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Albert Gates

Six Who Survived: What Happened at Hiroshima

(23 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 38, 23 September 1946, pp. 3 & 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

In its issue of August 31, The New Yorker magazine published a story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by John Hersey, described by the press as “sensational reporting.” All of its pages were devoted to it. This alone is unusual enough for a magazine whose stock-in-trade is humor and wit that caters to the “cultural needs” of the upper middle class? That it did so is due entirely to the earth-shaking (in a literal sense!) significance inherent in the discovery of the control of atomic energy, the danger to the future existence of mankind.

The story Hersey tells is a simple one. It is anything but “sensational.” He begins his narrative on the morning the bomb exploded, centering the whole sequence of events around six persons. These six survived the disintegration of the target area. He tells who they were, their occupations and additional duties created by the war, and what they were doing at the time of the explosion, following their movements, activities and reactions until the “healing of Hiroshima” began.

An Answer to Complacency and Pretense

No excess words are used in telling the world what actually happened to the city and its inhabitants. The power of the story, therefore, is found in its simplicity; fact piles up upon fact; one horrifying detail follows another. The disintegration of the city, the bewilderment of the people, the terrifying, unknown characteristics of a cataclysm – all of this is vividly portrayed by the simple words of the story, by its under-telling. In this way, Hersey will succeed in overcoming a great deal of the complacency which has grown up about the bomb in recent months as a result of “sensational” writing, the deliberate propaganda of the professional militarists of the War and Navy Departments and their brethren of other countries.

The exaggerations of sensationalism always tend to minimize the effectiveness of the reality. In the case of the atom bomb, the speculations of the scientists were so used to attach many unfounded attributes to the new discovery that a reaction of disbelief in its destructiveness inevitably followed.

Professional military men, congressmen and government functionaries, under the influence of the military caste, have carried on a public discussion of the atom bomb that was calculated to produce the above results. Where the scientists emphasize the inability to devise a defense for the atom bomb, we are given specious arguments about how many are needed to destroy a city; how the monopolization of the bomb by the United States grants it security and immunity; how an atomic bomb offensive will save this nation in the coming war. Or, we are treated to the spectacle of capitalist politicians espousing legislation which would create a totalitarian strait-jacket upon science for the purpose of keeping secret a scientific discovery which cannot be kept secret.

Thus, the real problem of the atom bomb, its unmatched, destructiveness and the peril it creates for the people, is diverted in a discussion on how large an army is now needed, whether the land forces required for war are greater dr less, whether naval warfare is obsolete, etc. All of these tend to divert attention away from the cruel fate which awaits mankind in a new war.

The Story of Six People Who Survived

The Hersey story pulls everything back into its proper perspective. The calculations of military “science,” the speculations of the brass hats and the politicians are lost in the reality of an atomic explosion on the people. Mr. Hersey takes us back to the morning of August 6, 1945. We are introduced to six people: Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazi Fujii, reading the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, watching a neighbor tear 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; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young doctor on the surgical staff of the Red Cross Hospital, and the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church.

These six were about their business on this morning. But there was no calm in their lives. They all knew that, of the important cities, only Kyoto and Hiroshima had not yet been visited by the destructive Mr. B, as the Japanese referred to the B-298. The tales of the destructiveness of mass raids on other cities were known by all. Hiroshima had already received many warnings. Its area seemed to be a guide-point in the air raids over the country. This had “made the citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.”

The rumor was not ill-founded. Something special did come. “There was no sound of planes. The morning was still; the place was cool and pleasant. Then a tremendous flash of light out across the sky. Mr. Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it traveled from east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed like a sheet of sun.”' (This was two miles from the center of the explosion.)

At a three-quarter mile point, “as Mrs. Nakamura stood watching her neighbor, everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen.” Dr. Fujii’s hospital on the Kyo River disintegrated. Father Kleinsorge said that the explosion “reminded him of something he had read as a boy about a large meteor colliding with the earth ... (he) never knew how he got out of the house. The next things he was conscious of were that he was wandering around in the mission’s vegetable garden in his underwear, bleeding slightly from cuts along his left flank; that all the buildings round about had fallen down except the Jesuit’s mission house which had been braced and double braced ...”

Nightmare Sweeps The City

Dr. Sasaki was at work at the hospital.

“He was one step beyond an open window when the light of the bomb was reflected, like a gigantic photographic flash, in the corridor, he ducked down on one knee ... then the blast ripped through the hospital (over two miles distant). The glasses he was wearing flew off his face; the bottle of blood (under examination) crashed against one wall; his Japanese slippers zipped out from under his feet ... The hospital was in horrible confusion; heavy partitions and ceilings had fallen on patients, beds had overturned, windows had blown in and cut people, blood was spattered on walls and floors, instruments were everywhere, many of the patients were running about screaming, many more lay dead.”

