August 6, 2015 and August 9, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the United States’ use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Initially censored by General MacArthur and the U.S. government, reports of the atomic bombs and their devastation were slow to reach even the Japanese on whose soil they were dropped. Always critical, discussions of atomic warfare and, more generally its use as a means to end World War II, are controversial and tinged with emotions ranging from intense sadness (from both Japanese and Americans) to justification (often from the Allied prisoners of War who endured endless cruelty at the hands of their captors). The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, especially as there are those that argue the war with Japan didn’t end with atomic warfare but with the invasion of Russia into Manchuria.
Regardless, Japan’s history and its fascinating 250-year period of peace, as discussed in Flyboys: A True Story of Courage by James D. Bradley (Back Bay Books), is an excellent place to begin. While its main focus is on the U.S. airmen who ended up in Japanese POW camps, Bradley also spends much of the start of his book examining Japanese history and the framework for a military that expected every last citizen to give his or her all for the emperor, leading American military forces to believe the war would be fought to every last man, woman, and child.
Any reader of Pacific war nonfiction will tell you the book to read is Hiroshima by John Hersey (Vintage). A year after Hiroshima’s decimation, The New Yorker devoted its entire issue to Hersey’s reporting of the effects of the atom bomb and six survivors. Frenetic and shocking, the account, later published as a book, is eye-opening, and the fear of the unknown so many felt in the wake of the atomic age is palpable.
Hersey, though, was far from the first reporter into nuclear war territory. George Weller defied censors and made his way to Nagasaki with ingenuity and a bit of audacity, claiming a rank and donning a uniform. His dispatches, however, never made it beyond the censors in Tokyo. He retained carbon copies, and years later, his son discovered them, publishing First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War (Crown). Though the reporting on Nagasaki itself is minimal, Weller’s reports from prisoners of war is first rate. As the first person to notify several camps they were liberated, the prisoners’ candor in interviews is unsurprising but still disquieting, as these men called for revenge against the country of their captors.
First published in 2010, Charles Pellegrino’s To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima (Rowman & Littlefield) was pulled and reworked because an included U.S. witness lied about his relationship to the atomic bombs. The result (published July 2015) is a moving, phenomenal piece of research that exposes the first milliseconds of the bomb’s impact in astonishing detail – the type that will cause readers to gasp again and again. Pellegrino also follows double survivors – those who fled Hiroshima but managed to make it to Nagasaki in time for the second combatant use of the bomb.
Similarly, Susan Southard focuses on the moments directly after the bombing in Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War (Viking), yet she extends the conversation, enumerating the hardships for those known as hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bombs). Many survivors took months to even begin recovery, and the nature of Disease X, or radiation disease, made many fearful that the sickness was contagious. Those with and without outward signs of the aftermath were shunned by Japanese society whose citizens were censured by occupation and had little understanding of the aftereffects of the bomb. Paired with a lack of social services, survivors had to fight not just to recover but to live normal lives, many working meticulously to hide their disastrous pasts, and Southard focuses on five survivors and their incredible histories.
Though nonfiction about atomic warfare may not be the stuff of which beach reads are made, these books aren’t wholly bleak, either. Again and again, the survivors talk of peace and hope for the future, several stating the only reason they discuss their past is to ensure nuclear power remains the dark story of Japan’s past and never another country’s future.—Jenn Ravey