On 6 August 1945, a number of eyes in the Japanese city of Hiroshima turned skyward at the drone of a US B-29 bomber flying across the cloudless sky, accompanied by two other aircraft. Their arrival was not a surprise; the early warning radar net had detected the incoming planes and an air-raid alert had been issued for the city. But soon the Japanese military realized that only three planes were incoming, and the alert was lifted. The anti-aircraft guns sat silent, and the fighter planes lingered in their hangars. A mere three planes were considered incapable of posing a significant threat, so it was presumed that these craft were weather planes⁠— a precursor to a true attack. The Japanese military opted to conserve their diminishing supplies of munitions and fuel for use against more serious threats.

The sound of the American planes drew the attention of the city’s residents, many of whom were outdoors participating in work programs. A few saw a large parachute unfurl beneath the B-29 before it flew away, but most saw only the flash that soon followed. The events that unfolded that morning on the streets of Hiroshima were recorded by those who survived. These survivors would come to be known as hibakusha⁠— “people exposed to the bomb.”

For those who didn’t see the planes, the sudden flare of harsh light was the first indication that something unusual had happened. In that eerily silent moment, white clouds sprung from the clear blue sky as the Little Boy spilled the destructive equivalent of thirteen thousand tons of TNT over the city, projecting intense radiation in every direction.

Aftermath in Hiroshima, September, 1945 (J.R. Eyerman)
Aftermath in Hiroshima, September, 1945 (J.R. Eyerman)

Yoshitaka Kawamoto was thirteen years old when the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, in a classroom less than a kilometer away from the hypocenter:

“One of my classmates, I think his name is Fujimoto, he muttered something and pointed outside the window, saying, “A B-29 is coming.” He pointed outside with his finger. So I began to get up from my chair and asked him, “Where is it?” Looking in the direction that he was pointing towards, I got up on my feet, but I was not yet in an upright position when it happened. All I can remember was a pale lightening flash for two or three seconds. Then, I collapsed. I don t know much time passed before I came to. It was awful, awful. The smoke was coming in from somewhere above the debris. Sandy dust was flying around. I was trapped under the debris and I was in terrible pain and that’s probably why I came to. I couldn’t move, not even an inch. Then, I heard about ten of my surviving classmates singing our school song. I remember that. I could hear sobs. Someone was calling his mother. But those who were still alive were singing the school song for as long as they could. I think I joined the chorus. We thought that someone would come and help us out. That’s why we were singing a school song so loud. But nobody came to help, and we stopped singing one by one. In the end, I was singing alone.”

A bit farther away at 3.7 kilometers, a chief weather man for the Hiroshima District Weather Bureau named Isao Kita describes his experience:

“Well, at that time, I happened to be receiving the transmission over the wireless. I was in the receiving room and I was facing northward. I noticed the flashing light. It was not really a big flash. But still it drew my attention. In a few seconds, the heat wave arrived. After I noticed the flash, white clouds spread over the blue sky. It was amazing. It was as if blue morning-glories had suddenly bloomed up in the sky. It was funny, I thought. Then came the heat wave. It was very very hot. Even though there was a window glass in front of me, I felt really hot. It was as if I was looking directly into a kitchen oven. I couldn’t bear the heat for a long time. Then I heard the cracking sound. I don’t know what made that sound, but probably it came from the air which suddenly expanded in the room. By that time, I realized that the bomb had been dropped. As I had been instructed, I pushed aside the chair and lay with my face on the floor. Also as I had been instructed during the frequent emergency exercises, I covered my eyes and ears with hands like this. And I started to count. You may feel that I was rather heartless just to start counting. But for us, who observed the weather, it is a duty to record the process of time, of various phenomena. So I started counting with the light flash. When I counted to 5 seconds, I heard the groaning sound. At the same time, the window glass was blown off and the building shook from the bomb blast. So the blast reached that place about 5 seconds after the explosion. We later measured the distance between the hypocenter and our place. And with these two figures, we calculated that the speed of the blast was about 700 meters per second. The speed of sound is about 330 meters per second, which means that the speed of the blast was about twice as fast as the speed of sound.”

The sky became reddish over Hiroshima, and saturated with smoke and dust. All who were alive and mobile quickly began to try to help the injured or flee the area, few realizing the magnitude of the destruction. The scent of char was on the air as fires began to break out around the city. Ninety percent of Hiroshima’s buildings has been pulverized or damaged by the pressure wave⁠— which had swept virtually unhindered across the flat landscape of the area⁠— and tens of thousands of people were dead or dying.

Of the survivors, Akiko Takakura was among the closest to ground zero at only three hundred meters. She was twenty years old at the time, and she had just started her morning routine at her job in the in the Bank of Hiroshima.

“Well, it was like a white magnesium flash. I lost consciousness right after or almost at the same time I saw the flash. When I regained consciousness, I found myself in the dark. I heard my friends, Ms. Asami, crying for her mother. Soon after, I found out that we actually had been attacked. Afraid of being caught by a fire, I told Ms. Asami to run out of the building. Ms. Asami, however, just told me to leave her and to try to escape by myself because she thought that she couldn’t make it anywhere. She said she couldn’t move. I said to her that I couldn’t leave her, but she said that she couldn’t even stand up. While we were talking, the sky started to grow lighter. Then, I heard water running in the lavatory. Apparently the water pipes had exploded. So I drew water with my helmet to pour over Ms. Asami’s head again and again. She finally regained consciousness fully and went out of the building with me. We first thought to escape to the parade grounds, but we couldn’t because there was a huge sheet of fire in front of us. So instead, we squatted down in the street next to a big water pool for fighting fires, which was about the size of this table. Since Hiroshima was completely enveloped in flames, we felt terribly hot and could not breathe well at all. After a while, a whirlpool of fire approached us from the south. It was like a big tornado of fire spreading over the full width of the street.”

