The Untold History of the United States, Volume 2
1 Hiroshima: Imagination and Reality
When Americans found out that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, many recoiled in horror. Others made light of the atomic bomb and its destructive power. Since photos and film footage from Hiroshima were still censored by the government, most Americans could not visualize the destruction that atomic bombs could do. As American cities had never been bombed, it was incredibly difficult for people to imagine what such devastation would look like. Americans read newspaper stories that described the bomb as the biggest ever dropped, more powerful than 20,000 tons of TNT.
Without actual photos depicting the damage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, comedians, journalists, artists, and even bartenders let their imaginations run wild. Referring to Hiroshima, one radio announcer remarked that after the atomic bomb, the city “looked like Ebbets Field after a game between the Giants and the Dodgers.” Bartenders in Washington, DC, invented the “Atomic Cocktail,” an incredibly strong green-tinted drink that went “boom” when you drank it. General Mills sold “Atomic ‘Bomb’ Rings” for
a breakfast cereal box top and fifteen cents. Ads for the rings urged people to “look into the ‘sealed atom chamber’ in ‘the gleaming aluminum warhead . . . [and] see genuine atoms SPLIT to smithereens!’?”1
General Mills was bombarded with orders from 750,000 kids. Atomic pistols, atomic robots, atomic chemistry sets, uranium board games, PEZ candy space guns, and model nuclear reactors lined toy store shelves across the country.2
Royal Tot Manufacturing Company of New York produced a “safe, harmless, cap shooting, giant atomic bomb.” Children could buy just one bomb or an entire arsenal.3
Influenced by toy companies, radio shows, and conversations at the dinner table, kids across the country played atomic cops and robbers, pretended they were pilots of atomic spaceships, played atomic arcade games, and threw radioactive snowballs at their friends. At the playground in New York’s Washington Square, Life magazine observed that children were making up new atomic games:
We watched a military man of seven or eight [years old] climb onto a seesaw, gather a number of his staff officers around him, and explain the changed situation. “Look,” he said, “I’m an atomic bomb. I just go ‘boom.’ Once. Like this.” He raised his arms, puffed out his cheeks, jumped down from the seesaw, and went “Boom!” Then he led his army away, leaving Manhattan in ruins behind them.
While the kids played, their parents worried. A distressed mother in Pelham Manor, New York, wrote a letter to radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn:
Since [Hiroshima] I have hardly been able to smile, the future seems so utterly grim for our two boys. Most of the time I have been in tears or near-tears, and fleeting but torturing regrets that
I have brought children into the world to face such a dreadful thing as this have shivered through me. It seems that it will be for them all their lives like living on a keg of dynamite which may go off at any moment, and which undoubtedly will go off before their lives have progressed very far.4
As many in the United States wondered and fretted about what it might be like to experience an atomic blast, those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were living through an actual nuclear nightmare. Americans were about to learn much more about that hell.
John Hersey’s Hiroshima
Subscribers to New Yorker magazine woke up on Saturday morning, August 31, 1946, to find in their mailboxes what would become the twentieth century’s most important work of journalism. The cover illustration featured the delights of everyday life: people strolling through a beautiful park, a relaxing game of badminton, swimmers splashing in a lake while others danced on the beach.5
But it masked the painful truths inside, revealed in just one long article simply titled “Hiroshima.”
The article’s young author, John Hersey, was born in Tianjin (formerly known as Tientsin), China, to missionary parents who worked for the YMCA. He learned Chinese before he learned English. In 1924, Hersey moved with his family back to the United States, and they settled in Briarcliff Manor,
New York. After graduating from Yale and traveling to study at Clare College in England, he was sure he wanted to be a journalist.
John Hersey, Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist and author of Hiroshima.
Eight years of working with talented authors like the legendary Sinclair Lewis made Hersey an incredibly gifted writer. He wrote extensively about World War II as it unfolded for Time and Life magazines, and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel A Bell for Adano. Hersey had realized his dream, to become a well-respected journalist and write stories that would change the world. Now, he would tackle Hiroshima for the New Yorker.
