Swanberg on Her Research on John Hersey and Hiroshima Eyewitness John A. Siemes, S.J.

02 Aug 2017 7:26 PM | Dane Claussen

Editor’s Note: University of Arizona Prof. Susan E. Swanberg, J.D., Ph.D., presented her paper, “Writing While Under the Influence: John Hersey and the Writings of Hiroshima Eyewitness John A. Siemes, S.J.,” at the recent International Association of Literary Journalism Studies conference held in Canada. The Intelligencer asked Dr. Swanberg to tell us more about how and why she started researching this topic, and why this research is important and interesting for herself and our field.

By Prof. Susan E. Swanberg

University of Arizona

"If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima; yet Hersey's reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm, and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly." ‘John Hersey’ (obituary) The New Yorker (1993)(1)

John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a compelling masterpiece, a tour de force no less terrifying and moving than the day it was published in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker magazine.(2)

The lore associated with the writing of Hiroshima is fascinating. New Yorker editor, William Shawn, apparently suggested that Hersey write about Hiroshima and Hersey modeled the book’s outline on the structure of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey – which Hersey read while in sick bay in the belly of a boat on its way to the vanquished city.(3)  

The provenance of Hiroshima tempts a curious reader to reconstruct Hersey’s creative path from journalist, to fiction author (A Bell for Adano), to author of Hiroshima. Hersey’s New Yorker obituary described him as a novelist and a teacher but “above all a reporter.”(4)

How did Hersey move with such fluidity between fiction and nonfiction? The evolution of an author’s voice is at the crux of the creative process.

Voices of the Atomic Age

I became fascinated with Hersey’s best-known work as I researched another important voice of the Atomic Age – William Leonard Laurence, the New York Times science journalist who was embedded for four months with the War Department, ostensibly as the Manhattan Project’s “historian.”(5)

After reading Laurence’s Pulitzer Prize-winning accounts of the development and use of the atomic bomb, I picked up Hiroshima, which I reluctantly admit I’d given only a desultory reading when in high school. 

I read Hiroshima, read several of Laurence’s books, then read Hiroshima again. I realized that both Laurence and Hersey mentioned a Jesuit mission within Hiroshima proper and a Jesuit novitiate at Nagatsuka, several miles outside the Hiroshima city limits. Names of Jesuits associated with the mission and the novitiate were mentioned in the works of both authors. It didn’t take long for me to identify and locate the writings of Father John A. Siemes, S.J. – pivotal influence on both Laurence and Hersey.(6)

Father Siemes

Father John A. Siemes was a German Jesuit priest, born in Cologne in 1907 and ordained in 1937. A professor at Tokyo’s Catholic University, now known as Sophia University, Siemes taught philosophy and published a number of scholarly works. After the bombing of Tokyo Siemes moved, along with a number of his students, to the novitiate at Nagatsuka.(7,8)

On August 6, 1945, when the bomb struck, Siemes was at the novitiate on the outskirts of Hiroshima. After the bombing, Siemes filed an eyewitness report with the Vatican. A version of Siemes’ report was reprinted, with the permission of the Vatican magazine, Jesuit Mission, in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Siemes’ report began as follows:

Up to August 6th, occasional bombs, which did no great damage, had fallen on Hiroshima. Many cities roundabout, one after the other, were destroyed, but Hiroshima itself remained protected. There were almost daily observation planes over the city but none of them dropped a bomb. The citizens wondered why they alone had remained undisturbed for so long a time. There were fantastic rumors that the enemy had something special in mind for this city, but no one dreamed that the end would come in such a fashion as on the morning of August 6th.(9) 

Siemes continued:

"August 6th began in a bright, clear, summer morning. About seven o'clock, there was an air raid alarm which we had heard almost every day and a few planes appeared over the city. No one paid any attention and at about eight o'clock, the all-clear was sounded."(10)


"Suddenly-the time is approximately 8: 14-the whole valley is filled by a garish light which resembles the magnesium light used in photography, and I am conscious of a wave of heat. I jump to the window to find out the cause of this remarkable phenomenon, but I see nothing more than that brilliant yellow light. As I make for the door, it doesn't occur to me that the light might have something to do with enemy planes…. I am sprayed by fragments of glass. The entire window frame has been forced into the room. I realize now that a bomb has burst and I am under the impression that it exploded directly over our house or in the immediate vicinity."(11) 

Siemes’ report continued in the same dry, clinical tone. He recounted a procession of injured people from Hiroshima up the valley to Nagatsuka, the gathering of survivors in Asano Park in Hiroshima, the recovery of frail Father Kleinsorge from the ruins of the Jesuit mission in Hiroshima and the journey of Kleinsorge and his Jesuit colleagues back to the novitiate.

