John Hersey shunned publicity, gave few interviews throughout his life, and refused to go on press tours when any of his more than a dozen books came out. On the eve of the release of his biggest journalistic story—one of the most influential scoops of the 20th century—he left New York City altogether, taking up temporary residence in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Hersey was a publicist’s nightmare, but the ultimate purist journalist; he never allowed himself to outshine his stories. Despite this, he became famous early on. He won the Pulitzer Prize at just 30 for his wartime novel, A Bell for Adano (1944), which was immediately pounced on by Hollywood and Broadway. During World War II, he was also commended as a war hero for helping to evacuate wounded Marines while covering a battle in Guadalcanal.
And then came “Hiroshima,” Hersey’s 1946 story for The New Yorker. Nearly a year after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was still restricting access to the cities, making it virtually impossible for journalists—Japanese and foreign—to report on the bombs’ aftermath. Hersey got into Hiroshima regardless, managed to interview several dozen blast survivors there, and wrote in excruciating detail about their experience as some of the only human beings in the world to ever experience nuclear attack. The story took up nearly the entire August 31, 1946, issue of The New Yorkerand created an international furor. Not only did it depict the human cost of the bombings; it also revealed the truth about the bombs’ radioactive qualities, which the U.S. government had tried both to downplay and cover up. Hersey would later claim that “Hiroshima” wasn’t meant to be an exposé, but it turned out to be precisely that.