on 26 September 2005
Shockwave is not a comprehensive history, nor a traditional 'ideas' book, but it does exactly what it sets out to do - namely to give you a detailed account of the weeks running up to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Opening with the Trinity test, it takes you into the minds of General Groves and the team that built the bomb, it takes you close to Henry Stimson and Harry Truman, the men who took the decision to drop it, and it brings to startling life the characters of the airmen who set off from Tinian Island and actually dropped that bomb.
The dramatic structure of the book is very clever and works magnificently. Walker plays with our expectations using a novelistic technique that resembles Thornton Wilder's 'Bridge of San Luis Rey'. We all know the bomb went off. We all know what happened when it did. But focusing close-up on about fifteen characters, allows him to play out the drama with intricate detail, slowing the pace down as the actual explosion approaches. He spins out the tension superbly. And his description of the catastrophe itself is as horrifying as one could imagine.
The book is also subversive. It reminds you viscerally of something historians and analysts are inclined to forget. That the making of the bomb and its successful use over Hiroshima was an exciting process. The men who did it were not evil. At the top, they may have been misguided, but further down the chain, men were often motivated by the sheer excitement of seeing whether they could make the bomb 'Little Boy' work. Walker's compelling narrative style means that you cannot help identifying with these scientists and airmen. You too become caught up in making history. This is a brilliant, enthralling and very unusual book.
"Even blades of grass were driven into flesh." - Author Stephen Walker about the shockwave of the Hiroshima A-bomb
The world already knows the ending to Stephen Walker's book, SHOCKWAVE. But here, he brings the story of the atomic bomb up close and personal in a narrative based on eyewitness accounts of the Trinity test at White Sands, NM, on July 16, 1945, the dropping of "Little Boy" by the B-29 named the Enola Gay on Hiroshima On August 6, and the experiences of Japanese survivors of the blast.
The development of humankind's ultimate weapon at Los Alamos, NM, was an ultra top secret project accomplished by an army of scientists and technicians headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Major General Leslie Groves, many of whom, including one who was a Soviet spy, watched in stunned awe as a nuclear device was first successfully detonated at White Sands. But perhaps no experience of the event matched that of Georgia Green:
"Fifty miles north of Ground Zero, an eighteen-year-old girl was traveling in the front seat of a car next to her brother-in-law, Joe Willis. The girl's name was Georgia Green, and Joe was driving her to an early-morning music lesson in Albuquerque ... As they passed the town of Lemitar along an empty Highway 85, a flash of extraordinary brilliance suddenly filled the landscape. Georgia grabbed her brother-in-law's arm. 'What was that?' she cried."
Georgia Green, you understand, was blind.
The story next shifts to the Pacific island of Tinian where the 509th Composite (bombing) Group commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets, after extensive training of his command in Wendover, UT, prepares to receive, assemble, and deliver the world's first atomic weapon on one of three Japanese cities, the ultimate target to be chosen only after the mission was already in the air and twenty-five miles from the coast of Japan. For the Enola Gay's crew, the six and one-half hour flight from Tinian to Hiroshima encompassed drama and boredom:
"On (Little Boy's) upper surface were the three green safety plugs that blocked the firing signal from the fuse. For a moment (bomb technician) Jeppson stood beside the trembling bomb holding his three red plugs. He was alone in the bomb bay. Many years later the thought occurred to him: 'If I had removed the green safety plugs and then simply tossed the red ones onto the bomb-bay doors, the bomb would have been a dud and there would have been no evidence. I'm willing to believe that a dud would have forced some high-level considerations. Possibly the invasion of Japan would have happened.' In a very real sense the power to change history now rested directly with him."
"In the narrow, thirty-foot pressurized tunnel that separated the nose and the waist compartments, Jake Beser lay stretched out, his first chance to sleep in twenty-seven hours. (Tail gunner) Bob Caron, assistant engineer Robert Shumard, and radar operator Joe Stiborik took turns rolling oranges down the tunnel toward him. Finally one bounced on Beser's head, waking him up."
Walker's brilliant achievement with SHOCKWAVE is the terrible fascination and foreboding engendered in the reader as the bomb inexorably approaches its target because interspersed within the narrative are sections which focus on the lives of several unsuspecting Hiroshima residents: army physician Dr. Shuntaro Hida, press photographer Yoshito Matsushige, schoolgirl Taeko Nakamae, army corporal Toshiaki Tanaka, engineering student Sunao Tsuboi, Special Attack Forces volunteer Isao Wada. On the evening of August 5th:
"In the stillness of the Shukkeien Garden ... Sunao Tsuboi and his lover, Reiko, lay side by side on the grass. They had entered the garden at dusk. The cool dark lake spread before them, crisscrossed by its tiny wooden bridges and miniature teahouses. The thick scent of flowers carried on the night air, like the perfume of the letters she sometimes sent him. Occasionally they heard the splash of carp ... Or perhaps the old heron had woken ... (They lay) like this together for hours on the still-warm grass, their fingers barely brushing for the very first time. She had such beautiful fingers, thin and white and delicate. For the rest of his life Sunao would always remember their touch, just as he would remember the stars shining out of the clearest, widest, emptiest sky."