In August 1946, when Hersey’s Hiroshima was published, most Americans still could not relate to the horrors that the Japanese had faced just a year earlier. Hersey decided that his role as a journalist was to tell the whole story about what really happened there in a steady, matter-of-fact way. Recalling the detailed research Lewis had conducted on each of his characters, Hersey knew that his writing would be much more powerful if it described what happened to the actual victims. What did Hiroshima look like through their eyes?
August 6, 1945
Hersey spent three months in the devastated city listening, learning, and observing. He saw people’s shadows permanently emblazoned on concrete by the blast. He visited hospitals and interviewed doctors and nurses who had seen the most horrific injuries. He talked to children who were dying of leukemia and other radiation-related diseases. Hersey admitted that while he was there, he was “terrified all the time. If I felt [terrified] coming there eight months later, what must the feelings of the people who were there at the time have been?”6
Gazing out over the Ota River, Hersey wondered: How could one bomb possibly cause such unimaginable death and destruction?
This map shows the horrific destruction caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The bomb detonated directly above the city’s center, igniting a firestorm that extended roughly 1.5 miles in every direction.
After interviewing close to forty survivors, Hersey chose to write about six of them: Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a secretary at the East Asia Tin Works; Masakazu
Fujii and Terufumi Sasaki, two doctors; Father William Kleinsorge, a German priest; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a seamstress; and Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of Hiroshima’s Methodist Church.7
His writing was as a journalist’s should be—sober, unemotional, and very detailed.
Hersey painstakingly described how each of his subjects experienced August 6, 1945. At 8:15 a.m., as Mrs. Nakamura gazed out her window at her neighbor’s house, suddenly:
Everything flashed whiter than any white she had ever seen. She did not notice what happened to the man next door; the reflex of a mother set her in motion toward her children. She had taken a single step . . . when something picked her up and she seemed to fly into the next room over the raised sleeping platform, pursued by parts of her house. Timbers fell around her as she landed, and
a shower of tiles pommelled her; everything became dark, for she was buried. The debris did not cover her deeply. She rose up and freed herself. She heard a child cry, “Mother, help me!,” and saw her youngest—Myeko, the five-year-old—buried up to her breast and unable to move.
As Dr. Fujii read the morning paper on the front porch of his small hospital, he saw the atomic flash.
Startled, he began to rise to his feet. In that moment . . . the hospital leaned behind his rising and, with a terrible ripping noise, toppled into the river. The Doctor, still in the act of getting to his feet, was thrown forward and around and over; he was buffeted and gripped; he lost track of everything, because things were so speeded up; he felt the water.
Father Kleinsorge saw the atomic flash as he ate breakfast with the other priests in their mission. Stunned and confused, he “had time for [only] one thought: A bomb had fallen directly on us. Then, for a few seconds, he went out of his mind.”
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 small cuts along his left flank; that all the buildings round about had fallen down except the Jesuits’ mission house, which had long before been braced and double-braced by a priest named Gropper, who was terrified of earthquakes; that the day had turned dark; and that Murata-san, the housekeeper, was nearby, crying over and over, “Shi Jesusu, awaremi tamai!” Our Lord Jesus, have pity on us.8
Hersey ended his article with the testimony of ten-year-old Toshio Nakamura:
“The day before the bomb, I went for a swim. In the morning, I was eating peanuts. I saw a light. I was knocked to little sister’s sleeping place. When we were saved, I could only see as far as the tram. My mother and I started to pack our things. The neighbors were walking around burned and bleeding. Hataya-san told me to run away with her. I said I wanted to wait for my mother. We went to the park. A whirlwind came. At night a gas tank burned and I saw the reflection in the river. We stayed in the park one night. Next day I went to Taiko Bridge and met my girl friends Kikuki and Murakami. They were looking for their mothers. But Kikuki’s mother was wounded and Murakami’s mother, alas, was dead.”
