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John Hersey - History
William Hersey was my ninth great-grandfather. Born 1596 in Reading, Berkshire, England, he died March 22, 1658 in Hingham, Massachusetts. The son of Nathaniel and Anne Hersey, he married first Margaret Garves on January 1, 1615 and second Elizabeth Croade in England in 1631 and then arrived in Hingham in 1635. Some documents claim William and Elizabeth married in New England, but since they were both from England and he arrived in 1635, that is unlikely. It appears Elizabeth arrived after giving birth to daughter Elizabeth in 1636 back in England.
Margaret gave him three children in Reading, England, only one of whom survived to have issue: Gregory, b. Nov 19, 1616, had one son Robert who died in England, no issue.
Nathaniel b. Jan 13, 1617 d. Jan 16, 1617
Cecilie b. Jan 17, 1619 d. Dec. 7, 1619
Some notes say Margaret died 1623 but I have not found any death documentation beyond notes in various genealogy lists.
Elizabeth gave him at least six children – William (1632-1691), Elizabeth (1636-1719), John (1640-1726), James (1643-1684) and two daughters, Frances and Judith, for whom we do not have dates.
Daughter Elizabeth (my 8th great grandmother) married Moses Gilman, Judith married Humphrey Wilson and Frances married Richard Croade.
The Pioneers of Massachusetts 1620-1650
This is the will of William Hersey:
Will of William Hersey 1658
A memorial in Hingham Cemetery for William and his wife Elizabeth:
Memorial of William Hersey and his wife Elizabeth Croade. Photo taken in 1989 by Tim Cooper while visiting the cemetery with mother, Ruth Marcelyn (Hersey) Cooper. Added by: Tim Cooper 7/31/2008 from Find a Grave
“We Herseys are descendants of William Hersey who came to America, from England in 1635. Francis C. Hersey has researched the progenitor of the Herseys in America:The earliest record of the Hersey family- which can be obtained is the name of a certain Sir Malvicius de Herey in the year 1210. The family appears to have come originally from Flanders, and I find that a Hughe de Hersey was Governor of Trou-Normandy in 1204. Edward I held another Hugh when a minor, i. e., took all his rents until he came of age. There is a Count Hercé-Maine, France, running from the year 1550. Sir Malvicius married Theophania, daughter and co-heir of Gilbert de Arches, Baron of Grove, and from him descended the family of Herey of Grove, one of the first families in the County of Nottingham.Branches of this family appear to have settled in several of the southern counties of England one in Oxfordshire, another in Berks, and so forth, and they appear always to have been among the leading county families. The name is found in Sussex, England, in 1376 to 1482, owning property seven miles round. In Warwickshire there is a village which still bears the name Pillerton Hersey or Herey, The Herseys of Grove only show, it direct descent in the male line down to 1570, but the branches in Oxfordshire and Berkshire go to 1794, at which date a son-in-law took the name Hersey, and these branches in England come down to the present time through him.
There are numerous Hearseys, Hersees, Hearses and Herseys to be found, and a number of entries. are in the registers of London churches, including Thomas Hersey, his wife, Eliza, and family of five children, Richard, Elizabeth, Thomas, John, and Joan, all of. whom died of the plague at Wandsworth, London in 1603. The name of Robert Hearse occurs as minister of Trinity Church, London, in 1578. There are branches of the family to be found in India, where they own land fifty miles by fifteen in the province of Oude. The arms of English Hereys are “Gules, a chief argent” crest, “a Moor’s head wreathed on a coronet.”
In the year 1635 Richard Herey, aged twenty-two, sailed from London for Virginia in the ship [unclear] and in the same year William sailed for New England. This last named settled in Hingham, Mass., and the records of that town clearly prove his identity. Savage’s “Three Generations of Settlers” says that the William Herey who left England in 1635 had a daughter Judith born in England who was married in 1663 to Humphrey Wilson. The records of the town of Hingham show that Judith, daughter of the William who settled there in 1635, was baptized in Hingham, July 15, 1638, and was married to Humphrey Wilson in 1663, as stated by Savage. This William was undoubtedly the son of Nathaniel Herey, who died in Reading, Berkshire Country, in 1629 his children were William, born 1596, and Thomas, born 1599. I find no male issue of Thomas after 1672. The children of William, probably born in England, Gregory, Prudence, Nathaniel, William, Frances, Elizabeth, and Judith, the four latter accompanying their father to America. Gregory had one son Robert, who died in England leaving no issue, and Nathaniel left one son and one grandson the latter probably died in England about 1794, without male issue. There is no record of burial in England of Nathaniel’s son William, showing that he must be the emigrant of 1635 who settled in Hingham, same year. Thus the present American branch of the Hersey family, who descended from William, are able to establish their connection through Nathaniel with the English Berkshire family, and to trace their ancestry back to Sir Malvicius de Herey, who lived in the reign of King John.
The Richard Herey who sailed for Virginia could not have belonged to the Berkshire branch of the Herey family no trace can be found of him in America, and it is probable that be died without issue.
About 1786 William Graham, of Netherby, Cumberland, England, married a Miss Hersey (American branch) and had a son William. This is a baronet’s family, and one of them was Viscount Preston in 1688.
From my genealogical researches I have arranged a Hersey Tree, starting with William, who settled in Hingham in 1635.”
Here to Stay by John Hersey (1963) (60) World History, True Short Stories
The will to live is the connecting thread that holds together these dramatic & moving true stories of human indomitability. The sum total has terrific impact. Hersey has covered a wide range of challenges--flood WWII concentration camps Hiroshima escape from impending disaster combat fatigue mutilation & the return to normal life--these cover a few of the situations. The strength of the book is in the selection of material. These are ordinary people who didn't know their own strength. It's the situation that taps this hidden inner strength. Young people who read The Wall will surely find similar compassion, insight & skilled craftsmanship in this new book.--Kirkus (edited)
CHANCE: Over the Mad River (Hurricane Diane 1955)
FLIGHT: Journey Toward a Sense of Being Treated Well (Fekete family in Austria at a refugee camp 1956)
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY: Survival (John F. Kennedy PT 109)
STRENGTH FROM WITHOUT: Joe is Home Now (a G.I. crippled by war and discharged from his uniform while hostilities continued, tried to grope his way back to some kind of civilian survival. Joe Souczak's strength was drawn from without, from a loyal friend love can be a mortal enemy of death, especially of living death.)
FUNK: A Short Talk with Erlanger (combat fatigue, Erlanger. Survival in high explosive warfare sometimes depends upon strength, courage, endurance, patriotism, or a nourishing belief in a righteous cause, but very often it does not, for fate can be blind, sardonic and witless)
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST: Prisoner 339, Klooga Not to GO with the Others (Frantizek Zaremski - Rodogoszca near Lodz, Poland. How he survived the Nazis)
CONSERVATION: Tattoo Number 107,907 (surviving Nazis of Adolf Hitler for two years in a concentration camp)
THE BIG IF: Hiroshima (August 6, 1945. Miss Toshiko Sasaki, Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Mrs. Hatsuyo Makamura, Father Wilhelm Kleinstorge)
Book Condition: Fair
Copyright: 1944, 1946, 1955, 1957, 1962 by John Hersey 1944, 1945 by Time, inc
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Edition: Published February 11, 1963 first, second and third printings before publication
covers and discoloration
some staining on pages
COMBINING MULTIPLE ITEMS is easy. Click the 'Buy Now' button and click on 'Continue Shopping'.
'Fallout' Tells The Story Of The Journalist Who Exposed The 'Hiroshima Cover-Up'
In 1945, an Allied war correspondent stands in the ruins of Hiroshima, weeks after an atomic bomb leveled the Japanese city.
When the U.S military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the American government portrayed the weapons as equivalent to large conventional bombs — and dismissed Japanese reports of radiation sickness as propaganda.
Military censors restricted access to Hiroshima, but a young journalist named John Hersey managed to get there and write a devastating account of the death, destruction and radiation poisoning he encountered. Author Lesley M.M. Blume tells Hersey's story in her book, Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World.
She writes that when Hersey, who had covered the war in Europe, arrived in Hiroshima to report on the aftereffects of the bomb a year later, the city was "still just a sort of smoldering wreck."
"Hersey had seen everything from that point, from combat to concentration camps," Blume says. "But he later said that nothing prepared him for what he saw in Hiroshima."
After Hiroshima Bombing, Survivors Sorted Through The Horror
Hersey wrote a 30,000-word essay, telling the story of the bombing and its aftermath from the perspective of six survivors. The article, which was published in its entirety by The New Yorker, was fundamental in challenging the government's narrative of nuclear bombs as conventional weapons.
"It helped create what many experts in the nuclear fields called the 'nuclear taboo,' " Blume says of Hersey's essay. "The world did not know the truth about what nuclear warfare really looks like on the receiving end, or did not really understand the full nature of these then experimental weapons, until John Hersey got into Hiroshima and reported it to the world."
On what Americans knew about the nature of nuclear weapons in 1945
Americans didn't know about the bomb — period — until it was detonated over Hiroshima. The Manhattan Project was cloaked in enormous secrecy, even though tens of thousands of people were working on it. . When President Harry Truman announced that America had detonated the world's first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, he was announcing not only a new weapon, but the fact that we had entered into the Atomic Age, and Americans had no idea about the nature of these then-experimental weapons — namely, that these are weapons that continue to kill long after detonation. It would take quite a bit of time and reporting to bring that out.
Americans had no idea about the nature of these then-experimental weapons — namely that these are weapons that continue to kill long after detonation. It would take quite a bit of time and reporting to bring that out.
Everybody who heard the announcement [from Truman] knew that they were dealing with something totally unprecedented, not just in the war, but in the history of human warfare. What was not stated was the fact that this bomb had radiological qualities, [that] blast survivors on the ground would die in an agonizing way for the days and the weeks and months and years that followed.
On how military generals focused on physical devastation when they testified before Congress about the effects of the atomic bomb
In the immediate weeks, very little [was said.] A lot of it was really painted in landscape devastation. Landscape photographs were released to newspapers showing the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were rubble pictures, and also obviously people are seeing the mushroom cloud photos taken from the bombers themselves or from recon missions. But in terms of the radiation — even in Truman's announcement of the bomb — he's painting the bombs in conventional terms. He says these bombs are the equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. And so Americans, they know that it's a mega-weapon, but they don't understand the full nature of the weapons, the radiological effects are not in any way highlighted to the American public, and in the meantime, the U.S. military is scrambling to find out how the radiation of the bombs is affecting the physical landscape, how it's affecting human beings, because they're about to send tens of thousands occupation troops into Japan.
On America's PR campaign and cover-up of the radiation aftermath
[The U.S. military] created a PR campaign to really combat the notion that the U.S. had decimated these populations with a really destructive radiological weapon. Leslie Groves [who directed the Manhattan Project] and Robert Oppenheimer [who directed the Manhattan Project's laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M.] themselves went to the Trinity site of testing [in New Mexico] and brought a junket of reporters so they could show off the area. And they said that there was no residual radiation whatsoever, and that therefore, any news that was filtering over from Japan were "Tokyo tales." So right away they went into overdrive to contain that narrative. .
The American officials were saying, for the most part, these are the defeated Japanese trying to create international sympathy, to create better terms for themselves and the occupation — ignore them.
On how reporters had limited access to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their reports were often censored
In the early days of the occupation, there obviously would have been enormous interest in trying to get to Hiroshima and Nagasaki . but as the occupation really took hold and became increasingly organized, the reports were intercepted. The last one that came out of Nagasaki was intercepted and lost. There was almost no point in trying to get down there because the obstacles that were put up for reporters were so tremendous by the military censors. . I can't overstate how restricted your movements were as a reporter, as part of the occupation press corps. . You could not get around, you could not eat. You couldn't do anything without the permission of the Army. . The control was near total.
On concerning Japanese reports about "Disease X" affecting blast survivors
Hiroshima Atomic Bombing Raising New Questions 75 Years Later
As news started to filter over from Japanese reports about what it was like on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath, wire reports started picking up really disturbing information about the totality of the decimation and this sinister . "Disease X" that was ravaging blast survivors. So this news was starting to trickle over early in August of 1945 to Americans.
And so the U.S. realized that not only were they going to have to really try to study very quickly how radioactive the atomic cities might have been, as they were bringing in their own occupation troops. But they [also] realized that they had a potential PR disaster on their hands, because the U.S. had just won this horribly hard-earned military victory, and were on the moral high ground, they felt, in defeating the Axis powers. And they had avenged Pearl Harbor. They had avenged Japanese atrocities throughout the Pacific theater in Asia. But then reports that they had decimated a largely civilian population in this excruciating way with an experimental weapon — it was concerning because it might have deprived the U.S. government of [its] moral high ground.