29-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi was only in town because his employer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries had sent him there on a business trip. He was walking across a potato field on his way to work when he heard a plane flying high and saw two parachutes descending. His account at first seems ‘ordinary’ amid extraordinary horror:

“It was very clear, a really fine day, nothing unusual about it at all. I was in good spirits,” he said. “As I was walking along, I heard the sound of a plane, just one. I looked up into they sky and saw the B-29, and it dropped two parachutes. I was looking up into the sky at them, and suddenly…it was like a flash of magnesium, a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over.”

Half his face was badly burned, his hair gone, and his eardrums ruptured. Not knowing what else to do, he continued on to his employers’ offices⁠—climbing over the bodies of the dead while weeping uncontrollably⁠—and found only rubble awaiting him there.

Soon the control operator of the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation in Tokyo noticed that the Hiroshima station was off the air. Unaware of what had happened, he tried to re-establish his program by using another cable, but that attempt failed as well.

The Tokyo railroad telegraph center also discovered that the main telegraph line had stopped working just north of Hiroshima. From those stations which were within sight of Hiroshima and still in contact, confused telegraph reports of a terrible explosion began to arrive in Tokyo.

As the mushroom cloud towered over the city, the smoky sky churned with lightning and thunder. Within a few hours, a sticky black rain began to fall which blackened everything it touched. Makeshift hospitals treated overwhelming numbers of injured as thousands of wounded left the city and hundreds of people attempted to enter the affected area to find their loved ones.

Hiroshi Sawachika was an army doctor stationed at the army headquarters in the neighboring city of Ujina on that day:

“I was told to go to the headquarters where there were lots of injured persons waiting. I went there and I started to give treatment with the help of nurses and medical course men. We first treated the office personnel for their injuries. Most of them had broken glass and pieces of wood stuck into them. We treated them one after another. Afterwards, we heard the strange noise. It sounded as if a large flock of mosquitoes were coming from a distance. We looked out of the window to find out what was happening. We saw that citizens from the town were marching towards us. They looked unusual. We understood that the injured citizens were coming towards us for treatment. But while, we thought that there should be Red Cross Hospitals and another big hospitals in the center of the town. So why should they come here, I wondered, instead of going there. At that time, I did not know that the center of the town had been so heavily damaged. After a while, with the guide of the hospital personnel, the injured persons reached our headquarters. With lots of injured people arriving, we realized just how serious the matter was. We decided that we should treat them also. Soon afterwards, we learned that many of them had badly burned. As they came to us, they held their hands aloft. They looked like they were ghosts.”

Tsutomu Yamaguchi
Tsutomu Yamaguchi

Several hours later, word reached the Japanese government in Tokyo that some kind of catastrophic explosion had leveled the city. Sixteen hours after the event, Tokyo finally learned what had caused the disaster when the White House made a public announcement in Washington regarding the nuclear attack. Three days later, the city of Nagasaki was attacked by a second atomic bomb, and though the hilly terrain there protected much of the city, tens of thousands were injured and killed by the twenty-one kiloton Fat Man and the radiation it produced.

One man who happened to be in the city was 29-year-old Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the same survivor who had been in Hiroshima on business when the first bomb fell. He was standing in his employer’s office, wrapped in bandages, describing to his manager the recent events in Hiroshima. The manager had been expressing skepticism regarding Yamaguchi’s description of the magnitude of a single bomb. Just then a bomb of similar magnitude lit the sky outside, shattering the window and stripping Yamaguchi of his bandages. He fell to the floor, where a steel wall cast a shadow that shielded him from the worst.

Japan shortly surrendered, ending the Second World War.

Radiation sickness took many lives in the following days, and over two hundred thousand people were exposed to heavy non-fatal doses of radiation during the attacks and due to fallout in the intervening weeks. These men, women, and children who were exposed to the bomb are the hibakusha. This status entitles one to a monthly allowance from the government as compensation for injuries, since many of them have lingering health problems from which they will never recover. The radiation exposure has also left them much more susceptible to cancer.

Yamaguchi also survived his second brush with an atomic bomb, though he spent weeks in a shelter, near death. He awoke to find that his house had been torn to a ruin, but his wife and son had survived. He lived on until 04 January 2010, succumbing to stomach cancer at the age of 93. There were more than 100 others affected by both bombs to varying degrees, but Yamaguchi is the only person officially recognized by the Japanese government as a survivor of both bombs.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki

From the flattened ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sprang new cities, each of which are vibrant and active places today. Most of the surviving hibakusha still live in Japan, which to date are numbered at 266,598. At last count in August 2005, the death toll from these atomic weapons stands at 379,776⁠— some from the blast itself, and others from radiation and fallout exposure in the following months and years.

But health problems are not the only difficulties faced by the survivors of the nuclear attacks of 1945. A general lack of knowledge as to the effects of radiation has caused considerable discrimination against these individuals. It seems that a great number of Japanese citizens are under the impression that radiation sickness is contagious or hereditary, causing many communities to ostracize the hibakusha, and causing many employers to refuse to hire the hibakusha or their children even today.

The stories of the eyewitnesses to Hiroshima and Nagasaki are moving, though disturbing. May humankind never again use these instruments of colossal destruction against its own.