At 9:17 AM local time on August 6, what God had wrought was torn asunder by Man in an act of war, justifiably or not. Making his way to the city center from six kilometers out after the blast, Dr. Hida nearly collided with an object:
"He could not tell what it was. It did not look like a human being. It looked monstrous. Every part of its body was black, its arms, its head, its legs, its grotesquely swollen face. Its eyes protruded horribly like golf balls. It had no nose or hair. Its mouth gaped open like a huge hole. Its black lips were half the size of its face ... Black rags hung from its arms and torso. For a moment Hida thought these were pieces of burned clothing. Then he realized they were burned flesh ... Hundreds of shapes were coming up the hill toward him."
SHOCKWAVE contains a photo section featuring images from all points of the story, including the famous pictures of the mushroom cloud taken by Bob Caron, and a pair captured by Yoshito Matsushige, virtually the only ones depicting Hiroshima survivors on the day they encountered Armageddon.
"(President) Truman never swerved from (his decision to use the Bomb). In 1958 he wrote a letter to the Hiroshima City Council confirming that he would order the bomb to be dropped again, given similar circumstances. 'We'll send it airmail,' he is reported to have told his secretary. 'Be sure there are enough stamps on it!'"
After emerging from a forty-day coma, Sunao Tsuboi lived on to marry ten years later and father three children. At the time of this book's writing, he lived alone, a widower, in Hiroshima. How Reiko died on that fateful day remains unknown.
SHOCKWAVE is a horrific mirror that shows humans what they are capable of wreaking upon themselves. It's not pretty.
on 15 August 2005
Stephen Walker's book is an incredible read. It spans the three week period leading up to and immediately following the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. The depth of research is amazing, yet the story is told with eloquence and is a real page turner. It unfolds in a unique way, giving a moment by moment account of the events and people directly involved, both American and Japanese - more like reading a novel than a piece of history. Maybe it occurred sixty years ago, but the account is written with such immediacy that you feel you are actually there, directly involved.
on 30 September 2015
An excellent well researched and well written account of the lead up to and dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The author includes a number of fascinating vignettes on peripheral characters which only adds to the book's strength. He is also scrupulously honest in his portrait of both sides, although the Japanese accounts (with the exception of the military council) are by definition poignant and leave a deep impression. The author wisely refrains from casting judgement on the dropping of the bomb, although the saving of up to 200,000 allied lives (estimates vary) by avoiding a land invasion of Japan certainly (at that point in time) does on paper provide justification for Truman's decision. A sad period in history told in an unsentimental and neutral fashion.
on 9 January 2006
"Shockwave" is a riveting book, made all the more powerful because the story is told from the dual perspectives of the Americans who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the citizens of Japan who suffered its effects.
The story begins on August 5, 1945 in the Shukkein Garden of Hiroshima, as two lovers part company. The narrative flashes back to the deserts of New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was detonated on July 15, 1945. In tense, tight chapters, Walker carries the tale forward day by day, week by week, as the Americans move the bomb inexorably toward Hiroshima: the plane flights out of New Mexico, the mysterious loading of materials aboard the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, the bizarre training of aircrews who had no clear idea of what they would drop on Japan, the assembly of the first bomb on Tinian, the delicate procedure by which the bomb was armed in flight.
The Americans in the book are driven by their determination to end the war quickly, their resolve strengthed by the thousands of young Americans killed and maimed in four years of brutal fighting. On the other side of the tale are the citizens of Hiroshima, who go about their lives in war-torn Japan. They have no inkling at all of the fate that awaits them, but they are determined to defend their homeland to the bitter end. With the grim certainty of tragedy, the two sides collide in one horrific moment in which tens of thousands of Japanese are instantly killed and tens of thousands more begin the long and painful process of dying.
It is impossible not to be moved by this book. Walker brings the events to life with a series of gripping vigenettes: the young scientist who spent the night atop the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, wondering whether it would be detonated prematurely by an electrical storm; the officer who had to arm the bomb in a delicate seven-step procedure and whose brother had lost his face fighting the Japanese; the politicans who were determined to drop the bomb after spending so much of the taxpayers' money to build it; the lovers who never saw each other again after the bomb fell; and the Japanese leaders who refused to surrender even after Hiroshima had been destroyed.
If Hollywood ever gets out of the habit of making movies about comic book characters and seventies sitcoms, perhaps it could make a movie from this book--the story is compact, the characters are compelling, and the climax is as dramatic as it gets. In the meantime, read "Shockwave"--I wasn't able to put it down.
on 22 August 2005
There are at least four new and popular books recently published on the first atomic bomb and the people involved. Each book is very different in scope, time period, and in human stories, but there is some overlap in the time and the stoies.
