Hersey, John Richard

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Hersey, John Richard

Hersey, John Richard (1914-1993) American journalist, novelist, and nonfiction writer

John Hersey possessed the appropriate cultural and linguistic background to investigate a global war and the world's first military use of atomic power. Born in China to American missionaries, Grace Baird and Roscoe Monroe Hersey, he grew up in a bicultural household in Tientsin, where he attended elementary school and published his own neighborhood newsletter. He later reprised the life of a missionary's son in The Call (1985), a historical novel and fictional composite of a number of Protestant evangelists that included his parents. He was 10 when his family returned to the United States, where he later earned a journalism degree from Yale University. He also studied English literature at Clare College, Cambridge, as a Mellon Fellow. He began working for Time magazine in 1937.

Starting in October 1939, Hersey's unique background won him frontline postings to China, Guadalcanal, Sicily, and the Solomon Islands as a World War II combat reporter. The assignment coincided with the first on-site hourly news coverage of global events in history. As a specialist in Asian affairs, he headquartered at the Chungking bureau for Life, for which he interviewed the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek; Generals Claire Chennault and Douglas MacArthur; and Lieutenant Jack Kennedy, hero of PT 109. Hersey accompanied the U.S. Marines to Guadalcanal in October 1942. He wrote articles for the New Yorker and Time during the Allied invasion of Sicily, beginning July 10, 1943, and observed the brusque style of General George S. Patton, commander of the Seventh Army. Over the course of the war, Hersey traveled by destroyer and went down with four crashed planes, once in the sea.

With a survey of the walking wounded in Men on Bataan (1942), Hersey began turning headlines into war reportage focused on the individual. With Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines (1943), he examined men and deeds on both sides at the Battle of Guadalcanal (August 7, 1942-February 9, 1943), a bloody chapter of the Pacific war that halted Japanese expansionism. His personal involvement including traveling aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet, loading stretchers, and sheltering with a company surrounded by the enemy. Writing of a sniper, he comments on the innocence of immature Japanese warriors: “Conscription had snatched him from his hopes, and young friends had sat at a banquet table and brushed arrogant characters on the little flag he was to carry to the front” (Hersey 1943, 36). His compassionate overview of male behavior under fire blended elements of Geronimo, Buck Rogers, Sergeant York, and frightened boys.

Hersey's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Bell for Adano (1944) featured the cruelty of Benito Mussolini's fascism against Sicilian townspeople by melting their tower bell to mold into rifle barrels. At a nadir of confidence, local scrappers fight back with a drunken orgy of glass smashing: “One of them would get up and shout; ’To hell with the son of a frog, Mussolini!' and he would throw a bottle as if he were throwing it at Mussolini” (Hersey 1988, 225). The pathos of civilian impotence elicits mugging and belly laughs to conceal the islanders' terror of being captured and shot. In 1945, a film version of the classic war novel starred John Hodiak, Gene Tierney, William Bendix, and Harry Morgan.

Researching Hiroshima

In 1945, Hersey covered news from China and Japan, giving him a prime vantage point for objective postwar reporting. The next year, he published Hiroshima (1946), an earnest literary monument to the immediate and long-range effects on citizens of Hiroshima, Japan, of the atomic bomb named “Little Boy,” which destroyed the city on August 6, 1945. First printed as a story in the New Yorker on August 31, 1946, then read over the radio, and finally expanded into book form, the work has been called the world's most famous magazine article. The narrative opens on the “noiseless flash” of August 6, 1945, a firestorm that burns, blinds, and cremates citizens going about morning activities. The text examines the effect of the bombing on six Japanese citizens. The author cites without comment a Japanese opinion that “People of Hiroshima died manly in the atomic bombing, believing that it was for Emperor's sake” (Hersey 1946, 89). The book flourished worldwide except among Japanese readers.

In 1985, Hershey returned to the original interviewees in Hiroshima to assess the lasting damage to their health and careers. In the 1950s, survivors incurred diagnoses of carcinoma and leukemia. Unusual turns of events celebrated Sister Dominique Sasaki for operating the White Chrysanthemum Orphanage and lauded the Methodist pastor Kiyoshi Tanimoto on the television program This Is Your Life, where he met Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., the captain of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that flew the atomic bomb to its first destination.

Hersey found more models of bravery for subsequent books. Another survey of wartime courage and waste, The Wall (1950), winner of a Daroff Award from the Jewish Book Council of America, commemorate 650 Polish Jews of the Warsaw ghetto for an uprising on April 19, 1943, against 3,000 members of the Nazi SS. Hersey's sources—tapes of diaries and documents translated from Polish and Yiddish—illuminated a desperate fight for dignity and solidarity that outweighed the obvious Nazi defeat of the resistance and their sending trainloads of survivors to the death camp at Treblinka, Poland. His narrative injects sympathy and humor for a community that for 26 days fought heroically without military aid and with no hope of victory. The wit of Rabbi Goldflamm makes light of incomprehensible horror: “All right, so we heard about the factory for making soap out of Jews in Lublin, we laugh and say, ’I'll be washing you!'” (Hersey 1950, 254-255). Hersey describes the selection process at the umschlagplatz (deportation center) as “Gehenna (hell). It is beyond life” (350). In 1982, the book inspired a Peabody Award-winning TV movie filmed on location at Sosnowiec, Poland, and starring Eli Wallach, Tom Conti, and Dianne Wiest.

Until his death, Hersey maintained his reputation for bringing global calamity down to a human level, for championing survivalism, and for his protests at the nuclear arms race.


Hersey, John. A Bell for Adano. New York: Vintage, 1988. . Hiroshima. New York: Random House, 1946.

------- . Into the Valley: A Skirmish of the Marines. New

York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943.

------- . The Wall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.