Chronicles of disaster: Hiroshima in the Yale University Library archives

On Aug. 6, 1945, an atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, destroying the city and killing tens of thousands of people. Three days later, a second bomb exploded over Nagasaki.

In the months that followed this first-ever nuclear attack, Americans sought to understand the destruction the weapon had wrought. Members of the Yale community played important roles in surveying the devastation and describing the bombing’s human toll. The Yale University Library houses archives that offer insight into this grim work.

John Hersey ’36 B.A., captured the plight of the survivors of Hiroshima in his celebrated narrative account that filled the entire Aug. 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. Hersey’s handwritten first draft of the article, the galley proofs, and documents that contributed to his research and reporting are included in an extensive collection of his papers housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.   

A teacher’s name card that was posted outside of a classroom located 2,300 meters from the blast. The inked characters were burned out, while the white paper reflected the heat and was left intact.

Averill A. Liebow, a professor of pathology at the Yale School of Medicine, was a member of a military joint commission assigned to assess the biological and medical effects of the bombing. He meticulously chronicled the experience in a diary in shorthand. In 1965, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine published Liebow’s diary under the title “Encounter with Disaster: a Medical Diary of Hiroshima, 1945.”

Portions of Liebow’s original shorthand diary and other records of his time in Japan are archived at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.

In addition to providing a record of a horrific man-made disaster, these two archives also offer insight into the early days of the U.S. occupation of Japan following a brutal war marked by racism on both sides. Ultimately, the Americans, having unleashed a nightmarish weapon on Japan, needed to rely on their defeated enemies as guides, translators, and collaborators in surveying and documenting the damage.

Encounter with disaster

When Lt. Col. Averill Liebow’s plane landed in Hiroshima, a windsock was all that remained of the city’s airport. It was Oct. 12, 1945, a little more than two months after the bombing.

A small group of badly scarred children met Liebow’s party on the rutted and muddy airfield. A boy who spoke some English described his experience in the bombing.

“He seemed to know how far he had been from the center of the explosion,” Liebow writes in his diary.

Driving from the airfield, Liebow noted that the entire city was “completely flat” but for the buckled and burned-out hulks of a few concrete buildings. The roads were “littered with wreckage of every description,” including charred utility poles and many burned-out vehicles, he reported, but there were surprising signs of life amid the destruction. Streetcars operated amid the ruins.

“Everywhere there is evidence of a conflagration,” he writes. “As we reach the margin of the city, many houses, although unburned, have been flattened, as if by wind, all in the same direction away from the center of the explosion.”

Liebow’s team, which included six American and 15 Japanese physicians, was quartered about three miles from the blast site in a former rayon mill that had become a makeshift hospital.

A native of Austria who moved to the United States as a child, Liebow had earned a medical degree from Yale in 1935. Soon after, he was appointed to the medical school’s faculty as a professor of pathology.  During the war, he served with the Yale Medical Unit in the Pacific theater. His studies of cutaneous diphtheria, a bacterial skin infection, had assisted in developing treatments for jungle rot.

On Sept. 18, 1945, he learned that he was assigned to study the medical effects of the atomic bomb in Japan.

The joint commission was charged with collecting an enormous amount of data, including the location of all casualties, living or dead, evidence of how casualties occurred (whether caused by the explosion or from secondary effects like building fires or flying debris), and evidence of residual radiation damage. Liebow’s commander, Col. Ashley (“Scotty”) Oughterson, a professor of surgery at Yale, set a goal of examining and interviewing 10,000 patients. 

Cooperation with the Japanese was crucial. Japanese doctors had arrived in the city shortly after the bombing and had already been investigating its effects on human health. (Liebow’s archive includes a translated testimonial by a Japanese pathologist who on Aug. 10, 1945 performed the first autopsy of a bomb victim: a 13-year-old boy.)

