Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima
On a hot summer morning in Hiroshima, Japan, Matsushige Yoshito was on his way to work
at the newspaper office downtown when he turned his bicycle around and returned to his house, a
barbershop that his wife ran. It promised to be a beautiful day. From below the sky was ablaze with
sunshine. From above the branches of the Ota River river shone like arrows, pointing to a clear
target. When the bomb fell, Matsushige’s crowded street was completely pulverized except
for, miraculously, the barbershop. Unharmed, Matsushige grabbed his camera and two rolls of
film and ventured toward the epicenter. For the rest of August 6, 1945, Matsushige was the only
press photographer on the scene. He had the scoop of a lifetime. Beyond the immediate landscape
of horror was, as well, the horizon of personal fame. What did Matsushige do to ensure
his place in history? He took five photographs that day, only five. Five extremely modest photos that
show no death. One of the photos is of his barbershop, pristine in the aftermath.
In his book, Shockwave, Countdown to Hiroshima, Stephen Walker, steps us through the
days and weeks before Hiroshima as a filmmaker would. We are there, reliving the back-breaking
exhaustion and nerves of Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists as they ready the first test of an
atomic bomb at Trinity Site in New Mexico, and as well, we are caught up in the excitement
of it. We are on the inside of the political drama, frustrated
by the same roiling currents that physically drained Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War,
overcoming his opposition to the bomb, at the same time spurring President Truman to action.
We are both above and below on August 6, 1945, in awe and admiration of pilot Paul Tibbets and
his amazing crew, while already too emotionally involved with those living below, Tanaka Toshiaki
and Dr. Hida and the schoolgirl Taeko. As Stephen Walker’s camera takes us to the final moment,
we still cherish that one great cinematic hope: that the ending will change.
Only later, after finishing the book does the reader realize in Stephen Walker
an artistry that matches Matsushige, the eyewitness photographer, when he chose
that day not to snap horror after horror. Like Matsushige, Walker exercises restraint
over graphic indictment, modesty over ambition, love over hatred, and life over
death. From Walker’s vivid writing and monumental research emerges a compelling,
even-handed story of moral complexity. How it is that thoughtful actions by thoughtful
people can lead to the eruption of something so potentially evil is a counsel to
us all, that goodness isn’t an entity that won’t admit evil, that evil isn’t an
entity apart but resides in all of us and must be contended against — just as
peace resides there, and must be contended for.