By Joseph Kanon
Sunday, February 7, 2010; B06
THE LAST TRAIN FROM HIROSHIMA
The Survivors Look Back
By Charles Pellegrino
Henry Holt. 367 pp. $27.50
On the morning of August 6, 1945, a bomb containing 1.2 lbs. of uranium-235, the reacting portion of which measured slightly more than two teaspoons, was dropped on Hiroshima. The detonation was a matter of nanoseconds. In one 10-millionth of a second, gamma rays escaped the core at light speed, followed by a spray of neutrons. Electrons were stripped from every atom of air and "a plasma bubble began to form, producing a thermal shock that spiked hotter than the Sun's core and glowed billions of times brighter than the surface." By the time it had slowed to biological time, 3/10 of a second later, the bomb itself was gone. People on the ground were vaporized, their bodies converted into gas and desiccated carbon. Some left thermal shadows, ghosts on bleached asphalt. Away from the hypocenter, death came minutes or hours later. Some died as "alligator people," skin burned crisp by the flash, some were ripped apart by the blast, still others sickened from radiation poisoning and bled out. A few, miraculously, survived, saved by shock cocoons or mere, capricious chance.
More than 60 years later, Hiroshima still has the ability to shock. It occupies a special place in our imaginations, our nightmares. Its 100,000 victims -- the round number usually used, though no one knows precisely -- and the 80,000 (again, roughly) of Nagasaki haunt us in ways that the 250,000 said to have died in the conventional fire bombings of Tokyo do not. This is no doubt unfair. There is no hierarchy of human suffering: The dead of Tokyo are just as dead (as, for that matter, are those of Dresden and Hamburg). But the tragedies and atrocities of World War II now belong to history, while Hiroshima is still part of our world, our continuing present, maybe our dreaded future.
"The Last Train from Hiroshima" reminds us why this is so. Charles Pellegrino's account of what it was actually like on the ground in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, culled from survivors' memories and his own work in forensic archaeology, is the most powerful and detailed I have ever read. It puts flesh on the skeletons.
Pellegrino has written about disasters before, notably the Titanic (he advised James Cameron on his film) and the eruption of Vesuvius, whose blast effects and shock cocoons eerily mirror those here. His narrative follows a large cast through the days after the explosion, and he doesn't shy away from pulp drama: The unlucky Nagasaki bombing run, with the plane out of fuel and running on fumes, is a Hollywood nail-biter.
But the gravity of the subject anchors him. Some survivors fled Hiroshima by train (hence the title) for the supposed safety of Nagasaki, but to his credit Pellegrino exploits neither the heavy irony nor the gee-whiz aspect of this. Instead, he lets cool, scientific description produce its own shock effects. He shows us the physics of atomic destruction. It may be that what makes Hiroshima so horrifying is seeing human beings reduced to bare elements, death a matter of chemicals, not consciousness. Pellegrino describes what happens inside: iron separating from blood, an atomic refinery, bones becoming incandescent, marrow boiling away, soft tissue dissolving in Ebola-like bleeding. Nor does he ignore the time bomb of longer-term radiation poisoning, the Disease X that the American occupation authorities pretended didn't exist.
Pellegrino doesn't address the question of whether the bombs should have been dropped ("a subject for another time"). But his accounts of the official responses that followed, almost all inadequate and callous, suggest that no one truly understood the transformative nature of what had been released. Japanese War Minister Korechika Anami, still madly ordering kamikazes to their deaths, wanted to carry on the war. His chillingly Strangelove reaction to a description of the mushroom cloud was "Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?" The Americans went into a curious state of denial. Under orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's September 11 Committee (of 1945), Japanese survivors were not permitted to publish anything about their experiences. A later official line was "It is just another weapon, with greater physical effects than those which preceded it."
"The Last Train from Hiroshima" makes a definitive counter-argument to anyone still foolish or mad enough to believe that. Not everything works here: With a cast this large, cross-cutting fatigue inevitably sets in, and Pellegrino's account of what happened to everyone later, the legacy, lacks the cohesion of the earlier day-by-day approach. But at its best, in the detailed account of the bombing and its aftermath, this book offers more than just effective popular history. It is a kind of reminder. We have now lived long enough with the bomb to begin to take it for granted. We no longer (thankfully) duck under desks in elementary school air raid drills. Nations join an expanding nuclear "club." We are in danger, as MacArthur's committee was, of thinking of nuclear weapons as nothing but more sophisticated bows and arrows. "The Last Train from Hiroshima" gives us, instead, a glimpse of their horror. It makes us afraid again. As we should be.
Joseph Kanon is the author of "Los Alamos," a novel set during the making of the atomic bomb, and, most recently, "Stardust."