On how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seen as souvenir sites for American military
An Atomic Bomb Survivor On Her Journey From Revenge To Peace
Hiroshima was seen as a site of just enormous victory for these guys. And a lot of them would go even to ground zero of the bombings in Hiroshima. . They saw it as a souvenir site. It's essentially a graveyard. There are still remains that are being dug up in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. But many of them kind of pillaged the ruins to grab a souvenir to bring home. It was the ultimate victory souvenir. So whether it's a broken teacup to use as an ashtray or what have you, they went and they took their equivalent of selfies at ground zero. At one point in Nagasaki, Marines cleared a football field-sized amount of space in the ruins and they had what they called the "Atomic Bowl," which was a New Year's Day football game where they had conscripted Japanese women as cheerleaders. It was an astonishing scene in both cities. They were seen as sites of a victory. And most of the "occupationaires" were totally unrepentant about what had gone down there.
On Hersey getting a firsthand account from the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto of what the moment of the bombing was like
Rev. Tanimoto, at the moment of the bombing, was slightly outside of the city. He had been transporting some goods to the outskirts of the city, and he was up on a hill. And so therefore, he had a bird's-eye view of what happened. He fell to the ground when the actual bomb went off. But then when he got up, he saw that the city had been enveloped in flames and black clouds. And . he saw a procession of survivors starting to straggle out of the city. He was just absolutely horrified by what he had seen and baffled, too, because usually an attack on this level would have been perpetrated by a fleet of bombers. But this was just a single flash.
And the survivors who were making their way out of the city and who would not survive for long, I mean, most of them were naked. Some of them had flesh hanging from their bodies. He saw just unspeakable sights as he ran into the city because he had a wife and an infant daughter. He wanted to find his parishioners. The closer he got towards the detonation, the worse the scene was. The ground was just littered with scalded bodies and people who were trying to drag themselves out of the ruins and wouldn't make it. There were walls of fire that were consuming the areas. The enormous firestorm was starting to consume the city. He, at one point, was picked up by a whirlwind, because winds had been unleashed throughout the city, and . he was lifted up in a red-hot whirlwind. . It was just unbelievable that he survived not only the initial blast, but then [headed] into [the] city center and the extreme trauma of having witnessed what he witnessed. It's remarkable that he came out of it alive.
On how Hersey's reporting changed the world's perception of nuclear weapons
[Hersey] himself later said the thing that has kept the world safe from another nuclear attack since 1945 has been the memory of what happened in Hiroshima. And he certainly created a cornerstone of that memory.
The Japanese could not, for years, tell the world what it had been like to be on the receiving end of nuclear warfare, because they were under such dire press restrictions by the occupation forces. And so it took John Hersey's reporting to show the world what the true aftermath and the true experience of nuclear warfare looks like. . It changed overnight for many people, what was described by one of Hersey's contemporaries as the "Fourth of July feeling" about Hiroshima. There was a lot of dark humor about the bombings in Hiroshima. [The essay] just really imbued the event with a sobriety that really hadn't been there before. And also it just completely deprived the U.S. government of the ability to be able to paint nuclear bombs as conventional weapons. . [Hersey] himself later said the thing that has kept the world safe from another nuclear attack since 1945 has been the memory of what happened in Hiroshima. And he certainly created a cornerstone of that memory.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
John Hersey - 1914-1993
- Born in China, the son of US missionaries
- Returned to the US aged 10, later studied at Yale
- Began writing for Time in 1937, reported from Europe and Asia during the war
- His first novel, A Bell for Adano (1944) - about a Sicilian town occupied by US forces - won a Pulitzer Prize
- Hiroshima tops one list of the best 20th Century American journalism
Hersey's editors, Harold Ross and William Shawn, knew they had something quite extraordinary, unique, and the edition was prepared in utter secrecy. Never before had all the magazine's editorial space been given over to a single story and it has never happened since. Journalists who were expecting to have their stories in that week's edition wondered where their proofs had gone. Twelve hours before publication, copies were sent to all the major US newspapers - a smart move that resulted in editorials urging everyone to read the magazine.
All 300,000 copies immediately sold out and the article was reprinted in many other papers and magazines the world over, except where newsprint was rationed. When Albert Einstein attempted to buy 1,000 copies of the magazine to send to fellow scientists he had to contend with facsimiles. The US Book of the Month Club gave a free special edition to all its subscribers because, in the words of its president, "We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more important at this moment to the human race." Within two weeks a second-hand copy of The New Yorker sold for 120 times its cover price.
If Hiroshima demonstrates anything as a piece of journalism it is the enduring power of storytelling. John Hersey combined all his experience as a war correspondent with his skill as a novelist.
It was a radical piece of journalism that gave a vital voice to those who only a year before had been mortal enemies. There in a cataclysmic landscape of living nightmares, of the half-dead, of burnt and seared bodies, of desperate attempts to care for the blasted survivors, of hot winds and a flattened city ravaged by fires we meet Miss Sasaki , the Rev Mr Tanimoto, Mrs Nakamura and her children, the Jesuit Father Kleinsorge and doctors Fujii and Sasaki.
HERSEY AND HISTORY
FROM THE ARCHIVES AFTERWORD on the impact of John Hersey's 194 "Hiroshima" piece published in The New Yorker. John Hersey's "Hiroshima," which famously constituted the entire editorial contents of this magazine's issue of August 31, 1946, is a work of sustained silence. Its appearance, just over a year after the destruction of the Japanese city in the first atomic attack, offered one of the first detailed accounts of the effects of nuclear warfare on its survivors, in a prose so stripped of mannerism, sentimentality, and even minimal emphasis as to place each reader alone within scenes laid bare of all but pain. The piece tells the stories of six people--two doctors, two women, a Protestant clergyman, and a German Jesuit priest--as they experience the bomb, suffer injuries, and struggle for survival in the nightmarish landscape of ruin and death, and does so with classical restraint. Hersey never attempts to "humanize" these victims but instead allows them to keep their formal titles--Mrs. Nakamura, Dr. Fujii, Father Kleinsorge, and so on--throughout, thus clothing them once again in the privacy and individuality that the war and the bomb have blown away. This was not the way we in America were accustomed to thinking about Japanese citizens, whether seen as the hated enemy or the faceless dead, in the mid-nineteen-forties. It is difficult, in this news-drenched age, to imagine how "Hiroshima" was received in its time. Newspapers everywhere devoted lead editorials to it and reprinted front-page excerpts, while the American Broadcasting Company had the piece read aloud (this was just before the television age), over national radio, across four successive evenings. The article became a book, and the book has sold more than three and a half million copies and remains in print to this day. Its story became a part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust.
John Hersey and the Art of Fact
What everybody knows about John Hersey is that he wrote “Hiroshima,” the one widely read book about the effects of nuclear war. Its place in the canon is assured, not only because it was a major literary achievement but also because reporters haven’t had another chance to produce an on-the-scene account of a city recently blasted by a nuclear weapon. Yet Hersey was more of a figure than that one megaton-weighted fact about him would indicate. Born in 1914, he had an astonishingly rapid ascent as a young man. Because he was a quiet, sober person who lived an unusually unflamboyant life by the standards of celebrated American writers, it’s easy to miss how much he achieved.
By the time Hersey reached his mid-thirties, he had worked as an assistant to Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and as a reporter for Henry Luce, the founder of Time-Life. He had published five books about the Second World War—two works of nonfiction and three heavily researched novels. One of these novels, “A Bell for Adano,” which he wrote in a month, won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a long-running Broadway play and then a Hollywood movie. Another, “The Wall,” set in the Warsaw ghetto, was the first major book about the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Hersey, as a magazine writer, had reported from all over the world. For The New Yorker, he wrote the original version of “Hiroshima,” along with the first, mythmaking account of John F. Kennedy’s heroics as the skipper of PT-109 in the Pacific theatre, and a five-part Profile of Harry Truman, based on what must be the most copious access a sitting President has ever given to a journalist. At thirty-nine, he became the youngest person to be made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. An essay he wrote on children’s books may have inspired Dr. Seuss to write “The Cat in the Hat.”
Some details of Hersey’s life in those halcyon years call to mind a Cole Porter song or a Philip Barry play, though he seems to have been too earnest to experience them that way. He spent the first decade of his life in China, as a child of missionaries, and was descended from a family that had been in America since Colonial times, and had more social capital than money. He went to Hotchkiss on a scholarship, and worked his way through Yale by waiting tables and by tutoring. Then he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where, Jeremy Treglown tells us, in his new life of Hersey, “Mr. Straight Arrow” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), “there were country-house weekends, dinner dances, birthday parties, in the course of which he met a covey of upper-class Englishmen and ‑women.”
Back in New York, in the late nineteen-thirties, he successfully wooed Kennedy’s girlfriend, a North Carolina textile heiress named Frances Ann Cannon, while Kennedy was away in England. A few years later, after Hersey had married her and published his second book of war reportage, “Into the Valley,” Kennedy groused in a letter to his sister Kathleen, “He’s sitting on the top of the hill at this point—a best seller, my girl, two kids—big man on Time—while I’m the one that’s down in the God damned valley.” When Hersey won his Pulitzer Prize, at thirty, Treglown tells us, he got a congratulatory letter from the Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, Jr., and dined with Jean-Paul Sartre at the home of Alfred Knopf, who published both of them. His decades-long association with The New Yorker began when he and Kennedy, out for the evening at a night club called Café Society, encountered William Shawn, then the magazine’s managing editor, and had a conversation about the PT-109 episode.
“Hiroshima” is still probably the best-known piece The New Yorker has ever published. When it appeared, in August, 1946, it took up an entire issue, a signal the magazine has chosen to send only that once. Its publication marked the end of the magazine’s founding era and the beginning of its maturity. Before the war, The New Yorker was, as Treglown puts it, “generally associated with light entertainment.” Its psychic home was the kind of night club where Hersey had encountered Shawn. During the war, Shawn began to function as the magazine’s de-facto editor it was Shawn—not The New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, who died in 1951—who commissioned Hersey to go to Hiroshima, and who edited the article. By the end of the war, the magazine had become far broader in its concerns, trading in its characteristic urbane-bleeding-into-sneering tone for a journalistic core of moral engagement.
Like many élite Wasps who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century (including Henry Luce, who also grew up in China as a child of missionaries), Hersey started out in a deeply religious world and became essentially secular in the course of his life. It’s not that the religious impulse left him rather, he transferred it to his writing and to his myriad civic activities, all of which had a strong quality of moral preachment. Religious contacts also provided his initial entrée into Hiroshima two of the book’s six characters are clergymen. Treglown regularly depicts Hersey, and the power of “Hiroshima,” in quasi-religious terms. Hersey “worked like a war poet as much as a journalist,” he writes the essential quality of his work is “the way in which a personal quest of the author’s makes itself felt through his scrupulous attention to someone else.”
That’s fair enough, but the impact of “Hiroshima” can also be explained in a prosaically journalistic way. Shawn and Hersey grasped that an on-site report on the effects of the first-ever atomic-bomb attack would be a monster story. That they were so obviously right obscures how unobvious the idea was at the time, which is why Hersey had the story pretty much to himself. The pressing necessity of winning the war, and the nationalistic spirit that accompanied it, meant that even very good reporters were completely comfortable writing about “Japs” and measuring the American effort solely in terms of its progress toward victory. But Hersey had grown weary of being made to include peppy local color in his wartime dispatches from Asia, which is one reason that he gradually shifted his journalistic base from Time to The New Yorker, much to Luce’s distress. (In intensively researching the slaughter of European Jews for his novel “The Wall,” published in 1950, he again saw a story other prominent journalists missed.)
Then, too, “Hiroshima” was a marvel of journalistic engineering. Someone had given Hersey a copy of Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” to read on the destroyer that took him to East Asia, and he adopted the novel’s technique of braiding the stories of an ensemble of characters. From the dozens of people he interviewed, he chose six, alternating among them so that each character appeared in every major phase of the chronology. Hersey’s writing voice is calmly recitative, bordering on affectless—“deliberately quiet,” as he later put it. The opening words of “Hiroshima” convey the effectiveness of Hersey’s tone and narrative approach:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors.
Hersey didn’t have to sell the story, or make an argument. There’s nothing in the account about whether Truman was right to drop the bomb rather than to stage a more conventional invasion of Japan. “Hiroshima” is told entirely in an unadorned, omniscient third-person voice, which is why it’s often called the first nonfiction novel. A brief editor’s note in The New Yorker, likely written by Shawn, said, “Few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon. . . . Everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.” That falls on contemporary ears as gently stated, but the method Hersey used relieved him of ever having to say explicitly what he took the message of his story to be.
