At 8.15 AM on 6 August 1945, Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, became the first airplane in history to drop an atomic bomb. The target was Hiroshima, a Japanese city that instantly became synonymous with the horrific consequences of nuclear warfare.
The nightmarish horror that descended on Hiroshima that morning was unlike anything the world had previously witnessed.
Between 60,000 and 80,000 people were killed instantly, including some who were effectively vanished by the extraordinary heat of the blast. Widespread radiation sickness ensured that the death toll was ultimately far higher than that – the number of people killed as a result of the Hiroshima bombing is estimated to be 135,000.
Those who survived were left with deep mental and physical scars and their recollections of that nightmarish day are, inevitably, deeply harrowing.
But, 76 years later, it’s important that their stories are remembered. Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear war has never really gone away and the accounts of those who experienced its horrific reality are as vital as ever.
The story of Sunao Tsoboi illustrates both Hiroshima’s horrific legacy and the possibility of building a life in the aftermath of such a devastating event.
When the blast struck, Tsuboi, then a 20-year-old student, was walking to school. He’d declined a second breakfast at a student dining hall in case ‘the young woman behind the counter would think him a glutton’. Everyone in the dining room was killed.
He recalls a loud bang and being flung 10 feet through the air. When he regained consciousness Tsuboi was badly burned across most of his body and the sheer force of the blast had ripped his shirtsleeves and trouser legs off.
The account he gave to The Guardian in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the attack, paints a chilling picture of the nightmarish scenes that confronted stunned survivors in the immediate aftermath of the blast.
“My arms were badly burned and there seemed to be something dripping from my fingertips… My back was incredibly painful, but I had no idea what had just happened. I assumed I had been close to a very large conventional bomb. I had no idea it was a nuclear bomb and that I’d been exposed to radiation. There was so much smoke in the air that you could barely see 100 metres ahead, but what I did see convinced me that I had entered a living hell on earth.
“There were people crying out for help, calling after members of their family. I saw a schoolgirl with her eye hanging out of its socket. People looked like ghosts, bleeding and trying to walk before collapsing. Some had lost limbs.
“There were charred bodies everywhere, including in the river. I looked down and saw a man clutching a hole in his stomach, trying to stop his organs from spilling out. The smell of burning flesh was overpowering.”
Remarkably, at the age of 93, Tsuboi is still alive and able to recount his story. The physical toll that fateful day took on his body was significant – facial scars remain 70 years later and the protracted impact of radioactive exposure has led to him being hospitalised 11 times. He’s survived two cancer diagnoses and been told three times that he was on the cusp of death.
And yet, Tsuboi has persevered through the persistent physical trauma of radioactive exposure, working as a teacher and campaigning against nuclear arms. In 2011 he was awarded the Kiyoshi Tanimoto peace prize.
When the bomb hit, Eizo Nomura (1898–1982) was closer to the blast than any other survivor. A municipal employee working just 170 metres southwest of ground zero, Nomura happened to be looking for documents in the basement of his workplace, the Fuel Hall, when the bomb detonated. Everyone else in the building was killed.
At the age of 72, Nomura started writing a memoir, Waga Omoide no Ki (My Memories), which included a chapter, titled simply ‘Atomic Bombing’, that details his experiences on that awful day in 1945. The following excerpt describes the horrifying scenes that greeted Nomura as he emerged, through the flames, from his building.
“Outside, it was dark because of the black smoke. It was about as light as night with a half-moon. I hurried to the foot of Motoyasu Bridge. Right in the middle and on my side of the bridge I saw a naked man lying on his back.
Both arms and legs were extended toward the sky, trembling. Something round was burning under his left armpit. The other side of the bridge was obscured by smoke, and the flames were beginning to leap up.”
Tsutomu Yamaguchi (1916-2010) had the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s only officially recognised double atomic bomb survivor.
In 1945, Yamaguchi was a 29-year-old naval engineer working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. On 6 August he was nearing the conclusion of a business trip to Hiroshima. It was his last day in the city, after three hard months working away from home he was about to return to his wife and son in his hometown, Nagasaki.
When the blast struck, Yamaguchi was on his way to Mitsubishi’s shipyard ahead of his last day there. He recalls hearing the drone of an aircraft overhead, then spotting a B-29 flying over the city. He even witnessed the bomb’s parachute assisted descent.
As it detonated – a moment Yamaguchi described as resembling “the lightning of a huge magnesium flare” – he flung himself into a ditch. The power of the shock wave was so ferocious that he was hurled from the ground into a nearby potato patch.
He recalled the immediate aftermath in an interview with The Times: “I think I fainted for a while. When I opened my eyes, everything was dark, and I couldn’t see much. It was like the start of a film at the cinema, before the picture has begun when the blank frames are just flashing up without any sound.”
Having spent the night in an air raid shelter, Yamaguchi made his way, through the decimated remains if the city, to the railway station. Remarkably, some trains were still running, and he managed to get an overnight train back home to Nagasaki.
Severely bunt and physically debilitated, he nonetheless reported back to work on 9 August, where, just as his account of the horrors he’d witnessed in Hiroshima was being greeted with incredulity by colleagues, another iridescent flash battered through the office.
Though his body was subjected to another radioactive assault, Yamaguchi somehow survived a second nuclear attack, just four days after the first. Though he suffered the brutal effects of radiation sickness – his hair fell out, his wounds turned gangrenous and he vomited relentlessly – Yamaguchi eventually recovered and went on to have two more children with his wife, who also survived the blast.