Hiroshima traces the experiences of six residents who survived the atomic blast of August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am. The six people vary in age, education, financial status and employment. Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a personnel clerk; Dr. Masakazu Fuji, a physician; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow with three small children; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German missionary priest; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, and the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto are the six Hersey chose from dozens of people he interviewed. The book opens with what each person was doing moments before the blast and follows their next few hours, continuing through the next several days and then ending with their situation a year later.
In the opening chapter, “A Noiseless Flash” he gives short scenarios of what each was doing moments before the blast and immediately after. The second chapter, “The Fire,” picks up with each victim as they begin to assess their surroundings. All face a different sort of horror as they realize their lives have been spared yet the world as they knew it is gone. “Details Are Being Investigated” is the title of the third chapter. As the title suggests, inhabitants of Hiroshima are being bombarded with rumors about the bomb and eagerly await any official word. Information is scarce and the phrase “details are being investigated” is repeated throughout the city over makeshift communications. This chapter is the longest and details what is happening to the six as the day passes into night. Some readers might be confused by the significance of the title of the fourth chapter: “Panic Grass and Feverfew.” The effect the bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact but also had stimulated growth of the wild flowers and plants. Two of these plants that grew profusely around the scars of the city were panic grass and Feverfew. This chapter traces the effect of the nuclear radiation on the residents. Four of the six suffer from radiation sickness in varying degrees. This is the final chapter in the original book. Hersey concludes the stories with a report of where each victim is at this point in his or her life a year after the bomb had fallen. In his addition to the original text, the fifth chapter called the Aftermath, Hersey returns to interview the six survivors and see how their lives have been altered by the blast and what they are now doing.
Biographical Sketch: John Hersey was born in China of American parents. As a writer Hersey was noted for his ability to portray on an individual level the tragedies of war. During World War II (1939-1945) he served as a Time magazine correspondent and later as a senior editor for Life magazine. He won a Pulitzer Prize for A Bell for Adano, a novel about the Allied occupation of Italy. However, he is best known for his account of Hiroshima victims which would be published a two years after his 1944 award-winning novel. His non-fictional works written earlier in the war include Men on Batman (1942) and Into the Valley ( 1943) , both about war in the Pacific. After the publication of Hiroshima, Hersey went on to publish several short fiction pieces and articles about other topics in different magazines. In the spring of 1950, he published his next large-scale writing project, a historical novel The Wall about the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The novel was critically acclaimed and is considered to be the first American novel about the Holocaust.
In 1985, Hersey returned to Hiroshima to write up a follow-up article, “Hiroshima: The Aftermath.” This account would be added to the original piece as a last chapter in the book published by Knopf later that year.