Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the aftermath

Genbaku Dome - Hiroshima

The bomb dropped at 8:15 am on a clear August morning. Less than a minute later, a blinding flash was followed by a wave of destruction almost beyond human imagination. An estimated 80,000 people were killed instantly by the intense heat of the explosion.

Thirteen square kilometres of a city that had been a bustling commercial, military and transportation hub was reduced to rubble. Immense firestorms swept through wood and paper houses. Thousands were dead and injured. A single bomb dropped from a B52 bomber on the morning of 6 August 1945 had killed a third of Hiroshima’s population and wiped 70% of the city off the face of the earth. Three days later, a second bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki, killing a further 35-40,000 people. The Atomic Age had arrived with a vengeance, and the world would never be the same again.

The city’s rivers were clogged with the corpses of the wretched

After the fires burned themselves out, Hiroshima was unrecognizable. The occasional ruin of a concrete building, a few forlorn lines of telegraph poles and thousands of dead trees were all that remained standing in a vast wasteland of rubble. Those who survived the attack wandered the irradiated streets in a pitiful state, others lay buried under piles of rubble and others still lay stricken on the ground, too injured to walk. The city’s rivers were clogged with the corpses of the wretched souls who had desperately sought relief from their horrendous burns.

Radiation sickness and radiation poisoning began killing many who had survived the initial attack. Of Hiroshima’s 28 hospitals, 26 had been destroyed and the vast majority of the city’s doctors and nurses had been killed in the blast. Hideously wounded citizens, their eyeballs burned out of their skulls and their skin burned away, died in unimaginable agony.

Help was quickly sent to care for the survivors, but there was little that could be done for so many, especially those suffering from severe radiation poisoning. Field hospitals were hastily set up and transportation of the injured to surrounding towns and cities was quickly arranged, but many more would die in the months after the bomb dropped. By the end of the year, the death toll stood at 130,000.

Those who survived the bombing would come to be known as ‘Hibakusha’, which translates as ‘explosion-affected people’. Their lives in the decades following the bombing would not be easy. An entirely false belief grew up that those who had been exposed to radiation carried illnesses they could pass on to others. As a result, many Hibakusha were shunned by society and faced severe financial hardship.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Japanese government officially recognised the plight of the Hibakusha and awarded the survivors of the bombings a monthly allowance and access to free medical care. This went some way to relieving the financial pressure on Hibakusha, but it did not remove the stigma surrounding them, which carried on for decades.

For many Hibakusha, the physical and mental effects of the bombing lasted for the rest of their lives. Those who survived radiation sickness were plagued by recurring bouts of illness, often leading to their premature deaths.

Leukemia – a relatively rare type of cancer – would dog the Hibakusha, as would other forms of cancers, heart and liver problems and, in later life, cataracts. Those who had been burned in the blast and the firestorm that followed developed lesions known as keloids on their scars that left them in pain for the rest of their lives.

Even today, seventy-five years after the event, there are still Hibakusha living with the aftereffects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now in their 80s and 90s, they still receive help and support from the government and are treated with far more kindness and understanding than they were in the years immediately following the attack.

Using military and civilian volunteers, restoration of the city’s essential services quickly gathered pace. Water was restored a mere four days after the explosion and trains were running on one of the city’s lines just one day after the bomb detonated. Another line, from Hiroshima station to nearby Yokogawa was back in action on the 8th of August. A streetcar service was up and running by the 9th of August – the day a second bomb reduced a large area of Nagasaki to rubble.

Nagasaki fared better than Hiroshima, if that can be said of a city that suffered a nuclear attack. An estimated 35,000-40,000 people died immediately with about 60,000 injured. The death toll would climb steadily over the following weeks and months as survivors succumbed to radiation poisoning and burns.

In total, an estimated 70,000 are thought to have been killed by the attack and its aftereffects. Thanks to a lack of fuel sources, Nagasaki was spared the horrendous firestorm that engulfed much of Hiroshima, meaning the destruction was mainly confined to the north of the city. As a result, just 22.7% of Nagasaki’s buildings were destroyed compared to the 92% of buildings either totally destroyed or badly damaged in Hiroshima. This allowed for Nagasaki to recover much quicker than its atomic counterpart.

The Japanese government formally surrendered on 15 August 1945, finally bringing an end to the Second World War. The American occupation that followed meant all efforts could be focused on rebuilding Hiroshima and Nagasaki and tending to those who had been injured by the bombing.

Unfortunately, those efforts were hampered in Hiroshima’s case when disaster hit the city for a second time. Just as power, water, transportation and telephone lines had been restored, a devastating typhoon hit what was left of the city on the 17th of September 1945. A further 3,000 of Hiroshima’s beleaguered citizens were killed and many of the city’s bridges were destroyed. The typhoon also wreaked havoc on Hiroshima’s railways and roads, though one happy side effect of the typhoon was it washed away much of the radioactive dust that had settled over the city following the bombing, leading to fewer cases of radiation exposure and sickness.

Plans were drawn up to rebuild the city in five years, with a memorial garden at the city’s heart centred around the blasted remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. While this was a nice idea in principle, there was a problem. The city’s tax revenues had understandably fallen to next to nothing. It wasn’t until 1949 that the government accepted the city needed a lot more help than could be provided at local level and passed the Peace Memorial City Construction law.

Hiroshima was to be designated as an international city of peace. Funding was released for reconstruction and land owned by both the government and the military was donated to the city free of charge. A boom in manufacturing following the war filled the country’s coffers, and by 1958, the shantytown that had grown up after the bombing had been swept away in a maelstrom of construction. In that same year, Hiroshima’s population was back to its pre-war level of 410,000 people.

In the case of Nagasaki, the government decided to designate it as an international city of culture. The Nagasaki International Cultural City Construction Law was passed in 1949, releasing much needed funds. The city was given a further financial boost in 1952 when the Allied occupation forces lifted their ban on shipbuilding. A memorial hall named the Nagasaki International Cultural Hall was constructed in 1955 and Nagasaki became an unlikely tourist destination. The Cultural Hall was demolished and rebuilt as the Atomic Bomb Museum in 1996. It now stands beside the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which was completed in 2003.

Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons. - Barack Obama

Hiroshima commemorated those who lost their lives with the construction of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Designed by architect Kenzō Tange, the park was completed in the late 1950s. Covering three acres of land in what used to be the city’s main business and residential area, the park contains a number of memorials, museums and lecture halls dedicated not just to the memory of the dead, but also to the promotion of world peace and an end to nuclear weapons. At the park’s heart stands the bombed-out remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only surviving building closest to the epicentre of the explosion that is now known as the A-Bomb Dome. It was officially recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

In 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the city and the peace park. ‘We have known the agony of war,’ the president wrote in the visitors’ book after visiting the peace museum. ‘Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.’

Today, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving, vibrant cities collectively home to over one and a half million people. Very little evidence remains that they were once the testing grounds for the most terrifying weapon mankind has ever created. Soon, the memory of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki will pass from living memory. But in the cities and memorial parks that arose from the ashes, the memory of those two terrible days in August will live on forever.