The novelty of Hersey’s approach doesn’t mean that it lacked a lineage. You can trace it to the “sketches” about urban characters that newspapers started to publish in the eighteen-nineties. These were sometimes written by novelists like Stephen Crane and William Faulkner, who found ways to make the author disappear, both as a character encountering people and as a voice offering judgments. You can find precursors, too, in social-realist photography about “conditions” and in certain cinematic works, especially documentaries without voice-over narration.
Still, “Hiroshima” was a hinge moment. Before it, New Yorker pieces usually used some device—the editorial “we,” or a generalizing preamble—that put a measure of distance between the reader and the material. Hersey obliterated that. Countless writers over the years have taken advantage of the journalistic breakthrough that “Hiroshima” represented, sometimes with frustrating results—you don’t always want a writer to refrain from telling you what to think. Hersey himself, oddly, used the technique relatively seldom during his subsequent career. He kept experimenting with form, but never as successfully.
Like many journalists with a literary bent, Hersey convinced himself that his real calling was fiction. Lacking the usual writers’ vices—drink, drugs, sexual adventurism, neurotic unproductivity—and freed from any pressure to think commercially, thanks in part to David O. Selznick’s having paid him very generously for the rights to a never-produced film of “The Wall,” he spent much of his last four decades turning out novels. Many of them involve in-depth research delivered through some kind of overdesigned formal device. “The Wall” is presented as the diary of a character named Noach Levinson, clearly inspired by Emanuel Ringelblum, who wrote an extensive record of his life in the Warsaw ghetto and buried it in milk cans Hersey, before writing his book, had the contents of the Ringelblum archive translated, by the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, among others. “The Child Buyer” (1960) is a dystopian fantasy in the form of a fictionalized legislative hearing. “White Lotus” (1965) is a civil-rights parable in which white Americans become slaves of the Chinese. In Hersey’s last novel, “Antonietta” (1991), the central character is a Stradivarius violin that passes through the hands of various owners, including, finally, Hersey.
“Who invited Cinnamon-Raisin again?”
Treglown is a thorough biographer, and a kindhearted one. There are more than a hundred boxes of Hersey papers in the archives at Yale. Treglown appears to have read through all of them, plus a lot of related material. He is mainly willing to accept Hersey’s version of himself as a major literary figure, even though, particularly in the later innings of the book, Hersey’s career often seems less interesting for what he published than for how it illustrated changes in his cultural milieu. Treglown shows us a long procession of gentle interventions in which editors at Knopf and The New Yorker tried to steer Hersey back toward journalism, with only intermittent success. Reviewers often found his novels fact-stuffed, overexplained, didactic, and lacking in vibrancy and humor. In Treglown’s view, Hersey’s return to form was “The Algiers Motel Incident” (1968), a work of nonfiction about the 1967 Detroit riots, which Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 film, “Detroit,” drew upon. It demonstrates his astonishing talent for eliciting oral history and forensically reconstructing the experiences of people who have endured a major disaster. But it doesn’t have the pure-gold narrative structure of “Hiroshima.” In effect, Hersey ceded what may be the greatest technical advance in the history of nonfiction to others—as if, like the atomic bomb, it deserved to be renounced immediately after its unveiling.
Hersey taught writing at Yale from 1965 to 1984, and in 1980 he wrote an uncharacteristically ill-tempered article for The Yale Review titled “The Legend on the License.” Then sixty-five, he declared himself to be “one worried grandpa” of the nonfiction novel. His major gripe was that nonfiction writers had begun blurring the line between fact and fiction. “There is one sacred rule of journalism,” he wrote. “The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP.”
Hersey had three specific targets, books recently published to great attention: “The Executioner’s Song,” by Norman Mailer “The Right Stuff,” by Tom Wolfe and “Handcarved Coffins,” by Truman Capote. It’s an odd essay, partly because the examples don’t really fit the argument. Mailer subtitled his book “A True Life Novel,” and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, not nonfiction. Capote described “Handcarved Coffins” as “a short novel.” “The Right Stuff” does present itself as straight-up nonfiction, but Hersey, despite what appear to have been strenuous efforts, was unable to find clear evidence that Wolfe had fictionalized anything. Hersey went to the trouble of interviewing two former astronauts, and finally admitted, “The Right Stuff has been accepted as fairly accurate by people in the know.”
What had so nettled Hersey? In those days, the nonfiction novel was an exciting cultural form, not unlike certain ambitious television series in the post-“Sopranos” era. (David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” was in fact a nonfiction novelist before he was a TV auteur.) Hersey’s three foils were all New Yorkers who adored publicity and made loud claims for their work, a writerly stance that he—by that time living quietly on Martha’s Vineyard and in Key West—found repellent. A number of Capote’s reported works were methodologically in the line of descent from “Hiroshima,” culminating with “In Cold Blood,” which The New Yorker excerpted at great length in 1965. Hersey may have been the inventor of the nonfiction novel, but Capote, in describing “In Cold Blood,” invented the term itself.
In the same year that “In Cold Blood” appeared, Wolfe published a two-part takedown of Shawn’s New Yorker in the New York Herald Tribune. Wolfe’s main complaint was that the magazine was constrained by the bounds of what he considered milquetoast gentility and what Hersey would have considered human decency. Unlike “The Right Stuff,” Wolfe’s reporting on The New Yorker really did have a fair number of mistakes and flights into quasi-invention in “The Legend on the License,” Hersey calls it “a vicious, slashing lampoon” motivated by “stunningly irresponsible street cruelty.” Hersey thought of himself as a literary artist who experimented with various forms to create work that was guided by a high moral purpose now one of those forms was being used by people who had no moral purpose that made sense to him.
There are other journalistic sins besides invention, of course. Hersey himself had to apologize, in 1988, for having used unattributed material from Laurence Bergreen’s biography of James Agee in a New Yorker essay. After Hersey’s death, he was accused of plagiarism for extensively incorporating, in his 1942 best-seller “Men on Bataan,” reporting by Annalee and Melville Jacoby, a married couple who worked with Hersey as war correspondents in the Time-Life journalism factory. These misdeeds were different from the ones Hersey was focussed on in “The Legend on the License,” but they take away some of the burnish from his image as the promulgator of sacred rules.
What Hersey and Wolfe had in common was a preoccupation with what they took to be fiction’s superiority to journalism as a form of writing, or at least its superior prestige. Back in 1973, Wolfe had written an essay called “The New Journalism,” which presented competition between the two forms as a kind of populist fable. In his telling, novelists in the late twentieth century had abandoned realism, the method that gave fiction its power, and this had left the gate open for an especially humble cohort of journalists—newspaper-feature writers—to adapt the techniques of realism and so to “wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” Wolfe’s argument now seems quaint. It depended on defining the successful novel in an extremely narrow way (it had to be a Balzac-style “social tableau” about status-striving in a big city) on characterizing contemporary fiction even more narrowly, so that he could dismiss it entirely and on insisting that nonfiction writers could achieve greatness only by adopting a set of techniques taken from nineteenth-century fiction. Wolfe then abandoned journalism—“The Right Stuff” was his last nonfiction novel—to produce the kind of novel that he had been criticizing novelists for not writing, beginning with “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” in 1987. It was hard to miss that the extremely status-conscious Wolfe was implicitly accepting that the novel still outranked journalism, and that, if he wanted to be a writer of the highest rank, he’d better produce one.
Hersey, by the later stages of his career, was at pains to counter what he perceived as an underrating of his fiction because of his work as a journalist. Treglown quotes him writing defensively to an academic admirer, “If the fact that I still write journalism puts off serious critics of fiction, then that will have to be their problem.” In 1986, when he sat for a Paris Review interview with the novelist Jonathan Dee, a former student of his, he said that fiction had always been “more attractive to me,” because “there was a better chance, if what I did worked, to get the reader to experience the material than there would be in journalism.” He also made the standard novelist’s assertion that “it really doesn’t matter what a writer does the argument that you should go out and meet raw life, work on the crew of a freighter, take part in revolutions and whatnot, doesn’t seem to me valid.” It’s heartbreaking to listen to someone who exhaustively researched much of his fiction, who was first exposed to the writer’s life through Sinclair Lewis, and whose most enduring book was a work of journalism make such a large claim for the primacy of pure inspiration in writing. Hersey acknowledged that he had “experimented with the devices of fiction” in his journalism. But he was understandably loath to admit that his early work had been his strongest, and his disapproval of what latter-day nonfiction novelists had made of his inventions prevented him from taking pride in his enormous contribution to the techniques of journalism.
The relationship between fiction and nonfiction is like the one between art and architecture: fiction is pure, nonfiction is applied. Just as buildings shouldn’t leak or fall down, nonfiction ought to work within the limits of its claim to be about the world as it really is. But narrative journalism is far from artless. In crafting “Hiroshima,” Hersey left out most of his interview material so that he could focus on a limited number of characters whom his readers would remember he built suspense by cutting away from each character, as he notes in the Paris Review interview, at “the verge of some kind of crisis” and he carefully calibrated the pace at which the events he was describing unfolded. Wolfe, in his “New Journalism” essay, enumerated his own set of techniques, which overlapped somewhat with Hersey’s: scene-by-scene construction, use of an omniscient narrator’s voice, use of dialogue, close observation of “status details.” All of these, like Hersey’s methods, have their roots in fiction writing—without, of course, representing the entirety of the fiction writers’ craft.
Hersey and Wolfe were given to issuing restrictive obiter dicta about nonfiction writing. Wolfe declared that the miracle of New Journalism depended on writers “resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative,” a rule he broke repeatedly in his own work. Hersey maintained that, “in fiction, the writer’s voice matters in reporting, the writer’s authority matters,” because in nonfiction “the quality we most need in our informant is some measure of trustworthiness.” His implication was that nonfiction should be delivered relatively without affect. In fact, there’s no reason why nonfiction can’t be delivered with a sense of deep personal engagement, while retaining its authority. Hersey regularly demonstrated this himself. Journalists can write historical or social narratives with style and brio while maintaining fidelity to the record. Book-length journalism is a capacious discipline. As long as the work is accurate and honestly reported, it shouldn’t have to operate under constraints with a severity usually reserved for ex-offenders and reformed drunks.
By the time Hersey wrote “The Legend on the License,” politics, as well as concern for journalistic ethics, was probably motivating him. Over the years, he moved about as far left as you could get while remaining a member of the establishment. He spent much of the sixties as the master of Pierson College, at Yale, where, unlike most Yale men of his generation, he was deeply sympathetic to the student-protest movements, which he saw as aiming “to purge the self . . . of the whole station-wagon load of junky white middle-class values and of the guilt the wagon carries on its chrome luggage rack.” He called Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty “pitifully, even absurdly, inadequate.” He went to Mississippi to register black voters during Freedom Summer, in 1964, and wrote a powerful piece about the struggle for voting rights there. In 1965, during a visit to the White House as part of a delegation of prominent writers, he stood and read an excerpt from “Hiroshima,” adding, “I address this reading to the conscience of the man who lives in this beautiful house.” One reason he disliked “The Right Stuff” was that he read it, not entirely correctly, as a celebration of the space program, which he saw as “horrendous.”
John Hersey’s last big book was another of his formal experiments, a work of fiction wearing some of the garb of nonfiction. “The Call,” published in 1985, was based on his parents’ experience as missionaries, and included both real and made-up characters, along with invented documents, such as letters and journals. He never quite gave up trying to lend his morally concerned fiction the texture of veracity. Hersey had received his own call during the Second World War, which he was early in coming to understand primarily as a great catastrophe rather than an inspiring American triumph. He went to the scene, he tirelessly looked where most journalists didn’t, and he found ways of writing about what he saw that gave his journalism an enduring power. In a long, relentlessly productive career, that’s what stands out. If we want to understand Hersey’s contribution, we should pay more attention to what he did than to what he said. ♦
How John Hersey Exposed the Human Face of Nuclear War: Lesley Blume on Her New Book "Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and The Reporter Who Revealed It to The World"
&ldquoLittle Boy&rdquo was the innocuous code name for the uranium-235 atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, Japan Standard Time. The bomb exploded about 2,000 feet above the ground with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT and incinerated much of the once thriving city.
At detonation and in the ensuing months, Little Boy killed more than 100,000 people, at least 90 percent of whom were civilians. Estimates of the total deaths from the blast range as high as 280,000 people by the end of 1945, but exact figures could never be determined because of the immediate chaos and because so many people were cremated in the firestorm.
Initial news reports on the bomb indicated that it was powerful but similar to a large conventional bomb. The American public read sanitized reports and statistics on the tremendous toll of the bomb. Papers and magazines ran black and white photos of the mushroom cloud, aerial views of the remains of the city, and damaged buildings, and reported figures on dwellings, warehouses, factories, bridges, and other structures that were destroyed.
