The sixth and ninth of August 1945 should be scarred forever on the collective conscience of humanity. For it was on these two days, nearly 70 years ago, that the immense destructive capability of atomic weapons was first unleashed, in what undoubtedly were the most deadly attacks in human history.
Hope of an imminent end to the long and devastating six-year Second World War and the hustle for power and influence by the victors, resulted in the world turning a blind eye to the US dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August.
Although Hiroshima did have a sizeable garrison, the fact that most of the over 166,000 killed in that city and the nearly 80,000 killed in Nagasaki were civilians was conveniently brushed under by the gloating ‘winners of the war’.
As the mushroom cloud of smoke and radiation from the two atomic bombs slowly settled, hundreds of thousands lay dead. Many of those that survived the initial blast eventually died an even more painful death from the effect of radiation, burns and other injuries.
Hospitals were filled with the agonizing human toll of the bombs; streets were littered with burned out vehicles and buildings; paddy fields and open grounds were scattered with tens of thousands of skulls, bones and the completely charred remains of what were once human beings.
Studies conducted on the after-effects of the A-bomb attacks revealed severe birth defects, low infant mortality and other conditions and outcomes related to severe radiation exposure. There were a high number of incidences of brain malformation in Nagasaki and Hiroshima and around 1,900 cancer deaths were attributed to the bombs. A study of the long-term psychological effects of the bombings on the survivors found that even two decades after the bombings had occurred, survivors showed a higher prevalence of anxiety and somatization symptoms.
A few of the reinforced concrete buildings in Hiroshima that had been very strongly constructed because of ever-present earthquake danger in Japan, survived the blast and remained standing, if only in their framework. The Genbaku (A-bomb) dome ruin, named Hiroshima Peace Memorial, which was close to blast center, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite objections from the United States and China who objected on the grounds of insignificance of historical perspective.
Every year, thousands gather at the iconic dome, now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, to commemorate the day that forever changed the world. Tens of thousands of people, including aging survivors, relatives, government officials and foreign delegates, observe a moment of silence at 8:15am local time, the time of the detonation that turned the city into a nuclear inferno in 1945.
A look back reveals that by 1945, the United States sponsored ‘Manhattan Project’ had successfully tested an atomic device and had produced two weapons based on alternate designs. A uranium gun-type atomic bomb named Little Boy, and a plutonium implosion-type bomb named Fat Man was prepared and readied for deployment.
For several months prior to August 1945, the US had dropped millions of leaflets across Japan warning civilians of air raids. These leaflets listed 12 Japanese cities that were targeted for fire-bombings, but this list of cities did not include Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Residents wondered why Hiroshima had been spared destruction from the firebombing. Some speculated that the city was to be saved for US occupation headquarters, others thought perhaps their relatives in Hawaii and California had petitioned the US government to avoid bombing Hiroshima.
The 509th Composite Group of the US Army Air Forces, equipped with two Silverplate Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft, named Enola Gay and Bockscar, were tasked with delivering the bombs from their base on Tinian in the Pacific Mariana Islands. Records show that the interest and eagerness to try out the actual effect of the new weapons on people was behind the US government’s final decision to bomb the Japanese cities.
The release of the atom bomb over Hiroshima went as planned on the morning of 6 August. The Little Boy containing about 64 kg of uranium-235 took just 44.4 seconds to fall from the aircraft Enola Gay and explode over the city.
After the Hiroshima bombing, Harry Truman, the then President of the US, issued a statement announcing the use of the new weapon. He stated, "We may be grateful to Providence" that the German atomic bomb project had failed, and that the United States and its allies had "spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history—and won."
Truman then went on to warn Japan: “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”
Three days later, reacting to the indifference of Japan to his earlier warning, President Truman ordered the bombing of Nagasaki and justified the act, “in the name of God and in the name of responsibility for fulfilling my promise.” The bomb named Fat Man, containing a plutonium core of about 6.4 kg, was dropped over Nagasaki’s industrial valley and exploded just 47 seconds after delivery from the bomber Bockscar.
Despite the two atomic bombings, Japan's war council continued to insist on its four conditions for surrender, including no occupation of the Japanese Home Islands, Korea, or Formosa, and delegation of the punishment of war criminals to the Japanese government.
However, on 15 August, Emperor Hirohito of Japan delivered his decision to unconditionally surrender. Days before announcing it on radio the emperor cited his desire “not to see the end of the entire Japanese race” as one of the reasons for accepting surrender.
The need for atom bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the role of the bombs in Japan's surrender and the ethical justification of using atomic weapons, continue to be debated and still reverberates to this day in the minds of all sane people.