On August 6, 1945, on the verge of Japanese military surrender, the US military became the first country to drop a nuclear bomb which obliterated an entire city, leaving only ash and bones where humans had once thrived.
This unimaginable act of brutal war even terrified the highest up in US Government. The Chief Of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Admiral William D Leahy said:
“The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening.
“My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages.
“I was not taught to make war in that fashion. Wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
The word destroying only goes so far to describe the devastating impact the atomic bomb had on the people and buildings of Hiroshima.
World renowned journalist, John Hersey, whose 1946 article ‘Hiroshima’ eloquently told the stories of six survivors, spoke of his fear in the aftermath of the bombings in a rare interview in the 1980s. Of his fear he said:
“Not by the damage to the city. I’d seen damage like that in Europe and elsewhere but the notion that all that damage had been caused by one weapon.
“I did the work as fast as I could. I could only bear to stay there for about three weeks.”
Why Did America Drop An Atomic Bomb On Japan?
After many years of unsuccessful diplomatic talks with America in the hope to build their own empire, the Japanese took matters into their own hands on December 7, 1941.
They wanted to expand into territories throughout Asia, formerly controlled by Europe and the United States, but the Americans were starving them of resources.
The Japanese retaliated with a precision planned airborne attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s naval base on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
At 7:48am, the following chilling words were uttered over the radio as the base was attacked by more than 300 Imperial Japanese aircraft:
“Air raid, Pearl Harbor. This is NO drill.”
The Imperial Japanese Navy had unleashed a surprise two-wave hellish military attack on Pearl Harbor.
This led directly to the United States entering the Second World.
All eight US Navy battleships were damaged - four of them sunk. 188 aircraft were also destroyed. However, this was nothing in comparison to the loss of life - 2,403 people were killed (of which 68 were civilians) and 1,178 were left injured.
The USS Arizona and Vestal were struck. Fires burned, and when the former’s magazines exploded, the adjacent harbour became littered with debris, body parts, and survivors jumping for their lives.
Carl Smith’s Pearl Harbor 1941 Day of Infamy describes the scene:
“Arizona’s explosion knocked men off nearby vessels due to the might of the concussion: the bomb pierced her forward magazine, and the explosion was so powerful that damage control parties aboard nearby Vestal were blown overboard when a fireball erupted skyward”.
The Japanese severely crippled US naval power in the Pacific but it recovered, and America was determined to enact its revenge.
The next day, with Americans shocked and afraid, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, which they did by an almost-unanimous vote.
As former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara said:
“The US-Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history – kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable."
THE ATOMIC BOMBING OF HIROSHIMA
On the morning of August 6, 1945 in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, many people were starting their day, unaware of the horror that awaited them.
At 8:15am (JST) America’s Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb, 'Little Boy', over the Japanese industrial city.
Upon impact, the atomic bomb obliterated everything within 13 square kilometres of the hypocentre.
The explosion caused an immediate rise in temperature of several million degrees Celsius. This vaporized all human tissue.
The unthinkable blast immediately created a fireball and hurricane force winds which spread the intense and unforgiving flames across the city, leaving it destroyed.
The number of lives ended in an instant after the bomb was dropped was around 75,000. By December 1945 roughly 140,000 were dead.
Five years later people were still dying from the aftermath of the bomb leaving 200,000 dead.
Hiroshima was a big city with a large civilian population, but it was also where the headquarters of the 2nd General Army, 5th Division and the Japanese 59th Army were.
Fewer than 10% of the total 200,000 deaths in Hiroshima were military personnel.
A few miles from the hypocentre of the atomic blast stood a hill which partly shielded a mission compound from the atomic hurricane force winds pounding towards it like a lion to its prey. This building housed eight Jesuit priests who were in the area to teach when they were almost blinded by the light from a noiseless flash at 8:15am.
Hubert F Schiffer was one of those priests and he put pen to paper in the years after the atomic bombings to tell his account of what happened on that fateful day. In his book, "The Rosary Of Hiroshima" published in 1953, he said:
"Suddenly, between one breath and another, in the twinkling of an eye, an unearthly, unbearable brightness was all around me; a light unimaginably brilliant, blinding, intense.
“... a terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunderstroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me 'round and 'round like a leaf in a gust of Autumn wind.”
THE ATOMIC BOMBING OF NAGASAKI
A mere three days later, on August 9, 1945, and while survivors were attempting to somehow put their lives back together, the US dropped their second atomic bomb, 'Fat Man', on Nagasaki, killing around 140,000 innocent lives.
