On the evening of August 6, 1945, a Japanese naval launch is traveling down the rivers of Hiroshima to make announcements to civilians. Ships reach Asano Park around twilight, and an officer announces, “Be patient! A naval hospital ship is coming to take care of you!” The officer’s calmness calms many of the people in the park. Some of them begin to settle down to sleep. Father Kleinsorge is about to fall asleep when his mission bookkeeper, Mrs. Murata, rouses him to ask if he’s prayed before sleep—Kleinsorge grumpily replies that he has, and afterwards can’t get back to sleep. To his irritation, the bookkeeper continues chatting with him: she wants to know if Father LaSalle, along with another wounded priest, Father Schiffer, would be evacuated.
From a psychological standpoint, the officer’s announcement to the people gathered in Asano Park served an important purpose: it reassured civilians that, even though their city was destroyed, their society was intact. While some people were able to sleep in the park that evening, many others were too paranoid, anxious, or otherwise distressed to do so. The passage represents one of the few times in the book that Kleinsorge is anything other than kind and selfless. This reminds readers that, in spite of his good character, he’s a flawed, occasionally irritable person.
Earlier that afternoon, Father Kleinsorge sent a messenger—a theological student who’d been living in the mission—to the Christian Novitiate in the surrounding hills. There, the student enlisted the help of the sixteen priests living at the Novitiate, and the priests made their way back into Hiroshima. They arrive at Asano Park late at night and quickly find Schiffer and LaSalle. The priests want to evacuate both men, but they worry that walking will cause the men to lose too much blood. Mr. Tanimoto volunteers to use the boat to transport the priests away from the city, where they might be able to find a clear roadway.
On a purely practical level, Kleinsorge’s religious training was important in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing because it provided him with a network of helpful, compassionate people on whom he could rely: the sixteen priests living in the Novitiate. Furthermore, Mr. Tanimoto volunteered to help ferry the wounded toward the Novitiate, partly because he felt he had a religious duty to help others.
Mr. Tanimoto helps to lower Father Schiffer into his boat, along with two other priests, and he paddles them down the river. He drops Schiffer and the priests a few miles downstream and then paddles back, shouting that he needs help saving some children, who are standing up to their necks in the rising river. A group goes out, rescues the children, and brings them back to where Father Kleinsorge is resting. Then, Tanimoto, some priests, and LaSalle push off again. As Tanimoto rows, he hears cries for help—some of the people lying on the banks of the river are too weak to move themselves, meaning that they are in danger of drowning as the river floods. Tanimoto wants to stop and help the people, but the other priests insist that they needed to keep moving or they’ll risk Father Schiffer’s death. Tanimoto brings the priests to the area where he’s left Father Schiffer.
Tanimoto faced a serious moral quandary; he had to choose which people to save. There simply wasn’t enough time for Tanimoto to help everyone who needed help, and therefore, he had to make tough decisions about whom to prioritize. However, Tanimoto clearly took it for granted that he had an obligation to help somebody (whereas many of the other Hiroshimans who survived the explosion must have faced a choice between helping other people and helping themselves).
Father Kleinsorge takes care of the two young children that the priests rescued from the river. One child has burns on her body, and she is very cold. Kleinsorge finds a blanket for the child, but it’s too late—she dies a few hours later.
Kleinsorge devoted himself to helping the wounded and suffering, but sometimes there was nothing he could do: the child was already doomed to die, with or without a blanket.
Mr. Tanimoto paddles the boat to the sandspit, where he finds about twenty men and women. He tells a few of them to climb aboard his boat, but he then realizes that they are too weak to move. He tries to help a woman aboard, but when he takes her hand her skin rips off. This disgusts him to the point where he can’t do anything for a few minutes. Though he is horrified by the victims’ swollen skin and disgusting odor, he tells himself, “These are human beings.” Over the course of three trips, he transports all twenty people across the river to a higher sandspit, and then decides to go back to the park and rest. In the park, Tanimoto begins to feel furious—why haven’t the naval officers sent doctors to help these suffering people?
This passage must have shocked readers when Hersey’s article was first published in 1946: before this point, most Americans hadn’t read about the gruesome injuries that the Hiroshima survivors sustained (partly because reports had been censored by the U.S. government). Tanimoto’s statement, “These are human beings,” could be said to sum up Hersey’s frank yet compassionate approach to writing about the Hiroshima bombing. Regardless of political convictions, one should have compassion for the victims.
Dr. Fujii sits on the floor of his family’s house at the edge of the city. His left clavicle is fractured, he’s broken a few ribs, and his body is riddled with cuts. If he hadn’t been hurt so badly himself, he could have been assisting the wounded in Asano Park.
Like so many doctors in Hiroshima, Dr. Fujii was too heavily injured to lend his services to the thousands of victims.
