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To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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To Hell and Back” is a phrase that can bear a pretty heavy metaphorical load when it comes to talking about the atomic bombings of Japan, and President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the first by a sitting U.S. president, and featuring a guaranteed non-apology. It’s also the title of a book by Charles Pellegrino (To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

Pellegrino’s book is a moving and grueling close-up look at the horrors experienced by the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki both on the day of the bombing and in the days and years afterward. I have the heart of a dried-up raisin but even I got a little teary in places.

There are few opportunities amid the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for inspiring “triumph of the human spirit” narratives. The bombings were titanic, apocalyptic events that mock human scale and comprehension. Pellegrino depicts dazed “ant-trails” of survivors threading through the instantaneously blasted landscapes and past heaps of the dead, dying, and horrifically maimed in the shadow of an eight-mile high radioactive cloud. Fate and the desperate efforts of the rescuers saved some, but many lives literally disintegrated in seconds, minutes, days, and years after the bombs were dropped.

Near the hypocenter, the experience of death was overwhelming and random in a dehumanizing way. For some, it came down to the decision to wear a white shirt or a dark shirt. The white shirt might reflect the intense, instantaneous radiation of the blast with remarkable efficacy; a black shirt absorbed the radiation and incinerated the wearer.

The survivors experienced physical and mental trauma; ostracization; guilt; shame; and tohellandbackanguish.

The bottom line for many survivors is that their families, their communities, their city, most of the world they knew, their health, and their spiritual equilibrium had been annihilated in an event of overwhelming horror.

Nevertheless, Pellegrino does document instances of courage, compassion, and ingenuity and people sustaining their humanity through acts of love and sacrifice.

An inspiration for the title of the book is the “double” hibakusha, people who experienced and survived both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One survivor of Hiroshima goes back home to Nagasaki and tells his co-workers of the awful weapon he had experienced; he warns them if they see a blinding flash—the pika—they must use it as a signal they have a few seconds to seek shelter before the don—the crash, the massive shock wave created by the bomb, arrives.

And so “duck and cover” was born.

A document of human horror, To Hell and Back is also a memorial to the survivors and their struggle to restore sanity and meaning to their lives with little outside help. And it also sounds like a backhanded reference to Pellegrino’s own travails at the hands of the nuclear denialists.

His book was originally published in 2010 as The Last Train to Hiroshima. But the book—and Pellegrino himself– became a piñata for indignant veterans, nuclear denialists, and atomic bomb fanboys

The relatively substantive problem with Last Train was that a guy, who claimed to have been part of the squadron of planes escorting the Enola Gay and provided several pages of gripping detail, had made up his story.

Pellegrino acknowledged the error and retracted, but it became clear that the intention of his opponents was not to correct errors; it was discredit Pellegrino, the book, and the idea that the sufferings of the victims should be remembered when considering the bomb and its legacy.

The attacks on the book went beyond scientific nitpicking along the lines of “could a human body really be vaporized by an atomic bomb?” and snowballed into attacks on Pellegrino, his credentials, and his integrity. The New York Times provided a platform for the anti-Pellegrino crowd, helping stampede the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, into withdrawing Last Train to Hiroshima.

The battle continued on various message boards; Pellegrino held his own, especially after it transpired that the New York Times and other media outlets had, while pursuing their ambitions to serve as journalistic gatekeepers and bring a literary malefactor to justice, themselves been gulled by a series of malicious forgeries provided by Pellegrino’s enemies.

One of the interesting and melancholy developments is that the denialist campaign to minimize the human consequences of the atomic bombings seems to be losing some of its heat. Not necessarily because understanding, reflection, and compassion (in Japanese omoiyari, a concept embraced by some hibakusha that Pellegrino celebrates in its book) are finally prevailing; it’s because the World War II generation is dying and it’s easier to ignore a bygone horror when the living, human legacy of injury and suffering is no longer before our eyes.

The good news is that Pellegrino’s book is back, new and improved, expanded, documented, fact-checked, and footnoted and published by Rowman & Littlefield thanks to the efforts of Mark Selden of Cornell. You can do the publisher a solid by buying the book direct from the R&L website. And for the most complete and authoritative reporting on nuclear/radiation issues in Japan, bookmark Selden’s Asia-Pacific Journal/Japan Focus e-journal.

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Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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