A look back at the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (1945)

Atomic bomb explosion digital illustration

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When J Robert Oppenheimer, often called the “father of the atomic bomb,” witnessed the first test of the weapon he helped create in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita entered his mind:

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Undoubtedly the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would agree.

On August 6th, 1945, less than two months after the successful test of the new and terrible weapon, the United States — facing a lengthy and costly invasion of the Japanese homeland to end the war in the Pacific — decided to use the atomic bomb against the Japanese to force their hand towards surrender.

A plane called the Enola Gay delivered the bomb — itself nicknamed “Little Boy” — a little after eight in the morning Hiroshima time. 

The Enola Gay on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. DoD photo by Kevin O’Brien
The Enola Gay on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. DoD photo by Kevin O’Brien

With a blinding flash of light, some 100,000 people (estimates vary) were killed instantly by an explosion equaling 20,000 tons of TNT, while nearly every structure within one mile of ground zero was completely destroyed.

It was the first use of nuclear weapons as an act of war in the history of the world.

While the morality and ethics of the use of a weapon of mass destruction, particularly against a heavily civilian target, continues to be debated to this day, there is no question that the bombing of Hiroshima — and three days later, the bombing of Nagasaki — brought about exactly what President Harry S Truman was hoping for: the complete and utter surrender of Japan.

By August 15th, the war in the Pacific was over, and the world once again knew peace for the first time in six years, albeit at a very high price. – AJW

Hiroshima Possibly Wiped Out

Hint Blinding Flash Vaporized Buildings

Abilene Reporter News (Abilene, Texas) August 7, 1945

Reverberations of a single terrifying bomb which possibly obliterated a Japanese military city yesterday drowned out the roar of high explosives rained by 125 Superforts today on Toyokawa naval arsenal 175 miles southwest of Tokyo.

London predicted the Allies would hand Japan a new ultimatum packing the power of the atomic bomb that blasted Hiroshima. Hirohito’s advisers would have a choice between unconditional surrender within 48 hours or oblivion for their sacred islands.

Hiroshima bombing - Abilene Reporter News August 7, 1945

Washington mentioned Tokyo itself, or another key Nipponese city, as the next probable target of the terrible atomic bomb.

Tokyo, in the cautious words of an imperial communique, admitted “considerable damage” was caused to Hiroshima by the “new type bombs.” Apparently destruction was so great the Nipponese warlords couldn’t believe it was a single bomb. Rail transportation to the city on the southern shores of Japan’s main island was cut off.

“Details are now under investigation,” Nippon’s high command said.

Some sources in Washington suggested the “details” would show the city of more than 300,000 persons was just about wiped out by the single bomb.

Hiroshima - Naval Message to Admiral William Leahy from Admiral Edwards
Hiroshima – Naval Message to Admiral William Leahy from Admiral Edwards – Formerly classified Top Secret

Both sides exploited the propaganda value of war’s newest and most devastating weapon. American planes showered Japan with pamphlets on the destructiveness of the bomb.

Tokyo said US “impatience at the slow progress of the projected invasion of the Japanese mainland drove the enemy to resort to such inhuman tactics.”

While a strict military censorship bottled up details of just what happened to Hiroshima, cryptic official reports and results of experiments with the atomic bomb indicated it was something like this:

The bomb burst with a blinding flash. Billowing clouds of smoke, debris and multi-colored gases blanketed the city. Some of the city simply vanished under atomic disintegration. Japan trembled for miles around as though shaken by one of the islands’ familiar earthquakes.

The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945
At the time this photo was made, smoke billowed 20,000 feet above Hiroshima while smoke from the burst of the first atomic bomb had spread over 10,000 feet on the target at the base of the rising column. Two planes of the 509th Composite Group, part of the 313th Wing of the 20th Air Force, participated in this mission, one to carry the bomb, the other to act as escort. 8/6/1945

The bomb, which may be packed by the new B-32, was described as 2,000 times as destructive as any other bomb and carrying an explosive power equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT. A pea-sized amount of the atomic death can excavate a hole large enough to hold a house.

Unveiling of the atomic bomb perhaps explains why some commanders in the Pacific have hinted that the war against Japan might be won from the air. The Nipponese have no defense against threatened atomic bomb attack, described by President Truman as “a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen.”

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60 percent of Jap city blasted by atom bomb, reports show

Tokyo broadcasts admit all living things seared to death by new weapon

Results of explosion described: Gen Spaatz warns enemy of new raids if resistance continues

By Morrie Landsberg – Zanesville Signal (Illinois) August 8, 1945

Guam — The obliterating blast of a single atomic bomb dropped by a lone Superfort destroyed 60 percent of the important Japanese city of Hiroshima and today Tokyo admitted that practically nothing escaped death in its scorching path.

“Those outdoors burned to death, while those indoors were killed by indescribable pressure and heat,” reported Tokyo. It said the city was in “disastrous ruin” and that houses and buildings were “crushed.”

The newspaper Asahi Shumbun appealed to the people to remain calm under the “inhuman” bombing and “pledge to fight through until the last.” The editorial declared the Japanese mind had been “trained for just such an occasion as this.”

Gen Spaatz warned the enemy more B-29s are ready to drop more of the world’s most destructive explosives on the island cities if resistance continues.

Pre-attack mosaic view of Hiroshima, Japan 1945
Pre-attack mosaic view of Hiroshima, Japan 1945

The strategic air forces commander said that 4.1 square miles of Hiroshima’s built-up area of 6.9 square miles were wiped out. Five military targets were destroyed by the one bomb. The communique did not identify them.

