I am fascinated by World War II, a conflict so huge that it seems to have a million different elements: D-Day, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, Soviet sieges, and so on. No matter how many years have passed, or how many books and movies are made, there always seem to be another story to tell. To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino recounts the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. Most of us know the basic details, which are often wrapped up in whether the US was right to unleash the nuclear age in an effort to end the war. This book doesn’t get bogged down in that debate. Instead it paints – in vivid scientific, physical and emotional detail – the impact on the cities and people devastated by them, that day and in the months and years since. The stories of Japanese survivors are heartbreaking, especially those who fled after the first bombing and sought safety in the city that became the second target. Can you imagine living through one bomb – a bomb that incinerated your family on the spot, flattened entire neighborhoods and left thousands with horrific burns and radiation poisoning – only to endure it again a few days later? For many people, survival was a matter of inches: a person shielded by a wall or tree may have survived while someone standing steps away was vaporized. The author follows a handful of survivors, much as John Hersey did in his 1946 book Hiroshima, as well as other notable participants such as the pilots who dropped the bombs. While Hiroshima is a powerful book, To Hell and Back goes farther and digs deeper. The 2015 edition uses modern language, making it feel less dated than Hersey’s book, but it also has the benefit of following up with eyewitnesses who lived into the ’90s and 2000s. It was powerful to read how the bombings continued to haunt the survivors, many fighting until old age for a ban on nuclear weapons and an end to war.
This book is especially timely given President Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima, the first sitting president to ever visit the city. When he met with survivors and echoed their calls for peace, I pictured the men and women whose suffering and courage I had read about. The book gave me new insight into the use of the atomic bombs and made me rethink what I had learned about a terrible part of history. The book is 400 pages and some of the scientific explanations can get confusing, but it’s worth sticking with it for the eyewitness accounts.