5. The bombed city

That was true, as far as it went. Hiroshima was headquarters to the Japanese Second Army and Chugoka Regional Army and had been a transit point for soldiers and supplies bound for war. Hiroshimans had hailed the Fifth Army as it left their docks to attack Singapore in early 1942. The city’s ammunition depot was one of the country’s largest, and several thousand nearsighted local men over the age of 40 had recently been recruited into the Eleventh Infantry Regiment by the increasingly desperate military; their families had bid them farewell as the sun rose on 6 August. There were between 24,000 and 40,000 soldiers in Hiroshima that day, and they were going nowhere, for the Americans had mined the Inland Sea so thoroughly that shipping of men and goods had reached a standstill. Their mission was to defend the area against invaders they felt sure were coming. There was some manufacturing in Hiroshima, but most of the factories were newly built and on the outskirts of the city, and thus would survive the atomic bomb.22

‘Hold out your left hand, palm down, fingers spread, and you have a rough outline of the shape of Hiroshima,’ write Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II. ‘The sea is beyond the fingertips. The back of the hand is where the Ota River comes down from the hills to the north. The spot where the bomb exploded is about where a wedding ring would be worn, just south of the main military headquarters and in the center of the residential-commercial districts of the city.’ There were approximately a quarter of a million people in Hiroshima on 6 August; it is hard to be more precise than that because the city had undergone five large-scale evacuations and a sixth was under way, scattering Hiroshimans throughout the surrounding countryside. Not all residents were Japanese. Indeed, some 20 percent—50,000 people—of Hiroshima’s population was Korean, most of them men and women brought involuntarily to the city as conscripted laborers and prostitutes. There were hundreds of Chinese there and 3,200 Japanese-Americans, some of them trapped in Japan by the sudden outbreak of war in 1941, and over a thousand of whom would become casualties of the atomic bomb. There were smaller numbers of workers, students, and missionaries. Some two dozen US prisoners of war were locked away in the city, their existence either unknown, ignored, or denied by American military officials. There were just 150 stores open in Hiroshima, 200 doctors, 1,780 nurses, 2 big Army hospitals, and 45 smaller civilian ones.23

What the citizens of Hiroshima were doing early in the morning of 6 August 1945 was disturbingly ordinary. Some were still asleep. Some were cooking breakfast on household charcoal braziers. Others were dressing for work or school, reading newspapers—heavily censored, these exhorted people to valor and maximum effort on the home front—sitting on the toilet, puttering in the garden. Many were on their way to work or school, or had just arrived at these places. Thousands were involved in a program to create firebreaks and widen fire lanes in the city, which involved the dolorous destruction of wood and paper houses, sometimes their own. During the night people had twice been awakened by air-raid sirens, and at 7.10 that morning a third alert was sounded when air defense spotted the atomic mission’s weather plane heading for the city. When the plane passed harmlessly overhead, the authorities sounded the all clear. Perhaps wary of further false alarms, perhaps convinced that single or several B29s carried no danger, spotters who detected the trio of planes—the Enola Gay, Great Artiste, and No. 91—just after 8.00 decided not to restart the siren, though a radio station mentioned the planes and suggested they were doing reconnaissance. There seemed no reason to take shelter. Precaution fatigue had set in.24

So had a wishful conviction that Hiroshima would continue to be spared the bombing that had wracked Tokyo, Yokohama, and other Japanese cities. There was a rumor that President Truman had a close relative living in Hiroshima, possibly an aunt or even his mother. Others claimed that Hiroshima (and Kyoto, also as yet untouched) was so beautiful a city that the Americans wanted to turn it into a resort when the war was over. Hiroshima, it was said, was dearer to the United States than other Japanese cities because so many Hiroshimans had relatives in America, and because so many Japanese-Americans were living in Hiroshima. A few may have known about American prisoners held in the city—or felt that because there were so many foreigners generally in Hiroshima the Americans were reluctant to bomb it; a German priest who lived there recalled that local officials would tell him that their city was safe ‘thanks to you’. Some even went so far as to say, as to hope, ‘that perhaps the city of Hiroshima was not on the American maps’. (Deep down, most knew better: ‘Will it be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?’ people asked themselves.)25

Pika-don, they called it later: ‘flash-boom’. ‘A blinding... flash cut sharply across the sky,’ recalled a history professor who was more than 3 miles away from ground zero, the spot on the ground over which Little Boy exploded. There came ‘a blank in time’, that ‘dead silence’ so many experienced, ‘then a... huge “boom” ... like the rumbling of distant thunder. At the same time a violent rush of air pressed down my entire bodyLying exhausted on his living-room floor after a night’s duty as an air warden at his hospital, Dr Michihiko Hachiya was ‘startled’ by two powerful flashes of light that starkly illuminated a stone lantern in his garden. If he heard the boom that followed he did not say so in his memoir. Toyofumi Ogura was out walking: ‘Just as I looked toward the sea and noticed the way the waves were sparkling, I saw, or rather felt, an enormous bluish white flash of light, as when a photographer lights a dish of magnesium’—a comparison made by more than one survivor. ‘Off to my right, the sky split open over the city of Hiroshima’; seconds later came ‘a dull but tremendous roar as a crushing blast of air pressure assailed me’. Children testified with unadorned directness. Kikuko Yamashiro, who was 5 years old: ‘In the morning, my big brother and I were playing upstairs. There was a blinding flash and our house fell down.’ Kimura Yoshihiro, a third grader, saw something fall from the plane: ‘Five or six seconds later, everything turned yellow. It was like I’d looked right at the sun. Then there was a big sound a second or two later and everything went dark.’ The flash as bright as the sun brought, first, intense heat, which melted human beings virtually to nothing within a kilometer of ground zero (also called the hypocenter) and burned exposed skin up to 2.5 miles away. Seconds later came the blast wave, knocking over hibachi grills and setting fires, flattening wooden buildings for 2 miles around and concrete structures close to the hypocenter, and tearing the clothes and skin off people, smashing their internal organs and driving splintered glass into their bodies. Finally, unseen and at first unfelt, came radiation, gamma rays and neutrons that penetrated the skin of many who counted themselves fortunate to have escaped burn and blast. Condensation occurred atop the rising cloud of smoke and dirt and debris, and an ashy black rain fell for an hour and a half, drenching the miserable city with the radiation it contained.26

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!