That night, the Red Cross Hospital is overflowing with bombing victims. Dr. Sasaki is utterly worn out—he’s been treating burns non-stop. A few other doctors, some of them injured, have joined him, but all they can do for their patients is apply saline compresses to the burns. There are so many dead bodies in the hospital that the doctors can’t take care of them—the hospital is beginning to smell disgusting. Eventually Sasaki has to carry hundreds of bodies out to the driveway. Sasaki tries to sleep, he but can’t—the wounded and sick find him and insist that he help them. He works all through the night, worrying that his wife will think he has died.
Dr. Sasaki heroically devoted himself to helping the wounded. However, he often reached a point where there was nothing he could do except ease his patients’ deaths. Sasaki had to remain focused on his medical work while surrounded by thousands of dead bodies; his experiences working in the hospital after the bombing were arguably even more gruesome and unforgettable than the bombing itself.
Mr. Tanimoto transports the priests upriver. Nearby, there is a large case of rice cakes, which a rescue party has brought but not yet distributed. When the priests find the case, they eat some of the rice cakes—then, a group of soldiers arrives, speaking a foreign language. Terrified, the priests prepare themselves for the worst, but then realize that these are German soldiers allied with Japan.
Tanimoto and the other priests were understandably paranoid—after their city had been so heavily bombed, they must have anticipated some further military attack. This is a moment in which the complexity of the German presence is revealed. Tanimoto’s relief at finding Nazi soldiers contrasts with his selfless behavior.
The priests transport Fathers LaSalle and Schiffer to the edge of the city, where a group of Novitiate priests waits. The trip is excruciating for both of the injured men—at one point, one of the healthy priests trips and drops his end of the litter, throwing Schiffer to the ground. However, once the priests join up with the Novitiate group, the Novitiates, some of whom were trained as doctors, treat Schiffer and LaSalle’s wounds. Thousands of Hiroshimans, injured as badly as the two priests, or much worse, receive no medical care whatsoever.
In this passage, Hersey does a particularly elegant job of tying descriptions of individual people involved in the bombing to overall descriptions of the city: as miserable as LaSalle and Schiffer’s experiences were that evening, they paled in comparison to those of thousands of other victims scattered throughout the city of Hiroshima.
In the Park, Mrs. Murata continues to talk to the exhausted Father Kleinsorge. The Nakamura family can’t sleep, either—the children are sick, but too anxious to rest. When a gas storage tower bursts into flame, they shriek with delight. Mr. Tanimoto, however, falls asleep immediately. The next morning, he awakens to the sight of dead bodies floating above sandspit—the river levels have risen, drowning them.
One of the greatest tragedies of the aftermath of Hiroshima was that, despite the heroic efforts of Kleinsorge, Tanimoto, and countless other people, thousands of victims passed away slowly and painfully. Here, for instance, Mr. Tanimoto realizes that he hasn’t dragged the victims far enough from the tides—meaning that, even though he isn’t directly responsible for the victims’ deaths, he didn’t do enough to save them.
It is the morning of August 7. Japanese radio broadcasts issue emergency announcements about how Hiroshima has been bombed by “a few B-29s,” seemingly with a “new type of bomb.” Few survivors of the bombing ever hear this broadcast. However, it is obvious enough to them that a new kind of military technology has been used to destroy their city. Unbeknownst to them, this weapon represents, “the first great experiment in the use of atomic power.”
While the Hiroshima survivors didn’t understand that an atomic bomb was responsible for destroying their city, they knew perfectly well that some entirely new kind of weapon had been used to attack them. The magnitude of difference between a normal bombing and this bombing shows the marked difference ushered in by the atomic era.
Mr. Tanimoto decides to find a doctor to bring to Asano Park. He crosses the river in his boat and walks to the East Parade Ground. There, he finds an Army medical unit, but he notices that its doctors are overburdened already. Nevertheless, he tells one doctor that he is “badly needed” in Asano Park. While Tanimoto argues that the doctor’s services would be most useful in the Park, the doctor, clearly exhausted, replies that he is under orders to tend to the “slightly wounded,” claiming, “there is no hope for the heavily wounded.” Furious, Tanimoto gathers some rice cakes and biscuits and takes them back to the Park.
In the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing, doctors had to make tough calls about how best to use their skills. The standard protocol was to prioritize patients who already stood a good chance of surviving. Tanimoto found this protocol callous, but he couldn’t interfere with it. (Notice that this is one of the only times in the book when two characters disagree—and even here, they’re disagreeing about the best way to help other people.)
