“In an emergency like this,” he said, as if he were reciting from a manual, “the first task is to help as many as possible—to save as many lives as possible. There is no hope for the heavily wounded. They will die. We can’t bother with them.”

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On the evening of August 6, a naval ship travels up and down the rivers of Hiroshima, telling people to be patient and wait for further help. It is the first official word about any aid and it brings much joy to those suffering in Asano Park.

A half-dozen priests from the Novitiate, another mission about three miles away, arrive at Asano Park with stretchers for Father LaSalle and Father Schiffer. Father Kleinsorge is almost too ill to move, but he finds a few working faucets nearby and brings water to the injured in the park. He stumbles upon a group of twenty soldiers in the woods, so terribly burned that their mouths are swollen up and their eyes melted. He promises them help that he knows will never come. Awaiting the return of the other priests, he also comforts the Kataoka children, a thirteen-year-old girl and her five-year-old brother, who believe their mother to be dead. The priests finally return at noon the next day to help Mrs. Nakamura and her children go to the Novitiate, while Kleinsorge returns to the city to file a claim with the police. The government broadcasts via the radio that they believe a new type of bomb was used in Hiroshima, but few of the survivors in Hiroshima hear the broadcast.

As Mr. Tanimoto paddles his boat along the river, he finds more and more injured people on the riverbanks and in the river itself. He helps rescue two young girls, both badly burned, who have been standing in the river shivering. One dies soon after she reaches the park. He also takes his boat to help move approximately twenty men and women who lie wounded on a sandpit, unable to move and in danger of drowning in the rising tide. Many of them are so severely burned that their skin comes off as he carries them in his hands. Unfortunately, most of his efforts are for naught. He awakens after a short rest to discover that he has not moved them high enough and that many have been carried away or drowned by the tide after all. Completely exasperated, he finally goes to a medical station on the East Parade Ground, another supposedly safe area, where he reproaches a doctor for not helping those in Asano Park. The already overburdened doctor tells him that he is helping those with less serious wounds because the heavily wounded will die anyway.

No one seems more horrified than Dr. Sasaki, who does his best to stem the rising number of corpses at the Red Cross Hospital. He works for nineteen straight hours as the number of bodies around him piles up—there is nobody to take the corpses away—then manages an hour of sleep before he is woken up again. He works straight through the next three days, and does not return home until August 8 to assure his mother that he is alive. Dr. Fujii, meanwhile, is still too hurt to help anyone but himself and lies in pain on the floor of his parents’ roofless house. Eventually he makes it to a friend’s house outside of the city, where he is visited by Father Cieslik.

Miss Sasaki lies abandoned and helpless for two days and two nights under her makeshift lean-to in the courtyard of the tin works factory. On August 8 some friends find her and tell her that her mother, father, and baby brother are all presumed dead. Finally she is taken to a series of hospitals, where she hears doctors discuss whether to amputate her leg or not. It turns out to be badly fractured but not gangrenous, and eventually she arrives at a military hospital on the island of Ninoshima.

A few days after the bombing, right about the time a second bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, the citizens of Hiroshima begin to comprehend the extent of the damage and learn the fates of their missing friends and relatives. The Nakamuras stay in the Novitiate, alive but still weak with illness. Toshio Nakamura, Mrs. Nakamura’s ten-year-old son, begins to have nightmares about his idol Hideo Osaki, who was burned alive in the factory where he worked. Soon after, Mrs. Nakamura discovers that her mother, brother, and older sister are all dead. Mr. Tanimoto is called to the aide of Mr. Tanaka, a former enemy, who lies dying in a shelter. Once a fervent hater of Christianity, the man listens to Mr. Tanimoto read a psalm to him as he dies. Amid all of the suffering, some families are reunited, including the Kataoka children and their mother.

In the week after the blast the doctors are still completely unable to cope with the thousands who are wounded. On August 11 Miss Sasaki is evacuated from the island military hospital and put on the deck of a ship. There, in the heat of the sun, the infection in her leg grows worse. At the Red Cross Hospital, the doctors are just beginning to get control of the number of dead bodies, cremating the corpses and stuffing the ashes into X-ray envelopes. The envelopes are labeled and stacked in a makeshift shrine in a hospital room.

On the morning of August 15, Japanese citizens tune in as Emperor Tenno reads the news over the radio: Japan has surrendered unconditionally, and the war is over.


Chapter Three describes the general mood of confusion of the people of Hiroshima—they wonder what has happened and what to do next. Despite the broadcast over the radio that a new type of bomb has been used, most citizens still have no idea what has happened. The simplistic rumors of what might have caused the explosion contrast cruelly with the hard-to-imagine technological advancement of the atomic bomb. The citizens’ ignorance indicates Japan’s cultural isolation from the rest of the world at that time— it was decades behind the United States in industry and technology.

While Chapters One and Two deal with the immediate shock and confusion that follows the explosion, Chapter Three forces us to confront the stark reality of what has happened to thousands of people. It bears witness to some of the most gruesome effects of the bomb, with vivid accounts such as when Mr. Tanimoto tries to help a woman and gets a handful of her burnt flesh, and when Father Kleinsorge comes across the soldiers with melted eyes.

Hersey’s narrative shows how the extensive damage caused by the bomb compromises the victims’ sense of their own humanity. We encounter nameless, suffering victims everywhere. The hospitals are overwhelmed by corpses, and doctors can only treat the lightly wounded, choosing between displaying compassion for the worst victims and the ruthlessly economical decision to help only those who can actually be saved. Miss Sasaki does not even speak with the two severely wounded people with whom she shares the shelter; they are so badly hurt that they barely recognize one another’s common humanity. When Mr. Tanimoto is carrying the horrifically wounded people he tells himself over and over, “These are human beings,” reminding us as well as himself. To critics of Hersey who feel that his attitude toward his subjects was too distant and amoral, we might argue that the terrifying images in this chapter speak for themselves.

Hersey explores both the physical and psychological wounds caused by the bomb. Toshio Nakamura has nightmares about his friend’s death; Mr. Fukai, the man who had to be dragged from the mission house, probably threw himself into the flames; and Mrs. Kamai still clutches her dead baby in her arms, searching in vain for her husband. Since Hersey’s account is primarily concerned with those who escape the explosion relatively intact, both mentally and physically, these small sketches of minor characters are important in establishing the emotional wreckage left by the bomb.

While the vivid descriptions of human tragedy are likely to provoke sympathy and outrage among readers, some people have criticized Hersey for not appearing outraged enough at the atrocities. At the end of the chapter, Hersey quotes Mr. Tanimoto’s letter to an American friend, in which Mr. Tanimoto writes about the “great sacrifice” of the Japanese on behalf of an “everlasting peace of the world.” The letter makes the Japanese capitulation seem like a proud moment for both Japanese and Americans alike. Many historians have pointed to the Japanese need to save face as a major reason for the bomb’s efficiency, one that was certainly not lost on President Truman: the bomb allowed the Japanese to surrender but still keep their pride. Were Hersey to end the book with this information, the implication would be that there was nothing wrong with America’s decision to drop the bomb.