509th Composite Group HQ, Tinian, Mariana Islands • August 6, 1945
For several months the U.S. had dropped more than 63 million leaflets across Japan, warning civilians of devastating aerial bombings and to evacuate the cities identified in the leaflets. Radio broadcasts from the American-held island of Saipan underscored the printed warnings. Many Japanese cities suffered terrible damage from napalm bombs that set their wood-frame buildings on fire. On August 1, 1945, some 80 percent of Hachioji, a rail choke point near Tokyo, was burned out by napalm. Sixty-five percent of Nagaoka was wasted the same day. Nearly 100 percent of Toyama was incinerated. On August 5 four more Japanese cities were turned into smoking ruins. The areas destroyed and the number of people killed in U.S. air raids on Japan up till then exceeded the areas destroyed and the lives lost in all German cities by the U.S. and Royal air forces combined between May 15, 1940, and the end of the war in Europe five years later.
On this date in 1945 things were different. Hiroshima, a city of 280,000 civilians and 43,000 soldiers on the Japanese mainland of Honshū, was incinerated by a five-ton uranium-filled bomb codenamed “Little Boy,” the first of two atomic bombs ever dropped on an enemy nation. A blinding flash lasting perhaps a tenth of a second created an explosion that blew out windows 6‑1/2 miles from the epicenter and sent a massive column of debris and smoke miles high.
Allied forces were poised for invasion hundreds of miles from the Japanese Home Islands when the first atomic bomb exploded. Remembrance of the horrific casualties inflicted by a fanatical enemy on Americans assaulting Japan’s offshore islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa (February 19 to June 22, 1945)—nearly 70,000 dead and wounded—forebode worse numbers ahead, as high as one million Allied servicemen and millions more Japanese. President Harry S. Truman and American commanders fretted that a war-weary public might have neither the patience nor the stomach for a Japanese-style Armageddon on Japan’s home turf. After the Hiroshima bombing, the White House issued a statement that promised Japan “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on earth” if the country’s military leadership did not end the war in 48 hours on U.S. terms. To a group of Christian leaders Truman explained his motives for deploying the atomic bomb: “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”
Japanese leaders had expected, indeed planned for a brutal, no-holds-barred land invasion beginning in October. But nothing in their past experience or in their wildest imaginations had prepared them for this level of aerial immolation. The deadly new weapon system was the equivalent of 220 fully loaded B‑29s dropping their loads in an instant. Within minutes 40,000 Hiroshima men, women, and children died mostly in the firestorms set off by the enormous blast, while a further 90,000–166,000 victims would die of burns and radiation within days or weeks. Survivors of the blast, Hibakusha (lit. “explosion-affected people”), often succumbed years later to leukemia or other cancers.
Hiroshima: Delivering a Foretaste of National Apocalypse
Left: Ground level photograph of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud taken from approximately 4.3 miles northeast of ground zero. “Little Boy,” as the uranium‑235 bomb was nicknamed, detonated 1,900 ft above the Shima Hospital and 550 yards from the bombardier’s aiming point, the Aioi Bridge. Three days later another mushroom cloud appeared over the city of Nagasaki, the product of “Fat Man,” as the plutonium‑239 bomb was called. The following day Japan capitulated.
Right: Lost image found in Honkawa Elementary School in 2013 of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, believed to have been taken 20–30 minutes after detonation from about 6.2 miles east of ground zero. Some 400 Honkawa students and more than 10 teachers were victims of the bomb blast.
Left: The best-known photographs of the bomb’s aftermath were taken from the air by one of three B‑29s that left Tinian in the Mariana Islands in the predawn hours of August 6, 1945, for Hiroshima. This aerial photograph is less well known, taken about one hour after the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. “Little Boy” was carried by the Enola Gay, a modified B‑29 Superfortress (a so-called “Silverplate” Superfortress configured to carry an atomic bomb) that was piloted by thirty-year-old Col. Paul Tibbets, Jr. Tibbets had developed his flying skills as a pilot for the U.S. Eighth and Twelfth Air Forces over Europe and North Africa. In March 1943 Tibbets returned to the States to test-fly the new Superfortress, earning him the nickname “Mr. B‑29.”
Right: “Little Boy” on trailer cradle before being loaded into Enola Gay’s bomb bay. The Enola Gay’s bomb bay door is visible in the upper right-hand corner of the photo. Of the 131 lb of uranium‑235 in the bomb, less than 2 lb underwent nuclear fission. But the force of the explosion was roughly equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.
Left: The Hiroshima Chamber of Industry and Commerce Building was the only building remotely close to standing near the center of the atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945. It was left unrepaired as a reminder of the event.
Right: Eight months after the atomic bomb was dropped, Hiroshima still stands in ruins, the visible evidence of the world’s first use of nuclear weapons in war.
Contemporary Newsreel Documents Aftermath of Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6 and 9, 1945