Grim details of what happened on the ground came only from Tokyo. The enemy broadcast revealed the blast was so terrible that the dead could not be distinguished from the injured. Neither could be identified. Destruction was so great, and need for relief so urgent, that authorities had been unable to establish the extent of civilian casualties.

Spaatz based his communique on photographs from the sky. They showed the heart of the city devastated with awful thoroughness — as if a giant bulldozer had swept up buildings and houses and dumped them into a river.

Reconnaissance disclosed that the harbor area of Hiroshima — population of about 343,000 — was barely touched by the tremendous blast. But the concussion, or fire effect was so overpowering elsewhere that several fire breaks and seven streams — one stream was about three city blocks wide — failed to stop the flames.

The high-flying camera planes circled Hiroshima a few hours after Monday’s attack and found only two small fires still burning. The remainder of the city appeared burned to ashes.

The lens caught photographic proof that one bomb, small enough to be carried by any American bomber or fighter plane packs more death and destruction than thousands of tons of ordinary fire and demolition bombs.

Post-attack mosaic view of Hiroshima, Japan 1945
Post-attack mosaic view of Hiroshima, Japan 1945

American officers who studied the pictures said the destruction was about the same as they would expect from a force of about 150 Superforts, each carrying seven tons of incendiary and demolition bombs.

The city, which will go down in history as the testing ground for man’s most awful weapon, was unprepared for such a swift, crushing blow. The Japanese had prepared their defense well against Superforts and firebombs, but they were as nothing against the atom.

Tightly congested Hiroshima had a population roughly midway between that of Denver and Seattle, respectively 322,412 and 368,302 in 1940. But Denver covers 58.7 square miles and Seattle 80.7 square miles. Physically the destroyed area approximated that of Bayonne, NJ, an industrial seaport with a population of but 79,198 in 1940.

The high degree of concentration undoubtedly added to the extent of Hiroshima’s destruction.

In the heart of the city, a few concrete structures remain standing, like bleak sentinels over a scene of ruin. They are believed to be air raid shelters. Photographs indicate they were burned out.

Area of devastation by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan 1945
Area of devastation by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan 1945 – Credit: United States Air Force / Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

An expert at US army strategic air force headquarters said there was no comparison between the fire caused by the atomic bomb and normal conflagration. When Yokohama was burned by incendiaries, he said, it looked as if smoke pots were burning throughout the city.

At Hiroshima, a white plume of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air. Crewmen of the B-29 which dropped the bomb said it rose 40,000 feet.

At the base of this high-necked mushroom was a cloud-like accumulation which was believed to be dust blown into the air by the tremendous concussion.

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In that one, swift, devastating strike, a B-29 piloted by Col Paul W Tibbets Jr, wrought as great damage as normally is inflicted by a large force of the sky giants. Tibbets’ Superfort, 10 miles from the scene and several miles high, itself was rocked as if by an anti-aircraft shell had burst close by.

There was no hint when the next atomic bomb would be dropped, but Washington and London toyed with the theory that Japan soon would be given a final additional surrender ultimatum before the next atom is dropped. Spaatz did say that the Japanese would be warned by leaflet that they could expect more such raids.

The most revolutionary development in the history of the world

Spaatz termed the new weapon “the most revolutionary development in the history of the world” and said “it would have shortened the war (in Europe) six to eight months.”

There would have been “no need to have had D-Day in Europe” if the bomb had been developed earlier, asserted Maj Gen Curtis LeMay, his chief of staff.

Capt Eddie Rickenbacker, world war ace, quickly predicted that aerial assaults alone would knock Japan out of the war.

But here on Guam, where the war is very close and the amazing atom is in the “I still can’t believe it” realm, some military personnel adamantly maintained it would be the infantry who would win.

The navy department, in an official statement, said “it is too early yet to tell what effect the atomic bomb will have on Japanese morale. We may have to destroy four or five cities before they actually believe we have such a bomb.”

Little Boy bomb - Hiroshima WWII - Via NARA
The “Little Boy” atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima

The Japanese screamed “barbarity” and “massacre tactics” while Premier Suzuki called an emergency meeting of the cabinet to study a report of the damage.

Sekomizu also reported on “progress being made in organization” by the people’s volunteer corps, which is scheduled for defense in case of invasion.

All Tokyo morning newspapers admitted grave concern over the Hiroshima bombing. The London Daily Mail said its listening post heard a broadcast order for Japanese to evacuate big cities.

Earlier, the Japanese were warned to brace for new attacks and were told that “authorities will point out measures to cope with them immediately.” The bomb’s “destructive power cannot be slighted,” said another enemy broadcast.

Dr George Willard Watt, University of Texas chemist, who helped develop the bomb, asserted it could destroy “all life on Japan in a few days. It may mean the atomic bomb will be a threat compelling world peace.”

Brig Gen Thomas F Farrell, Albany, NY, another who helped find a way to use the mighty atom, disclosed that only last March a Nazi atom bomb laboratory at Ortenburg, Germany, was “completely and absolutely destroyed” by bombing.

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A bombing warning notice dropped over Japan from airplanes during WWII

Firebombing leaflet
This is the side of OWI notice #2106, dubbed the “LeMay bombing leaflet,” which was delivered to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and 33 other Japanese cities on 1 August 1945.

The Japanese text on the reverse side of the leaflet carried the following warning:

“Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods.

We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes.

So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives.

America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from the oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war.

We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.” (Courtesy CIA)

Hiroshima Peace MemorialGenbaku DomeAtomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan
Hiroshima Peace Memorial/Genbaku Dome/Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan in 2017 – Photo by mondae via Twenty20

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