In his diary, Liebow describes meeting the Japanese physicians and investigators in Tokyo. Oughterson gave a speech emphasizing that the war had ended, that science is apolitical, and that the study’s success depended on the cooperation of the highly skilled Japanese scientists.

“If there were fears and reservations, these were not difficult to understand, and were in any event well-hidden by the quiet formality and reserve of the meeting.” Liebow writes.

The flash of the explosion left a permanent shadow of this valve on a gas storage tank located 2,200 meters from the center of the blast.

While resentment and mistrust would arise between the American and Japanese scientists studying the effects of the bomb, Liebow is complimentary of his Japanese colleagues in his journal.

While in Tokyo, Liebow was asked to translate a detailed eyewitness account of the bombing of Hiroshima written in German by Johannes Siemes, a Jesuit priest who had been leading a mission just outside the city. (This translation later would aid Hersey.)

The team spent about six weeks in Hiroshima. Liebow devotes much of his account to describing the many logistical challenges the team faced, such as obtaining food and equipment, or preserving specimens from hastily arranged autopsies. Locating people who were lightly wounded was a serious problem, as many had fled the city.

The account includes some jarring details. Liebow describes collecting clothing damaged during the explosion and noting that the darker portions of a patterned dress were burned out while lighter portions were spared. He describes seeing the shadows of people burned into the roadway of a bridge near the blast. He describes visiting a village three months after the bombing where the residents’ faces were still burned a dark-brown color called “the mask of Hiroshima.”

The journal includes occasional light moments. He writes about engaging in a mushroom hunt on a hillside above some rice paddies.  The mushrooms were “large, white, and succulent,“ he writes.

The shadow of person on a bridge located about 1,000 meters from the center of the blast. The asphalt was darkened by exposure to the flash.

“They are marvelous with soy sauce containing a fair amount of sugar,” he writes.

Liebow returned to the United States in January 1946 and helped to draft the joint commission’s 1,300-page report, which was completed on Sept. 6, 1946. As one of his last official acts, he composed a letter under Oughterson’s signature recommending the continued study of the medical effects of the atomic bomb.

In response, the Truman administration ordered the establishment of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to study the effects of radiation among the atomic bomb survivors. The commission operated until 1975.

“Implications for the future of mankind”

John Hersey arrived in Hiroshima on April 1, 1946 — eight months after the bombing. (The Beinecke’s archive contains copies of the military orders granting him permission to enter the city.) William Shawn, The New Yorker’s managing editor, suggested that Hersey report about the nuclear strike from the perspective of the survivors.

The journalist described his reporting process in a July 21, 1985 typed letter to the director of the Library Journal, who had asked him how he had located the subjects of his famous narrative.

Hersey explains that he had read the translation of Father Johannes Siemes’ account of the catastrophe. His first move upon arriving in the city was to visit the Jesuit mission. There he met Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, who would become one of the six survivors profiled in the article. Kleinsorge introduced Hersey to the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a graduate of Emory University and Protestant minister who spoke fluent English. Working with these two men, Hersey interviewed about 30 other people over a month. From this group, he selected four — Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Toshiko Sasaki (no relation), Dr. Masakazu Fujii, and Hatsuyo Nakamura — to serve as subjects of the narrative along with Kleinsorge and Tanimoto.

John Hersey, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1958.

Before he arrived in Japan, Hersey had read Thornton Wilder’s novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” which interweaves the stories of five victims of a bridge collapse.  He writes that the novel inspired him to focus his article on the experiences of a handful of people who cross paths over the course of the narrative.

“And this is why I chose the particular six I used — so that their various fates would keep touching one another,” he writes. “It is obvious that these six — two doctors, and two (later three) Christians — do not represent a cross section of the population of a Japanese city, but what I suppose matters is that all of their experiences were representatives of those of all victims of the bombing.”

