The Last Train from Hiroshima
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 21 Feb 2010
Full Title: The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back
When the world's first atomic bomb was detonated, the nuclear reaction and its initial devastating effects happened very quickly, so much so that some of those killed could never have realized what had just happened. The human nervous system needed 1/30 of a second to register, and 1/10 of a second for the nervous system to order muscles to flinch. Far before that time, those who were near the detonation in the city of Hiroshima had already disappeared from the face of the Earth.
That was how Charles Pellegrino started his book The Last Train from Hiroshima, and what a powerful opening it was. After all, the book was the collective tale of the survivors. The tale, not only of Hiroshima but Nagasaki as well, was a horrifying one, at least that was among my first emotions when I listened to the audio book, read by Arthur Morey. "Ant walkers", "alligator men", and "the tap dancer" seemed to be terrifying scenes from the very depths of hell, but yet they all took place in our own world in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction was so total at Ground Zero at both cities that many survivors thought it was the end of the world that Japanese mythology had told for generations; many of them could not fathom that the bombing could have anything to do with the ongoing war. When Pellegrino told of those who were so utterly burned by the flash that their faces resembled more like charcoal than skin, their mouths merely gaping red holes, and their speech no more than unintelligible murmur, I was so disturbed that I almost had to stop the audio book and take a break.
It was only after Pellegrino described the initial horrors of the first bomb that he went into how the American airmen, Tibbets et. al., prepared and executed for the mission. After all, this was a book about the tales of the survivors. Nevertheless, it was apparent that the book was extremely well researched, as that I felt I was able to follow the Hiroshima mission, as well as the later Nagasaki mission, on a minute-by-minute basis. As Sweeney approached Okinawa after dropping the Nagasaki atomic bomb with so little fuel that one of his engines actually gave out, the narration was gripping that I found myself hanging on to Morey's every word even though I very well knew that his B-29 bomber Bockscar would land safely.
Those who survived did not necessarily consider themselves lucky. Even if they were able to overcome radiation poisoning in the days and weeks after the bombing, many of them had to face the invisible cracks that divided families and friends. Pellegrino attempted to address the complex personal and societal issues in the post-atomic-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and generally did a fine job.
The Last Train from Hiroshima was without a doubt an anti-war book told in a poetic manner backed with careful research across multiple disciplines. To me, the book was yet another harsh reminder that while we study war, we must remember that war was not to be glorified in any shape or form, and we must do all that we can to ensure that war should always be the last resort.
Update, 21 Feb 2010
Coincidentally on the same day that I wrote this review, the New York Times reported that Pellegrino might had been given incorrect information by veteran airman Joseph Fuoco, who claimed to have substituted James Corliss as Enola Gay's flight engineer, which Corliss' family said never happened. The author had commented that he would rewrite sections of the book to correct any inaccuracies.
Update, 4 Mar 2010
I came across a BBC article that noted that the filmmaker James Cameron continues to defend Pellegrino, who was the victim of Joseph Fuoco's "elaborate deception", and said that he had not given up on the possibility of turning the book into a movie. The link to the BBC article is provided below.
James Cameron defends Hiroshima author
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945