However, the reports to the American public following the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and then Nagasaki contained little information on how the destructive new devices affected the human beings trapped under the mushroom clouds. Indeed, the US government celebrated the new weapons while suppressing reports on agonizing radiation injuries and poisoning, complicated thermal burns, birth defects, illnesses, and other novel and horrible medical consequences of nuclear war. And, after the war ended, the military closed the atomic cities to reporters.
Legendary reporter John Hersey, already a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a renowned journalist by 1945, set out to learn about the human face of the Hiroshima bombing. His resulting August 1946 article for the New Yorker became a classic of journalism and eventually a book for the ages. By telling the story from the perspective of six survivors&mdasha young mother, a female clerk, a minister, two doctors, and a German priest&mdashHersey&rsquos report captured readers with a new form of journalism beyond cold facts and statistics to detailed personal accounts of witnesses that vividly conveyed the moments leading to a historic catastrophe and its aftermath.
In her new book Fallout The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World (Simon & Schuster), acclaimed author and journalist Lesley M.M. Blume recounts the story of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima government efforts to hide the nature of the terrible new weapon and John Hersey&rsquos journey to reveal the reality of the atomic bomb and how he came to write &ldquoHiroshima,&rdquo a report of meticulous journalistic detail as well as an admired work of art that elevated the human voices beyond the soulless statistics and gray wire photos.
Ms. Blume writes vividly as she details this hidden history and demonstrates the value of independent journalism in holding the powerful to account. Her meticulous research included interviews and archival work that revealed new findings on postwar government press relations and on official actions to hide the reality of nuclear war from the public. Her revelations include the never before reported role of Manhattan Project director, General Leslie Groves, in reviewing Hersey&rsquos provocative article.
Ms. Blume is a Los Angeles-based journalist, author, and biographer. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Paris Review, among many other publications. Her last nonfiction book, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway&rsquos Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, was a New York Times bestseller, and she has written several other nonfiction books and books for children. Ms. Blume has also worked as a newspaper journalist and as a reporter-researcher for ABC News. And she has a lifelong interest in history. She earned a B.A. in history from Williams College and a master's degree in historical studies from Cambridge University as a Herchel Smith scholar. Her graduate thesis concerned the US government and press relations during the 1991 Gulf War.
Ms. Blume generously discussed her interest in history and her new book by telephone from her office in Los Angeles.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations on Fallout, your new book on author John Hersey and his classic account of the human face of atomic warfare, &ldquoHiroshima.&rdquo Before I get to the book, I noticed that you have an advanced degree in history and that you often write about the past. What is your background in studying and writing about history?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I've always been a history obsessive, since I was a little girl. I read a lot of fiction then but, as I grew up, I gravitated toward nonfiction. I remember one time, when I was around eleven, one of my parents' friends came over and I was curled up in a corner and reading. She asked what I was reading, likely thinking that it was something like Babysitters Club, and I showed her the book cover. It was The Diary of Anne Frank. I've just always gravitated to history, especially World War II.
I studied history at Williams College, like my dad did before me, and my focus there was 20th century history with a concentration on World War II. Then I went to Cambridge University for a graduate degree in historical studies. By then, I had become keenly interested in newsroom history and war reporting, and I did a master's thesis on the American media during the Gulf War in 1991. I looked at how that story had been rolled out to the public, and where that fell in the larger scheme of relations between the US government and the press corps and how that relationship had evolved since World War II. The thesis was about patriotism and war reporting and how patriotism waxes and wanes from conflict to conflict, along with the level of cooperation between the press and the military.
Over the decades, I have had a continued interest in World War II and in war reporting and wartime newsrooms. So, in many ways, Fallout was the culmination of decades of study and interest in war history and reporting.
Robin Lindley: What inspired your deep dive into the story of John Hersey and his book Hiroshima?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I knew I wanted to do a big, historical newsroom narrative, and there was also a personal motivation.
The press has been under unprecedented attack in this country since 2015, and I have been disturbed and quite disgusted by the relentless attacks and the designating of journalists as enemies of the people. It was quite a shock when that vernacular first started to surface in 2015 and really got underway in 2016.
I wanted to write a historical news narrative about America that would show readers the extreme importance of our free press in upholding our democracy and serving the common good. As these attacks have accelerated, not enough people have been defending the press or understanding what would happen to them specifically, not just to the country, but to them individually, if we didn't have a free press.
It&rsquos curious: the Hersey story found me as much as I found it. I was nosing around the European theater of World War II for a newsroom story before I came to this Pacific theater narrative. And, when I found Hersey's story, it seemed the purest example of the life or death importance of good, independent investigative journalism. I couldn't believe that the story, in the way that I ultimately approached it, hadn't been told yet. And, when a historian or journalist finds an untold story like that, you leap on it.
Robin Lindley: The story is very timely and a tribute to the role of the free press in a democratic society. And there are many parallels now to handling of the deadly global COVID-19 pandemic as the administration attacks the press and spreads lies and misinformation about a health threat to all citizens, as tens of thousands die.
Lesley M.M. Blume: The pandemic is a global existential threat, which is exactly what I'm detailing in Fallout. Now, the administration is downplaying and covering up an existential threat just as the government in 1945 kept the American public in the dark about the reality of the bombs that were created in secret and detonated in their name. The parallels are uncanny and disturbing.
Robin Lindley: That&rsquos instructive on the role of the press. How did the book evolve for you? Is it the book now that you initially imagined?
Lesley M.M. Blume: The research surprised me, especially the extent of the coverup, and how concerted it was.
I first approached the story from the point of view of a journalist covering another journalist. I asked how on earth did Hersey cover a nuclear attack zone in 1945? I was interested in how he got into Hiroshima and how he got people to speak with him. And then, when I started to really dig into the story, I realized that other scholars who preceded me had documented the coverup without really celebrating the critical role that Hersey played in revealing it. Nobody else had connected the dots in this way before.
Robin Lindley: What was your research process?
Lesley M.M. Blume: When I began the project, I told my agent and my editor not to expect to hear from me for months because I would be reading. I dug up a ton of reporter memoirs before I started with archival data. It was background, background, background. I read biographies of important figures such as General Douglas MacArthur and Manhattan Project head General Leslie Groves.
I also reached out early to people to interview because, when researching people of Hersey&rsquos era, I had to get to people fast who knew him. There were a few Hersey friends and colleagues who I spoke with a few years ago who are no longer with us. But there&rsquos also a disadvantage in seeing them early, because I wasn&rsquot as steeped in the material and in Hersey&rsquos world yet, I wasn&rsquot approaching them from a position of assured expertise yet.
After the initial reading and interviews, I had a better idea of what to look for in the archival records.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing your process. I noticed that you also traveled to Hiroshima. That must have been very moving.
Lesley M.M. Blume: It was one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life, and one of the most disturbing. Hiroshima is now a fully rebuilt city, with around three million inhabitants. It was almost completely destroyed and there is very little left to indicate what it had been like before the bombing.
When I got off the train station and a sign read &ldquoWelcome to Hiroshima,&rdquo I almost crawled out of my own skin. It&rsquos a vibrant, modern metropolis, yet Hiroshima&rsquos leaders and residents definitely see the city as a witness to nuclear Holocaust. But they also see the city as a Phoenix that has risen from the ashes, and as a monument to human resilience. I respect the latter view, but going to that city was almost a traumatic experience for me. I couldn't eat or sleep almost the entire time that I was there researching&mdashknowing what happened there.
I interviewed the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture and he admitted that they still find human remains every time they dig for a new development there. He said that, if you dig three feet, you hit human bones, so it&rsquos a city that's built on a graveyard. I'll never forget that trip.
Robin Lindley: That had to be haunting. Didn't you also speak with some survivors of the bombing?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I did, including the last surviving central protagonist of Hersey&rsquos book: Koko Tanimoto, the daughter of Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who was one of Hersey&rsquos six protagonists. She and her mother also appeared in his article. Koko had been eight months old when the bomb went off she and her mother were in their family home, not far from the point of detonation, and the house collapsed on them. Somehow, they survived and her mother was able dig them out of the rubble just before a firestorm consumed their neighborhood. It was an absolute miracle that they survived.
Koko was 73 or 74 when I met her. We walked together through central Hiroshima and we went to the monuments there. She showed me where the exact point of detonation had been, which is actually quite an under-visited site. There's only a modest marker there, but it's in front of a low-rise medical building and a 7-11, of all things. I don't know if I would have found it without her.
It was very emotional to walk through the city with Koko. Ironically, she considers America to be almost like a second home at this point. Her father, Reverend Tanimoto, had become an antinuclear advocate over the years, and she did a lot of traveling with him. She's also a peace advocate and has spent a lot of time in the US. For her to have been on the receiving end of nuclear attack at the hands of America, yet still have such generous feelings toward us, was astonishing to me. Fallout is dedicated to her.
Robin Lindley: Your memories of Hiroshima are striking. Did you find any surprises or new government information in your archival research?
Lesley M.M. Blume: I'll try to be concise on this topic, but the short answer is yes. When I was doing my last book on Hemingway, coming across new information was like scratching water from rocks, but there was break after break with this book. The research gods favored this project. I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I'm grateful to them.
My Leslie Groves revelation was huge &ndash at least, to me. That came from a misfiled document in the New York Public Library&rsquos New Yorker archives. I had very slim expectations about finding anything new in that archive because the New Yorker has had several biographical books written about it, and its editors have all had biographies, except for William Shawn.
The very last day I was in that archive, I went through a file that I thought was irrelevant it contained documents pertaining to stories that the magazine had submitted to the War Department for censorship &ndash but in earlier years of the war. Hersey was reporting on Hiroshima in 1946, but I was curious to see how the magazine had interacted with censorship officials at the War Department, and how cozy the relationship had been. That&rsquos when I found the first document that indicated that Hersey&rsquos article &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo had been submitted to not only to the War Department for vetting, but to General Leslie Groves &ndash head of the Manhattan Project - himself. I freaked out right in the middle of the archive. I stared at this document and couldn't believe it. I sent a phone photo of it immediately to one of my research associates and asked, &lsquoAm I reading this right?&rsquo Yes, I was. I had a call right away with my editor because it changed everything in this book. It changed Hersey&rsquos &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo from a subversive piece of independent journalism researched under the nose of Occupation officials to almost a piece of sanctioned access journalism.
And then I found confirming evidence in Leslie Groves&rsquo records &ndash both at NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] and in the independent files of Groves biographer Robert Norris, who was helping me -- that this vetting had taken place. That set off a whole new realm of research for me in terms of assessing Groves&rsquo position at that time, why he would have agreed ultimately to release the article, and how the administration and the War Department&rsquos aims had evolved. They had been suppressing information about the bombing since that previous August, but a year later, they were finding new utility for accounts of the nuclear aftermath in Hiroshima. And so that was huge.
I was also able to call up, through Freedom of Information Act, documents from the War Department, CIA, and FBI, which detailed how they tracked Hersey when he was in Japan and their attitude toward Hersey after the reporting came out. I was quite curious to see especially the CIA records and FBI records because I wanted to know if there had been any move to try to discredit Hersey after &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo came out, because the reporting had embarrassed the government.
While it transpired that the FBI did investigate and question Hersey a few years later, in the McCarthy era, it doesn't appear from what was released to me that there were any immediate efforts to discredit him, or his sources in Japan. The government took a different approach: downplaying. They mostly ignored the story to a certain extent, and then, when it was clear that the furor caused by &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo wasn&rsquot going to calm down, government officials put out their own counterpoint narrative, in an article in Harper&rsquos Magazine, asserting that the bombs had been necessary and trying to dismiss Hersey&rsquos revelations as sentimentality.
Robin Lindley: Thanks for your extensive research. I didn't realize that you found that new material on Groves&rsquo review of the Hersey article. That was a coup. Congratulations.
Lesley M.M. Blume: That was me. I will not tell you what I yelled in the middle of that silent archive, but it's a miracle that they didn't kick me out.
Robin Lindley: What an incredible find. You write extensively about Hersey&rsquos background. Could you say a few things about John Hersey for readers who may not know his work?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yes, absolutely. He's an interesting and unique protagonist for sure. Hersey in 1945 was 31 years old, movie star handsome, and already a celebrated writer. He had been covering the war since 1939 for Time, Inc. Henry Luce, the head of Time, Inc., had been grooming him to take over managing editorship of Time Inc., but they parted ways because Hersey couldn't abide Luce's chauvinistic, hyperpatriotic views. Hersey was also a recognized war hero for helping to evacuate wounded Marines while he was covering battles between the Japanese and the Americans in the Solomon Islands. And he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1944 novel A Bell for Adano.
