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Tracking a Journalistic Legend

Aug. 4, 2015

One year after the bombing of Hiroshima, a masterpiece of 20th century journalism was born. “Hiroshima,” written by American John Hersey, shocked readers with its detailed account told from the perspective of the survivors. Hersey’s grandson, Cannon, has retraced his grandfather’s footsteps to uncover the hidden secrets behind that groundbreaking story.

Cannon recently visited Yale University to review his grandfather’s papers. John Hersey taught there in his later years. Cannon first read “Hiroshima” when he was 13 years old. But he and his grandfather rarely discussed it. John Hersey died in 1993 at age 78.

Cannon says he never really saw his grandfather cry, but he did see tears in his eyes. He says there are so many more stories to tell. John Hersey’s archives are stored at the university library. It was the first time Cannon had seen them.

The elder Hersey was born to American missionaries in the Chinese city of Tianjin. He wrote a letter to his mother 5 days after “Hiroshima” was released. He told her that the piece had been kept secret until it was published.

The file also contains an order form for a train ticket to North Carolina. Hersey took his family there to stay with his wife’s parents. Cannon thinks the trip was planned to protect them from hostile reaction to the article.

At the time, all information related to the bomb was under strict US government control. The American media rarely covered the human damage caused by the atomic bombings. Against that backdrop, “Hiroshima” was published in The New Yorker in late August 1946. In a first for the magazine, the editors dedicated almost the entire issue to the story.

“Hiroshima” relates the experiences of 4 men and 2 women who survived the atomic bombing. It was the first time most Americans had learned of the considerable damage wrought by the attack.

Hersey’s archives contain many letters of praise. One was from physicist Albert Einstein. He bought 1,000 copies of the magazine and distributed them to fellow scientists with a letter expressing his “deep concern about the atomic bomb.”

How was Hersey able to learn the facts about Hiroshima in the face of such tight government control? The answer could lie in a letter from his wife.

The letter says, “Mother and Daddy got home in time for supper last night, full of themselves. He says that General Eichelberger is a great admirer of yours and would like to see you if you get to Japan.” Robert Eichelberger was the US military commander in charge of security in Japan during the Occupation.

Cannon also found a “restricted” file bearing the insignia of the US Strategic Bombing Survey. It’s titled “The Bombing of Hiroshima -- Report From an Eyewitness.” It was written by a German priest. Eichelberger is thought to have provided it.

There was also an envelope containing a 9-page memo in English. It’s an account by Pastor Kiyoshi Tanimoto of his experience.

It says, “I began again to row the boat across the river to carry injured people. In the darkness I heard the woman’s cry, saying ‘Help, here are people just about to be drowned! Help, help!’”

Right after the attack, Tanimoto was trying to rescue people along a river about one kilometer from ground zero. He sent a description of the ordeal to John Hersey.

Cannon says the description was probably a big inspiration for the final book since it’s very descriptive of the trauma that he went through. Tanimoto’s memo was crucial in producing “Hiroshima.”

Cannon Hersey visited Hiroshima for the first time in March. He went to a garden where Tanimoto had engaged in rescue work. He met the pastor’s eldest daughter, Koko Kondo.

Koko says many injured people wanted to go into the water to cool their burns. But the salt from the sea water that was mixed into the river stung their wounds and the pain was so intense that it was difficult to describe.

Cannon says that since arriving by train, all he could think of when he saw the river was the stories of their suffering and pain.

After the war, Tanimoto worked hard to secure treatment in the US for women who had been burned during the bombing. He devoted his life to supporting the survivors.

John Hersey returned to Hiroshima in 1985 for the first time in 39 years. There, he was reunited with his old friend, Tanimoto. At the time, Hersey shared his thoughts with a newspaper.

It says, “Past, present, and future linked by a bond of memories. A day will come when no more Hibakusha survive. Yet, their collective memory remains the greatest hope for the survival of the human race.”

Cannon says his grandfather was able to describe the horrifying experiences and try to find answers to the most difficult questions of the time. “Hiroshima” would continue to win accolades after the death of its author.

Meiji University Professor Thomas Power, who is producing a documentary on John Hersey, joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Beppu: After this book was published in the United States, what were the reactions of the US government officials?

Power: From my research, the American government didn’t like the fact that John Hersey was swaying public opinion and changing the narrative -- the official narrative -- so they countered with asking Henry Stimson, the former Secretary of War who was head of the army during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, to write an article in Harper’s Magazine, February 1947, which was about 6 months after Hersey published in The New Yorker. In that article, he makes it very clear the justification for dropping the bomb was to save American lives -- possibly a million or more -- and also to end the war. That’s still part of the official narrative today.

Shibuya: So what kind of impact did it have on the American society?

Power: It had an astonishing impact on American society. John Hersey’s book did something that... the propaganda that had been out during and after the war was to look at Japanese as non-human in some regard -- animals, or cockroaches -- very much a racist propaganda approach. John Hersey’s book put a human face on the survivors of Hiroshima and on the Japanese people and it caused the American people to respond with a sense of guilt and remorse, and it showed the American people that these were ordinary citizens that were being bombed -- 2 doctors, 2 ministers, a housewife with 3 children, and a young woman engaged to be married. So this changed the narrative. It challenged the official narrative and that’s why the American government responded the way they did.

Beppu: It’s almost 70 years since the book was published. As it stands now, what do you think this book means for us?

Power: It’s a classic. The fact that a panel of experts at NYU -- New York University School of Journalism -- chose John Hersey’s book the number one book of American journalism, really says that this is an important work. It’s an important work not only for Americans, but for Japanese and people around the world and for me, as a producer of a documentary I hope to finish next year on the 70th anniversary of John Hersey’s publication in The New Yorker. The reason I’m doing this is because I think the story of the hibakusha is very, very important and we should be continually reminded that we could be in the same situation at any second. This is a threat to all of humanity, this weapon of mass destruction, and I also would like to see a movement toward non-proliferation.