I think this is the best book on the subject:
(1) American Prometheus : The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Hardcover) by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin. It covers a broad time range including the deveopment of the bomb, the people, the politics, etc. and much of Oppenheimer's life. Overall, this is a highly impressive book.
The second best book deals mainly with Oppenheimer post 1945, and mainly 1945 through 1954:
(2) The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer: and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race by Priscilla McMillan. The idea here is that Oppenheimer did not see the need for the arms race, so he was swept aside by others, especially the ambitious Edward Teller and others.
Books #2 and #3 are solid efforts, and it is hard to say which is better.
(3) 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos by Jennet Conant, a book about life in Los Alamos for the 18 months before the blast, a description of the period around the blast tests, and one chapter tacked on at the end about Oppenheimer and his loss of a security clearance 9 years later.
The last book and the present book Shockwave, #4 is good, but compared to the others, it is the weakest of the group.
(4) Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker - the present book, a book that covers an intense 30 days or so around the time of the final test and the attack on Hiroshima,
I wrote reviews on each book, including 109 East Palace and American Prometheus. All of these books are coming late to the table, they are coming 60 years after the event and they follow many books over the years. I read the book Lawrence and Oppenheimer by Nuel Phar Davis back in the 1970s and it covered many similar details. Also, there have been a number of movies, TV specials, etc. This is not a new subject.
Among the books there are two interesting subjects. The first was the race to develop and drop the bomb, and the second was what happened after the bomb was developed, i.e.: the politics of what followed and the subsequent cold war and the build up of nuclear arsenals.
The book is somewhat limited, and it covers a short time period of perhaps just 30 days or so. In the present book the author has chosen a style similar to some books written about the morning of the attack on 9-11, i.e.: we read a number of different stories, all happening more or less simultaneously and in parallel. It was written in a novel style and with some literary flourishes. Here the subjects are in Hiroshima, New Mexico, the air force, or it is President Truman. The book covers these simultaneous stories and it deals with the events around the time of the first test, then the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. It deals with technical problems, people, the blast dynamics and products, the air force facilities, the planes, pilots, pictures before and after of Hiroshima showing the devastation, etc. The pictures taken from the air show just the rivers remaining along with bridges and pices of concrete.
The book does not bring a lot of insight and analysis, it is more a description of the operations surrounding the tests and bombing. The present book lacks any broad historical perspective, even though though sections describe President Truman and some decision making, but it magnifies that short time span right around the time of first test and attack a few weeks later.
It is an interesting and well researched read with good photographs, but it faces tough competition from American Prometheus, a larger, more comprehensive, and generally a more impressive book.
on 14 August 2005
Stephen Walker's book is an incredible read. It spans the three week period leading up to and immediately following the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. The depth of research is amazing, yet the story is told with eloquence and is a real page-turner. It unfolds in a unique way, giving a moment by moment account of the events and people directly involved, both American and Japanese - more like reading a novel than a piece of history. Maybe it occurred 60 years ago, but the account is written with such immediacy that it could have happened yesterday.
on 28 July 2012
I had borrowed this book from my local library a couple of years ago, and found it an easy and interesting read.
I bought this one second-hand from SuperFlyBooks, via Amazon.
I'm pleased with the purchase: the book condition is as-described. For the price, it's good value and the delivery was prompt.
Shockwave is written in a novel-type style, of which I was not initially a fan. However, as I continued to read, the detailed accounts of the people involved lured me in, ensuring that I read this fascinating narrative in a very short time.
Firstly, this book is easy to read. After slogging through some very dry historical tomes, this was a refreshing change. The subject matter is truly horrendous, but the author handles it well, never making judgements or drawing conclusions. Instead, we are presented with all sides of the story, from that of the American president, from that of Groves, the man in overall charge of the completion of the Manhattan project, to Tibbetts, the man chosen to deliver to bomb and finally, and most tragically, we glimpse the lives of ordinary Japanese people who lived in the doomed city of Hiroshima.
Anyone, of any age, could read this book. It's not just for the history buffs. The author has resurrected a tragic era in history and made it live. Well worth a read.
on 4 September 2005
"Shockwave..." tells the story of the events leading up to dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, the very act itself and the consequences. This is a story that is familiar to most but what sets it apart is its focus on the human stories on both sides (American and Japanese)without being judgemental as to whether it was morally right to use the bomb. Stephen Walker literally counts down the days from the "Trinity" test in July 1945 to 6th August 1945 in a pacey and compelling narrative style, yet, he has carried out extensive research often from interviews with some of the protagonists.
Very highly recommended to anyone with passing interest in this most controversial yet pivotal moment in 20th century history. Only the lack of more photographs denies it the fifth star in my opinion, but a fine example of modern history made accessible but not "dumbing down" at the same time.