Hersey was incredibly well known by the end of the war, and living what seems like a glamorous life. There were invites to the White House and he was mentioned in gossip columns. But he was not entirely comfortable being a public figure. He was the son of missionaries. He grew up in China. He was always a kind of outsider when the family moved back to the United States, even though he had a very celebrated life. He'd gone to Hotchkiss and Yale, where he was in the exclusive Skull and Bones society, but still, even when he was accepted among ultimate insiders, he always felt like an outsider.
Robin Lindley: And you write about Hersey&rsquos view of the Japanese during the war.
Lesley M.M. Blume: He had covered the Japanese during the war and, like most Americans, he had been outraged by Pearl Harbor and by the stories of Japanese atrocities in China and Manila, and he was appalled by the battles in the Pacific theater. He said later that he had personally witnessed tenacity of Japanese troops that&rsquos a word that comes up again and again when American military veterans and journalists of that period described the Japanese, whom they expected to fight down to the last man in the Pacific theater and in Japan, if it were invaded.
Robin Lindley: How did Hersey react to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and then the second atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki three days later?
Lesley M.M. Blume: He was really quite appalled by the Nagasaki bombing. He was chagrined by Hiroshima, but he felt that it would speed the end of the war. But he thought that the atomic bomb used after Hiroshima was a war crime &ndash a &ldquototally criminal action,&rdquo is how he put it later. He realized before most people the implications of humanity having violently entered into the atomic age. He said to his editor at the New Yorker, William Shawn, that if humans could not see the humanity in each other &ndash and continued to dehumanize one another as they had during the Second World War -- that civilization had no chance of surviving an atomic age now.
Again, Hersey had covered everything from combat to concentration camps during the war. He had personally seen how the Japanese had dehumanized the Americans and the Chinese, among others, and how the Germans had dehumanized practically everybody. And when he saw Nagasaki bombed, he saw an active American dehumanization toward the largely civilian population in Japan.
And so, he was able somehow to overcome his rage at the Japanese military to document what had happened to the civilian population who were the first humans in history on the receiving end of nuclear warfare. That was not a popular mindset, to go into Japan and say, I'm going to humanize this population for Americans &ndash but Hersey was extraordinary in his perspective.
Robin Lindley: Was it Hersey&rsquos idea or Shawn&rsquos to cover what actually happened on the ground at Hiroshima?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Hersey and his editor, William Shawn at the New Yorker, met for lunch at the end of 1945, when Hersey was about to do a big reporting trip to Asia. He was going to China, but from there, he planned to try to get into Japan.
When he and Shawn were discussing Japan, they talked about the fact that the public had been shown in the press images and descriptions of the landscape destruction in Hiroshima, and pictures of the mushroom clouds. But Americans had been seeing such rubble pictures of devastated cities around the globe for years, and the Hiroshima landscape photos didn&rsquot seem that differentiated. And we can't forget that, when Truman first announced that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, he immediately cast it in conventional terms saying that the bomb was the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT.
There was very little mention or reporting on what had happened to the human beings under those mushroom clouds, and how these experimental bombs were unique, and this really disturbed Hersey and Shawn. For them, there was a suspicious and disturbing lack of reporting on the human consequences the bombs -- even though major American news operations had bureaus in Tokyo since the earliest days of the occupation, or, at the very least, correspondents stationed in Japan.
Robin Lindley: What did Hersey sense that the government was hiding from the American people?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Hersey and Shawn knew something was going on about how the bombs affected humans. How could you have such a huge press presence, but have the hugest story of the war being under told or covered up? They decided that if places like the New York Times and the Associated Press and other big players either wouldn't or couldn't get that story, Hersey would try to get into occupied Japan and go to Hiroshima to investigate the story.
Robin Lindley: Right after the bombing, General Groves said that the bomb was &ldquoa pleasant way to die.&rdquo That left the impression that tens of thousands of people died in a flash and they were merely statistics. But the atomic bomb continued to kill long after detonation.
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yeah, that's exactly right. At first the administration and the occupying forces were reinforcing the narrative that the bomb was a conventional military weapon. A bigger piece of artillery, is how Truman would long characterize it. The U.S. government initially said that accusations of radiation sickness or radiation poisoning killing survivors were &ldquoTokyo tales&rdquo&mdashJapanese propaganda to create sympathy among the international community.
Initially, there were a few original press accounts by Allied journalists who&rsquod managed to get into Hiroshima and Nagasaki, during the earliest, chaotic days of the occupation. A couple came out of Hiroshima that indicated that a sinister new &ldquodisease X&rdquo was ravaging blast survivors there. One account ran in the UP and the other in London&rsquos Daily Express. After that, another journalist tried to file a report to the Chicago Daily News from Nagasaki, confirming that a horrific affliction was killing off survivors there too. That report was intercepted by the Occupation censors under General MacArthur and supposedly &ldquolost.&rdquo The occupation forces clamped down on the foreign and Japanese press alike after that &ndash and quickly. Those kinds of reports stopped coming out of Hiroshima &ndash until Hersey got in.
In the meantime, General Groves had personally spearheaded a PR campaign downplaying and denying radiation poisoning, and portraying the bombs as humane. Meanwhile, he and his team were privately scrambling to study the aftermath and aftereffects of the bombs, but publicly said that this aftermath was not so bad.
General Groves also commented, privately, during this time, that perhaps there was something about the composition of Japanese blood that was making them react especially badly to radiation absorbed into their bodies at the time of the bombing. That was an astonishing mindset.
Robin Lindley: That&rsquos incredible. Hersey was cleared to go into Hiroshima for two weeks in 1946 and he collected information from survivors on the human consequences of the bomb and how the damage to humans was much different than caused by a conventional bomb. And he chose to tell the story mainly through six survivors of the atomic bombing.
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yes. By the time he left Japan, he also had radiation studies that had been undertaken by the Japanese, and Japanese studies on the damage to the city. He had initial casualty counts, and an initial study on how the bombs might have affected the earth and botanical landscape in the atomic cities. He even had the hospital blood charts of one of his protagonists.
In his subsequent article, Hersey wrote in excruciating detail, not just about the minutes, hours, and couple of days after August 6, 1945, but also the eight or nine months after by the time he entered Hiroshima. He wrote about how the atomic bomb kept on killing well after detonation. Several of his protagonists whom he profiled were critically ill and suffered from extreme hair loss, relentless fevers, total enervation, vomiting, and were in and out of hospitals. Hersey was so detailed in recounting their experiences that there would be no denying, after his report came out, the true medical effects of atomic bombs. Never again could atomic bombs be billed either as a pleasant way to die or as conventional megaweapons.
This was a turning point, not just in America but around the world, and a wakeup call about the reality of nuclear warfare and what these bombs do to human beings.
Robin Lindley: As you revealed for the first time, General Groves reviewed and surprisingly approved Hersey&rsquos heart-wrenching account with only a few minor changes. Why did Groves approve publication of the story?
Lesley M.M. Blume: That was an astonishing revelation. By the time Hersey got into Japan in May, 1946, and wrote his story that summer, General Groves was already anticipating a time when America would no longer have the nuclear monopoly and would need to prepare for a possible nuclear attack on our own population. Both he and General MacArthur were anticipating this future landscape, and saw studying Hiroshima&rsquos fate as a way to create an infrastructure here to prepare ourselves for nuclear attack. For example, they saw how Hiroshima suffered because all the hospitals were concentrated in the city center. Therefore, the U.S. should take care to spread its city hospitals out, so they couldn&rsquot all be taken out in one bombing. Hiroshima suddenly had enormous utility in terms of trying to figure out how to medically treat future survivors of nuclear attack. I came to realize that the U.S. military&rsquos and the government&rsquos policies and uses for the information that Hiroshima had evolved significantly since the early days of ham-fisted cover up and suppression about information about the bombings&rsquo aftermath.
But what really blew my mind was coming across the evidence that Hersey&rsquos &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo article had been submitted to Groves for pre-publication approval and vetting, and was approved. I was just trying to understand the mentality.
A year after the bombing, the official approach to the narrative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was becoming more nuanced. There were two developing considerations. First, we had to show the Soviets what we had. We still had a nuclear monopoly and wanted to keep them in their place. The more they saw us as a threat, the better. The Russians saw Hersey&rsquos report as propaganda and hated him and &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo duly.
Second &ndash and again -- General Groves and others in the US government and military were anticipating a moment when we didn&rsquot have the nuclear monopoly anymore. And so, if Americans were reading &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo and they were seeing, New York or Detroit or San Francisco or Toledo, Ohio, in the place of Hiroshima, they might have thought, &lsquoWe need to ban nuclear weapons.&rsquo Which was the reaction that Hersey hoped for.
Or, they might thing that that we needed to build and maintain a superior arsenal, because someday the Soviets would get the bomb too, and likely others. And this was the thinking that helped set off the arms race. Leslie Groves, at that point in 1946, was already arguing that it was imperative for the US to maintain its nuclear advantage. He may have read Hersey's article in the most cynical way possible: as an unlikely way of drumming up public support for the continued development of a superior nuclear arsenal.
Robin Lindley: And Americans and people around the world were reading the Hersey article in the August 31, 1946 New Yorker, with its graphic descriptions of the ghastly medical and other human consequences of an atomic bomb attack. How do you see the reception and the influence of Hersey&rsquos report?
Lesley M.M. Blume: It wasn't a foregone conclusion that it was going to be well received because, when you think about the American attitude toward the Japanese then, most Americans hated the Japanese. They remembered Pearl Harbor and Nanking and Manila and the Pacific theater. They were bloody memories.
When the article came out, Hersey left town. Maybe he feared for his life because humanizing Japanese victims &ndash who had died in a hugely popular military victory - for an American audience was a dicey proposition, to say the least.
As it turned out, the impact of the article was instantaneous and global. People everywhere stopped to read this 30,000-word story &ndash and even if they hadn&rsquot read it, they knew about it and were talking about it. A survey of the article&rsquos readers later revealed that the vast majority of those surveyed said that &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo was not just fine reporting, but that it served the greater common good by revealing the truth about what had happened in Hiroshima and the truth about nuclear weapons. And, even if people weren't feeling sympathetic towards the Japanese victims, they were definitely seeing the perilous reality of the world that they now lived, the atomic age. It was an enormously effective wake up call.
The article was syndicated in its entirety in publications across the country and around the world. And it was covered on the least 500 radio stations in America. It was read over four consecutive nights in its entirety on ABC, and later, on the BBC. Within a year, the article was translated into practically every language around the world from Spanish to Hebrew to Bengali. It was even in braille. You can hardly imagine an article today getting this much attention or having this much of an impact.
Robin Lindley: I remember reading Hiroshima in book form decades ago, when I was in high school. I still recall the graphic depictions of the dead and the injured, the pain and suffering. The article must have had an especially strong effect on people who read it for the first time and didn&rsquot know of the human toll of the atom bomb.
Lesley M.M. Blume: Yes. And it was extraordinary that Hersey was able to get people to read it when there was little incentive to do so, because, again, it humanized the Japanese. And while there may have been morbid curiosity about what it was like under the mushroom cloud but, at the same time, it was hugely disturbing material. The fact that Hersey was able to get people to stop and to bring the country almost to a halt for a few days after the article came out was just an enormous and astonishing accomplishment.
One of the things that made the story unputdownable was Hersey&rsquos writing: he made it read like a novel, complete with cliffhangers in between each of the testimonies of the six protagonists. It draws you in you&rsquore totally engrossed. &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo basically became mandatory reading for the reading public across the country and around the world.
Robin Lindley: And wasn&rsquot Hersey&rsquos innovative approach to the article perhaps a precursor of the New Journalism by telling the story of this historical atrocity through the eyes of several witnesses, rather than writing a straight journalistic account?
Lesley M.M. Blume: The style and approach of &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo was literally inspired, in part, by another, earlier novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey [by Thornton Wilder], which Hersey had read while he was sick in China before going to Japan. At that point, Hersey knew generally that he wanted to tell the story of the bombings from individual vantage points, but he borrowed an idea from Wilder&rsquos novel, which detailed the lives of a handful of people at the moment of shared disaster.
In Bridge, those individuals all died on a bridge when it broke in Hersey&rsquos story, it would be a handful of people &ndash everyday people &ndash whose lives intersected in real life, and who all experienced and survived the Hiroshima bombing together. Each of Hersey&rsquos protagonists are documented as they are going about morning routines on August 6, 1945, when the flash comes and their city and lives are destroyed. It differed widely from any other journalistic accounts that followed in the days after the bombing, which again, largely cited clinical casualty statistics and described landscape devastation. But those accounts and that approach to the story of Hiroshima hadn&rsquot really penetrated the global consciousness, and just didn't hit on a visceral level the way Hersey&rsquos account did.
