Hiroshima

Hiroshima

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Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945 the nuclear weapon Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima by Enola Gay, a U.S. Air Force B-29 bomber which was designed exclusively to hold the bomb, killing an estimated 80,000 people and seriously damaging 80% of the city. In the next months, an estimated 60,000 more people died from injuries or radiation poisoning. Since 1945, several thousand more have died of illnesses caused by the bomb. It was the second such device to be detonated, the first being the successful test at the Manhattan Project's desert test site, and the first ever to be used in military action. It has been claimed that the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were major factors that led to the Japanese surrender, and the official end of World War II. In Hersey's book, Hiroshima, he works hard to bring to life what so many people could only imagine. By giving life to characters and putting them into situations during the bombings we, as readers, are able to try to put ourselves into these situations.
In chapter one we are introduced to the main characters described in Hiroshima, providing a window into the normal lives of each in the hours leading up to the explosion. For the most part the lives of the characters seem normal, like the lives we all live, but there is also a fair amount of wartime anxiety and disruption. Everyone's lives are touched by the war, even in the most indirect ways. Hersey shows how wartime hardship is woven into every character's daily existence: Mrs. Nakamura, for example, every night she has taken herself and her children to a place of protection and because of this habitual action the siren warnings have lost the importance to her. Many people, it seems, are both anxious and unconcerned at the same time. The other common facet in each character's story is the sheer confusion generated by the bombing. Many people anticipate hearing the sound of approaching planes or the warnings or the air-raid sirens, but nobody hears anything before the bomb is dropped. The first moment is, as Hersey describes it, a "noiseless flash," amazingly bright and powerful, toppling and demolishing buildings before anyone even hears a sound. Most of the people who survive are just lucky to be in a safe place at the right time. Hersey refrains from making unambiguous ethical judgments, but it's difficult to miss the fact that the confusion and chaos that the populace of Hiroshima undergoes reflect the United States' intentional decision not to warn the civilians in Hiroshima about the looming bomb attack.

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The complete perplexity of the citizens of Hiroshima, and emphasis of the fact that nobody has any idea what happened is illustrated in chapter two. While most are primed for some kind of attack, the power of the bomb comes as an absolute surprise. Many different explanations are suggested: some believe that the Americans have dropped a "Molotov flower basket," a self-scattering bomb cluster, or have sprayed gasoline across the roofs of Hiroshima's houses in order to help the fire spread. Hersey remarks that "even a theory was comforting that day." Because President Truman did not warn the citizens of Hiroshima before the bomb was dropped, either through official channels or by dropping leaflets by plane through the city, the citizens had no idea of America's nuclear capabilities. The death toll statistics from Hiroshima can be difficult to comprehend by themselves.
By combining statistics with first-hand accounts, Hershey personalizes the tragedy, and gives us a greater intellect of what the numbers of dead and wounded signify. Hersey seldom takes the focus away from his six major figures, and through their eyes we are able to get a dramatic representation of the destruction. The characters see countless homes collapsed and hear cries of "Tasukete kure!" ("Help, if you please!") coming from beneath the wreckage. Hersey explains everything from the bomb's effects upon the weather to the types of burns many people suffered. Hersey also introduces convincing statistics, citing the number of people killed or injured and the reasons why many of those who died could have been saved. Practically half of the 150 doctors in the city died immediately, and few of those who survived had access to hospitals or equipment.
In chapter three we learn the general mood of confusion of the people of Hiroshima—they wonder what happened and what they are going to do next. Despite the broadcast over the radio that a new type of bomb has been used, most citizens still have no idea what happened. The one-dimensional rumors of what may have caused the explosion contrast viciously with the hard-to-imagine technological innovation of the atomic bomb. The citizens' ignorance indicates Japan's cultural seclusion from the rest of the world at that time— it was decades behind the United States in industry and technology.
Hersey explores both the physical and psychological wounds caused by the bomb. Toshio Nakamura has nightmares about his friend's death; Mr. Fukai, the man who had to be dragged from the mission house, probably threw himself into the flames; and Mrs. Kamai still clutches her dead baby in her arms, searching in vain for her husband. Since Hersey's version is primarily asphyxiated with those who escape the explosion relatively unharmed, both mentally and physically, these small sketches of trivial characters are vital in establishing the emotional wreckage left by the bomb.
While the vivid descriptions of human tragedy are likely to provoke commiseration and indignation among readers, some people have criticized Hersey for not appearing outraged enough at the atrocities. At the end of the chapter, Hersey quotes Mr. Tanimoto's letter to an American friend, in which Mr. Tanimoto writes about the "great sacrifice" of the Japanese on behalf of an "everlasting peace of the world." The letter makes the Japanese surrender seem like a proud moment for both Japanese and Americans alike. Many historians have pointed to the Japanese need to save face as a major reason for the bomb's effectiveness, one that was surely not lost on President Truman: the bomb permitted the Japanese to surrender but still maintain their pride. Were Hersey to end the book with this information, the implication would be that there was nothing wrong with America's judgment to drop the bomb.
Hersey's narrative is gripping because he shows the events following the bomb through the personal experiences of witnesses. Through the eyes of Miss Sasaki, for instance, we learn that the bomb has somehow greatly increased the growth of vegetation throughout Hiroshima, and that wildflowers and weeds—the panic grass and feverfew that give the chapter its title—have burst through the ruins to give the city a "vivid, lush, optimistic green." Miss Sasaki describes a strong image—nature takes over where civilization has been destroyed—but Hersey does not probe into the image deeply in his own voice.
As Hersey's characters slowly re-establish their lives in Hiroshima, we also find out about the level of the damage and the blast, based on reports of Japanese physicists in the weeks and months that follow. As in other chapters, Hersey mentions these particulars only in passing, so he does not divert concentration from his human stories, but these reports are noteworthy for the kinds of information they hold. Most of his American readers in 1946 knew little about the bomb. The accounts of the Japanese physicists, which were profoundly suppressed at the time, suggest the bomb's absolutely overwhelming power—the massive heat generated at its center, and its ability to melt the surface of granite thousands of yards away. The flash generated by the bomb was so brilliant, notes Hersey, that it left shadows of buildings and even human silhouettes imprinted on walls. In addition, the Japanese scientists learn that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, a plutonium bomb as opposed to a uranium one, was even more powerful, and that the Americans are capable of developing one that is ten or even twenty times as potent. In short, Hersey makes it clear to his readers that this is not like any other air raid or attack; the atomic bomb should give everyone in the world something to fret about.
Hersey's publication of wartime events was exceedingly significant in getting across to the people of America what truly happened during the bombings. Because so many Americans were in the dark regarding the events leading up to the bombings and the bombings themselves his articles, which eventually turned into a book, truly helped Americans see the big picture. Hersey has been noted time and time again for his work on Hiroshima. It has been called a journalistic masterpiece, because of its powerful stories told by the survivors of the bombings. Without these stories, many Americans wouldn't have been able to empathize with what people had to go through because of these bombings. It is because of Hersey's Hiroshima that people were to walk through the events of that day through the timeless memoirs' of the survivors.
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