
5. “Hiroshima”, Publisher’s Note. Pinguin Books (1946)
Internet Archive http://www.archive.org/stream/hiroshima035082mbp/hiroshima035082mbp_djvu.txt
6. “John Hersey, Obituary” The New Yorker (April 5, 1993)
7. “Trajica Jornada, Patricio Espinoza, Lone Star Emmy (2005)
8. Survivor Photos, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroshima_(book)
9. “Hiroshima” Live Broadcast, Pacifica Radio Archives, Special Anniversary Presentation
10. “Hiroshima” Video playlist selection by Patricio Espinoza. Each video credits and links to each individual YouTube author.

Additional Resources:

The Publication of “Hiroshima” in The New Yorker by: Steve Rothman, 1997, Harvard University
Internet Archive, Hiroshima, full text
NYU – The Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States in the 20th Century

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