From the top of the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima looking northwest. Frame buildings recently erected. 1945*

I'm taking a class on New Journalism, and our reading assignment this week was John Hersey's famous article, published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, simply titled "Hiroshima". (You can access the full article here.) Hersey's piece is a truly harrowing tale told from the perspective of a handful of citizens who lived through the bombing — their actions in the direct aftermath, and their struggles a year after. Hersey's prose is matter-of-fact: he does not proselytize; he does not interpret; he simply tells the story and stays out of the way.

One passage in particular struck me: Mr. Tanimoto, a Methodist pastor who has been ferrying the wounded and dying across a river for hours in a small punt, using a bamboo pole in place of an oar, sees a group of people huddled on a sandbar, about to be drowned by the rising tide:

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. Then he got out into the water and, though a small man, lifted several of the men and women, who were naked, into his boat. Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. With the tide risen, his bamboo pole was now too short and he had to paddle most of the way across with it. On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, "These are human beings." It took him three trips to get them all across the river. When he had finished, he decided he had to have a rest, and he went back to the park.

The appeal to humanity in this passage strikes me as especially haunting, the fact that one must remind himself that these mangled bodies he carries are, in fact, people, and that he must not recoil, that he must treat them with due dignity. If there is a larger message about the dehumanizing effect of war, you can mull that one over yourself; that's not what makes this passage so interesting or appalling to me. For me, the scene stands alone as a stark and visceral moment in which the pure fact of humanity must be affirmed, against all revulsion and shock, and while we may consider broader issues, we should never forget the bare existence of our personal breaking points. Mr. Tanimoto girds himself against his own in this case. Would that we could all be so certain we would react as admirably.

* Picture is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. I took the caption from the Wikimedia summary as well.

Update 8/6/2015: For the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, The New Yorker has made John Hersey's classic reflection on the bombing's aftermath free to access — a grim and powerful piece of writing finally available for everyone to read. This post has been updated accordingly, and the link therein now takes you to the full article.