Fat Man was intended for Kokura but as it was a cloudy day, they moved to the back-up planned location, Nagasaki. Eventually, the crew released the bomb because they were running out of fuel.
There were no Japanese armed forces headquarters in Nagasaki so only 150 of the total 140,000 deaths there were military.
The majority of those whose lives were ended in an instant in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian men, women and children.
Like in the aftermath of 'Little Boy', any survivors would eventually die shortly afterwards due to devastating fatal burns.
Many rescue and ambulance services were stopped in their tracks as they too died. This led to the deaths of survivors who had suffered less fatal injuries but still needed medical attention.
Within days, survivors would develop exposure to radiation symptoms such as bleeding gums, listlessness, loss of skin, bloody diarrhea, pain, high fevers and hair loss. The further away from the hypocentre the victims were, the longer it took for the symptoms to present themselves.
The atrocious atomic bombings even changed the lives of the unborn. Many pregnancies did not survive and if the babies were born alive, many would not survive for long. The children were often born with smaller skulls and had a higher risk of mental disabilities.
Unparalleled Destruction Of Men, Women And Children
It is believed that before the atomic bombings, the Japanese were close to surrender and many leading figures in America did not think it was necessary to bomb Japan. However, US President Harry Truman’s advisors were keen to go ahead.
In 1963 General Dwight Eisenhower, America’s 34th President of the United States, said:
“Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face, it was not necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”
Chief Of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Admiral William D Leahy said:
“The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages.
“I was not taught to make war in that fashion. Wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
How Did The World React To The Atomic Bombings?
In August 1946, the New Yorker magazine consisted of just one article by American writer John Hersey. The contents of that article shocked the world because it had been a year since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but there had been no published images of the devastation they left behind. No pictures of the lasting damage the nuclear weapons had caused to the survivors. Censorship meant that no one knew the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The article eloquently and unflinchingly described the horror of the nuclear bombings by telling the stories of survivors. Below is an extract from part of Reverend Mr. Tanimoto's story. John Hersey said:
"Mrs. Kamai, his former neighbor, whom he had seen on the day the bomb exploded, with her dead baby daughter in her arms. She kept the small corpse in her arms for four days, even though it began smelling bad on the second day.
"Once, Mr. Tanimoto sat with her for a while, and she told him that the bomb had buried her under their house with the baby strapped to her back, and that when she had dug herself free, she had discovered that the baby was choking, its mouth full of dirt.
"With her little finger, she had carefully cleaned out the infant’s mouth, and for a time the child had breathed normally and seemed all right; then suddenly it had died.
When the article was published, 31-year-old American journalist John Hersey had been embedded with the US military and had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his novel about an Italian-American officer in Sicily during the Second World War, ‘A Bell For Adano’. In his next work he wanted to accurately record the memories of six atomic bomb survivors so that their stories did not vanish from history. Speaking in the 1980s, John remembered the horrors he witnessed. He said:
“I had no deadline. Deadline is a word all too appropriate for that job though. I was terrified the whole time doing the interviews.
"Not by the damage to the city, I’d seen damage like that in Europe and elsewhere, but the notion that all that damage had been caused by one weapon.
"I did the work as fast as I could. I could only bear to stay there for about three weeks.”
It was decided that the complete article should be published so that the full impact of its brutal truth could be felt by the reader. Today, we have access to the horrifying images of war almost instantaneously thanks to the smart phones in our pockets but in 1945, it had been a year since the bombings and while much had been made of the power of the bombs, very little was known about the tragic lives of those who survived.
Initially, 300,000 copies of the New Yorker were printed but they soon sold out and were being auctioned off to the highest bidder weeks later. People felt compelled to learn more about the inconceivable devastation those bombs had left in their wake.
After the atomic bombs had unleashed their winds of death, members of the Japanese government wanted to strike back, fearing that by not doing so they would look weak and that the next attack would be Tokyo, the home of Japan royalty, the Imperial family. Instead, a different path was chosen.
At midday on August 15, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito spoke on the radio for the first time to announce that the Japanese Government had agreed to surrender the Japanese military thus ending the Second World War in Asia. He said:
"Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives.
"Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
"Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the joint declaration of the powers."
The official surrender ceremony took place in Tokyo Bay on the deck of the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.
Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser can be seen signing the document for the United Kingdom at 1:54 in the video below. His flagship was escorted to Tokyo Bay by two ships, one of which, HMS Whelp, had Lieutenant HRH Prince Philip of Greece, now The Duke Of Edinburgh, on board.