Hersey weaved the six stories into a 31,000-word narrative of precise and unembellished prose that forces readers to make moral judgments based on the facts presented. The narrative begins in the moments before the blast and follows its subjects through the chaos as they struggle to survive injuries, fires, and radiation sickness. By the narrative’s end, they have begun to reclaim some aspect of normalcy.

The first draft is written in pencil on thin sheets of paper in neat cursive. There are line edits throughout it.

Hersey’s editors originally intended to publish the narrative over four issues. Instead, they decided to devote an entire issue to the piece. According to an editor’s note, this decision was “in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.”

A proof of the first page of the Aug. 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, which was entirely devoted to Hersey’s narrative.

The issue quickly sold out at newsstands. Papers and magazines across the country printed excerpts of it. ABC radio aired a reading of the entire article. Alfred A. Knopf published it in book form, which has sold millions of copies.

The Beinecke’s archive includes many folders of correspondence Hersey received following the article’s publication, including requests from autograph hounds, inquiries from Hollywood about movie rights, and letters of praise from other journalists and military officials.

One letter is signed in blue ink by Albert Einstein under the letterhead of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists.

“I believe that Mr. Hersey has given a true picture of the appalling effect on human beings in a modern community subjected to unprecedented destruction achieved by the explosion in their midst of one atomic bomb,” writes Einstein. “And this picture has implications for the future of mankind which must deeply concern all responsible men and women.”

Einstein’s letter was not sent directly to Hersey. A friend had received it along with a facsimile of the article, and forwarded the letter to him.

A letter from an assistant professor at the Michigan State University, while laudatory, questions how the six survivors were able to recall so many precise details of such a traumatic experience.

Hersey typed a reply, though it is not clear that he ever sent it. He explains that the interviews were exhaustive, some lasting several days. He says that the six survivors seemed to have no trouble remembering the tiniest details of their experiences.

“One can still question the accuracy of the recollections,” he writes. “The best that has been written on the fallibility of witnesses, at least in my ken, is in those passages of ‘War and Peace’ in which Tolstoy describes the way the record of battle is distorted. I am sure my book must be inaccurate in Tolstoy’s sense, yet I am obliged to say that in my experience of interviewing, I have never found people with more vivid images imprinted on their minds.”        

Albert Einstein sent this letter to donors to the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists along with a facsimile of Hersey’s article.

Hersey, who authored 25 books, served as the master of Pierson College from 1965 to 1970. For years, he taught writing courses to Yale undergraduates. In 1985, he returned to Hiroshima to write a follow-up to the original article.  He died in 1993 at his winter home in Key West, Florida.

“An excellent investigator”

After completing his military service, Averill Liebow returned to his post at the Yale School of Medicine. He gained renown for his research in pulmonary pathology and was named to an endowed professorship.

Dr. Michael Kashgarian, professor emeritus of and senior research scientist in pathology, was one of Liebow’s students and considers him a mentor.

“He was a thoughtful man and very compassionate,” Kashgarian says. “If he saw potential in you, he sought to nurture it. He was an interesting teacher and an excellent investigator.”

Liebow remained at Yale until 1968, when he took a position at the University of California-San Diego. He died in 1978.

Dr. Averrill A. Liebow

M. Susan Lindee, the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. She says the Liebow’s diary is an important record of a complex and dynamic period following the Pacific War.

“It’s fascinating,” Lindee says. “It’s an autobiographical study and account of what he experienced at a critical moment — the first few months of the American occupation of Japan. They’re aren’t many diaries like this.”

While much of the diary is a straightforward account of the medical survey, Liebow concludes it with philosophical reflection on the atomic bomb.

“The use of the weapon as we contemplated it, and then more when we saw its effects, and then even as we wrote of it, filled us with revulsion,” he writes.

He considers the thousands of American soldiers who might have perished in a full-scale invasion of Japan. He questions the use of the second bomb on Nagasaki.

“We could only hope that reasons based on morality as well as strategy dictated the decision,” he writes. 

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548