In terms of &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo being a forerunner to the immersive approach taken by &ldquoNew Journalists&rdquo &ndash well, it&rsquos sometimes cited as such, but Hersey really disliked the approach of people like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and other later journalists who made themselves the center of their stories. Hersey thought it was an awful and dangerous journalistic trend. And if you look at &ldquoHiroshima,&rdquo you&rsquoll see that Hersey totally absented himself from that reporting: no opinions, no rage the voice of the story is very nothing-but-the-facts, and intentionally so.
Plus, Hersey did not personally promote &ldquoHiroshima&rdquo and had a lifelong aversion to self-promotion. He felt that his work should speak for itself. He never put himself on center stage. Although he did leave a lot of documentation behind for historians like me to tell his story much later.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate those comments on Hersey&rsquos approach to writing. Your book also demonstrates that you have a gift for storytelling and lively writing as well as research. Who are some of your influences as a writer?
Lesley M.M. Blume: Well, thank you for the compliment. First of all, I have to say that I have a vicious editor who kept me on the straight and narrow, or the book probably would have been twice as long as it is.
On specific influences, at the risk of sounding like a cliché, I've been greatly influenced by both of the men who I've documented in my two main nonfiction books, Hemingway and Hersey. Both stripped down their writing to what was essential to the story. Hemingway&rsquos tip-of -the-iceberg storytelling approach is still so damned relevant, so important. Hemingway is more stylized, but Hersey&rsquos approach was honed with the New Yorker editors to a dispassionate recounting of fact. That has also been hugely instructive.
In terms of other major journalistic accounts that I've read that absolutely floored me, there was David Remnick&rsquos incredible account of the Bolshoi ballet when it was about to unravel. He reported on his protagonists just in their own words, but the characters were so outlandish and insane, and the cross-weaving of the hallowed Bolshoi history and the modern-day antics were unbelievable. It was written in a masterly way. Something that all of these writers have in common is telling a big story through individual characters.
Robin Lindley: It&rsquos also obvious that, like Hersey, you care about the human story behind statistics and other facts when you're writing or researching a story.
Lesley M.M. Blume: It's all-important, and I've always known it, but this project has really brought that home: it always comes back to the human story. I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago about how Hersey&rsquos approach gives journalists today a tool for telling the story of other catastrophes, including the story of the pandemic. We&rsquore now over 200,000 deaths in this country -- more than three times the number of the Americans who died in Vietnam &ndash and over a million global deaths. How do you deal with these statistics, how do you fathom the toll and the tragedy behind the numbers? It's relentlessly important to bring it down to the human lives behind this unfolding tragedy &ndash or any mass casualty situation.
For example, my favorite Hemingway book isn&rsquot The Sun Also Rises, which I documented in my earlier book, but rather For Whom the Bell Tolls, which documented the horror of a war that presaged World War II. In it, he depicted the interactions among individual people in a small town as that war unfolded, and the cruelties they inflicted on each other. If you can bring a story down to a handful of people who are experiencing a globe- or country-rocking event, then there&rsquos a better chance your readers will comprehend the enormity of the event. Ironically, the more granular and human-focused the account, the greater the comprehension.
Robin Lindley: That&rsquos powerful advice for all writers. I appreciated also your quote toward the end of the book where you said &ldquoNuclear conflict may mean the end of life on this planet. Mass dehumanization can lead to genocide. The death of an independent press can lead to tyranny and render a population helpless to protect itself against a government that disdains law and conscience.&rdquo That was powerful and heartfelt. We&rsquore at a time when our free press is under threat when the administration is actually hiding information. Where do you find hope now?
Lesley M.M. Blume: In Dr. Anthony Fauci. As long as we can hear from him, we will get guidance on how to get through this time, and we'll have a sense of where we really stand.
To be honest, this is a bleak moment. I have enormous trepidation in the lead-up to the election. Every day there's evidence that our society&rsquos battle over information is basically the battle of our times. This battle will determine how things shake out for human civilization and the democratic experiment, not just for this country, but for all of the world.
I try to remember that our ancestors stared down and overcame enormous existential threats, and I look to the World War II period not for hope, but for strength. Can you imagine being in London during the blitz, or being in that country just after Dunkirk, and having to find the strength to carry on? There were such dark moments during that conflict yet there was an end.
Today, as then, we do not have the luxury of being exhausted or being demoralized. You just have to see what is right and relentlessly pursue that and try to find the energy to do that.
I&rsquom trying to find pleasure in everyday things also. I have a young daughter who is smart and strong and hilarious. Being a parent is extremely motivating to keep fighting because, if you bring a human into this world, you damn well better try your best to be the best version of yourself, and help make the world as just as possible.
I&rsquom also reading a lot of &ldquoTalk of the Town.&rdquo And I'm doing an Alfred Hitchcock movie marathon, which has been fun and stylish. Quarantine stress briefly led me to consume a daily gin and tonic, but I&rsquove weaned off them because they&rsquore too fattening. I'd like to maintain some semblance of a jawline.
It&rsquos discouraging that right now we go to bed each night and we don't know what is going to unfold the next day. But we have to remember that we're not the only humans who have felt that way, and we just have to fight because there's no other choice. Exhaustion and surrender are not options.
Robin Lindley: Thanks Ms. Blume for those words of encouragement and inspiration. Readers are sure to appreciate your thoughts and all the careful work you've done on this story. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss your work and congratulations on your groundbreaking new book Fallout on the intrepid John Hersey and his classic account of the bombing of Hiroshima.
The enduring power of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”: the first “nonfiction novel”
John Hersey as a correspondent for TIME magazine in World War II, photographed in 1944 in an unknown location. He went on to write "Hiroshima," a nonfiction account of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, which was published in August 1946 in the New Yorker. Illustration using an AP photo
S eventy-five years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, a plane called the Enola Gay, manned by a crew from the U.S. Army Air Force, flew over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and dropped the world’s first atomic bomb. The bomb had a name: Little Boy. So did the second bomb that was dropped three days later on Nagasaki: Fat Man. The estimated 120,000 Japanese who were killed instantly in the two attacks had names, too, as did the tens of thousands more who died from the fallout in the weeks and months afterwards. It is doubtful any of those names were known to the young Americans ordered to facilitate those deaths. Their job was to bring an end to World War II.
Seventy-one years ago today, on Aug. 6, 1949, my oldest brother was born. He was the first of five of us. Our father was, from what little I can glean, in the Army Air Force, stationed somewhere in the Pacific Theater. I have no idea what he did during the war, or where he was when the bombs were dropped. He was of that cohort of young men who answered the call to war, came home, got married, got a job, raised a family — and put a cap on the bottle of whatever had happened in the theater of battle. My brother’s name was Greg.
A mushroom cloud rises moments after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. On two days in August 1945, U.S. planes dropped two atomic bombs, one on Hiroshima, one on Nagasaki, the first and only time nuclear weapons have been used. Their destructive power was unprecedented, incinerating buildings and people, and leaving lifelong scars on survivors, not just physical but also psychological, and on the cities themselves. Days later, Japan surrendered to Allied powers and World War II ended. AP file photo
Even as a young girl, I knew about the atomic bomb. Or at least that there had been one, and we didn’t want there to be another. I was not only the child of a WWII veteran, but of the Cold War. Duck-and-cover drills in elementary school. The hushed conversations of adults during the Cuban missile crisis. The terrifying Daisy Girl ad, in which Lyndon Baines Johnson used the threat of nuclear war to defeat conservative — some would say war-mongering — Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 to continue the presidency he inherited when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The wallpaper of my childhood carries the stamp of a mushroom cloud. And every Aug. 6, as my mother and I frosted my brother’s birthday cake, the daily newspaper landed in the driveway with the inevitable headline about the anniversary of Hiroshima, much as every December 7, it brought us a reminder of Pearl Harbor.
These memories lead down a long hallway lined with doors, each door opening to stories, which always open to more doors and more stories. One of those rooms I always stop at is my brother’s. He has been gone 24 years now, killed by a distracted teenaged driver. I hunted down the kid’s name after the accident I always wondered if he bothered to learn my brother’s.
But today, in this setting and for this community, I want to stop at a door that opens to journalism, and to another name: John Hersey. For all of those personal connections to the anniversary of Hiroshima — and despite a kick-ass high school history teacher — it was Hersey’s book of the same name that stays with me, and that I return to year after year.
Learning from the “first nonfiction novel”
“Hiroshima” sits on a shelf in my makeshift home office with dozens of other books about and of journalism. But it has the distinction of being one of a handful I consider must-reads for anyone who wants to do this work. I have no idea when I first read it, except that it was far too late in my career. (Why wasn’t it required reading when I was in journalism school in the 1970s? Was everyone too distracted by Vietnam and Watergate? Is everyone today too distracted by politics and the pandemic to deliver what would normally be an endless march of headlines for an anniversary of this magnitude?) I do remember the opening passage, which introduces six characters in brief work-a-day scenes just as the bomb drops. That passage is one long paragraph, launched with a clause — actually a series of clauses — before the first character is introduced:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed about Hiroshima …
The passage ends in that same, single paragraph, with no more than a period separating the characters and the foreshadow of the unimaginable events to come:
A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.
At that point, I knew just one thing: I had to know more. And as I read on, it became clear: This was how journalism was done. Or, more to the point, how it should be done.
“Hiroshima” is a portable masterclass in history, humanity and journalism. The New Yorker published the original version, structured in four chapters, as a single take in August, 1946 it remains the only story that was granted an entire edition of the magazine. This week, the New Yorker reposted it online, along with the “Aftermath,” which Hersey added in 1985 after he followed up on the fate of his six characters, and a small collection of related stories. Among them, “John Hersey and the Art of Fact,” in which Nicholas Lemman, emeritus dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, profiles Hersey as pioneering a new form of journalism while adhering to a “sacred” rule: “The writer must not invent.” From Lemman’s piece:
“Hiroshima” is told entirely in an unadorned, omniscient third-person voice, which is why it’s often called the first nonfiction novel.
Hersey apparently considered himself a novelist more than a journalist — he won a Pulitzer for his World War II tale, “A Bell for Adano.” But the tributes and profiles I’ve read tend to cite his unflinching, unembellished journalism — which may have been an extension of his personality.
Nonfiction author Peter Richmond (Nieman class 1989) stumbled his way into a senior writing seminar taught by Hersey at Yale some 40 years ago. In a 2013 essay for Storyboard, Richmond recalled the first thing Hersey said to 12 awed and still-arrogant young writers: “If anyone in the room thinks of himself or herself as an artist, this is not a course for you. I teach a craft.” Storytelling as craft! How humbling — and how bold. Richmond struggled through the semester, but left with wisdoms he’s clung to ever since. Among them:
1) In good fiction, the reader absorbing a compelling narrative never notices the writer as intermediary. In nonfiction, that translator’s presence is inevitable.
2) Let the story, invented fictitiously or real-world, speak for itself.
3) Editors are there for a reason: not because they aren’t good writers, but because they are very good at what they do.
4) If what you leave out is essential, then the details you choose to leave in must be essential.
5) Never veer far from the story.
I expect it would be hard to find a successful narrative journalist who hasn’t been influenced by Hersey, whether directly or through some force of the cosmos. Pulitzer winner Mark Bowden surely is one of them. The former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter busted into a career of books and movies with “Black Hawk Down,” the harrowing account of 18 Army Rangers killed during a failed raid on warlords in Somalia in 1993. Bowden was teaching journalism in 2012 when Paige Williams, then the editor of Storyboard, asked a few of us what we included on our course reading lists. Bowden cited “Hiroshima:”
…because of its historical importance in the genre of literary nonfiction, because of its relative simplicity as a piece of reporting and writing, and because it is a powerful and compelling read. Hersey illustrates the importance of asking, “Who and what, at the most basic level, is this story about?” In the case of the atom bomb, it was the one piece of the story that had not been reported — and which was the most important.
I had “Hiroshima” on my syllabus, too. This is what I wrote in that same Storyboard piece:
I have found nothing that better demonstrates the reporting that is both required and possible for powerful literary nonfiction. We analyze what Hersey would have had to notice and ask to reconstruct such precise, vivid and credible scenes. As for the writing, it is a study in simplicity. Hersey uses verbs that are strong but seldom flashy, sentences that are tight and direct, and a minimum of embellishment to let the raw drama of the narrative come through.
If I were still in the classroom, I might ask today’s students to pitch how they would cover the same story with multi-media tools. What reach and layering might be gained? What purity and power might be lost?
