Reading: To Hell and Back by Charles Pellegrino

6th August 2015

tohellandback*I requested this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Today marks the type of anniversary some will celebrate and others will denigrate. Exactly 70 years ago today, the United States, in what some say was an effort to end the war and others claim was a way to justify the expense of scientific research, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan.

My Pacific War reading inevitably led me here, but I knew I should not read anything regarding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without gaining a much broader understanding of what led humanity to this moment. Flyboys by James Bradley gave me a look at Japan’s history and rise as a military power as well as the cruelty of the Japanese military to American pilots. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan gave me an insider’s view of the making of the bombs as well as the American ignorance of such raw power.

By the time I made it to Charles Pellegrino’s To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima, I thought I was ready. He opens his book with this line: “Had Mary Shelley or Edgar Allan Poe been born into the mid-twentieth century, they would never have had to invent horror.”

And then it begins. Pellegrino starts at the epicenter in Hiroshima, mixing science with humanity, breaking down what the bomb did to the humans below it as well as who those humans were and what they were likely doing, based on routine and the flash prints left behind where once men, women, and children stood.

He weaves survivor memory and testimony, illustrating the immediate chaos of the bomb’s aftermath, describing the teacher whose face would be marked from the flash of the bomb, as a student held up her calligraphy on rice paper, creating the only barrier between her and the pika-don, or “flash-boom” as the Japanese termed it.

The first 50 pages of this book resulted in me gasping aloud again and again, shocked at the apocalyptic world it described and bookmarking information I’d never come across before and wanted to come back to.

First published in 2010, Pellegrino’s book was recalled by the publisher when the New York Times uncovered false information – the book set forth, in part, that an American was killed and others irradiated, based on the testimony of a man who apparently lied about his involvement in the entire affair.

This publication, by Rowman & Littlefield, has no such testimony, and names and situations Pellegrino discusses have popped up in multiple books I’ve read on the topic.

All this to say, the book is not only compelling but a reliable and fascinating account of the survivors not just of Hiroshima, but of the men and women deemed “double survivors,” those who left Hiroshima in time for the bombing in Nagasaki.

Pellegrino gives voice to their suffering, their sorrow, and their spirit of survival in what is, for me, required reading on the subject.

Add it to your Goodreads list.

  • literaryfeline

    Flyboys and The Girls of Atomic City sit on my shelf waiting their turn to be read. I hadn’t heard of this one before, but now you make me want to read all three. I imagine this book will leave me in tears, but it does sound like an important and necessary book to read. It brings to mind Tokyo Zero, a mystery novel I read a few years ago set directly after the end of the war. It wasn’t an easy book to read given the author’s narrative style, but it was very revealing (even if fiction) of a time and place in history that is often overlooked. While Tokyo wasn’t hit by an atom bomb, the book does discuss the impact of the bombings and those affected to a small degree. It’s chilling, when you think about it.

    Thank you for this insightful review, and bringing this book to my attention.

    • The fire bombings that started months before the atomic bombings were horrific as well and killed nearly as many, so yes, I can imagine it was effective.

      And yes, read those two and then this one! I highly recommend the progression as I think without the background reading, this might have been a less impactful read.

  • What a first sentence…wow. I want to read this now and the Atomic City one. I’ve seen Manhattan on Hulu about the Manhattan Project but haven’t watched it yet, have you?

    • I haven’t! In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it, so thank you. I will be adding it to my watch list.

  • Veronica

    Great review!

  • Have you watched Uranium: Tickling the Dragon’s Tail? Fascinating.

    • Haven’t even heard of it, so thanks for the rec.