The morning of August 7 is hot, and the healthy survivors go to gather river water for the sick and injured. Father Kleinsorge ventures outside the park and finds a faucet—he gathers buckets of water for the victims of the bombing. Coming back from the faucet, he crosses paths with a group of twenty soldiers, whose faces are horrifically burned. He offers them water, but realizes that their mouths are so swollen that they can barely open them to drink. He forms a straw from a piece of grass and lets the soldiers sip from his bucket. Kleinsorge realizes that the sight of so much death and injury has made him numb—ordinarily, he’d get queasy at the sight of a cut finger, but now he feels curiously calm.
Throughout this chapter, the uninjured characters try to help the injured, and although they sometimes succeed, they often fail, too. For the second time in the book, Kleinsorge is described as experiencing a strange sense of calm regarding the devastation that he witnesses. Here, Hersey implies that Kleinsorge’s sense of calm is a defense mechanism, allowing him to preserve his sanity and care for others instead of going into shock.
Back in Asano Park, Father Kleinsorge watches as the young children in the park play with each other—sometimes, unexpectedly, a child bursts into tears and calls for its mother. An elderly Japanese woman offers Kleinsorge some tea, and Kleinsorge is so touched that he almost cries—he’s been so used to xenophobia in the last few months that any genuine kindness makes him “a little hysterical.”
The passage paints a poignant image: even the innocent little children playing in Asano Park were aware of the tragedy in their city. The passage further shows that many different Hiroshimans came together in sympathy and compassion after the bombing.
The Novitiate priests arrive at Asano Park around noon with a handcart. They pack Father Kleinsorge’s suitcase into the cart, along with Mrs. Murata’s things and the two Nakamura children. Suddenly, a priest brings up an interesting point: Japanese laws state that, if families suffer property damage as a result of the war, they are entitled to compensation. The priests decide that Father Kleinsorge should be the one to enter the claim—thus, while the others “go off in the handcart,” Kleinsorge walks to a police station to fill out a claim form. While returning to the Novitiate from the station, he begins to comprehend the extent of the damage to the city.
It’s more than a little surprising that so many of the surviving Hiroshimans would think about claim forms and property insurance so soon after the bombing. Perhaps this reaction is another kind of defense mechanism—a way for the survivors to wrap their heads around the extent of the damage by translating it into the more readily comprehensible language of law and money.
Toshiko Sasaki spends two days and nights in the courtyard. Her leg becomes swollen, and she has to survive without food or water. On August 8, some friends come looking for her at the factory—they find her and tell her that her mother, father, and baby brother are, in all probability, dead. Later, men carry Toshiko Sasaki to a relief station, where two army doctors examine her. The doctors are worried that she’ll die of gangrene unless they amputate the leg. A moment later, a doctor explains that she does not, in fact, have gangrene, meaning that, according to the hospital’s emergency rules, she’ll have to leave. But then, the doctor takes her temperature, and decides that she needs to stay after all.
Toshiko Sasaki endured more pain and fear than any of the other five main characters in the book. Furthermore, the passage suggests that there were hundreds of other Hiroshimans in more or less similar situations. With too many victims and not enough doctors, it was sadly inevitable that some Hiroshimans go days without food, water, or medical care. The fact that Sasaki’s doctors would even consider throwing her out of the hospital further emphasizes the insufficiency of medical care in Hiroshima following the bombing.
On the same day, August 8, Father Cieslik goes into the city to find Mr. Fukai, the man who ran back into the burning mission. He begins in the neighborhood where the priests last saw Fukai, but he can’t find any trace of the man. At the Novitiate that evening, the mission’s young theological student tells the priests that Mr. Fukai had said, “Japan is dying … I want to die with our country.” The priests conclude that Fukai has run back into the mission and killed himself. Fukai is never seen again.
Mr. Fukai’s motive for killing himself (if, indeed, he meant to kill himself) is never explained. Perhaps his behavior is meant to evoke the Japanese people’s intense loyalty to their country and their government. Furthermore, Fukai’s last words suggest how many Hiroshimans perceived the bombing: they thought of it as an apocalyptic event, signaling the end of their country and their culture.
At the Red Cross Hospital, Dr. Sasaki works for three days on an hour’s sleep. He begins treating serious wounds on the second day, by which point most of the wounds have festered. On the end of day three, he goes home and sleeps for seventeen hours. On August 9, Father Kleinsorge wakes up in the Novitiate, to which he walked the previous evening. The rector examines him and tells him that his wounds can heal in as little as three days. During the day, Kleinsorge walks around the city, trying to comprehend the damage. On the morning of that same day, the U.S. military drops the second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki.
Dr. Sasaki worked without pause for three days, so understaffed were Hiroshima’s hospitals. Seemingly just as the city of Hiroshima was beginning to recover from the bombing and make sense of the disaster, the U.S. military dropped another bomb on Nagasaki. The rationale for dropping this second bomb has been energetically debated by historians—some have argued that Japan wouldn’t have surrendered before the second bombing, while others argue that the second bombing was a brutal, pointlessly destructive display of force.