The need to name — and remember
I thumbed through “Hiroshima” again this week. It is no fancier than a few thousand words on a few dozen pages there aren’t even any still photos. But it has lost none of its power. And that power comes from the purity of Hersey’s reporting. Being able to make words dance is fine, even enviable. But it is the reporting that makes the music. Hersey’s music is composed of a limited selection of characters for the readers to follow, and then a disciplined structure of chronological scenes. He moves forward through the days as each of the characters did, often in the same order in which he introduced them on the opening page. He lets what is happening in those scenes open to broader context and explanation, but never at a length or in a language that interrupts the forward trajectory. The tone is tense – not because of twirls and trickery, but because of the leanness and precision of Hersey’s language. What adjectives are there are doing hard and necessary work.
This time, something else struck me in a new light: The names.
Getting the names of our story subjects and sources is more than pro forma journalism it is the prime directive. That can be hard to explain to those we interview, or even to the public, which is quick to judge our invasiveness. But names — real names, spelled correctly — stand as a bulwark between credible journalism and the temptations of shortcuts. Even in the limited circumstances when we don’t use them, we need to know them. As much as anything we do, names matter.
Greg. Not just a traffic fatality, but a remembered son, brother, husband and father.
The Enola Gay. Little Boy. Fat Man. Not just equipment, but remembered instruments of both destruction and salvation.
Hatsuyo Nakamura, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, Toshiko Sasaki, Dr. Masakaza Fujii, Kiyoshi Tanimoto. Not just convenient fictions for conflated events, but real people. As much as they shared a common event, their travails and triumphs were unique. By honoring each of them for who they were and what they went through, Hersey honored every victim of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were the survivors who lived to tell the tale we need to remember.
Read More About JFK in WWIIThe Truth About Devil BoatsThe Kennedy Curse in WWII
Jack Kennedy was sworn in as an ensign on September 25, 1941. At 24, he was already something of a celebrity. With financial backing from his father and the help of New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, he had turned his 1939 Harvard thesis into Why England Slept, a bestseller about Britain’s failure to rearm to meet the threat of Hitler.
Getting young Jack into the navy took similar finagling. As one historian put it, Kennedy’s fragile health meant he was not qualified for the Sea Scouts, much less the U.S. Navy. From boyhood, he had suffered from chronic colitis, scarlet fever, and hepatitis. In 1940, the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School had rejected him as 4-F, citing ulcers, asthma, and venereal disease. Most debilitating, doctors wrote, was his birth defect—an unstable and often painful back.
When Jack signed up for the navy, his father pulled strings to ensure his poor health did not derail him. Captain Alan Goodrich Kirk, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, had been the naval attaché in London before the war when Joe Kennedy had served as ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. The senior Kennedy persuaded Kirk to let a private Boston doctor certify Jack’s good health.
Kennedy was soon enjoying life as a young intelligence officer in the nation’s capital, where he started keeping company with 28-year-old Inga Marie Arvad, a Danish-born reporter already twice married but now separated from her second husband, a Hungarian film director. They had a torrid affair—many biographers say she was the true love of Kennedy’s life—but the relationship became a threat to his naval career. Arvad had spent time reporting in Berlin and had grown friendly with Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and other prominent Nazis—ties that raised suspicions she was a spy.
Kennedy eventually broke up with Arvad, but the imbroglio left him depressed and exhausted. He told a friend he felt “more scrawny and weak than usual.” He developed excruciating pain in his lower back. Jack consulted with his doctor at the Lahey Clinic in Boston, and asked for a six-month leave for surgery. Lahey doctors as well as specialists at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed chronic dislocation of the right sacroiliac joint, which could only be cured by spinal fusion.
Navy doctors weren’t so sure that Kennedy needed surgery. He spent two months at naval hospitals, after which his problem was incorrectly diagnosed as muscle strain. The treatment: exercise and medication.
During Jack’s medical leave, the navy won the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea. Ensign Kennedy emerged from his sickbed ferociously determined to see action. He persuaded Undersecretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, an old friend of his father, to get him into Midshipman’s School at Northwestern University. Arriving in July 1942, he plunged into two months of studying navigation, gunnery, and strategy.
During that time, Lieutenant Commander John Duncan Bulkeley visited the school. Bulkeley was a freshly minted national hero. As commander of a PT squadron, he had whisked General Douglas MacArthur and family from the disaster at Bataan, earning a Medal of Honor and fame in the book They Were Expendable. Bulkeley claimed his PTs had sunk a Japanese cruiser, a troopship, and a plane tender in the struggle for the Philippines, none of which was true. He was now touring the country promoting war bonds and touting the PT fleet as the Allies’ key to victory in the Pacific.
At Northwestern, Bulkeley’s tales of adventure inspired Kennedy and nearly all his 1,023 classmates to volunteer for PT duty. Although only a handful were invited to attend PT training school in Melville, Rhode Island, Kennedy was among them. Weeks earlier, Joe Kennedy had taken Bulkeley to lunch and made it clear that command of a PT boat would help his son launch a political career after the war.
Once in Melville, Jack realized that Bulkeley had been selling a bill of goods. Instructors warned that in a war zone, PTs must never leave harbor in daylight. Their wooden hulls could not withstand even a single bullet or bomb fragment. The tiniest shard of hot metal might ignite the 3,000-gallon gas tanks. Worse, their 1920s-vintage torpedoes had a top speed of only 28 knots—far slower than most of the Japanese cruisers and destroyers they would target. Kennedy joked that the author of They Were Expendable ought to write a sequel titled They Are Useless.
On April 14, 1943, having completed PT training, Kennedy arrived on Tulagi, at the southern end of the Solomon Islands. Fifteen days later, he took command of PT-109. American forces had captured Tulagi and nearby Guadalcanal, but the Japanese remained entrenched on islands to the north. The navy’s task: Stop enemy attempts to reinforce and resupply these garrisons.
Except for the executive officer—Ensign Leonard Thom, a 220-pound former tackle at Ohio State—PT-109’s crew members were all as green as Kennedy. The boat was a wreck. Its three huge Packard motors needed a complete overhaul. Scum fouled its hull. The men worked until mid-May to ready it for sea. Determined to prove he was not spoiled, Jack joined his crew scraping and painting the hull. They liked his refusal to pull rank. They liked even more the ice cream and treats that the lieutenant bought them at the PX. Jack also made friends with his squadron’s commanding officer, 24-year-old Alvin Cluster, one of the few Annapolis graduates to volunteer for the PTs. Cluster shared Jack’s sardonic attitude toward the protocol and red tape of the “Big Navy.”
On May 30, Cluster took PT-109 with him when he was ordered to move two squadrons 80 miles north to the central Solomons. Here Kennedy made a reckless gaffe. After patrols, he liked to race back to base to snare the first spot in line for refueling. He would approach the dock at top speed, reversing his engines only at the last minute. Machinist’s Mate Patrick “Pop” McMahon warned that the boat’s war-weary engines might conk out, but Kennedy paid no heed. One night, the engines finally did fail, and the 109 smashed into the dock like a missile. Some commanders might have court-martialed Kennedy on the spot. But Cluster laughed it off, particularly when his friend earned the nickname “Crash” Kennedy. Besides, it was a mild transgression compared to the blunders committed by other PT crews, whom Annapolis grads called the Hooligan Navy. [See also: “The Truth About ‘Devil Boats’.”]
On July 15, three months after Kennedy arrived in the Pacific, PT-109 was ordered to the central Solomons and the island of Rendova, close to heavy fighting on New Georgia. Seven times in the next two weeks, 109 left its base on Lumbari Island, a spit of land in the Rendova harbor, to patrol. It was tense, exhausting work. Though PTs patrolled only at night, Japanese floatplane crews could spot their phosphorescent wakes. The planes often appeared without warning, dropped a flare, and then followed with bombs. Japanese barges, meanwhile, were equipped with light cannons far superior to the PTs’ machine guns and single 20mm gun. Most unnerving were the enemy destroyers running supplies and reinforcements to Japanese troops in an operation the Americans called the Tokyo Express. Cannons from these ships could blast the PTs into splinters.
On one patrol, a Japanese floatplane spotted the PT-109. A near miss showered the boat with shrapnel that slightly wounded two of the crew. Later, floatplane bombs bracketed another PT boat and sent the 109 skittering away in frantic evasive maneuvers. One of the crew, 25-year-old Andrew Jackson Kirksey, became convinced he was going to die and unnerved others with his morbid talk. To increase the boat’s firepower, Kennedy scrounged up a 37mm gun and fastened it with rope on the forward deck. The 109’s life raft was discarded to make room.
Finally came the climactic night of August 1 and 2, 1943. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Warfield, an Annapolis graduate, was in charge at the base on Lumbari. He received a flash message that the Tokyo Express was coming out from Rabaul, the Japanese base far to the north on New Guinea. Warfield dispatched 15 boats, including PT-109, to intercept, organizing the PTs into four groups. Riding with Kennedy was Ensign Barney Ross, whose boat had recently been wrecked. That brought the number of men aboard to 13—a number that spooked superstitious sailors.
Lieutenant Hank Brantingham, a PT veteran who had served with Bulkeley in the famous MacArthur rescue, led the four boats in Kennedy’s group. They motored away from Lumbari at about 6:30 p.m., heading northwest to Blackett Strait, between the small island of Gizo and the bigger Kolombangara. The Tokyo Express was headed to a Japanese base at the southern tip of Kolombangara.
A few minutes after midnight, with all four boats lying in wait, Brantingham’s radar man picked up blips hugging the coast of Kolombangara. The Tokyo Express was not expected for another hour the lieutenant concluded the radar blips were barges. Without breaking radio silence, he charged off to engage, presuming the others would follow. The nearest boat, commanded by veteran skipper William Liebenow, joined him, but Kennedy’s PT-109 and the last boat, with Lieutenant John Lowrey at the helm, somehow got left behind.
Opening his attack, Brantingham was surprised to discover his targets were destroyers, part of the Tokyo Express. High-velocity shells exploded around his boat as well as Liebenow’s. Brantingham fired his torpedoes but missed. At some point, one of his torpedo tubes caught fire, illuminating his boat as a target. Liebenow fired twice and also missed. With that, the two American boats made a hasty retreat.
Kennedy and Lowrey remained oblivious. But they were not the only patrol stumbling around in the dark. The 15 boats that had left Lumbari that evening fired at least 30 torpedoes, yet hit nothing. The Tokyo Express steamed through Blackett Strait and unloaded 70 tons of supplies and 900 troops on Kolombangara. At about 1:45 a.m., the four destroyers set out for the return trip to Rabaul, speeding north.
Kennedy and Lowrey remained in Blackett Strait, joined now by a third boat, Lieutenant Phil Potter’s PT-169, which had lost contact with its group. Kennedy radioed Lumbari and was told to try to intercept the Tokyo Express on its return.
With the three boats back on patrol, a PT to the south spotted one of the northbound destroyers and attacked, without success. The captain radioed a warning: The destroyers are coming. At about 2:30 a.m., Lieutenant Potter in PT-169 saw the phosphorescent wake of a destroyer. He later said that he, too, radioed a warning.
Aboard PT-109, however, there was no sense of imminent danger. Kennedy received neither warning, perhaps because his radioman, John Maguire, was with him and Ensign Thom in the cockpit. Ensign Ross was on the bow as a lookout. McMahon, the machinist’s mate, was in the engine room. Two members of the crew were asleep, and two others were later described as “lying down.”
Harold Marney, stationed at the forward turret, was the first to see the destroyer. The Amagiri, a 2,000-ton ship four times longer than the 109, emerged out of the black night on the starboard side, about 300 yards away and bearing down. “Ship at two o’clock!” Marney shouted.
Kennedy and the others first thought the dark shape was another PT boat. When they realized their mistake, Kennedy signaled the engine room for full power and spun the ship’s wheel to turn the 109 toward the Amagiri and fire. The engines failed, however, and the boat was left drifting. Seconds later, the destroyer, traveling at 40 knots, slammed into PT-109, slicing it from bow to stern. The crash demolished the forward gun turret, instantly killing Marney and Andrew Kirksey, the enlisted man obsessed with his death.
In the cockpit, Kennedy was flung violently against the bulkheads. Prone on the deck, he thought: This is how it feels to be killed. Gasoline from the ruptured fuel tanks ignited. Kennedy gave the order to abandon ship. The 11 men leaped into the water, including McMahon, who had been badly burned as he fought his way to the deck through the fire in the engine room.
After a few minutes, the flames from the boat began to subside. Kennedy ordered everyone back aboard the part of the PT-109 still afloat. Some men had drifted a hundred yards into the darkness. McMahon was almost helpless. Kennedy, who’d been on the Harvard swim team, took charge of him and pulled him back to the boat.
