World War Two destruction after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 1945 06082022 CREDIT ALAMY Photo 12
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima marked the dawning of a new age in mega-weaponry and global nuclear security (picture: Alamy).

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The devastation of the atomic bombings

World War Two destruction after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 1945 06082022 CREDIT ALAMY Photo 12
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima marked the dawning of a new age in mega-weaponry and global nuclear security (picture: Alamy).

On 6 August, 1945, the US military became the first country to drop a nuclear bomb.

The decision to use 'the bomb' 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 as 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 atomic bombs 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 7 December, 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 07:48, 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 War. 

Atomic bomb dome, 1949. The science museum, Hiroshima, above which the first atomic bomb exploded June 6 1945 - Image ID H66ATM 06082022 CREDIT Alamy and Split Seconds .jpg
Atomic bomb dome, 1949. The science museum, Hiroshima, above which the first atomic bomb exploded June 6 1945 (picture: Alamy / Split Seconds).

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 6 August, 1945 in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, many people were starting their day, unaware of the horror that awaited them. 

At 08:15 (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 km of the hypocentre.

The explosion caused an immediate rise in temperature of several million degrees Celsius. This vaporised 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 that 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.

Enola Gay Boeing B-29 on 6 August 1945, during the final stages of World War II, 06082022 CREDIT ALAMY AND WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE .jpg
The B-29 that delivered the bomb was named Enola Gay (Picture: Alamy / World History Archive).

Jesuit priests

A few miles from the hypocentre of the atomic blast stood a hill that 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 08:15.

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."

Scene from Hiroshima, Japan in ruins shortly after the Atomic Bomb was dropped - Image ID BH0GA1 06082022 CREDIT Alamy and Archive Image.jpg
A scene from Hiroshima, Japan, in ruins shortly after the Atomic Bomb was dropped (Picture: Alamy/ Archive Images).

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki 

A mere three days later, on 9 August, 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. 

Hiroshima Victim of the atomic bomb 20th century Japan - World War II National archives. Washington - Image ID GG2DPP 06082022 CREDIT ALAMY and Photo 12.jpg
A victim of the Hiroshima atomic bombing (Picture: Alamy / Photo 12).

Unparalleled destruction of men, women and children

It is believed by some 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?

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 smartphones 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.

Japan's surrender

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 15 August 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 2 September 1945.

Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser can be seen signing the document for the United Kingdom at 10:54 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, later the Duke Of Edinburgh, on board. 

Where does the UK stand on nuclear weapons today?

As of 2021, the UK had 195 nuclear warheads of which 120 were available to be used. 

Today, the UK has an around-the-clock, at-sea deterrent, thanks to the Royal Navy's four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered submarines and Britain's ultimate deterrent and weapon, the Trident nuclear missile.

The powerful Trident can travel at more than 13,000mph and be fired at targets up to 4,000 miles away.

Because of this, the UK is recognised as one of five nuclear-weapon states under a United Nations pact. 

The UK operates along with the other permanent council members France, Russia, the US and China under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

The treaty requires that all ratifying countries under no circumstances "develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices". 

It also forbids any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices, and the threat to use such weapons, and requires parties to promote the treaty to other countries. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believes the treaty is a "tribute to the survivors of nuclear explosions" and "represents a meaningful commitment towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons". 

An active disarmament deal since March 1970, the NPT has seen the UK commit to a 65% reduction in nuclear stockpiles from the end of the Cold War to the mid-2020s. 

The treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons states:  

"Considering the devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples." 

The UK does not follow a policy of 'no-first use' which would prevent launching a nuclear attack unless first coming under nuclear attack from another state. 

Instead, it has vowed not to use or threaten a nuclear attack against any non-nuclear state within the NPT unless the agreement is breached.

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