translated by William Johnson
On Thursday, August 9, 1945, at two minutes past eleven in the morning, Nagasaki was wiped out by a plutonium atomic bomb which exploded at a height of five hundred meters over the city. Among the wounded on that fateful day was the young doctor Takashi Nagai, professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki. Nagai succeeded in gathering a tiny group of survivors — doctors, nurses, and students — and together they worked heroically for the wounded until they themselves collapsed from exhaustion and atomic sickness.
As he lay dying of leukemia, Dr. Nagai wrote The Bells of Nagasaki, vividly recounting what he had seen with his own eyes and heard from his associates.
Trigger warning for the horror of war with a medical bent.
The Bells of Nagasaki is a first-person account of the bombing of Nagasaki, which is often forgotten in the shadow of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nagai is in a unique position to discuss an atomic bomb because he was researching radioactivity in a medical context. He had basically given himself leukemia by being exposed to radiation during his experiments.
Much like Hersey’s Hiroshima, we hear the accounts of many people at the time the bomb went off, many colleagues of Nagai. We see how fate/blind luck determined who lived and died. A professor hollowing out a dugout shelter survived, but two students hauling out the dirt were killed immediately. A medical student was trapped in the rubble of his classroom. Fires soon started, and he listened to his classmates being consumed alive by the flames, and resigned to that fate himself, before working free and escaping.
This plurality of experience at the start soon narrows down to Nagai and his fellow doctors and nurses who took it upon themselves to treat as many people as they could. Like many survivors they made their way to the villages surrounding the city, helping those affected before being bedridden with radiation sickness themselves.
Nagai isn’t afraid to talk about the illness from a medical standpoint. At one point he outlines how you die – if not immediately, days later in this manner. If not then, weeks later from this and that. Some explanations call on high school physics but I didn’t find it overly technical. Then again, I work in hospitals so your mileage may vary.
The introduction is by the translator and does a good job placing the book in context and telling us about the whole of Nagai’s life. At the end he goes on about how big a role religion played in his thinking, which worried me. Thankfully there’s almost no mention of his faith until page 102 of a 115 page work but wow, he gets preachy fast. If religion isn’t your thing know you can safely skip those pages without missing anything.
As a side note – I knocked on Hiroshima for having a strong Catholic element, but Nagasaki is the most Catholic city in all of Japan. It had secret churches and harbored people when the government actively prosecuted Catholics, so if there’s going to be a large Christian influence anywhere in the country, it’s here.
Overall I found the book interesting and a good read, a valuable account of the bombing Americans overlook. It appears to be out of print right now, so check with your local library if you’d like to give it a try.