Dawn found the men clinging to the tilting hulk of PT-109, which was dangerously close to Japanese-controlled Kolombangara. Kennedy pointed toward a small bit of land about four miles away—Plum Pudding Island—that was almost certainly uninhabited. “We’ve got to swim to that,” he said.
They set out from the 109 around 1:30 p.m. Kennedy towed McMahon, gripping the strap of the injured man’s life jacket in his teeth. The journey took five exhausting hours, as they fought a strong current. Kennedy reached the beach first and collapsed, vomiting salt water.
Worried that McMahon might die from his burns, Kennedy left his crew near sundown to swim into Ferguson Passage, a feeder to Blackett Strait. The men begged him not to take the risk, but he hoped to find a PT boat on a night patrol. The journey proved harrowing. Stripped to his underwear, Kennedy walked along a coral reef that snaked far out into the sea, perhaps nearly to the strait. Along the way, he lost his bearings, as well as his lantern. At several points, he had to swim blindly in the dark.
Back on Plum Pudding Island, the men had nearly given their commander up for dead when he stumbled across the reef at noon the next day. It was the first of several trips that Kennedy made into Ferguson Passage to find help. Each failed. But his courage earned the lieutenant his men’s loyalty for life.
Over the next few days, Kennedy put up a brave front, talking confidently of their rescue. When Plum Pudding’s coconuts—their only food—ran short, he moved the survivors to another island, again towing McMahon through the water.
Eventually, the men were found by two natives who were scouts for a coastwatcher, a New Zealand reserve officer doing reconnaissance. Their rescue took time to engineer, but at dawn on August 8, six days after the 109 was hit, a PT boat pulled into the American base carrying the 11 survivors.
On board were two wire-service reporters who had jumped at the chance to report on the rescue of the son of Joseph Kennedy. Their stories and others exploded in newspapers, with dramatic accounts of Kennedy’s exploits. But the story that would define the young officer as a hero ran much later, after his return to the States in January 1944.
By chance, Kennedy met up for drinks one night at a New York nightclub with writer John Hersey, an acquaintance who had married one of Jack’s former girlfriends. Hersey proposed doing a PT-109 story for Life magazine. Kennedy consulted his father the next day. Joe Kennedy, who hoped to secure his son a Medal of Honor, loved the idea.
The 29-year-old Hersey was an accomplished journalist and writer. His first novel, A Bell for Adano, was published the same week he met Kennedy at the nightclub it would win a Pulitzer in 1945. Hersey had big ambitions for the PT-109 article he wanted to use devices from fiction in a true-life story. Among the tricks to try out: telling the story from the perspective of the people involved and lingering on their feelings and emotions—something frowned upon in journalism of the day. In his retelling of the PT-109 disaster, the crew members would be like characters in a novel.
Kennedy, of course, was the protagonist. Describing his swim into the Ferguson Passage from Plum Pudding Island, Hersey wrote: “A few hours before he had wanted desperately to get to the base at [Lumbari]. Now he only wanted to get back to the little island he had left that night….His mind seemed to float away from his body. Darkness and time took the place of a mind in his skull.”
Life turned down Hersey’s literary experiment—probably because of its length and novelistic touches—but the New Yorker published the story in June. Hersey was pleased—it was his first piece for the heralded magazine—but it left Joe Kennedy in a black mood. He regarded the relatively small-circulation New Yorker as a sideshow in journalism. Pulling strings, Joe persuaded the magazine to let Reader’s Digest publish a condensation, which the tony New Yorker never did.
This shorter version, which focused almost exclusively on Jack, reached millions of readers. The story helped launch Kennedy’s political career. Two years later, when he ran for Congress from Boston, his father paid to send 100,000 copies to voters. Kennedy won handily.
That campaign, according to scholar John Hellman, marks the “true beginning” of the Kennedy legend. Thanks to Hersey’s evocative portrait and Joe Kennedy’s machinations, Hellman writes, the real-life Kennedy “would merge with the ‘Kennedy’ of Hersey’s text to become a popular myth.”
Hersey’s narrative devoted remarkably few words to the PT-109 collision itself—at least in part because the writer was fascinated by what Kennedy and his men did to survive. (His interest in how men and women react to life-threatening pressures would later take him to Hiroshima, where he did a landmark New Yorker series about survivors of the nuclear blast.) Hersey also stepped lightly around the question of whether Kennedy was responsible.
The navy’s intelligence report on the loss of the PT-109 was also mum on the subject. As luck would have it, another Kennedy friend, Lieutenant (j.g.) Byron “Whizzer” White, was selected as one of two officers to investigate the collision. An All-America running back in college, White had first met Kennedy when the two were in Europe before the war—White as a Rhodes scholar, Kennedy while traveling. They had shared a few adventures in Berlin and Munich. As president, Kennedy would appoint White to the Supreme Court.
In the report, White and his coauthor described the collision matter-of-factly and devoted almost all the narrative to Kennedy’s efforts to find help. Within the command ranks of the navy, however, Kennedy’s role in the collision got a close look. Though Alvin Cluster recommended his junior officer for the Silver Star, the navy bureaucracy that arbitrates honors chose to put up Kennedy only for the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, a noncombat award. This downgrade hinted that those high up in the chain of command did not think much of Kennedy’s performance on the night of August 2. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox let the certificate confirming the medal sit on his desk for several months.
It wasn’t until fate intervened that Kennedy got his medal: On April 28, 1944, Knox died of a heart attack. Joe Kennedy’s friend James Forrestal—who helped Jack win transfer to the Pacific—became secretary. He signed the medal certificate on the same day that he was sworn in.
In the PT fleet, some blamed “Crash” Kennedy for the collision. His crew should have been on high alert, they said. Warfield, the commander at Lumbari that night, later claimed that Kennedy “wasn’t a particularly good boat commander.” Lieutenant Commander Jack Gibson, Warfield’s successor, was even tougher. “He lost the 109 through very poor organization of his crew,” Gibson later said. “Everything he did up until he was in the water was the wrong thing.”
Other officers blamed Kennedy for the failure of the 109’s engine when the Amagiri loomed into sight. He had been running on only one engine, and PT captains well knew that abruptly shoving the throttles to full power often killed the engines.
There was also the matter of the radio warnings. Twice, other PT boats had signaled that the Tokyo Express was headed north to where the 109 was patrolling. Why wasn’t Kennedy’s radioman below deck monitoring the airwaves?
Some of this criticism can be discounted. Warfield had to answer for mistakes of his own from that wild night. Gibson, who was not even at Lumbari, can be seen as a Monday-morning quarterback. As for the radio messages, Kennedy’s patrol group was operating under an order of radio silence. If the 109 assumed that order banned radio traffic, why bother monitoring the radio?
There’s also a question of whether the navy adequately prepared Kennedy’s men, or any of the PT crews. Though the boats patrolled at night, no evidence suggests they were trained to see long distances in darkness—a skill called night vision. As a sailor aboard the light cruiser Topeka (CL-67) in 1945 and 1946, this writer and his shipmates were trained in the art and science of night vision. The Japanese, who were the first to study this talent, taught a cadre of sailors to see extraordinary distances. At the 1942 night battle of Savo Island, in which the Japanese destroyed a flotilla of American cruisers, their lookouts first sighted their targets almost two and a half miles away.
No one aboard PT-109 knew how to use night vision. With it, Kennedy or one of the others might have picked the Amagiri out of the night sooner.
However valid, the criticism of his command must have reached Kennedy. He might have shrugged off the putdowns of other PT skippers, but it must have been harder to ignore the biting words of his older brother. At the time of the crash, 28-year-old Joe Kennedy Jr. was a navy bomber pilot stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for deployment to Europe. He was tall, handsome, and—unlike Jack—healthy. His father had long ago anointed him as the family’s best hope to reach the White House.
Joe and Jack were bitter rivals. When Joe read Hersey’s story, he sent his brother a letter laced with barbed criticism. “What I really want to know,” he wrote, “is where the hell were you when the destroyer hove into sight, and exactly what were your moves?”
Kennedy never answered his brother. Indeed, little is known about how he rated his performance on the night of August 2. But there is evidence that he felt enormous guilt—that Joe’s questions struck a nerve. Kennedy had lost two men, and he was clearly troubled by their deaths.
After the rescue boats picked up the 109 crew, Kennedy kept to his bunk on the return to Lumbari while the other men happily filled the notebooks of the reporters on board. Later, according to Alvin Cluster, Kennedy wept. He was bitter that other PT boats had not moved in to rescue his men after the wreck, Cluster said. But there was more.
“Jack felt very strongly about losing those two men and his ship in the Solomons,” Cluster said. “He…wanted to pay the Japanese back. I think he wanted to recover his self-esteem.”
At least one member of the 109 felt humiliated by what happened in Blackett Strait—and was surprised that Hersey’s story wrapped them in glory. “We were kind of ashamed of our performance,” Barney Ross, the 13th man aboard, said later. “I had always thought it was a disaster, but [Hersey] made it sound pretty heroic, like Dunkirk.”
Kennedy spent much of August in sickbay. Cluster offered to send the young lieutenant home, but he refused. He also put a stop to his father’s efforts to bring him home.
By September, Kennedy had recovered from his injuries and was panting for action. About the same time, the navy finally recognized the weaknesses of its PT fleet. Work crews dismantled the torpedo tubes and screwed armor plating to the hulls. New weapons bristled from the deck—two .50-caliber machine guns and two 40mm cannons.
Promoted to full lieutenant in October, Jack became one of the first commanders of the new gunboats, taking charge of PT-59. He told his father not to worry. “I’ve learned to duck,” he wrote, “and have learned the wisdom of the old naval doctrine of keeping your bowels open and your mouth shut, and never volunteering.”
But from late October through early November, Kennedy took the PT-59 into plenty of action from its base on the island of Vella Lavella, a few miles northwest of Kolombangara. Kennedy described those weeks as “packed with a great deal in the way of death.” According to the 59’s crew, their commander volunteered for the riskiest missions and sought out danger. Some balked at going out with him. “My God, this guy’s going to get us all killed!” one man told Cluster.
Kennedy once proposed a daylight mission to hunt hidden enemy barges on a river on the nearby island of Choiseul. One of his officers argued that this was suicide the Japanese would fire on them from both banks. After a tense discussion, Cluster shelved the expedition. All along, he harbored suspicions that the PT-109 incident was clouding his friend’s judgment. “I think it was the guilt of losing his two crewmen, the guilt of losing his boat, and of not being able to sink a Japanese destroyer,” Cluster said later. “I think all these things came together.”
On November 2, Kennedy saw perhaps his most dramatic action on PT-59. In the afternoon, a frantic plea reached the PT base from an 87-man Marine patrol fighting 10 times that many Japanese on Choiseul. Although his gas tanks were not even half full, Kennedy roared out to rescue more than 50 Marines trapped on a damaged landing craft that was taking on water. Ignoring enemy fire from shore, Kennedy and his crew pulled alongside and dragged the Marines aboard.
Overloaded, the gunboat struggled to pull away, but eventually it sped off in classic PT style, with Marines clinging to gun mounts. About 3 a.m., on the trip back to Vella Lavella, the boat’s gas tanks ran dry. PT-59 had to be towed to base by another boat.
Such missions took a toll on Jack’s weakened body. Back and stomach pain made sleep impossible. His weight sank to 120 pounds, and bouts of fever turned his skin a ghastly yellow. Doctors in mid-November found a “definite ulcer crater” and “chronic disc disease of the lower back.” On December 14, nine months after he arrived in the Pacific, he was ordered home.
Back in the States, Kennedy appeared to have lost the edge that drove him on PT-59. He jumped back into the nightlife scene and assorted romantic dalliances. Assigned in March to a cushy post in Miami, he joked, “Once you get your feet upon the desk in the morning, the heavy work of the day is done.”
By the time Kennedy launched his political career in 1946, he clearly recognized the PR value of the PT-109 story. “Every time I ran for office after the war, we made a million copies of [the Reader’s Digest] article to throw around,” he told Robert Donovan, author of PT-109: John F. Kennedy in World War II. Running for president, he gave out PT-109 lapel pins.
Americans loved the story and what they thought it said about their young president. Just before he was assassinated, Hollywood released a movie based on Donovan’s book and starring Cliff Robertson.
Still, Kennedy apparently couldn’t shake the deaths of his two men in the Solomons. After the Hersey story came out, a friend congratulated him and called the article a lucky break. Kennedy mused about luck and whether most success results from “fortuitous accidents.”
“I would agree with you that it was lucky the whole thing happened if the two fellows had not been killed.” That, he said, “rather spoils the whole thing for me.”