Below is a brief excerpt from Greg Mitchell’s upcoming book, The Beginning or the End, How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The except is about the genesis of John Hersey’s Hiroshima, an essay that has been called the most famous single article of the century.
By Greg Mitchell
A new visitor to Hiroshima in the spring of 1946 was the correspondent and novelist John Hersey, who at the age of thirty-one had already won a Pulitzer Prize for A Bell for Adano. Weeks before, he had discussed writing something about Hiroshima in a talk with his New Yorker editor, William Shawn. Hersey, who was born in China to Protestant missionaries and covered the Pacific war for Henry Luce and Time-Life, imagined an article documenting the power of the new bomb and the destruction it caused to a city. Ultimately he decided he’d prefer writing about what happened not to buildings but to humans. He just needed to find a form to tell the story.
Shawn was enthusiastic and urged him not to rush since, nine months after the epochal events, “No one has even touched this” subject, the editor advised. This was, sadly, true.
On the way to the Far East, Hersey had read Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which explored an 18th century disaster in Peru through the eyes of a handful of victims. Hersey sensed this might be the best way to personalize the far more vast and deadly Hiroshima story. Arriving in Hiroshima in May, still not quite thirty-one years of age, he interviewed several dozen survivors, before settling on six who told powerful stories but were not exactly representative of the city as a whole: two doctors, one Catholic priest and one Methodist minister, and two working women. (It might also be said that they were not typical because these six had survived.) Their movements in the shattered city occasionally crossed, one of the novelistic requirements the author had set.
Conducting the interviews and research, with a translator at his side, Hersey was “terrified all the time,” he later explained. The Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, one of his six subjects, who had been educated at Emory College in Georgia and spoke and wrote English well, scribbled his memories out on paper for Hersey. It included this description of his prayer for the helpless he left behind on the day of the bomb so he might save others: “God help and take them out of the fire.” Among other scenes of horror, he recalled removing five dead bodies from a boat so he could row across a river and fill it with the merely wounded, “all the day long.”
Hersey had seen the devastation of war many times before, most recently in China and Tokyo, but Hiroshima was different: These ruins had been created by one weapon in one instant, a terrifying notion. If Hersey felt that in the city nine months later, how must the people who were there at the time experienced it? So he set out to struggle to understand.
Greg Mitchell, a 1970 St. Bonaventure University journalism graduate, is the author of a dozen books. He also was editor of Editor & Publisher and Crawdaddy magazines.