It’s Much Too Easy To Forget

John Hersey

“There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.” ~ John Hersey.

There was really no reason to remember 6th August 1945. It was seventy-one years ago – hardly an anniversary. It’s not like it was a hundred years, or even seventy-five. Besides, the Rio Olympics had just started, and it was a time for celebration – all those bronzed, lithe, bodies displaying their fitness to the world. It helped us forget our own sagging, McDonald-inflated bellies and flabby fat deposits where muscles might once have thrived had we made more effort, like that window box planted in the spring in anticipation of a great floral display only to be left neglected and un-watered, the occupants drawn and sparse with just the odd stinted flower desperate to manufacture at least one seed to reproduce, before expiring from thirst. We forgot they needed constant care and attention. Such hopes when they were planted, but over time other things got in the way and they were left to wither.

That’s how it is with Hiroshima today. With each passing year we neglect the memory, until finally it only takes a sports event to erase it from our consciousness.

One man, John Hersey, was determined we wouldn’t forget. He wrote a book called simply, Hiroshima. It began as a 30,000 word article in the New Yorker magazine of 31st August 1946. Hersey was there, in Hiroshima, in the spring of that year nine months after the bomb was dropped.

As the BBC reporter, Caroline Raphael, writes:

Seventy years ago no-one talked about stories “going viral”, but the publication of John Hersey’s article Hiroshima in The New Yorker achieved just that. It was talked of, commented on, read and listened to by many millions all over the world as they began to understand what really happened not just to the city but to the people of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and in the following days.[1]

Hersey had anticipated writing about the city, the buildings, and the progress of rebuilding. Instead, he found himself writing about the people. They were of a nation castigated and demonized, non-human. Propaganda had them marked as the Yellow Peril. Hersey reminded us they were just people like ourselves, the vast majority innocent of any crime or wrongdoing.

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, 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 priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. 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 streetcar 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.[2]

John Hersey died in 1993. His work Hiroshima was adjudged by many the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century.

On August 31st 2016 it will be seventy years since Hersey’s article first appeared in print. To mark its publication the New Yorker has reproduced Hiroshima in full online. Perhaps, now that the Olympics are over we might find the time to read it.

For surely, that’s an anniversary worth remembering.

[1] “How John Hersey’s Hiroshima revealed the horror of the bomb” BBC, August 22nd 2016

[2] “HIROSHIMA by John Hersey” The New Yorker, August 31st 1946

5 Replies to “It’s Much Too Easy To Forget”

  1. You’re right, of course RJ. Thank you for this timely reminder. We forget many things. 21st century internet news comes so thick and fast, so many topics, so little time, and so much crap to be sifted out.

    The two world wars and all their horrors are never far from my mind these days, with the US presidential election’s 2 candidates both bad enough and mad enough to get us into another, either by incompetence or design.

    Remembrance of the August anniversaries you mention has become even more important as years and decades have passed, and more nuclear weaponry is spread around the globe.

  2. Twilight – yes, the pace of news today tends to throw the past out of focus. So much more seems to be going on. It probably isn’t, but we’re bombarded with news from all quarters – media overload, I think.

    Sabina – I hadn’t, but I have now. Frightening!

  3. Masa – it’s human nature to forget. Life is fleeting and history is long. Only those who lived through it never forget, and they grow fewer with each passing year.

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