Under the Influence: The Impact of Johannes A. Siemes, SJ's Eyewitness Report on John Hersey's “Hiroshima”

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August 6, 2020, marked the passage of seventy-five years since the bombing of Hiroshima. It is fitting, therefore, to re-examine well-known, little-known, and forgotten details that influenced John Hersey's classic work of literary journalism, “Hiroshima.” Hersey often noted that Thorton Wilder's fictional morality tale, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, inspired the plot device he used in “Hiroshima.” Similarities between the two works include a catastrophic event, a focus on the handful of disaster victims whose alternating tales are woven together, and lingering questions about morality and decency. The connection to The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not the whole story, however. “Hiroshima” was also influenced by the reportage of a German Jesuit priest, Father Johannes (John) A. Siemes, SJ, versions of whose eyewitness account from Hiroshima appeared in Time, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Jesuit Missions, a report by the Manhattan Engineer District, and other publications. The tone and diction of “Hiroshima” reflect the unadorned language of the Siemes report. Siemes, mentioned by Hersey in the last pages of “Hiroshima,” also appeared in two U.S. propaganda films, The Atom Strikes! and Tale of Two Cities, recounting observations from his Hiroshima report. A published scholar, historian, and professor of philosophy at Sophia University in Tokyo, Siemes resided at a Jesuit novitiate on the outskirts of Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. This study explores the provenance of Siemes's eyewitness account, the nature of its influence on Hersey and “Hiroshima,” as well as Hersey's relationship with fiction, nonfiction, and authorial boundaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)130-161
Number of pages32
JournalLiterary Journalism Studies
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021


  • Hiroshima
  • Johannes Siemes, SJ
  • John Hersey
  • World War II
  • literary journalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication


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