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Publisher's Summary

To Hell and Back offers listeners a stunning "you are there" time capsule, wrapped in elegant prose. Charles Pellegrino's scientific authority and close relationship with the A-bomb survivors make his account the most gripping and authoritative ever written.  

At the narrative's core are eyewitness accounts of those who experienced the atomic explosions firsthand - the Japanese civilians on the ground. As the first city targeted, Hiroshima is the focus of most histories. Pellegrino gives equal weight to the bombing of Nagasaki, symbolized by the 30 people who are known to have fled Hiroshima for Nagasaki - where they arrived just in time to survive the second bomb. One of them, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, is the only person who experienced the full effects of both cataclysms within Ground Zero. The second time, the blast effects were diverted around the stairwell behind which Yamaguchi's office conference was convened - placing him and few others in a shock cocoon that offered protection while the entire building disappeared around them.  

Pellegrino weaves spellbinding stories together within a narrative that challenges the "official report", showing exactly what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and why.

©2015 Rowman & Littlefield (P)2020 Tantor

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The Pica-Don

This is my second attempt to write a review. The first one was filled with graphic images of the dead and dying taken from the book, and these images delivered without warning in a short review would have amounted to an ambush. I will mention only two examples of the carnage wrought by the bombing; they are bad enough, and if you have a weak stomach, skip over the next two paragraphs. Note only that when the second bomb was dropped, it was already known what the effects on the human body would be — and that the effects on tens of thousands of human bodies would be instantaneous and without warning. (Note also that the US government and military have made great efforts in the years since to suppress much of this information.)

Among the many types of never-seen-before wounds in the aftermath of the bombing were the ant people and the alligator people. Ant people were seared and blackened like ants, crawling in a mindless line with others like them, their mouths open in a red circle, trying to scream but able to produce only a low hiss. Alligator people had skin burned and cracked, corrugated like charcoal, segmented into leathery scales: they were still miraculously able to move, but parts of their bodies would drop off as they did so. If they succeeded in making it to water, they disintegrated.

These people didn’t go through a long transformative process to become like ants or alligators. The flash and bang — the “pico-don” — changed them from healthy human beings into charred monsters in less than a fraction of a second — before their brains even had a chance to register that something had happened to them.

As the book nears its end, Pellegrino begins to talk in terms of survival and restoration. The survival was rarely long-term: someone who’d absorbed only a little radiation during the attack could still absorb a fatal dose over time by eating vegetables grown in irradiated ground. And survival was often tinged with guilt. As Pellegrino demonstrates over and over again, survival was often a matter of pure chance as much as anything else. Standing a few inches to the left or right could mean the difference between being shielded by concrete and steel and being incinerated. But people who lived through it couldn’t see it that way. If I hadn’t given them that water to drink, would they have lived? If I had gone back, could I have saved him? And worst of all, why did I leave her to die alone? Even when bodies were not torn and broken, sometimes families and friendships were.

Those known to have been exposed to radiation were often treated like lepers. Pending marriages were broken off when it was discovered that one of the partners was a survivor of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Many survivors hid their status, wearing long garments to cover burns, never talking about what they had seen.

Restoration and rebuilding often meant simply covering over the ashes. When the rivers flowed peacefully again, they harbored on their muddy bottoms the skulls of thousands.

But there were others who worked with great reserves of spiritual strength to truly rebuild. Some placed emphasis on the concept of “omoiyari” — compassion, empathy, putting the other person first, anticipating the other person’s needs: paying it forward. To read about these people, especially in a chapter filled with the refrain “A was dead; B was dead; C was dead; D was dead” — is to be genuinely shocked at how resilient people — SOME people — can be.

Pellegrino writes with clinical precision about the chemical and biological changes taking place in those first few milliseconds. But don’t let the language of detachment fool you: this man is angry. He may be writing an account filled with the terminology of biochemistry and physics, but he never loses sight of the fact that he’s writing about human beings, and he never lets you forget it either. (This is a quality that characterizes his many books about the Titanic as well.) Pellegrino wants us to see and know and feel what an atomic bomb does to a human body and a human soul, and throughout his account there is a steady drumbeat: never again. Never again. Never again.

The narrator, David Colacci, does a superb job communicating both the technical precision and the deep compassion that inform the book.

This is an important book. I might even go so far as to say it is one of the most important books I have ever read. I am rarely able to say this about a book, but I am not the same person I was when I started reading it. Arguments about the relative merits of ending the war this way or that crumble in the face of this horrific narrative.

Or to quote one of the survivors: NUCLEAR WEAPONS ARE NOT COMPATIBLE WITH CIVILIZATION.

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Really liked it.

The author vividly paints an accurate portrayal of the people in the cities. Big fan.