On the morning of August 9, Mr. Tanimoto is in the park, tending to the wounded. He notices that his neighbor, Mrs. Kamai, is holding onto her baby, even though the baby has died days earlier and the body is rotting. When he gently suggests that the child be cremated, she holds the body tighter.
As Mrs. Kamai’s behavior might suggest, many of the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing were in denial about the extent of the damage to their city and to their personal lives.
The priests take some fifty refugees to the Novitiate chapel, where the rector provides the best medical care he can. The Nakamuras are provided with blankets and food. One night, Toshio wakes up screaming—earlier in the day, he learned that his older friend was burned alive in a factory.
Priests were crucial in tending to the victims of the Hiroshima bombing (although Hersey doesn’t really talk about the contributions of non-Christian religious leaders). Notice, also, that the devastation of Hiroshima traumatizes all Hiroshimans, even young, innocent children like Toshio.
On August 10, Father Kleinsorge learns that Dr. Fujii has been injured and has gone to stay with a friend named Mr. Okuma. Kleinsorge sends Father Cieslik to check up on Fujii in Okuma’s home. Cieslik finds Fujii sitting in a chair with a broken collarbone, and Fujii gives Cieslik some medical tools that the rector can use back at the Novitiate. He also claims that the bomb that has been dropped on Hiroshima is made of “fine magnesium powder.”
Dr. Fujii did not go out of his way to help other survivors, partly because he was injured. Fujii’s remarks about magnesium powder might seem foolish in retrospect, but at the time, such a theory seemed no more or less ridiculous than the theory of nuclear fission.
On August 11, Mr. Tanimoto returns to his ruined parsonage. In the ruins, he finds church records and cooking tools. While he is there, a neighbor named Miss Tanaka finds him and says her father wants to see him. Tanimoto dislikes Tanaka’s father for having accused him of being an American spy. However, Mr. Tanaka is about to die, and he wants religious counsel. Fulfilling his duties to the Neighborhood Association, Tanimoto reads from the Bible as Tanaka dies.
Tanimoto set aside his personal feelings about his neighbor in order to perform his priestly duties—above all, giving comfort and counsel to the dying. This passage also highlights the climate of fear and xenophobia that permeated Japan during WWII; even Tanimoto, who is Japanese, was subject to xenophobia.
On August 11, radios broadcast the news that civilian patients are to be evacuated from Hiroshima immediately. Toshiko Sasaki is taken to a hospital in a nearby town. At the Novitiate, Father Cieslik tries to entertain the orphaned children; he also tries to track down their parents. He is able to contact one mother, who has been moved to a nearby island, and he arranges for her children to reunite with her. Meanwhile, rumors get out that Hiroshima has been destroyed by the energy released from a split atom. This concept seems no more or less ridiculous than magnesium powder.
Gradually, the Japanese state began to take care of its own citizens—in the meantime, however, priests continued to take care of unaccompanied children and wounded adults. Hersey doesn’t explain how, exactly, news of splitting the atom reached the Hiroshimans; at first, there must have been many other rumors about what had caused the explosion (Fujii mentioned magnesium powder, for example).
On August 12, the Nakamura family goes to a nearby town to stay with Mrs. Nakamura’s sister-in-law. There, Mrs. Nakamura learns that her mother, sister, and brother are dead. Meanwhile, in the Red Cross Hospital, Dr. Sasaki returns to work and begins to establish some order. With the help of some other medics, he disposes of the dead, making sure to cremate and enshrine the bodies in a civilized manner.
Mrs. Nakamura and the other survivors slowly began to face the fact that they’d lost friends and family members in the bombing. Dr. Sasaki had a much broader perspective on the destruction caused by the bombing: during his time in the hospital, he was forced to take care of thousands of dead bodies.
On August 15, Emperor Hirohito makes a radio announcement: on behalf of the Japanese state, he is surrendering to the Allied forces. Mr. Tanimoto later explains that hearing the Emperor’s voice is an almost religious experience. It feels depressing, yet strangely inspiring, to hear the Emperor say, in a calm, clear voice, that Japan is surrendering and the war is over. It is on this day, Tanimoto wrote, that “Japan started her new way.”
Emperor Hirohito’s surrender represented the first time that many Japanese citizens had heard the Emperor’s voice. At the time, Hirohito wielded very little true political power, but was still an important symbolic leader, to whom millions looked for guidance. His surrender was a tragic milestone in Japanese history, since it signaled the country’s military defeat, but it also allowed Japanese citizens to come to terms with the war and move forward with their lives.