Once word got out about Hersey’s article, copies of the New Yorker flew off newsstand shelves. The ABC network broadcast it over the radio. For four straight nights, Americans sat in their living rooms and listened to the gut-wrenching stories narrated by Paul Robeson and three other prominent actors. Albert Einstein requested a thousand copies to share with his friends and colleagues. A college student wrote to the New Yorker, “I had never thought of the people in the bombed cities as individuals.”9
Over 200,000 individuals died when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many more suffered long after from exposure to the devastating radiation. Sadako Sasaki was one of them.
Sadako was two years old in 1945 when the Enola Gay flew over
Hiroshima. She grew up as the city struggled to rebuild. By 1955, Sadako had become an outgoing and creative twelve-year-old. She was very athletic—one of the strongest members of her school’s track team. She routinely won races against her classmates. On race days, she forgot about everything else and gave each race her all.
One bitter cold day, Sadako was practicing sprints on the field behind the school. All of a sudden, a strange and disorienting sensation came over her. She fell to the grass, unable to move any further. A teacher ran over to help. Sadako tried to get back on her feet, but her legs would not support her body.
Her father took her to the Red Cross Hospital. Sadako’s whole family was there waiting for her. After the doctor examined her, he asked to speak to her parents in private. From outside the room, Sadako heard her mother’s anguished cry, “Leukemia! But that’s impossible!” Sadako covered her ears in denial. She couldn’t possibly have leukemia. She was perfectly healthy.
Over the next few months, Sadako became weaker and weaker. The radiation from the atomic bomb had caused her disease, which sapped all of her energy and caused terrible headaches. Her bones felt like they were knives, cutting her from within. Eventually, she was confined to her bed in the hospital.
One day, Sadako’s friend Chizuko visited her in the hospital. Chizuko was determined to cheer up her friend and make her feel better. She pulled a piece of origami paper out of her bag and began folding it again and again. Finally, Chizuko had contorted the single piece of paper into a beautiful crane. Sadako asked Chizuko how the crane was supposed to make her well again. Chizuko responded, “Don’t you remember that old story about the crane? It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one
thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again.”
The two friends sat together on Sadako’s bed, folding crane after crane. Maybe, just maybe, the gods would listen and make her healthy again. At first, the cranes were uneven, but as the girls practiced, they became more and more precise. Chizuko lined up the cranes on a small table. Ultimately, they made so many that Sadako’s brother offered to hang them on strings from the ceiling.
By July 1955, Sadako had made over 600 paper cranes. But she was not getting better. As she drifted in and out of sleep, she asked her parents, “When I die, will you put my favorite bean cakes on the altar for my spirit?” Her mother couldn’t answer. She just reached out and held her daughter’s hand. Her father insisted, “That will not happen for many, many years. Don’t give up now, Sadako chan. You have to make only a few hundred more cranes.”
In mid-October, Sadako couldn’t remember if it was day or night. She couldn’t talk, she could only listen. She heard her mother cry and desperately wanted to comfort her, but she could not seem to muster the strength. She tried to fold another crane, but her fingers couldn’t make the motions. Her doctor came in and told her, “It’s time to rest. You can make more birds tomorrow.” Seeing the hundreds of colorful paper cranes floating above her head gave her comfort. Sadako nodded and fell asleep.
Sadako passed away on October 25, 1955. She had made 644 cranes. Her friends folded another 356 and buried them with her. They gathered up Sadako’s journal entries and compiled them into a book called Kokeshi, which made its way around Japan. Children across the country read Sadako’s story and raised money to build a statue in her honor.
In 1958, a statue of Sadako Sasaki was unveiled in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Children across Japan raised money for its construction. Every year, people from around the world drape the statue in bands of paper cranes to remember Sadako and her bravery.
In 1958, three years after her death, the statue was erected in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Today, Sadako stands proudly and strongly on a pinnacle of stone. In her hands is a wide golden crane, which she appears to be releasing into the world. Perhaps the world, sick with the disease of war, will learn from Sadako’s example. As countries raced to build bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons in history’s bloodiest century, how many more Sadakos would there be before people woke up to the terrible human consequences of war from the air?