This page contains graphic descriptions and photographs of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. Discretion is advised.
On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped its first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. The bomb was known a "Little Boy", a uranium gun-type bomb that exploded with about thirteen kilotons of force. At the time of the bombing, Hiroshima was home to 280,000-290,000 civilians as well as 43,000 soldiers. Between 90,000 and 166,000 people are believed to have died from the bomb in the four-month period following the explosion. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that after five years there were perhaps 200,000 or more fatalities as a result of the bombing, while the city of Hiroshima has estimated that 237,000 people were killed directly or indirectly by the bomb's effects, including burns, radiation sickness, and cancer.
The bombing of Hiroshima, codenamed Operation Centerboard, was approved by Curtis LeMay on August 4, 1945. The B-29 plane that carried Little Boy from Tinian Island in the western Pacific to Hiroshima was known as the Enola Gay, after pilot Paul Tibbets' mother. Along with Paul Tibbets, copilot Robert Lewis, bombardier Tom Ferebee, navigator Theodore Van Kirk and tail gunner Robert Caron were also on board the Enola Gay. Below are their eyewitness accounts of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan.
- Pilot Paul Tibbets: "We turned back to look at Hiroshima. The city was hidden by that awful cloud... boiling up, mushrooming, terrible and incredibly tall. No one spoke for a moment; then everyone was talking. I remember (copilot Robert) Lewis pounding my shoulder, saying 'Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!' (Bombardier) Tom Ferebee wondered about whether radioactivity would make us all sterile. Lewis said he could taste atomic fission. He said it tasted like lead."
- Navigator Theodore Van Kirk recalls the shockwaves from the explosion: "(It was) very much as if you've ever sat on an ash can and had somebody hit it with a baseball bat... The plane bounced, it jumped and there was a noise like a piece of sheet metal snapping. Those of us who had flown quite a bit over Europe thought that it was anti-aircraft fire that had exploded very close to the plane." On viewing the atomic fireball: "I don't believe anyone ever expected to look at a sight quite like that. Where we had seen a clear city two minutes before, we could now no longer see the city. We could see smoke and fires creeping up the sides of the mountains."
For a precise account of the bombing, see the Hiroshima Mission Timeline.
- Tail gunner Robert Caron: "The mushroom itself was a spectacular sight, a bubbling mass of purple-gray smoke and you could see it had a red core in it and everything was burning inside. As we got farther away, we could see the base of the mushroom and below we could see what looked like a few-hundred-foot layer of debris and smoke and what have you... I saw fires springing up in different places, like flames shooting up on a bed of coals."
Six miles below the crew of the Enola Gay, the people of Hiroshima were waking up and preparing for their daily routines. It was 8:16 A.M. Up to that point, the city had been largely spared by the rain of conventional air bombing that had ravaged many other Japanese cities. Rumors abounded as to why this was so, from the fact that many Hiroshima residents had emigrated to the U.S. to the supposed presence of President Truman's mother in the area. Still, many citizens, including schoolchildren, were recruited to prepare for future bombings by tearing down houses to create fire lanes, and it was at this task that many were laboring or preparing to labor on the morning of August 6. Just an hour before, air raid sirens had sounded as a single B-29, the weather plane for the Little Boy mission, approached Hiroshima. A radio broadcast announced the sighting of the Enola Gay soon after 8 A.M.
The city of Hiroshima was annihilated by the explosion. 70,000 of 76,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 48,000 of those were entirely razed. Survivors recalled the indescribable and incredible experience of seeing that the city had ceased to exist.
- A college history professor: "I climbed Hikiyama Hill and looked down. I saw that Hiroshima had disappeared... I was shocked by the sight... What I felt then and still feel now I just can't explain with words. Of course I saw many dreadful scenes after that—but that experience, looking down and finding nothing left of Hiroshima—was so shocking that I simply can't express what I felt... Hiroshima didn't exist—that was mainly what I saw—Hiroshima just didn't exist."
- Medical doctor Michihiko Hachiya: "Nothing remained except a few buildings of reinforced concrete... For acres and acres the city was like a desert except for scattered piles of brick and roof tile. I had to revise my meaning of the word destruction or choose some other word to describe what I saw. Devastation may be a better word, but really, I know of no word or words to describe the view."
- Writer Yoko Ota: "I reached a bridge and saw that the Hiroshima Castle had been completely leveled to the ground, and my heart shook like a great wave... the grief of stepping over the corpses of history pressed upon my heart."
Those who were close to the epicenter of the explosion were simply vaporized by the intensity of the heat. One man left only a dark shadow on the steps of a bank as he sat. The mother of Miyoko Osugi, a 13-year-old schoolgirl working on the fire lanes, never found her body, but she did find her geta sandal. The area covered by Miyoko's foot remained light, while the rest of it was darkened by the blast.
Many others in Hiroshima, farther from the Little Boy epicenter, survived the initial explosion but were severely wounded, including injuries from and burns across much of their body. Among these people, panic and chaos were rampant as they struggled to find food and water, medical assistance, and friends and relatives and to flee the firestorms that engulfed many residential areas.
Having no point of reference for the bomb's absolute devastation, some survivors believed themselves to have been transported to a hellish version of the afterlife. The worlds of the living and the dead seemed to converge.
- A Protestant minister: "The feeling I had was that everyone was dead. The whole city was destroyed... I thought this was the end of Hiroshima—of Japan—of humankind... This was God's judgment on man."
- A six-year-old boy: "Near the bridge there were a whole lot of dead people... Sometimes there were ones who came to us asking for a drink of water. They were bleeding from their faces and from their mouths and they had glass sticking in their bodies. And the bridge itself was burning furiously... The details and the scenes were just like Hell."
- A sociologist: "My immediate thought was that this was like the hell I had always read about... I had never seen anything which resembled it before, but I thought that should there be a hell, this was it—the Buddhist hell, where we were thought that people who could not attain salvation always went... And I imagined that all of these people I was seeing were in the hell I had read about."
- A boy in fifth grade: "I had the feeling that all the human beings on the face of the earth had been killed off, and only the five of us (his family) were left behind in an uncanny world of the dead."
- A grocer: "The appearance of people was... well, they all had skin blackened by burns... They had no hair because their hair was burned, and at a glance you couldn't tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back... Many of them died along the road—I can still picture them in my mind—like walking ghosts... They didn't look like people of this world."
Many people traveled to central places such as hospitals, parks, and riverbeds in an attempt to find relief from their pain and misery. However, these locations soon became scenes of agony and despair as many injured and dying people arrived and were unable to receive proper care.
- A sixth-grade girl: "Bloated corpses were drifting in those seven formerly beautiful rivers; smashing cruelly into bits the childish pleasure of the little girl, the peculiar odor of burning human flesh rose everywhere in the Delta City, which had changed to a waste of scorched earth."
- A fourteen-year-old boy: "Night came and I could hear many voices crying and groaning with pain and begging for water. Someone cried, 'Damn it! War tortures so many people who are innocent!' Another said, 'I hurt! Give me water!' This person was so burned that we couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. The sky was red with flames. It was burning as if scorching heaven."
For a detailed account of the bombing of Hiroshima from the Japanese perspective, please refer to John Hersey's Hiroshima and Fred J. Olivi's Decision at Nagasaki: The Mission That Almost Failed