Nor was that all. The doctor thought only his building was hit by a bomb. But, “outside, all over Hiroshima, maimed and dying citizens turned their unsteady steps toward the Red Cross Hospital to begin an invasion that was to make Dr. Sasaki forget his private nightmare for a long, long time.”

The explosion was followed by fire. The physical collapse of a large part of the city and the fire made many streets unpassable. Streets and alleyways were clogged by debris and people. The flames from the wooden houses sought everything and everyone in its pathway. Attempts at firefighting were quickly turned back. The masses of dead, the tens of thousands of fleeing men, women and children, the falling houses and the absence of water made it impossible to even stem the spreading inferno. Only those still capable of fleeing escaped. Hundreds perished by running into the flames to save entrapped loved ones.

The six Hiroshimans all suffered the effects of the bomb. Cut from glass, radiation and fire burns, injuries from debris and falling objects – they all bore the marks of the “humane” atomic bomb. Like their fellow inhabitants, they searched for friends, gave first aid treatment, directed people to safer areas. The mass of humanity rushed for the extremities of the city; rich estates, the river banks, Asano Park. But wherever one went, the wounded crowds were already there; they brought with them their open wounds, their extreme pain and suffering. And they had to live through it Without water, or medical aid.

Miss Sasaki, with a badly broken leg which was later amputated, was brought to rest next to “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn.” The rain which fell only made their existence more difficult since they had no shelter, no water and no food. The river rose and drowned hundreds of helplessly wounded people lying on its banks. The water grew hot from the flames to drown other hundreds trying to swim their way to safety.

And all of this, while no one, not a single person, city official, military man, or plain citizen, knew what had happened. They could not understand the absence of fleets of planes, for such destruction without a vast air armada was unthinkable. Some thought that a special kind of “Molotov flower basket” might have caused it. Others that the Americans had sprayed the city with gasoline and set it on fire. But none could guess that the weapon which had instantaneously wrought this undreamed of destruction was the atom bomb, newly discovered and created by world science, and produced by American capitalism.

The Living Did Not Escape

Soon people began to show the effects of radiation and atomic burns. Clothes and ornaments were burned into the bodies of people. Thirsty people drank from the dirty river which only intensified their illness. Others, apparently untouched in any way by the explosion, suddenly died. “Others were also nauseated; they thought (probably because of the strong odor of ionization, an ‘electric smell’ given off by the bombs’ fission) that they were sick from a gas the Americans had dropped.” Everywhere there were the dead and the dying. It seemed to the inhabitants as though the world had come to an end.

Ten thousand victims of the bomb had “invaded the Red Cross Hospital” seeking aid that could not be given to them. The handful of doctors that remained could do nothing for the people. Being ignorant of what had caused this explosion, unfamiliar with the nature of these strange wounds and without medical facilities, they painted mercurochrome on wounds and burns, or applied compresses of saline solution.

Mr. Hersey continues his story of the six Hiroshimans through the terrible days and nights which followed the explosion. He describes the deaths to many who appeared well; the falling hair, the nausea, the retching which beset hundreds and thousands. And finally the passing pf the blind bewilderment, the knowledge that they had lived through a veritable hell. Their city was destroyed; a hundred thousand of their relatives, neighbors and friends had perished by one bomb. Many who had survived would never again attain their former physical conditions. Thus, Hersey writes:

“A year after the bomb was dropped, Miss Sasaki was a cripple; Mrs. Nakamura was destitute; Father Kleinsorge was back in the hospital; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of the work he once could do; Dr. Fujii had lost the thirty-room hospital it took him many years to acquire and he had no prospects of rebuilding it; Mr. Tanimoto’s church had been ruined and he no longer had his exceptional vitality. The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same.”

Society Is Closer to the Crossroads

One cannot leave off reading Hiroshima without feeling the terrifying impact of the story. Its narrative power is not merely a striking example of genuinely honest reporting; its importance is established by the way in which Mr. Hersey describes what the atom bomb means to the people whom it strikes. The terror of these people, the loss of life, the destruction of homes and wealth, the wounded, the maimed, the torture, the utter barbarism that is created by imperialism and war – all of these are mirrored before your eyes to contrast with the ebullient declarations of professional militarists who talk about “keeping the secret,” give statistics on the size of armies, argue the need for more cannon-fodder, bigger navies, more fire-power, rockets, bacterial warfare, and prepare for new and bloodier wars.

One could wish that these protectors of profits, markets and raw materials, these dealers in human flesh, would taste the effects of an atom bomb, were it not that the destructiveness of atomic warfare would strike first at the millions of blameless people, the oppressed, exploited, and poor, producers of the wealth of the world. But one thing the atom bomb has done: it has put society a little closer to the crossroads: socialism or capitalist barbarism and death. This is the choice before mankind. Hersey’s story only enforces the necessity for making this choice.

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