Although Hersey’s account focuses on six hibakusha (bombing survivors), only one of whom, Father Kleinsorge, is a colleague of Siemes, Hersey’s account reflects the somber but chilling tone of Siemes’ report. Many whispers of Siemes’ report appear in Hiroshima, including the following items:  

"A rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something 'special' for the city of Hiroshima."(12)

"The flash produced by the bomb was like a giant photographic flash."(13)

"Mr. Fukai, secretary of the diocese, fled in despair back to the burning city and was never seen again."(14)

"A group of sick, burned horses stand and wait on the Misasa Bridge with their heads hanging."(15)

"Father Kleinsorge encountered 22 victims whose eyes had melted from the blast."(16)

Stronger than a whisper is the material Hersey quoted from Siemes’ report at pages 89-90 of the first Vintage Books paperback edition of Hiroshima:

"Father Kleinsorge and the other German Jesuit priests, who, as foreigners, could be expected to take a relatively detached view, often discussed the ethics of using the bomb. One of them, Father Siemes, who was out at Nagatsuka at the time of the attack, wrote in a report to the Holy See in Rome: 'Some of us consider the bomb in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civilian population. Others were of the opinion that in total war, as carried on in japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?'”(17)

The Crux of the Matter

The tone and tenor of Hiroshima resemble the tone and tenor of Siemes’ report. Horrifying and noteworthy vignettes recounted by Siemes are put to stunning use in Hiroshima. Although it is true that many of the Jesuits must have observed the same events as Father Siemes, and that Hersey undoubtedly interviewed more than one of the priests, the impact of Siemes’ report on Hersey’s Hiroshima is apparent.

Soon I plan to visit Yale University’s Benecke library where I will peruse the Hersey archives and, hopefully, gain a better understanding of the process Hersey used to identify his Hiroshima interviewees. There are secrets I would like to unravel.

At this point, I can add two stories to the Hiroshima lore. First, Hersey was so impressed by Siemes’ words that the author adapted and used some of the priest’s language when he gave out autographs.(18,19) An exemplar of one of these autographs appears in Figure 1. [Figure 1 to be posted soon--DSC]

The second bit of lore is this: in trying to uncover what happened to Father Siemes in his later years, I found a newspaper article that mentioned the date of the priest’s death. I was so stunned that I had to do some fact checking, so I contacted  Father Francis Britto, S.J., a younger colleague of Siemes, who verified that Father Siemes died on August 6, 1977 – Hiroshima Day.(21)


(1) “John Hersey,” Obituary. New Yorker, April 5, 1993, 111. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1993/04/05/john-hersey

(2) John Hersey, “Hiroshima,” New Yorker, August 31, 1946, 15. 

(3) Ben Yagoda, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (New York: Scribner, 2000), 185-186.

(4) “John Hersey,” Obituary. New Yorker, April 5, 1993, 111. 

(5) Susan E. Swanberg, “Half Life: Examining the Nuclear Narrative of William L. “Atomic Bill” Laurence, New York Times Science Journalist and Propagandist for the Atomic Age,” (unpublished manuscript, August 1, 2017), Microsoft Word File.

(6) Father John A. Siemes S.J., “An Eye-Witness Account of Hiroshima,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 1, no.11, (1946): 2-6. There are a number of versions of Siemes’ report. While the Bulletin indicates that this version was “reprinted by permission of The Jesuit Mission,” there are slight variations between the Bulletin and Mission versions.

(7) William L. Laurence, Dawn Over Zero (New York: Knopf, 1946), 245. 

(8) Francis Britto, S.J., e-mail message to author, January 21, 2017.

(9) Siemes, “Eye-Witness Account of Hiroshima,” p.1.

(10) Ibid.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Hersey, “Hiroshima,” p.3

(14) Ibid., 14.

(15) Ibid., 29.

(16) Ibid., 43.

(17) Ibid., 51.

(18) Ibid., 89-90.

(19) Interestingly, Father Siemes appears in an American propaganda film made after the bombing of Hiroshima. “The Atom Strikes!” features a cameo appearance of Father Siemes about 16 minutes into the film. “The Atom Strikes!” can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpZBSXuJ5yc

(20) I presented some of the information in this essay at the IALJS meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May of 2017. Upon discussing my presentation with a female colleague sitting next to me in one of the sessions, she happened to mention that Father Siemes’ “crux of the matter” quotation sounded like words Hersey used in his autographs. I regret to say that I do not know the name of this colleague, but would like to acknowledge the role she played in my discovery that Hersey adopted Siemes’ language and used it in his autographs. If you read this and identify yourself, kind colleague, I will acknowledge you properly. Thank you!

(21) Francis Britto, S.J., e-mail message to author, January 21, 2017.

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