Hiroshima

by: John Hersey

Chapter Two: The Fire

Summary Chapter Two: The Fire

Mr. Tanimoto and Father Kleinsorge head back into town to get provisions for the group. Back at the park they meet Mrs. Kamai, Mr. Tanimoto’s next-door neighbor, who clutches a dead baby in her arms. She is frantically searching for her husband, a soldier; Mr. Tanimoto presumes he is dead.

Analysis

The death toll statistics from Hiroshima can be difficult to comprehend by themselves. By combining statistics with first-hand accounts, Hershey personalizes the tragedy, and gives us a greater sense of what the numbers of dead and wounded mean. Hersey rarely takes the focus away from his six major figures, and through their eyes we are able to get a vivid picture of the destruction. The characters see countless homes collapsed and hear cries of “Tasukete kure!” (“Help, if you please!”) coming from under the rubble. Hersey explains everything from the bomb’s effects upon the weather to the types of burns many people suffered. Hersey also introduces compelling statistics, citing the number of people killed or injured and the reasons why many of those who died could have been saved. Nearly half of the 150 doctors in the city died instantly, and few of those who survived had access to hospitals or equipment.

Hersey chooses his statistics carefully; he does not simply record the extent of damage the same way a report from the war department might relate information. In fact, Hersey takes great pains to show his readers how the atomic bomb was uniquely devastating. In 1946, it was common for American military leaders to depict the A-bomb to the public as just another type of firebombing. Hersey, on the other hand, wants the public to appreciate exactly how the A-bomb was a horrifically efficient weapon. It destroyed buildings and burned people miles away from the center of the blast; it decimated hospitals, killed doctors, and blocked paths to safety; its destruction continued long after the original explosion as fires spread throughout the city.

Chapter Two describes the complete confusion of the citizens of Hiroshima, and emphasizes the fact that nobody has any idea what happened. While most are prepared for some kind of attack, the power of the bomb comes as a complete surprise. Various explanations are suggested: some believe that the Americans have dropped a “Molotov flower basket,” a self-scattering bomb cluster, or have sprayed gasoline across the roofs of Hiroshima’s houses in order to help the fire spread. Hersey notes that “even a theory was comforting that day.” Because President Truman did not warn the citizens of Hiroshima before the bomb was dropped, either through official channels or by dropping leaflets by plane through the city, the citizens had no idea of America’s nuclear capabilities.

Stylistically, Chapter Two showcases Hersey’s talents both as a narrative storyteller and as a journalist capable of careful observation and reportage. Even as he includes statistics about the explosion, he never takes the focus off his main characters, and as a result we are riveted by these six human stories. Because he switches the narrative from one character to the other, never lingering too long on one individual, each of the stories appears to proceed simultaneously, as if we are able to follow the progression of the events all at once.